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.”