With great relief I have just finished writing the final draft (from my point of view) of a new book. If the publisher doesn’t like it, I am well stuck because I don’t think I have anything else to say on the matter.

leonard-cohen-live-in-londonIn the course of editing it I was listening to the newly-released double CD of Leonard Cohen’s Live in London, recorded on 17 July 2008 at O2. It is wonderful. The music is beautiful and the uniquely deep and expressive voice of the elderly man is utterly compelling. When he sings you hang on every note, every word. When he recites his poetry he sounds like he is exposing his soul – and mine and ours. Everyone should buy this album – the bloke deserves to have his stolen pension replenished. At one point he thanks the audience for being kind and for keeping his songs alive; but he had to write songs worth keeping alive in the first place.

Coincidentally, I am also reading his book of poems (Book of Longing, Penguin, 2006) and I find myself jealous of his facility with words, rhythm, language and experience.

There is a point early in the London gig when he recites the names of many of the drugs he has taken over the years (some for medicinal purposes). Then he says this: ‘I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through… There ain’t no cure for love.’ Cohen spent a decade up a mountain in a Buddhist monastery and much of the tension of this experience is evident in the poems from that period of his life. But I wonder about his conclusion!

I think many people unthinkingly think that religion is cheerless and philosophy unswervingly serious in a humourless way. Perhaps Cohen’s pursuit of self-fulfilment (or however he might wish to express it) in isolation form the world lay at the root of his dissatisfaction with its elusiveness. Christians, on the other hand, believe that the individual can only be ‘fulfilled’ in the company of other people whom we don’t choose (Jesus does). There can be no fulfilment in isolation; we need one another and the community preserves us from selfishness and narcissism.

I know exactly what Cohen means, though. The Christianity I grew up with through my teens and twenties was one that emphasised sin, failure, inadequacy and the need to please God (as a means of gaining his favour?). Cheerfulness broke through when I realised (over a long period of time) that the whole creation belongs to God and that we are free within it to enjoy (together) what God has given us. The world became bigger as God was liberated in my mind from the miserable tyrant, obsessed with any tiny naughty thought I might have, to being the creator and lover of the cosmos. Rather than this leading to a woolly denial of the brokenness and damaging elements of human being, it set it in its right place: God is not surprised by my failures, but loves anyway and invites people like me to walk with him and others who have also discovered that forgiveness is liberating and hope infectious.

Cheerfulness kept breaking through and still does. Or maybe faith is annoyingly cheerful anyway and it is the darkness that keeps breaking though. But, as John says at the outset of his Gospel, the darkness cannot overcome the light that has come into the world.

Thank God for Leonard Cohen!