A Matter of Perspective

Spending time with my dog, Dante, brings me immense joy. In fact, I consider our time together – above all our walks – as sacred. Even though I live in Manhattan, I’m lucky enough to be in a neighborhood with plenty of trees and very few high-rise buildings. For our evening walk, sometimes Dante and I stroll through Highbridge Park and stop in the meadow to gaze up at the heavens. Unfortunately I don’t remember well my astronomy lessons from school, but I can always spot the constellation of Orion the Hunter in the sky. Sometimes, if I think about it hard and squint harder, I can pick out the stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Bellatrix, which form part of the constellation.

Not surprisingly, Dante and I aren’t the first creatures to contemplate Orion. There’s a 40,000-year-old ivory carving from Germany that depicts Orion, and long before Horace and Homer mention him, the Egyptians and Babylonians were talking about Orion. He even appears in the Bible three times.

During my eight years in Rome, I made over 180 visits to the Sistine Chapel and every single time I was mesmerized by the figure of Christ the Judge. It’s believed that Orion served as inspiration to Michelangelo for the figure of Christ above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel. Orion really got around!

Now, for just a moment think on Orion’s belt. From where we stand in the universe, these three stars – whose names I always forget – align in a nice, neat row. Notice I say, “from where we stand in the universe”. From other places in the universe, these stars align differently. In fact, there is a place in the universe where Orion’s imperfectly straight belt appears as a perfect equilateral triangle. If there are other intelligent, physical beings elsewhere in the universe, perhaps they gaze on these same stars and see an altogether different formation.

(It’s curious that to the ancients who followed the cult of Sol Invictus, Orion’s belt and shoulders were seen as the blade of Mithras and the bull’s horns from the depiction of the Tauroctony.)

The same reality is often perceived and experienced in vastly different ways by different beings, and that’s true of more than just stars. This is something for each of us to contemplate the next time we gaze on Orion the Hunter in the night sky.

~BT Waldbillig
March 24, 2016

Sub Specie Aeternitatis

Just after Christmas in 1999, I flew from Rome to Brussels. When I got off the plane I was met by a monk from Chevetogne Abbey (also known as the Monastery of the Holy Cross). The community was founded in 1925 by Dom Lambert Beauduin and moved to its current location about an hour outside of Brussels in 1938.

I had a couple of purposes in visiting this obscure monastic community in rural Belgium. At the time, it seemed likely that I would pursue a doctorate within a few years, and I thought Dom Beauduin, who was a respected thinker as well as founder of a very unusual monastery, would be the perfect subject. I had already come across some of his writings and was well on my way to becoming a devotee. As it turns out, I never did the doctorate.

But I was also at Chevetogne because in about six months time I was to be ordained deacon on the path to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. It’s considered a major step and consequently Church law imposes a formal retreat before undertaking such an ordination. So I made my retreat under the auspices and in the company of a group of serious and dedicated but joyful Belgian monks.

As I mentioned, the abbey is rather unusual, as it brings together two different groups of monks under the roof of one community. It’s a bi-ritual monastery, which means some of the monks follow the Western, Roman liturgy and some follow the Eastern, Greek liturgy.

My visit fell during the New Year period, which was inspiring fear that year as we were passing into the year 2000. While my father was back at home on-call in his office in case there were computer or technology problems, I was among the monks chanting in Latin and Greek their usual prayers. At 10 pm on December 31, 1999 we sang the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, then each of us went to his respective cell (bedroom) and went to sleep. There was no hoopla, no fireworks, no champagne. While the rest of Europe was either  hunkered down in fear or in the streets wildly partying, we went on with life as normal. That’s what monks do. If it were the end of the world, they would still keep their usual schedule.

Today as I awoke and saw news of the deaths and terror in Brussels, I thought of those monks. Naturally, they will mourn the dead and console the living, but as all of us are lost in fear, the monks will continue on with their normal schedule because their community, their lives, and their example exist, in part, to help the rest of us gain perspective that we altogether lack in moments such as this.

