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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sisters Of Mercy

Music influences my thoughts. Many ideas I collect stem from listening to popular song lyrics. Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite popular writer/performers. He is unique, remarkably intelligent, and enigmatic. Cohen's songs have set a virtually unmatched standard in their seriousness and range. Cohen is extremely well-regarded by critics for his literary accomplishments and for producing an output of work of high artistic quality over a five-decade career. Second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musical figure from the 1960s who is still working at the outset of the 21st century. (

Who Is Leonard Cohen?

Cohen was born into a middle-class Jewish family in the Montreal suburb of Westmount, Canada. "I was told I was a descendant of Aaron, the high priest," Cohen recalls. (P. Williams, Leonard Cohen: The Romantic in a Ragpicker's Trade) His father, a clothing merchant (who also held a degree in engineering), died in 1943, when Cohen was nine years old. His mother encouraged Cohen as a writer, especially of poetry, during his childhood. This fit in with the progressive intellectual environment in which he was raised, which allowed him free inquiry into a vast range of pursuits.

Cohen took up the guitar at age 13, initially as a way to impress a girl, but was good enough to play country & western songs at local cafes, and he subsequently formed a group called the Buckskin Boys. At 17, he enrolled in McGill University as an English major -- by this time, he was writing poetry in earnest and became part of the university's tiny underground "bohemian" community.

Cohen only earned average grades, but was a good enough writer to earn the McNaughton Prize in creative writing by the time he graduated in 1955 -- a  mere year later, he published his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956), which got great reviews but didn't sell especially well. In 1961, Cohen published his second book of poetry, The Spice Box of Earth, which became an international success critically and commercially, and established Cohen as a major new literary figure. He began to travel around the world.

His novel Favorite Game (1963) was a very personal work about his early life in Montreal, but it was Beautiful Losers (1964) that proved another breakthrough, earning the kind of reviews that authors dare not even hope for -- he found himself compared to James Joyce in the pages of The Boston Globe, and across four decades the book has enjoyed sales totaling well into six figures.

It was around this time that Cohen also started writing music again, songs being a natural extension of his poetry. Since he had been living for years on the island of Hydra in Greece and since he had avoided popular music, he was virtually untouched by the trends of popular music since the 1940's. His early music was rooted in European folk music.(Richard Rees Jones, "Leonard Cohen, Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium," July 10 2008)

It was Judy Collins who persuaded Cohen to return to performing for the first time since his teens. He made his debut during the summer of 1967 at the Newport Folk Festival, followed by a pair of sold-out concerts in New York City. In the 1970s, his material encompassed pop, cabaret and world music. Now, his music varies widely in style.

He has since become a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters' Music Hall of Fame, a Companion of the Order of Canada (the nation's highest civilian honor), and the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Leonard Cohen continues to write and record for his ever-loyal army of fans.

"Sisters of Mercy"

Mercy falls upon humans in small, often unrecognizable, drops. Many who dispense mercy upon others do so automatically, without conscious recognition. Open ears and helpful hands become the constant companions of such merciful nurses. In time, mutual respect changes spirits and lives of those in need.

"Sisters of Mercy" is one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs. His song "Sisters of Mercy" speaks of kindness and consideration and the rewards for those who practice such virtues. Just a singular act of mercy can offer a suffering individual impetus for spiritual change. 

The source for allusion in the title likely comes from the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order founded in Dublin in the year 1827. Communities of the same name have since been established in various American cities. The duties of those belonging to the order are, to attend lying-in hospitals, to superintend the education of girls, and protect decent women out of employment, to visit prisoners and the sick, and to attend persons condemned to death.

The song begins with these lyrics:

"Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can't go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who've been traveling so long."

The inspiration for writing the song itself came from a simple event very early in Cohen's career. According to Leonard Cohen (1979): "The Sisters Of Mercy were actually two young women that I met during a snow storm in Edmonton, Alberta (1966 -before his first album was released). And they came to my hotel room and there was something oh, very agreeable about their company. And they had no place to stay and they fell asleep on my bed, and I stayed up and I remember there was a full moon. And I felt like having something to say to them when they woke up, and that was one of those rare and graceful occasions when I was able to write a song from beginning to end in the space of a few hours. And while they slept I worked on this song. And when they woke up I sang it to them. It was completely full and finished, and they liked it. Barbara and Lorraine were their names."

The song makes it evident that at the time, the speaker (Cohen) was full of loneliness and feeling "pinned" by things he couldn't control. The song relates: "When you're not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you've sinned." As the speaker shares the feelings of potentially losing his soul with the Sisters of Mercy, he feels touched himself by their comfort and inspiration.

The encounter with the Sisters becomes the lyrics of the redemption song that the speaker pens during the night at the hotel. He records this as part of the experience of mutually shared hospitality: "If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn, they (the Sisters) will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem."

Cohen ends the song with these lines:

"When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don't turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won't make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren't lovers like that and besides it would still be all right."

Finding Sisters Of Mercy

I find myself listening carefully to people who recognize and deliver mercy. Many of these people have dedicated themselves to associating with those who are disadvantaged due to ethnicity, economics, environment, or insufficient love. Having survived ordeals of debilitation or dehumanization, these unfortunate souls crave an inner truth, a truth often forged in similar experience. Sisters of Mercy provide a much-needed bridge.

As the merciful relate their lives and tribulations, their simple words offer soft tones of encouragement that connect through association. Sage advice is never hurled with force; it is delicately passed to another as a fragile gift.

Feminist scholar and theologian Katie Cannon wrote  Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (Cannon, 1995). Her pages on the plight of black women include vivid descriptions of pain and suffering endured in the era of slavery. Cannon writes of physical abuse of women as slaves in questioning, "What are the emotional resources for dealing with forgotten memories that lie dormant in our bodies and therefore in our souls?" (Cannon, 1995). She concludes that having no language to carry the memory of suffering is the final devastation.

For all people, recognition of pain as a deeply human experience, more than just a neurologic phenomenon, is a crucial step toward having an entire society respond to its urgency. The many people who suffer need not only a language to express its significance but also an audience to detect its presence. Those who suffer little may overlook the plight of those most in need.

Suffering, great or small, overwhelming or overcome, does have the power to grasp people when they see it in others. It also has the power to hold people in positions in which they cannot avoid the reality of the sufferers.
Insofar as people genuinely behold it, it awakens in them a moral response—to alleviate it, ameliorate it, prevent it in others, or if none of this is possible, to companion and literally "bear with" the sufferer, in love and respect.

Nursing a suffering human being is fruitful for both parties when done with true mercy. Somehow, many in society have become vehemently critical of sinners with human flaws and addictions. They have lost their patience and their will to extend themselves to help certain groups they stereotype. Lost in their own struggles to maintain place on the social ladder, these individuals choose blame over mercy and avoidance over courtesy.

Beggars, druggies, alcoholics, and petty criminals receive and deserve a certain measure of contempt; however, these human beings need many more Sisters of Mercy. One simple act...

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