Leonard and Thomas

At the moment, I am teaching a course in the Seniors Program at Simon Fraser University called “Leonard Cohen and Thomas Merton: poets, tricksters, soul-brothers.” Each week I stand before some 96 students (87 women, nine men) and talk about one or both of these fascinating cultural figures–three weeks down, three weeks to go.

I started with a biographical introduction to each, and then reflected on the work of each as a poet. Next class we will consider them as tricksters, then as transcultural spiritual teachers. The final class will include, first, my reading of the presidential address about them both that I delivered to the International Thomas Merton Society in 2009, and, in the final hour, a look at Cohen’s anthemic song, “Hallelujah,” which, incidentally, I have asked in my will be played (or sung, if Leonard is available!) at the reception after my funeral. If I am brave enough, I will finish by inviting the class to stand with me and sing together its refrain, which contains just the one word of its title, “Hallelujah.”

Yesterday was Leonard’s (it’s all first-name basis stuff in the class) birthday, his 78th, an occasion soberly noted in The Globe and Mail. As all of you not living under large rocks know, he is on another world tour–skipping onto the stage, sometimes kneeling to sing a particular song, hosting a three-hour performance night after night, as he did on his birthday in Romania. Thomas, of course, left us in body in 1968, but culturally is very much with us still. And did they ever meet in the body? No, but Leonard did go to Gethsemani, Thomas’s longtime monastic home, to pay his respects at his gravesite.

I began the course by listing for the students some of the ways in which Leonard and Thomas connect, and here is that list, a fascinating one.

Both were born in French-speaking cultures

Both retain a strongly European sensibility

Both lost their fathers (and TM his mother) at an early age

Both are poets: both loved the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia


Both went to Columbia

Both went to Cuba

Both had a long-unresolved sense of their own sexuality

Both are trickster/coyote figures

Both grew from serious immaturity into great maturity

Both ended as transcultural and transreligious spiritual teachers

Both were very interested in Zen

Both had some difficulty at particular times with alcohol

Both spent time in monasteries

Both had monastic names – Jikan (“the silent one”) and Father          Louis

And each was “monastic in [his] own way”–it was that line in a Globe article which gave me the idea of considering them together.

Both were anchored in their own religious tradition and          simultaneously deeply interested in other traditions

My hunch is that most of the students in the course came primarily to learn about Leonard, a much-better-known cultural figure than Thomas. I hope, however, that their interest in Thomas will grow, and so far, the signs are good. He would not mind, I am sure, piggy-backing into their awareness on the back of their interest in–OK, let’s say it–love for Leonard.

Let me give a last word to each of them. First, Leonard:

“There’s a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

And from Thomas:

“I love beer, and by that very fact, the world.”


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3 Responses to Leonard and Thomas

  1. Eldon Hay says:

    Don, a great posting; so was that superb one on the comment by the Turkish minister …. Thanks.

    This course, available in print or on tape?

    And Hallelujah – one of my friends has questions about one of the verses – sexist. I too love the song and the singer …..

    Warm regards.

  2. Anne Murnaghan says:

    Interesting piece on Leonard and Thomas – thank you. Attached is an adapted Leonard Hallelujah [with permission from Leonard]. From beginning to end this, to me, is glorious!

    Kelley opens with a tongue-in-cheek story of how the adaptation ‘happened’ – she is a Prince Edward Islander as am I – which explains how I know about this. Somewhere in my music library here I have a cut from her CD. Let me know if you’re interested… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guhr0Vh2hE0

  3. Eldon, thanks for this. No, course not available; it is going straight into God’s filing cabinet. Sexist lyrics–probably: Leonard is still a work in progress.

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