Leonard Cohen's "Book of Mercy"

Not long ago I posted the words and music to Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song, If It Be Your Will, which touched our hearts in many different ways.  Recently I came across something closely related that I would like to share with you here.

In the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) archives, I found a series entitled, “Leonard Cohen:  Canada’s Melancholy Bard”.  Number Six in the series, “Cohen at 50”, is an archived radio broadcast from 1984, in which he is interviewed just after publication of his, “Book of Mercy”.  The whole interview is wonderful; about one-third of the way into it, spiritual mercy is the focus of the discussion.  Cohen describes what he simply refers to as a “wipe out”, but in the way he speaks of it, and of course, with “Book of Mercy” as the outcome, my feeling is that we are listening to him speak about something more akin to the dark night of the spirit rather than a burn-out.  Just to give you a little taste of the conversation (forgive me if I did not transcribe it perfectly – I hope you will listen for yourselves if you are interested in this topic) here is a bit of what Leonard says: 

Re the writing of the book“…where there’s no other form of expression possible… and you can’t speak, and the only thing you can say is a prayer, then this is the kind of work that follows.”

Re the experience he went through:  “…something like being stopped, something like walls, something like not being able to function in the way that you have been accustomed to, something like that.  Just the point where all the laws of necessity and relativity no longer make sense and you want to address the absolute source of things if you can locate it, and you try to locate it.” 

When the interviewer, Peter Gzowski , comments to Leonard that the book resulting from this experience is “not necessarily the work of a believer, this is not…a demonstration of faith or conviction, is it?”, Leonard responds:

“Those kinds of questions – I believe or I don’t believe – those belong to the mind, and, appropriately to the mind…but…when you find yourself in that landscape where the only thing you can do is prayer, it doesn’t matter whether you believe or not, because you’re not using that faculty that evaluates the reality of faith or the reality of God or not – it’s a completely different landscape; it is a cry, and there is an object of the cry, and it’s a certainty in that place.”

“One is not interested in proving or not proving the existence of the object; if you address yourself to the source of mercy, you might have the good luck to discover that there is a source of mercy… There is a source of mercy as I experienced it, and these poems are the document of that address and that kind of deliverance.”

Leonard Cohen’s, “Book of Mercy” is a collection of fifty psalms.  I do not have the book myself, but here are two of the psalms that I found online: 

Number 1:
I stopped to listen, but he did not come.
I began again with a sense of loss.
As this sense deepened I heard him again.
I stopped stopping and I stopped starting,
and I allowed myself to be crushed by ignorance.
This was a strategy, and didn’t work at all.
Much time, years were wasted in such a minor mode.
I bargain now. I offer buttons for his love.
I beg for mercy. Slowly he yields.
Haltingly he moves toward his throne.
Reluctantly the angels grant to one another permission to sing.
In a transition so delicate it cannot be marked,
the court is established on beams of golden symmetry,
and once again I am a singer in the lower choirs,
born fifty years ago to raise my voice this high, and no higher.

Number 50:
I lost my way, I forgot to call on your name.
The raw heart beat against the world,
and the tears were for my lost victory.
But you are here. You have always been here.
The world is all forgetting,
and the heart is a rage of directions,
but your name unifies the heart,
and the world is lifted into its place.
Blessed is the one who waits in the traveller’s heart for his turning.


8 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen's "Book of Mercy"

  1. I definitely MUST look for this collection, Gabrielle. I just finished blogging about those who write from experience and this is right in that same vein….a must for me at this time.
    You have shared this Cohen post by the HS to minister to me at this time.
    Thank you.

  2. But you are here. You have always been here.
    The world is all forgetting,

    Those two lines from Number 50 are as true now as when they were first written, too many times I have forgotten His presence and my purpose.

    Great words Gabrielle, though provoking and humbling.

  3. “In a transition so delicate it cannot be marked,
    the court is established on beams of golden symmetry,
    and once again I am a singer in the lower choirs,
    born fifty years ago to raise my voice this high, and no higher.” These are truly beautiful musical words. What a gift this man has to touch the hearts of those who read his words.

    I you would visit my “home”, I have a gift for you which your truly deserve.

  4. Hi all. I was able to listen to several more of the Cohen interviews while I doing paperwork, housework, etc., and I will have more to share here, at least one in particular. As teresa says, I also find it helpful to hear peoples’ own experiences as they do the spiritual work. I was, actually, wonderstruck at many of the things I was hearing.

  5. Wow! I think I need to have this book. Cohen’s answer to the interviewer sounds like St. John of the Cross. I will be listening to these interviews myself.

  6. Terry, after you watch the video I linked to, go to the Author’s video, Part II, where he is interviewed by Patrick Watson. It’s when he’s younger, and you can see the St. John of the Cross there as well (dark night of the senses) whereas the one I’ve linked to here is later in life, and from various things he said I got the strong feeling that it was the dark night of the spirit. Now that I’ve watched the earlier one where you can clearly see the dark night of the senses, I’m pretty sure I’m right about this one being the spirit. It’s the one I’ll be posting on next time. It’s just amazing to actually see someone go through it so plainly and clearly, but if I hadn’t been familiar with St. John of the Cross, I never would have seen it (i.e., in my younger days, studying CanLit).

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