About Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

Reading Love Nailed to the Doorpost

If you want to be submerged in the depths of Jewish spirituality, this is the book to read: Love Nailed to the Doorpost, by Richard Chess.

No, not “read”: at least not “read” in the way you would read an email or a newspaper or a novel. The poems and prose-poems collected in this book draw you beneath reading to a meditation, a pause, a reflection, another pause….

And not really “Jewish spirituality”: for Chess’s spirituality, while deeply Jewish, is more deeply his own particular living of Judaism.

Take “Mezuzah,” the poem in which the book’s title appears. It looks deceptively straightforward on the page. But starting right from the epigraphs, we have to be engaged.

From Emily Dickinson we’re given “Tell all the truth but—”; followed by Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love…” In both cases we’re expected to fill in the blanks ourselves. We know that “tell it slant” completes the Dickinson line. And we know that Deuteronomy 6:5 continues with “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (NRSV).

But if we read further in the Deuteronomy passage we come to God’s command to “Keep these words in your heart…and write them on the doorposts of your house” (6:6-9).

This is the commandment for the mezuzah that’s nailed slant on the doorpost of every Jewish home. Chess’s poem then follows: [Read more…]

Alleluia for the Easter Season

I used to find Easter a letdown. Lent is so full of the self-improvement activities of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I typically add a midday prayer to my usual Morning and Evening Prayer. I decide what organizations I want to give alms to: a different one each week of Lent. And fasting: not from food (my health doesn’t allow for that), but from something I feel is keeping me from closeness to God. The past few years it has been fasting from judging others (or trying to).

Then comes Easter. The first week is always a joy, reading about Jesus’s various post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. But in my Catholic faith, the Easter season continues way beyond this: for a full fifty days, until Pentecost. Catholic practice doesn’t instruct me to do anything special during these fifty days. So instead of the fullness of God’s grace, I’ve felt this season to be an empty repetition of “Christ has risen.”

Until this year. I don’t know why… but this year, each day of the prolonged Easter season has filled me with grateful wonder. The Scripture selections in The Liturgy of the Hours, which I pray from, feel richly full. Each week there are passages from Romans:

The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is the word of faith which we preach) (10:8).

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we are also to live with him (6:8).

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also, through his Spirit dwelling in you (8:11).

Both in life and death we are the Lord’s (14:8). [Read more…]

Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer

Portrait of Robert Oppenheimer reclining a chair with his legs crossed, holding a cigarette in a very cavalier manner. What would you think of a biography of a famous person written in the form of a poem?

I don’t mean just a portrait of the person: Stephanie Strickland did this (masterfully) in her The Red Virgin: A Poem of Simone Weil. No, I mean a full, chronological biography—birth to death and reputation beyond—complete with socio-political context and analysis of the subject’s inner life as well as his public achievements. And even more: a biography that becomes at the same time an epic poem, with its towering yet tragic central character.

All this is what Kelly Cherry has managed to do in her new book Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. The subtitle is “A Poem,” though 121 distinct poems make up the book, much like chapters and subheadings in a prose biography.

The Quartet of the title refers to the four “movements” into which Cherry has divided Oppenheimer’s life: his childhood through schooling and his early professional career as physics professor (with the horrors of Nazism’s rise always in the background); his position as Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; his post-war downfall, caught in the net of Senator Joe McCarthy and the country’s anti-Communist hysteria; his later life, death, and assessments of his life’s significance. [Read more…]

Praying the Art of Sean Scully: The Match of Prose and Visual Art

Black and white photo of Sean Scully from chest up. He is wearing a button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and is gesturing with his hand. He has dark glasses on, is bald, and has a calm expression on his face. When I finished reading Paul Anel’s article on the chapel art of Sean Scully, in the current Image (#91), I was moved to close my eyes in prayer. It wasn’t verbal prayer. It was a sitting within a sense of the sacred.

Both Scully’s art and Anel’s graced account of it had drawn me into this sacred space. Anel focuses on Scully’s transformation of an ancient, crumbling building—the Chapel of Santa Cecilia on the grounds of Montserrat Abbey in Spain—into a glistening, vibrant work of art: indeed the article is titled “Gathering the Light.”

There’s no point in my repeating Anel’s account here; you can read it in Image online. What I want to ponder instead is, first, what drew me into prayer on finishing the article. Partly, I think, it was the humility of both Scully and Anel. Neither calls attention to himself in his work, whether visual art or prose.

We don’t learn that Anel is a priest until the penultimate paragraph, when he recounts celebrating the first Mass in the newly reborn chapel. And Anel has discussed Scully’s “humility and objectivity” in keeping himself out of his art. Not totally, because any art has to come out of the artist’s soul and life experience.

For instance, a tragedy in Scully’s life (the death of his nineteen-year-old son in a car crash) appears in one of the chapel’s abstract paintings: blocks of black, grey, and white oils painted onto aluminum. “The placement of this painting in the chapel,” Anel writes, “transforms the tragedy into an offering, the failure into a prayer.” [Read more…]

Heisenberg and the A-Bomb: Just Say No

I read through the article breathlessly, astonished at the moral implications of what I was learning. When I got to the end, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to begin to take in the import of what I’d just read.

The article was “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb,” by Thomas Powers, in the December 22, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books. I’d been drawn to the article because, during the 1980s, I’d studied and written about the development of the atomic bomb in the U.S. during World War II and the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union which followed the war.

The U.S. wartime project to develop an atomic bomb, supported by Britain and Canada, was named the Manhattan Project. Its Scientific Director at New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory was physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The U.S. Army, intensely eager to create an atomic bomb before the Germans did, allocated immense resources of money and manpower to the project. [Read more…]