11 November 2016
I have said with humour and full sincerity that when my coffin is being taken into the church at my funeral (later than sooner, I hope), that I want to hear Leonard Cohen’s ‘If it be your will’ … and when my coffin is being carried out I want to hear his ‘Dance me to the end of love.’
For almost 50 years I have been an enthusiastic fan of Leonard Cohen’s poetry, music and song. I have been collecting his books of poetry since the late 1960s, I listen to his albums constantly, and I have been to most of his concerts in Ireland, including the O2, Lissadell House, the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, and in the 1970s in the Stadium on the South Circular Road.
I have drawn on his poetry and his imagery in lectures on spirituality and Judaism and in Good Friday reflections and sermons.
It was announced this morning that Leonard Cohen has died earlier this week. By the time the announcement was made, he had already been buried. He died during the week that I have been visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, and exploring the Jewish Quarter of Kraków with intensity.
Leonard Cohen’s poetry and songs were marked by the scars of the Holocaust and reflected with intensity the spirituality of Central European Jewish spirituality. The rhythms of his music and his imagery also drew on the time he spent over many years in Greece.
Last month I bought his newly-released album, You Want It Darker, and I have been listening to it carefully ever since. I have still to write about this album, which is both deeply spiritual and at the same time gives voice to his expectations of imminent death.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine to coincide with this new album, he declared a determination to keep working at his craft until the end, yet seemed to be aware that death was coming: ‘I’ve got some work to do,’ he said. ‘Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.’
Early this year, shortly before his first muse, Marianne Ihlen, died in July, he wrote her a farewell letter telling her: ‘I will follow you very soon.’
The title track of You Want It Darker sounds like the bleak, religious confession of a man facing his own mortality. It is filled with allusions to Jewish liturgy, Christian liturgy and Biblical texts. The backing vocals are provided by the cantor and choir of a synagogue in Leonard Cohen’s home city, Montreal:
If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If Thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker – we kill the flame.
Magnified, sanctified is your holy name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker – Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.
Here Leonard Cohen is quoting the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead (‘magnified, sanctified …’). He addresses God directly as the God who has dealt Cohen out of the game, and who has ignored the ‘million candles’ lit in vain hopes of salvation.
It is dark, but those who reach into the dark depths that are met on the most intense journeys in spirituality know that this too is accepting the majesty of God and the inevitability of death.
The Hebrew word Hineni which Cohen repeats in this song literally means: ‘Here I am.’ When it is uttered by Abraham and repeated by other Biblical figures, it is an assertion of moral responsibility: Here I am. I am not running away. Here I stand.
The word Hineni is also the title of the Cantor’s Prayer on Yom Kippur, in which the cantor confesses to being unworthy to represent the congregation and stand before the Almighty. It is almost as if Cohen is making a similar confession. I may be a poet, a hero, and a star, but You know as well as I do that I am unworthy of all that. I am here before You – ready for You to take me.
The song is enriched by extensive Jewish collaboration. The track features background vocals from Gideon Zelermyer, cantor of the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, along with the Shaar Hashomayim choir.
The Shaar cantor and choir also contribute to another song on the album, ‘It Seemed the Better Way.’
This was an 82-year-old poet at the end of a long and deeply spiritual life. It is not surprising, therefore, that this song echoes the language and rhythm of the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners that reaffirms faith in God.
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honoured,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.
Leonard Cohen was a generous artist, generous in his tributes to his musicians on stage and generous to his audiences, staying on stage for four or five hours at each concert. ‘May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us.’
Celtic Christianity is such a popular and marketable lifestyle choice that it is now a fashionable commodity from the shop in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, to the duty-free shops in Dublin Airport. But much of what passes as ‘Celtic’ has little to do with the remote past and owes more to the Celtic Revival at the end of the Victorian era that complemented a similar revival in political and artistic circles.
I spent a recent Saturday afternoon in Glendalough, searching for photographs to illustrate a lecture on Celtic Spirituality. To my surprise, I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross – beneath the Great Round Tower – was a gravestone erected in the late nineteenth century. A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon. I realised the Great Round Tower was capped in the late nineteenth century, so that the tower we see today stands not as it once was. The so-called ‘Priest’s House’, with its Romanesque arch, was also largely rebuilt by the Board of Works in the 1870s, using an eighteenth century drawing by Gabriel Beranger of Rotterdam.
Many of our images of Celtic spirituality are shaped by Victorian romanticism and hymnody. The most popular English-language version of ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’, Cecil Frances Alexander’s ‘I bind unto myself today’ (Hymn 322 in the Irish Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland) was first published as late as 1889. ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’, as we know it today, is based on a late eleventh century manuscript in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It was first published as late as 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).
The popular English-language version of ‘Be thou my vision’ and versified by Eleanor Hull (Irish Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as ‘my high tower’, was translated by Mary Byrne (Máire Ní Bhroin) as recently as 1905 and was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, and first published in a hymnal in 1915. As these translators and hymn writers were working, the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, and the Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by Douglas Hyde, the son of a Church of Ireland rector.
The quest for Celtic Christianity – although shared with Roman Catholics – can be seen as a search by members of the Church of Ireland for a foundational identity in midst of the crisis created by Disestablishment in 1869. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as ‘the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland’ – a token acknowledgement of the primacy of Celtic Christianity, but ignoring the influences of the Christianity of Vikings, Anglo-Normans, Scots, Huguenots and others in Ireland.
There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal of the Church of Ireland, and many more tunes with a Celtic air. Hymns mentioning high towers were written in the same decades in the late 19th century as the Round Tower was restored and capped in Glendalough, a Round Tower was erected at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Glasnevin, and, as part of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902) decorated the top storey of the Irish House, a public house that stood beneath Christ Church Cathedral, which was then being rebuilt.
With its series of Celtic harpists and rising round towers pointing towards the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains behind Christ Church Cathedral, which was being restored on the hill above at the same time, and at the expense of a distiller, the Irish House illustrated the way in which the revival in Celtic Spirituality in hymnody and poetry had been appropriated too for the working class of Dublin in the fashionable pubs of the day.
Yet, during frequent visits to Lichfield I am reminded that the adjective ‘Celtic’ applies to a church life far beyond the shores of this island and that is of the same antiquity. St Chad was the founder of the Diocese of Lichfield, and the Lichfield Gospels, or the Book of Chad, now one of the great treasures of Lichfield Cathedral, predates the Book of Kells by almost a century. The recent discovery of a large Anglo-Saxon horde near Lichfield points to an interesting interaction between the Saxons of Mercia and the Celtic church in Northumbria, long before the arrival of St Chad.
The Celtic revival in the Church of Ireland was less an expression of the new Gaelic nationalism of the day and more an antiquarian reaction to Disestablishment. But who among those great hymn writers, poets, antiquarians, and architects could have realised that the Celtic Revival in literature, church architecture and hymnody would also lead to a narrow definition of Irish identity that excludes our Irish neighbours, a modern industry that has a niche income from shops at tourist hotspots, or that in years to come it would be forgotten that the Celtic Revival sought a spiritual heritage that was common to all Christian traditions on this island.
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, where he also teaches Church History. He is a priest of the Church of Ireland, a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, and a former Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.
Edward Darling and Donald Davison, eds, Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005).
Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough, A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996).
Geraldine Walsh, et al, The Irish House, An Teach Galeach, Public House 1870-1968 (Dublin: Dublin Civic Trust, 2009).
The List of Contributors includes this note:
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Liturgy and Anglicanism, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
This was first published in Treasures of Irish Chrstianity, Volume II, A people of the Word, Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leahy (eds), (Dublin: Veritas, 2013), pp 203-206.