Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor

Oniontown Pastoral #3: Hope Is an Old Tractor*

A few Mondays ago my friend’s son, forty-four, overdosed on heroin. The next day I took her stunned grief with me to the pastor’s study at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

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Farm art near Oniontown

My commute from Erie has four legs: I-79 South to US-19 South to District Road to Mercer Road. For seventy minutes gray trees and rolling fields heal me, but on this day my mind was on iffy roads and my friend. She and her husband had long anticipated the knock at the door and the crushing news. My wife and I used to have the same nightmares about our son, now thankfully clean.

As I thought about the numb terror of fresh loss, a line from Philippians visited me: “Your citizenship is in heaven.” Good sermon theme! I started to flesh it out. When political candidates carpet bomb each other, when explosive vests cut down the innocent, when El Nino and Zika lead the news, and when nasty heroin is as cheap as beer, then heavenly citizenship sounds, well, heavenly. My point, of course, wouldn’t be to reject this life, but to remember that we have a home over the horizon. Not particularly uplifting, but not all sermons can be sunbeams and dandelions.

I looked forward to getting to church and putting the ideas on paper. Alas, a snowy parking lot stood in my way. But since secretary Jodi’s truck was in its spot, I bravely punched the accelerator. Turns out my burnt-orange, bulbous Chevy HHR can’t compete with four-wheel drive.

“Man, am I stuck,” I reported to Jodi, who didn’t know when the plow guy would get to St. John’s. Might be evening. “We’ll get you out somehow,” she assured me.

I sulked at my desk. Wait-and-see isn’t my best mode. The sermon I pecked away at would sound whiny, I could tell.

Within half-an-hour Jodi said, “Do I hear a tractor?”

“I hear something,” I said. “Don’t know what.” Then out my window passed a bundled up man with a long beard pushing snow with an old tractor. The blade was behind the driver, a configuration I had never seen, but he was blazing me a trail.

“He lives over there,” Jodi pointed. He had seen my problem and arrived unbidden. Shoving snow this way and that, he kept at it, like a man subduing a wooly mammoth with a straight razor.

Watching him ride into and out of view, I came to love that tractor, pale red, faded by decades of sun and squalls. It must have been shiny once, but endurance gave it a different beauty. Hope, I think, is the color of my Samaritan’s tractor.

I finally understood why Jodi wasn’t concerned. And the sermon in process took on a glad color. “Our citizenship may be heavenly,” I now plan to say, “but God resides in Oniontown, too.” Then I’ll tell the folks about our neighbor and his tractor. And I’ll tell them about hope.

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*This essay first appeared a few weeks ago in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s, newspaper, the Record-Argus. 

Blogging, Awards, and the Longest Acceptance Speech Ever

I’m a slow one, I am, but I catch on eventually. When I started A Napper’s Companion almost a year ago, it was a selfish endeavor. Editors were taking forever to get back to me about book submissions, and when they did, the answer was “Nope.” My morning writing discipline, nourishing as it was, occasionally felt like solitary confinement. So I stuck my neck out there with a blog, wanting mostly to get my stuff under somebody’s nose rather than letting it rot in my laptop’s guts.

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All right, put your nose under those spectacles and read my stuff! (Credit: Radius Images / Corbis)

As the months have passed, I’ve received several nominations for blogging awards. The first time it happened I tried to track down the source of the award. Dagnabbit! Every road led to another blog. “Ah ha,” I thought, “this is a blogging gimmick.” So I settled on a policy: say thanks, be polite, but don’t engage.

But then something completely unexpected happened. Part one: it dawned on me that it was selfish to expect other bloggers to read my work if I didn’t read theirs. So I read and came to regard reading not only as an ongoing pleasure, but a responsibility. I don’t schedule blocks of time for keeping up with blogs I follow, but a couple times a week it happens: Coleman sits with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and has great fun with my friends. Yes, I said it: friends. That’s part two: I never ever expected to find such a wealth of cool, funny, thoughtful friends in the WordPress community. I don’t suppose we’ll ever actually meet; hell, I don’t remember where most of them live. A few of them don’t pay much attention to my blog, but that’s okay. We’re comrades and considering the likes and comments some receive, they could spend several hours a day just following their followers and commenting thoughtfully. Not possible. Love them anyway.

Anyway, I’m accepting an award nomination today. I’ve known for decades that “writing is a quiet game”—can’t seem to track down who said so originally. What I’ve learned lately is that the blogging landscape is lovely, but, damn, is it crowded. WordPress stats say, “Over 409 million people view more than 13.1 billion pages each month.” Holy crap! But in the midst of all these voices, I’ve come to really connect with a little choir. In between reading posts, I think about my blogging mates (Australian lilt required). I hope they’re doing okay, and for some walking in the valley of the shadow, pray they’re still among the quick.

