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.’ 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.
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.’ 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. 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.’
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.’ 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.
 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.
 You can read the excellent profile here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker
 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
 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.
 Penny, p. 228.