To Walk as Lazarus Among the Living

Somewhere I wrote about the Lazarus Moment. You will recall the Gospel story of the friend of Jesus who died and was put to rest in a tomb. When Jesus beheld the unbearable burden of grief that the two sisters of Lazarus had to bear, he was moved by compassion to raise the dead man back to life. Naturally, we think of this as a blessing but I’m not so sure that’s how Lazarus experienced it. After all, there is a certain order and sense to life and there is a certain order and sense to death. But what is a man to do, what is he to say, where does he belong if the life he lives has no order or sense anymore?

Dying is easy. Living, that’s the hard part. Raised from the dead, Lazarus was forced to again trod the path that inexorably leads to sorrow, loss, and death. The blessing was also a curse. Or if not a curse, certainly  a burden.

And then there were the gawkers and miracle hounds, people of much religion and little faith who prefer circus sideshows to life as it really is. Surely Lazarus must have asked himself, “Why me? Why wasn’t the widow who left behind a brood of orphans restored to life? Or the warrior hero who offered himself in battle to protect family and homeland?  Must I now wander through life a saint and no longer just a man like other men?”

Perhaps in the evening when dinner was finished and his sisters had retired for the night, a wine-heavy Lazarus looked at his friend and saw how much he was loved. And when he asked his friend, “Why me? Why did you save me?”, surely Jesus replied, “Why NOT you?”

When I lived in Rome I had a close friend who lost both of his parents early in life. Neither of them lived beyond 40 years and my friend couldn’t imagine a life for himself beyond that young age. He’s close to 55 by now and life is no longer a burden or a curse. He learned to honor the dead by living fearlessly, savoring life, and working as though the world depends on him. Whether or not it actually does depend on him, the world is a better place because of my friend.

My own life hasn’t turned out at all as I once imagined. Letting go of boyhood dreams was more painful than I could bear at times and for a while life seemed to have no direction or purpose. Only now can I see how fortunate I was to have failed in my plans. Only now do I understand that my dreams were too small. Back then my plans, my dreams, my hopes — they weren’t really even mine. They were like a suit of clothes belonging to a dead man. But I am like Lazarus and must yet walk among the living.

“Why me?” has finally become “Why NOT me?”

~BT Waldbillig
June 30, 2017

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When at Last We Awaken

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

Somewhere I described my experience of God in terms of emptiness, darkness, and loneliness. The only God that made sense to me was the God who is nowhere to be found. Sometimes in the past I was angry to find myself all alone. Often I was sad that the burning zeal of my boyhood, for which I mistakenly believed that I had sacrificed much, seemed nothing more than a delusion.

But last night I beheld in a dream the endlessness of the dark place and boundlessness of the empty place. For the first time in my life, terror seized me. In that moment, I could not deny the hopelessness I felt and I could not outrun the consuming terror before me. I could not pretend that I was a titan or divine being, mighty and invincible.

And so I cried out to the Absent One, the God of the Endless Abyss:
Behold, I am a man! Let titans and divine beings triumph over suffering. I will fall beneath it. Let it crush me! The moment of hopelessness reveals to every man his true nature. May terror annihilate me, and death wipe my memory from the Earth! I will not submit, even as fear devours me.

When I woke, it was morning and I was not alone. The bright-shining Sun, unconquered from its nightly battle with darkness, looked down with kindness as Dante and I ate our breakfast and took our morning walk through Highbridge Park.

We live in a world that makes of dreams vain idols. But a dream cannot change the world, though a human being who wakes from dreaming can change the entire Universe. And when we wake from our dreams, all we need do is look to our left and to our right to understand: We’re not alone.

I am not alone. And neither are you.

~BT Waldbillig
June 28, 2017

Like a Dog Waiting at the Door

Et vidi caelum novum
Et terram novam

Everything in this world ends eventually, just like a beautiful dream that ends when it is time to rise up and venture into the world. Many centuries ago, at a time when one empire was passing away and another rising, Basilios Bessarion — monk, diplomat, bishop, scholar, and cardinal — became a homeless man. He left his beloved homeland and spent the rest of his days in exile bearing in his heart the sadness of a mother who has lost her only child.

