The Cathedral of St. Philip - Atlanta, GA

Ring The Bells That Still Can Ring: Blessings And Angles

If we have the ears for it, blessing comes from all sorts of angles in this world; and what amazing blessings these last two weeks have brought to me. The blessings began when I was honored to accompany good friends to the latest Leonard Cohen concert in Atlanta. I realize he is too somber (and worse!) for some people. But, strangely, I have always found Leonard Cohen's deep and dark poems to have a wonderfully uplifting spiritual effect. He was born Jewish, in Canada, and his spiritual explorations (including holy time in a Buddhist monastery) have blessed me.

He is the one who always sings "there's a blaze of light in every word; it doesn't matter which you heard - the holy or the broken Hallelujah." Some of us have been following him ever since he sang "Suzanne," right on through "Bird on a Wire," "The Sacrifice of Isaac" (now there is an accurate interpretation of Genesis 22), to the modern "First We Take Manhattan," and "A Thousand Kisses Deep."

I commend Leonard Cohen to everyone, though I know only some will hear the blessing of his words. His concert was more like a holy recital for me; he began over half of his songs literally on his knees, as if he were coaxing the spirit from instruments and voices. He always left the stage literally skipping, dancing with the energy of a whimsical seventy-five year old man.

The words of Leonard Cohen that I have most often quoted in sermons and presentations are from his song, "Anthem," and they bear repetition: "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (If I am feeling feisty, I will juxtapose those words with those from the song, "Jazz Police," which start like this: "Can you tell me why the bells are ringing? Nothing's happened in a million years.")

Leonard Cohen blessed me. A week later, Richard Rohr blessed me. I know that for several weeks, we have heard reactions to the news that the Roman Catholic Church will announce a process whereby certain Anglicans can join the Roman Church as a group. The world still does not know strict details about this process, but that absence did not keep many from speaking irresponsibly about "takeovers" and "sheep-stealing."

Meanwhile, however, at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we were busy being blessed by the ministry of one of the great contemporary writers on contemplative spirituality, Father Richard Rohr. Yes, he is a priest. Yes, he is actually Roman Catholic, ordained as a priest in the Franciscan order.

He spoke on delightful issues, such as his claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the first non-dualistic thinker in Western Civilization. He reminded us that true contemplative spirituality is really just another phrase for "prayer," and that true prayer is about observing the world non-dualistically. (His recent book, The Naked Now, has a special section about how important the little word "and" is.)

Over five hundred members and friends of the Cathedral heard Richard Rohr on a Saturday. What a great day it was (even with competition for parking places with the Cathedral Farmers Market)! Richard Rohr came to the Cathedral of St. Philip not in order to take sides, or even to represent a certain faithful Christian denomination. He came to share his life and experience of the holy. It just so happened that he spoke while many other pundits were trying to pit the Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches against one another! On Sunday morning, he delivered the final blessing at our Episcopal eucharist. I was truly blessed.

Then came All Saints' Day at the Cathedral of St. Philip. We were blessed to read the names of saints during the Sunday afternoon Requiem Eucharist. We remembered holy people with holy names, all in the setting of Gabriel Faure's moving Requiem Mass. We were blessed, and God was blessed.

That was our first Requiem Eucharist. The day afterwards, Monday, we held our twenty-first annual Requiem Eucharist and Dinner for the Homeless. Each year, using buses, the homeless from all over Atlanta are our guests for dinner. Then, at the huge evening Eucharist, we read the individual names of the homeless men, women, and children who have died in the past year on the streets of Atlanta. We ring the Cathedral bell at each name; each name was a gift of God to this world. We always have a guest preacher; and, this year, we were blessed by the Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery.

In the same way we welcomed Father Richard Rohr, I was proud to welcome the Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery. Naturally, he was proud of having spoken at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. But his deeper words reminded us of an image from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that "there is no separate path to black fulfillment and power that does not intersect with white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment that does not share that power with black aspirations."

For Dr. Lowery, that means that, no matter who we are, all our lines intersect. For me, however, that means our lives are always forming angles of blessing with other lives. All our intersecting lines form blessing. Some of those angles of blessing are Jewish, and some are Roman Catholic, and some are Anglican. Some of those angles might not be considered religious at all. Some of those angles are black, and some are white.

This season of All Saints has reminded me again of the various lines of light that have shined on my life. There is no perfect religion, no pure denomination that we can convert to, nor even any perfect saint, who always gets it right. There is always another angle of blessing, and God uses every one of us, no matter what our condition. "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

3 November 2009

Sam Candler is Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia. Contact him at