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Leonard Cohen’s insightful poems and songs shone new light on spirituality

By Alf McCreary

Published 19/11/2016

Philosopher: Leonard Cohen referred to the best of the world’s religions in his work
Philosopher: Leonard Cohen referred to the best of the world’s religions in his work

'The scientist has marched in and taken the place of the poet. But one day somebody will find the solution to the problems of the world, and remember, it will be a poet, not a scientist".

These words from American architect Frank Lloyd Wright could have been applied to Leonard Cohen, the poet, singer and songwriter who died last week, aged 82.

Cohen had not solved the world's problems before he died, but he left a heritage of work that spoke to millions of people everywhere as he tried to fathom the mysteries of life and death, and enduring love.

Cohen had a life rich in experience and insight. He had successfully wooed and won a legion of attractive women, yet it was a woman - his former manager - who stole millions from his retirement fund and left him broke.

This became a blessing in disguise. His financial loss forced him back on the road at an advanced age to earn money, and in the process he produced some of the best concerts and albums of his lifetime.

Cohen played the Waterfront Hall several years ago to a packed audience, and I was one of the lucky people who was there that night. Backed by a superb band and outstanding female vocalists, he moved through the range of his remarkable output and made us aware that musical history was being made in Belfast.

Cohen, by his own admission, was " not much shakes as a singer", but his carefully crafted lyrics spoke to the heart, and they will continue to do so everywhere music is played.

I am not a Bob Dylan fan, and those who honoured him with the Nobel Prize for Literature might note that he was not half as profound a poet as Leonard Cohen.

So what was special about Cohen? For me, he had a wide-ranging spirituality that highlighted the awe of a spiritual faith.

Even non-Cohen fans adore his epic Hallelujah, and there are many other classic tracks, such as Suzanne, So Long Marianne and Sisters of Mercy, which form a lasting heritage and epitaph in his personal Tower of Song.

Cohen also wrote with the power and savage urgency of an Old Testament prophet about the unstoppable Armageddon which has long been on its way.

Other people, as well as me, recognise the deeply insightful spirituality in Cohen. He was reared as a Jew and became a Zen Buddhist for a decade, before his last great creative phase, when he ranged widely to include some of the best of the world religions, including Christianity, in his work.

Rev Steve Stockman, the progressively-minded minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, once ran an evening service on The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen, and last Sunday shortly after his death he held an evening of reflection on his spiritual work. There may be another evening's tribute to Cohen in Fitzroy in the early new year, and I am sure that the church will be packed like last time.

The point worth making is that spiritual and life wisdom comes from many sources, not just from the established churches and the familiar mantras and texts that have become encrusted with time.

The German theologian Paul Tillich spoke about this more than 70 years ago, warning that if the churches could not keep the spiritual messages fresh, they would be presented to the world by artists of all kinds, and in different ways.

It takes a Cohen, or a Heaney for that matter, to try and see things differently. One of my favourite Cohen compositions is Anthem, which comes closest of all to summarising his philosophy of life.

"Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in."

Without that crack, that unexpected change and chink of light, the world moves on in darkness and threatens to carry us with it.

So don't be afraid of change and challenging chinks in things. That's what real life is all about.

Belfast Telegraph

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