The Balancing Monsters of Love: Leonard Cohen on What Makes a Saint
On loving the world enough to surrender to the laws of gravity and chance.
By Maria Popova
In the pre-scientific world, in the blind old world with its old language, we had a word for those people most awake to the sacred wonder of reality, most capable of awakening the native kindness of human beings — the kindness that flows naturally between us when we are stripped of our biases and liberated from our small, constricting frames of reference. That word was “saint.”
Saints still walk our world, though now we might simply call them heroes, if we recognize them at all — heroes whose superpower is love.
Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) — one of the modern heroes — explores what makes a saint in a passage from his 1966 novel Beautiful Losers (public library).
What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is the caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men*, such balancing monsters of love.
A year later, Cohen contemplated what these “balancing monsters of love” do for us in his song “Sisters of Mercy”:
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn,
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.
Complement with Walter Lippmann’s magnificent meditation on what makes a hero, inspired by Amelia Earhart, then revisit Leonard Cohen on creativity at the end of life, language and the poetry of presence, democracy’s breakages and redemptions, and when (not) to quit a creative project.
Published February 23, 2023