~BT Waldbillig
March 22, 2016

Beware Benevolence

I was moved by this incisive observation by my friend and former colleague Clifford W. Cobb (editor of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology) regarding foundations and philanthropy:

“Since so many progressive organizations are dependent on foundations for support, there is a tendency to think of those foundations as progressive. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that their aim is to provide just enough progressivity to keep things as they are–to buy off the dissent that might otherwise challenge the structures that have maintained inequality. Even the beloved progressive income tax was introduced originally (during the U.S. Civil War) for that reason–to provide a tiny offset to the dramatic increase in tariffs that cut deeply into the pockets of the poor by raising prices on necessities. Beware benevolence: it always comes with a price.”

The lessons of history and the writings of thinkers like Henry George are useful today more than ever.

~BT Waldbillig
March 17, 2016

Solidarity in Suffering

This morning on our walk across the High Bridge into the Bronx, Dante and I passed a man practicing martial arts-like exercises next to the nineteenth-century water tower that overlooks both the historic bridge and the majestic Harlem River. It’s quite common to see groups of people engaged in similar exercises on Manhattan’s Lower East Side but rare up here in Washington Heights (at least to my experience), so I couldn’t help but notice. Immediately my mind traveled back to a period of my life that I had largely forgotten: the two years or so in my childhood that I practiced the Korean martial art of Tae Kwon Do, which entailed exercises not unlike the ones I saw this morning. Along with the exercises, I had to memorize certain call-and-response sequences (which I’ve forgotten entirely) and also the numbers one through ten in Korean (which I still remember somehow).

A couple of years ago while visiting family in Dubuque, Iowa, my uncle recounted his experience during the Korean War. He served as a cook on a US Navy ship and consequently never engaged in direct fighting. He was thankful for this. Korea is a country of sophisticated, ancient culture that has seen more than its share of suffering. The “mighty” of the world have often assailed and oppressed the Korean people, and yet somehow Koreans have maintained their dignity.

Over the past two years Dante and I have spent a fair bit of time in Manhattan’s East Village, and as we’ve taken our walking meditations through Alphabet City, particularly Avenue D, a very important reality has come home to me. The residents of Avenue D are mostly African American and Caribbean American, and it has been Korean immigrants who have opened businesses like corner shops (bodegas) and laundromats. In recent years, Arab Americans have joined in. For the past 50 years, Korean Americans were often the only people willing to provide necessary services in Black neighborhoods in New York City. In a sense, they stood alone in solidarity with other people who have known more than their share of suffering.

Those of us who have known only comfort and privilege do well to remember this reality and perhaps even meditate on it.

~BT Waldbillig
March 16, 2016

Which America?

I’m not a political junkie like some of my friends but I do try to keep up on current affairs, and one way I do that is by watching The McLaughlin Group on Sunday mornings. Back in my church days I kept company with some pretty hard-core conservative types — the kind that made Ratzinger look like a liberal — and I had occasion to meet Pat Buchanan, who’s a regular on TMG. He’s charming, affable, super smart and, the reason I still listen to him on Sunday mornings, every once in a while he’ll put forward an opinion or position that no one else dares to mention. At times he comes off as someone’s crazy uncle, other times he seems like the only sane conservative in the room.

Lately he talks a lot about restoring “the America we grew up in”. The problem for me is that the America I grew up in had some serious problems. The America of my youth was the America of the farm crisis, where the Republican president and Democrat-controlled congress did almost nothing to prevent the avoidable suffering of tens of thousands of honest, hard-working families who dedicated their lives to caring for the land (the land of my native Iowa is literally some of the most fertile land on the face of the Earth) and feeding all of us.

I still remember riding the bus to school and seeing a 10-foot high sign in the shape of a tombstone announcing the death of the American family farm. Our country never recovered from the farm crisis. Instead we created inter-generational rural poverty and handed over food production to corporations with no commitment to local communities and no love for the land.

~BT Waldbillig
March 13, 2016