A Season to Confront the Cracks to Find the Light

by Sandra Brower.

Living where I do now, I’m a little closer to my ‘home and native land’ of Canada. Last September we took a road trip across the border to give our son a whirlwind tour of Canadian universities (which offer home student fees to citizens regardless of residency!). Montreal was our first stop, and aside from visiting McGill, our top priorities were to find the best bagels (Fairmount Bagel – at 74 Fairmount West if you’re ever in the neighbourhood) and the home of the great poet musician (and McGill graduate), Leonard Cohen.

I’ve also been taking a literary trip back to Canada. Over the Christmas break, as I devoured the second book in the Inspector Gamache series by Canadian author Louise Penny, set in the fictional town of Three Pines just south of Montreal, I was reminded of one of my favourite Cohen song poems – ‘Anthem’with its famous refrain: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’[1] Clara, one of the characters, is describing one of her paintings to Gamache – ‘The Three Graces’ – depicting Clara and her two closest friends. He asks if it is finished, noting that there seems to be space for another. She directs his eyes to Cohen’s refrain, written behind the figures, as she explains that all her works have vessels of some sort. As he steps back, Gamache sees that the vessel, ‘like a vase’, is formed by their bodies, and the space he had noticed is the crack letting the light in.[2]

There is, of course, another painting where three bodies form the shape of a vessel – Andrei Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham (better known as the icon of The Trinity). The three figures (angels visiting Abraham and Sarah) gather around a cup containing a feast prepared for them by Abraham’s servant. By the 19th century, the icon was interpreted as representing the Trinity. Like Clara’s painting – the icon has space(s) for another. The three figures – in their respective outward gaze – each make room for the other. But more than that, their hospitable posture makes the same shape as the cup around which they sit. The Eucharistic overtones are hard to ignore as one considers the central feast through which the hospitality of God is extended ever outward, a feast forged through pain and brokenness…cracks making room for light.

In his October 2016 profile of Cohen, four days before the release of the album, You Want it Darker, David Remnick of The New Yorker touches on Cohen’s links to Bob Dylan (both discovered in the 60s by John Hammond), commenting on their shared ‘penchant for Biblical imagery’. Remnick’s assessment that Cohen’s lyrics were more liturgical resonates with Dylan’s comment that ‘Cohen’s songs at times were “like prayers”.’ Of ‘Hallelujah’ Dylan ‘recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and profane.’[3] Cassie Werber, writing the day after Cohen’s death (just three weeks after the release of You Want it Darker), recognises this marriage in ‘Anthem’, in the Christian imagery of bells and doves.[4] Whether or not Cohen would recognise the Eucharist as a ‘perfect offering’, he certainly understood the imperfection of our own efforts. In his own (rare) explanation of his lyrics, he states: ‘“Forget your perfect offering” that is the hang-up that you’re gonna work this thing out. Because we confuse this idea and we’ve forgotten the central myth of our culture which is the expulsion from the garden of Eden. This situation does not admit of solution of perfection…The thing is imperfect. And worse, there is a crack in everything that you can put together…But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.’[5]

Reflecting on her painting, Clara says to Gamache: ‘Mother is Faith, Em is Hope and Kaye is Charity. I was tired of seeing the Graces always depicted as beautiful young things. I think wisdom comes with age and life and pain. And knowing what matters.’[6] Cohen was certainly wise, a wisdom that came with age, life and pain. Penning this reflection on 6 January has made me consider the marriage of the sacred and profane, pondering these secular Canadian texts as I greet the Feast of Epiphany. Instead of transforming myself through making New Year’s ‘perfect offerings’ (otherwise known as ‘resolutions’), I think I’ll look for the Epiphanic light in the contemplation and confrontation of the cracks. As Cohen wisely notes, repentance is where we find resurrection. Let’s start this new year by lifting up our brokenness to be blessed and restored by God’s radiant light.


[1] For the full lyrics, see https://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-anthem-lyrics

[2] Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2006), pp. 228-229. NB Published under the title of Dead Cold in the UK, and A Fatal Grace in Canada and the USA.

[3] You can read the excellent profile here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker

[4] You can read her reflections in ‘Light in the Dark’ here: https://qz.com/835076/leonard-cohens-anthem-the-story-of-the-line-there-is-a-crack-in-everything-thats-how-the-light-gets-in

[5] This quote, cited in numerous places, is from an interview with Cohen in 1992. For the full quote, see: https://www.leonardcohennotes.com/doc/interview.1992_11_24_interview_1992_from_the_future_radio_special_a_special_cd_released_by_sony#on_anthem: Emphasis mine.

[6] Penny, p. 228.

5 thoughts on “A Season to Confront the Cracks to Find the Light”

  1. We sometimes hear comments about us living in a broken world. At an individual level, we refer to some people as having been broken by events in their lives. We might ourselves feel that we are falling apart at times, when everything seems to be going wrong in our lives or life simply seems too hard.

    We can learn from the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Instead of discarding broken pottery, practitioners of the art repair broken items with a golden adhesive that enhances the break lines, making the piece unique. The pottery is more beautiful than it was before.

    In God we have a master in the art of putting people back together, of healing their brokenness. All the flaws and cracks in our lives, the things we’re ashamed of, the hurts we hold on to, can be repaired, if we give them to God. He can make us whole again in a way that enhances our lives. A new enhanced life and a resurgent faith are available to us – though God’s vision of what that should look like may be very different from what we had imagined. We need above all to remain open to recognizing God’s presence with us and his ability to work with and through our weaknesses and our fragility and our vulnerability

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    1. Pavel, thank you for your comment, here.

      I write a weekly prayer email for my Methodist Church.
      The first section of the email has the title ‘Come sit with Me’ – encouraging us all to start by just ‘being’ with God before even voicing our thanks and long before voicing our requests.
      The title ‘Come sit with Me’ came to me as I was in my own quiet time – I ‘heard’ God saying that to me and I realised it was also to share.
      Your piece here would be very appropriate for the ‘Come sit with Me’ section of the email.
      May I copy it?
      God bless you as you share with us.
      Margaret

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  2. In my inner life I do not find it easy to give my brokenness back to God, in fact I do not understand what that means. Looking inward, beseeching an otherworldly spirit, seeking God through piety and personal salvation just does not work for me. On the other hand I recognise an incessant demand that I should reach out to others, share my brokenness and, looking outward, have the courage to love and care for all I meet. That sounds rather austere, but what amazes me is that in responding to that demand I find forgiveness for past mistakes, encouragement to face the day before me and hope for the future. There is no judgment here, no competitive piety, no threat of condemnation for some supposed “sins”, just the amazing unconditional love we/I find in following Christ.

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