But life didn’t end for the great Cardinal Bessarion. He honored the home and the people he left behind in Constantinople when he took up residence in a simple villa just outside Rome’s ancient  walls and began life anew. I used to pass by that villa and still today I think on the power of that man — of any human being — to begin life again and again and again … when there is good reason. Bessarion found his reason, just as you and I find ours today, in this very moment.

At the first light of dawn
The family awakens together
To celebrate the sacred feast
And welcome the ancient Friend

One day our world will disappear, but for now we’re here. And we’re not alone.

There’s a funny thing about human beings, a quality most of us are numb to, just as warriors returning from battle might be numb: Though small, insignificant creatures of dust and water, when we feel all alone, when we’re afraid or in despair we become cruel and violent, terrifying gods of death and destruction, the destroyers of worlds spoken of in an ancient book.

But when we dwell together as a family, we find power to transform ourselves into Friends. We become benevolent beings surrounded by more brothers and sisters than we thought possible. Our hearts, once empty and useless, are filled with more power than the Sun in the sky and the stars in the heavens. It is difficult for us to recognize who we are, just as ancient stories tell us that a god walking among men might forget his origin or at least betray no sign of it. But those who know us well — those who are Friends to us — have no reason to doubt our ability to awaken and come together. This has happened in the past and can happen even in our day.

We can sleepwalk through existence for thousands and thousands of years like dead men in forgotten tombs, but when the moment arrives for us to unite as a family we spring to life, just like a dog guarding the door to his master’s home.

Therefore, look to the dog:

This lowliest of beasts sits at the door of the family home doing nothing, seemingly useless, of no good or useful purpose, at times a burden. But when a visitor approaches in the quiet of night or without warning, the dog unfailingly performs his duty to rouse all in the house. Whether welcome or not, whether expected or not, the visitor never goes unannounced.

When the visitor is a beloved friend or a family member returning from some long journey, the dog offers welcome without hesitation. The dog has no need for words. He simply offers love and reassures everyone in the home that all is well. That the family is safe. That the time of rejoicing has at last returned.

And if the visitor is not welcome, if the guest is wicked or intent on harming the family, there is no more fiercesome foe prepared to sacrifice his body, ready to shed his blood for the sake of those he loves. Even if every last person in the house is paralyzed by fear, the dog doesn’t hesitate. The dog doesn’t doubt. In one moment he seems a pup but when provoked he becomes an unstoppable war dog able to tear though armies, charging on and fighting until the last bit of life leaves his body.

Today the dog barks, but he is no war dog on this day. He is already nuzzling the visitor, showering the guest with a thousand thousand kisses. Just like my own dog. Just like yours.

The dog knows that all is well.

~BT Waldbillig
June 27, 2017

DivusDante

From a Single Tree

There is an ancient saying:
A single sacred tree
Sanctifies the entire grove

Each of us is an unknowable mystery. Now, that’s not to say we can never know another human being at all or that we are always, only utter strangers to each other. Still, most of us have some experience in life that transforms us in ways we find impossible to communicate to anyone who stands outside the experience. Our words and emotions, instead of leading others to the meaning they point toward, become obstacles. We grow confused, frustrated, angry, sad, or turn mute. Naturally, artists, poets, composers, dancers, actors, athletes, priests, teachers, scientists, architects, and the like attempt to give us a taste of transcendent transformative experience, though they never completely succeed in their mission and consequently live haunted by that fact. No bit of computer code, no line from Virgil, no Byzantine icon, no Puccini aria can replace the awe of a directly experienced WOW! moment in real life.

What could it possibly mean for me to tell someone that when I look in the eyes of another creature, I see someone who can’t possibly be there and yet there is no doubt in my experience? Is this what ancients referred to as theophany? But I’m just an ordinary man — who am I to bear witness to theophany?

What did Moses experience? What did the Delphic Sybil see? What about the Virgin Mary and Muhammad? What experience compelled our ancestors to leave their hand prints in darkened cave vaults? We can appreciate the artifacts left to us, but by their very nature artifacts abstract and detach from direct experience. Today we outfit our mystics and shamans and astronauts with body cams, thinking ourselves sophisticated and empirical. Nonsense.

