Your faith was strong but you needed proof

December 2016

One can almost feel holy in Gdańsk amongst towering brick churches, some of the largest in Europe, with their plain crosses in white lights capping their towering spires.  As I lie in my twin bed with the church Klasztor Ojców Dominikanów at my head and Bazylika Mariacka at my feet and the pigeons clawing and cooing in the rafters above, I think about Leonard Cohen. About his almost secular references to religion, to the Bible, to God, to holiness; and how the imagery of his religious references blend so beautifully and harmoniously with those of loss and love and sex.

The cross of Bazylika Mariacka and her towers reflect blurrily in a parking lot puddle, Gdańsk (2016)


Lanterns of Długi Targ and the tower of Bazylika Mariacka, Gdańsk (2016)

Gdańsk is not just the city which unravelled communism but it is also where the Second World War began, the first shots fired in 1939 at Westerplatte. The vibrant Hanseatic architecture of the city falsely suggests the 17th century but the buildings of that time were decimated during the war and I wonder if their beautiful restorations recall the vivacity of trade or the horrors of war. Amongst these perfected examples of Dutch and Flemish architecture, Bazylika Mariacka dominates. She follows you throughout the city. Dating to the late 14th century, it is currently one of the largest brick churches in Europe and took some 150 years to construct; her tower and stoic cross rise above the city centre like a beacon, like some inland lighthouse for those who seek refuge and comfort and worship. Also damaged badly during the the war, some of its frescos lost forever, it was a place where Solidarity members sought safety in the early 1980s.

At the site of the Muzeum Narodowe w Gdańsku (National Gallery of Gdańsk), housed in a Franciscan monestary, I stand in awe below its steeples. From within a courtyard a simple black wooden cross reveals itself from behind a brick wall while smoke lifts gently from an adjacent chimney. I wonder what weather precipitates the need for so many weather vanes, perching and reaching into the sky like so many delicate birds. My question is answered not long after when with Polish donut and coffee in hand, the heavens unleash a cacophony of weather: thrusts of wind, sudden onslaught of rain gentle only for a moment before transforming violently into hail, which cuts sharply into the back of my calves before melting with my warmth and cascading gently down my legs and pooling at my heels. Hours later I warm my feet among black and white photographs in the Kawiarnia Filmowa (Film Café) where Russians play a game with dice, a film is screened in the back room, Polish conversation mingles with the scent of cinnamon and cloves stuffed into slices of oranges suspended in mugs of hot wine, and music from the 1950s plays over the radio.  All in the shadow of Bazylika Mariacka.

A piece in Rolling Stone explores some of the finer points of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and its biblical references, its lyrics tinged with allusions “on the unknowable nature of artistic creation, or of romantic love”. In Gdańsk, the light from street lamps and lanterns blurs and the edges of the light bleed against the sky and reflect off wet cobblestones along Długi Targ, the long market street. I think of the the blend of sexuality and religion as a powerful one in the song whose cover by Jeff Buckley haunts me even when it is not playing. The lines “remember when I moved in you, and the Holy Ghost was moving too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah” circle my thoughts and it is this intermingling of life and love and faith and sex which are so present in Leonard Cohen’s words, which resonate so profoundly.

Leonard Cohen’s death hit hard, leaving me with an unbearable longing for home, to be walking through the streets of Montréal past Parc du Portugal; where I walked years ago with my best friend and her husband who has long translated Leonard Cohen’s poetry into Croatian. We exchanged texts of grief and nostalgia for home (both of us exiled Montréalers) and I imagined us continuing past the park, up St-Laurent towards Mile End and a brown paper bag full of warm bagels straight from the wood ovens, chewy and sweet and saturated with sesame seeds which stick to your fingers and fall to the pavement. We tear them apart with our hands and continue on, stopping in some nearby café like Santropol or some other place suitable for nostalgia. I think about some Kundera novel I read forever ago which I cannot quite remember but which I am certain contains a description of this feeling of love and memory kept alive through friendship and conversation.

The beckoning of Bazylika Mariacka, Gdańsk (2016)

Bazylika Mariacka from winding alleys of cobblestone below, Gdańsk (2016)

The beautiful church of St-Mary’s is beckoning. I cross paths with a young priest whose long black cloak sweeps the cobblestones. I conjure the sound of Cohen as I look upwards. In the lyrics and music of Cohen, I hear and feel Montréal. I am with my family on a road trip listening to Jennifer Warnes’ voice cut in. Or in a small shop buying prayer beads in a small town in the Greek island of Milos where Cohen is playing softly. I conjure images of Montreal in the 1960s and of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. And while I am not religious, there is a certain holiness felt in Cohen and here in Gdańsk. I am compelled toward to the beautiful Bazylika Mariacka. A surprising moment of piousness even has me wondering if it is disrespectful for an agnostic to wear a modest silver cross, suspended lightly against one’s chest ahistorically as a reminder of the beauty of the unknown.

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