Among bloggers, awards are a way of patting each other on the back and extending genuine appreciation. Do we hope to increase our traffic a smidgen? I suppose so. But I’m accepting a nomination from blog bud nap time thoughts (I’ll do the same for another from kerry’s winding road in a separate post) for a human reason. She’s saying thanks, and I’m responding, “You’re welcome. And thanks back atcha!” I’m spreading and feeling the love.

I’m accepting a nomination for “the Quintet of Radiance Award,” which is actually a bundle of five awards. What the hey, why not go for a bundle? “Most Influential Blogger Award,” “Awesome Blog Content Award,” “Inner Peace Award” (by which my friend must mean “the Chunky Neurotic Dude Award”), “Sunshine Award,” and “The Versatile Blogger Award.”

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My only obligation is to describe myself using the alphabet, but because I’m a sunshiny little pain in the arse, I’m going to use the letters to describe things I like. This may at times read like a shopping list:

A: Abiding Hope family (the church I serve as pastor), avocado, asparagus, artichoke hearts, anything Alfredo, art, America’s Test Kitchen, atheists and agnostics (see last item in this series), and agape (Greek for God’s unconditional love)

B: basil, books, blogging, cat Baby Crash, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, the Buddha, Big Band, David Brooks (best right-of-center columnist), and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”

C: (so-cute-you-just-want-to-poop-your-trousers-along-with-my-grandson) Cole, curry, cardamom, cilantro, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, Chipotle Mexican Restaurant, Julia Child, contemplation, and compassion

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Grandson Cole. Admit it, you kind of want to poop, right?

D: Desitin (should I join grandson in pooping), E. J. Dionne (best left-of-center columnist), dill weed, delete, dude, and dang

E: (wonder-daughter) Elena, eggplant (dredge in egg and flour, fry in grease, delete nutritional value), El Canelo Mexican Restaurant, and eros (Ew! This from a pastor? You bet. Gift from God!)

F: feta cheese, friends, Food ala Floyd, and fubsy (which means “short and somewhat squat”)

G: gravy (any denomination, salty and fatty, bitte), guacamole, Greek olives, and gentleness

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Straw, please. (Credit: Koji Hanabuchi / Corbis)

H: the Harvard comma and Phil Harris

I: India pale ale and irregardless (which isn’t actually a word; it’s just regardless)

J: Jesus, Joe’s Cheese House (Marinette, Wisconsin; cheddar aged 16.5 years; eat or use to remove warts), and jogging (ten years ago I’d have said “running”; oh well)

K: Kathy (wifely; good Lord, how has she tolerated me for 33 years?), (“I’ve Got a Gal from) Kalamazoo, and Graham Kerr

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Kathy, who could make any letter illustrious, with Watson.

L: lime, Louis CK (one is bright and refreshing, the other vulgar and hilarious), lasagna, Lutheranism, and love

M: Micah and Matt (son and son-in-law; proud as hell), meditation, monasteries, and music

N: nasty (a word I use for fart, as in “Oh, my dear chap, did you just emit a nasty?”; the actual item I can live without—really), “Nessun Dorma” (see T.), and napping

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Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling. Sang a mean “Nessun Dorma.” Died of drink too young. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

O: oregano, olive oil, the Oxford comma, and Mary Oliver

P: pesto, pinot noir, pizza, the Palmer (walk and wiggle your hips like one of those girls in Robert Palmer music videos), Louis Prima, Jacques Pepin, poetry, prayer, and peace

Q: query (wrote a ton of those dang letters)

R: Ricardo’s Restaurant (best filet mignon in Erie, Pennsylvania), roasted red peppers, Leon Redbone, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

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Leon Redbone (Credit: Wikipedia)

S: Siestas, sleep, shalom, shamatha, cat Shadow, Starbucks, Star Trek (original television show), Star Wars, sour cream, salmon, the serial comma, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan

T: operatic tenors (opera not so much, just take me to the mountain top) and tomatoes

U: uvula (just a fun word for the phlegmy stalactite hanging from the back of your throat)

V: Victory Chimes (a schooner in Maine) and singing along with Viagra commercials (“Viva, viva, Viagraaaaa!)

W: dog Watson, white pepper, E. B. White, weenus (slang term for your loose elbow skin), wine, The Writer’s Almanac,  and writing

X: X-rays (thank God; they eliminate exploratory drilling)

Y: yield signs (permission for rolling stop granted)

and

Z: Zen, Zoloft, and Brother John Zuber and his fellow monks at Gethsemani.

Okay, that was genuinely fun, but it’s time to move on. (I just know I’m leaving something really important out.)

I’m also supposed to nominate other bloggers for the “Quintet of Radiance Award.” I follow lots of blogs and am nominating only those I think might welcome such a nod. If I’m wrong, please forgive. Here goes, friends:

a little elbow room

always backroads

deep in the heart of textiles

Rosemary’s blog

Rob Fysh’s blog

nap a day

wading blue heron

coffee talk with Erin

Rosie smrtie pants

one thousand two

plan B-each

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Even if you don’t accept nominations, I raise my red blend to you.