Going to See Leonard Cohen, Going to Mass

I went to see Leonard Cohen last week. I had not been to a concert like that for ages, and it made me think about what was going on.


The first conclusion I came to was that this was a ‘meaning making’ event. By this I mean that as I listened to the songs, I asked myself ‘Where am I up to with this song? Do I agree with what Leonard is saying here?’ To clap at the end of a song is to send a message back to the singer ‘We were moved in a positive way by what you have sung!’ So the concert is a communication between singer and audience about what the performer has offered.


Apart from the meaning that was made by the concert, there was the style of the communication, which I thought was faultless. The ‘show’ aspect of the concert was choreographed down to the last lighting change. As each song went by, so changed the mood of the lighting and the smoke machine and the fact that the audience was ‘in darkness’. Nearly all of the songs that Leonard Cohen sang came from is ‘new incarnation’ and only one ‘Like a Bird on a Wire’ from the days when I learned them all by heart and sang them in coffee shops in the 1970s. Leonard Cohen also conducted himself in a manner of great respect and humility both toward his fellow musicians and the audience. Each musician was introduced and applauded and we were thanked for coming and for standing up.


So what did I make of this event? As a professional ‘putter on of Church’ and ‘Meaning Maker’ I could not help compare the way that this event went, in comparison to the Church that I preside over each Sunday. This is not such a strange comparison as you might first think. I have a theory that there is a link between ‘Revival Tent’ meetings in the West of the US in the 19th Century, and the form of the ‘concert’ as we have it now. Each event has its own ‘liturgy’ and way of behaving that people have to learn in order to participate without drawing disapproval to themselves. Each event has a ‘plot’, which,  if it is not followed causes confusion in the participants.


The thing that I noticed most about the concert was its ‘meaning making’ aspect. Some concerts that people go to are overtly bout ‘drugs, sex and rock and roll’. They are young people’s concerts I guess because that is what young people are pre-occupied by. Other concerts are about world issues. Some pop stars (like Bono, and Bob Geldof)  use their concerts to promote the cause of the poor of the world or some other significant cause. The applause at the end of the songs here ‘means’ that the people attending the concert agree with the sentiments of the songs and want to do something about injustice or world poverty.


I remember once going to see Joan Baez. She was singing ‘Kum-by-Ya’. I was happy to sing along with ‘Some one’s Singing Lord, Kum-by-Ya Kum-by-Ya’ and ‘Some one’s Praying Lord’ and so on, but when she sang ‘No more Nation States’ I took pause. What did I thijk about the existence of ‘Nation States’? What was their influence for good or evil? What is the relationship between multi-national corporations and Nation states. The whole thing was just ‘dumped’ upon me as a thing for me to ‘say’ yet I had no idea of what I wa meant to be ‘saying’ and if I agreed with it.


At this concert most of the songs that Leonard Cohen sang were about the love between a man and a woman, which I thought was ‘nice’ and touched me because of the great poetry of the compositions and the melancholy and wisdom of older love that Leonard Cohen now brings to his poetry. Being now happily married, the issues I am dealing with are not those of ‘falling in love’ and separation, so some of the songs did not touch me a huge amount, but there were two that spoke to my ‘human condition’. Listen to this


O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb.


This is a lovely song, with the unity of a simple tune that made me cry. There is another song that talks about the disappointment of a world that does not seem to change


We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.


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.  


Listening to these songs I became aware of the ‘splinters that I carry’ and the need for healing in me. But the other song speaks of the fact that it is the ‘cracks’ in everything that let in light.


These songs ‘spoke’ to me, and made the Concert a significant ‘meaning’ event for me. It was at this point that I began to compare these meanings with my Christian faith. Here I think that some of what we sing or say in Church does not have the same sense of ‘reality’ as these songs, yet at the same time, especially around Easter when our ‘concert’ goes on for a whole week, that I am even more touched by ‘Come Down O Love Divine, seek thou this soul of mine and visit it with thine own ardour glowing’ or ‘Look Father, look on his anointed face and only look on us as found in him, look not on our mis-usings of thy grace, our prayer so languid and our faith so dim’  Here is the same humility, but in the context of our relationship with God.


The form of the event is interesting. I have to say that I much prefer the Eucharist as a meaning making ‘form’ than the concert, but this has two sides. The Eucharist, as my friend says ‘does not easily give up her secrets’.  There is a lot of meaning presumed by participation in the Eucharist that will not speak to people who have not been educated in what is being played out in this drama. The way that the Eucharist goes is more complicated, and as a distance from many people who have not taken the time to learn it. So the most popular forms of Christianity these days are ones that decrease the gap between what people already know (the ‘concert’ ) and the kind of Church.


I think that the technical smoothness of the Leonard Cohen concert can teach us a great deal about the ‘ambience’ of an event can be choreographed in a way that supports the meaning of the concert better than we do in Church. On the other hand, I think that the structure of a Eucharist, when what it is doing is learned, is better at really communicating some meaning for human life, and bearing the weight of our souls when we bring them into the circle of God’s life in this kind of worship. I guess that is the reason I’m a priest and not an actor.


But I loved the concert. I wish we had the capacity to charge people up to CHF 400.00 for each Eucharist and so had the resources to do the same with our Eucharists as Leonard Cohen did with his concert.



About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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