Nonetheless, flawed but useful artifacts have power to prepare us for direct experience. They remind us that knowledge of ourselves and the world is always partial and provisional. A meal can become something greater than just a meal. A brother can become another self. A vow can bring into being a new reality.  A tear can change the world.

When the question What if? becomes What next?
Know that the time of favor has arrived

Our world is so wondrous that even a mongrel dog can become more powerful than the Sun in the sky. An unfailing source of light and warmth for those who know only darkness. An inescapable center of gravity stronger than any star in the heavens. A source of burning love for those who feel empty, unlovable and unable to love. But if you had such an experience — mediated by a dog, for fuck’s sake! — how could you not doubt yourself? Or doubt your ability to lead others to believe in what you know? Would you even bother and try? How could you not try and share something of your experience, risking empty sentimentality or even ridicule?

And when we experience that sort of transcendent mystery in another human being, in someone who means more to us than the whole world? Maybe the only thing to do in that moment is just to love and get on with life. Or …. we could write book, compose an opera, paint a portrait, engage the body through dance, adorn the body with tattoo, build a temple, design a satellite, make a baby, make a film, give someone a reason to continue living, pray without ceasing, protect the honor of the vulnerable, feed someone who needs food, work to the bone for the sake of something meaningful, perform a difficult duty without complaint or hesitation, live the present moment as if it could be the end of the world and then continue living that way even when the world doesn’t end.

Qui signa invenimus
Sicut et signa offerimus

In a family there’s place and purpose to everyone. No one is useless or unwanted. When you and I join together, we become a family of sorts. A family not bound by blood or limited by flesh alone. In a family of spirit no one’s deficiency or limits or unworthiness matters. Alone we are, each of us, too small. But together … we are many brothers and sisters, innumerable sons and daughters capable of saving each other and saving the world and saving those who have yet to pass through this world.

It takes only one tree to make all this — and all of us — possible.

~BT Waldbillig
June 24, 2017

The Return of the Father

When the Maiden ceased her laughter
And the Wolf Pup settled at his feet
The Forest Boy held high his staff
And silence fell upon the meadow
Where the tall grass and yellow flowers
Keep watch with the Sparrows
To honor the tears that dropped from his cheek
As stars sometimes fall from the heavens
Only then could the Forest Boy
Lay down the staff and put aside his sadness
But faster than a mighty stag the Wolf Pup
Seized the staff and made his way
Along a hidden path
Through the meadow beyond the tall grass
To the place where no yellow flowers should grow
Though the Sparrows know better
The Wolf Pup looked to the heavens
In that time between dream and dawn
When Sol and Luna meet for but a moment
To look upon their creation
Then they began to appear
First one from under a fallen tree
Another from behind the barren rocks
Some seemed to rise from the earth itself
Or burst forth from the lake of crystal light
And as the last one came forth
The Wolf was no more a pup
But mother and protector of her every litter
Through the darkness and quiet of night
They gathered around her
And fed until each was sated
And warm beneath her body
Even as sleep took each one
And they left the place of awakening
For the land beyond all dreaming
Each knowing the perfect love of a mother
Love beyond all dreaming
One by one the stars appeared
Sentries protecting a sacred place
Beyond numbering, each more beautiful
Than the last
And when the Forest Boy opened his eyes
To the first light of dawn
He found himself alone
Gone was the Innocent Maiden
To whom stags and bulls bow
Gone was the Wolf Pup
In whose honor warriors knot their hair
So the Forest Boy looked to Sol on high
And he rejoiced
Then the Sparrows gathered to lead his way
Back through the meadow
Beyond the tall grass and yellow flowers
And when at last he arrived home
He was no more a boy
But a Father
Returning to many sons and daughters
Who gathered around him like so many pups
Eager to see their Father
Eager to see their Mother
They sat around the hearth
And silence fell upon the house
As he told them stories
More beautiful than any dream
Stories only a Mother can tell
But he had become the Father
Beyond fathers
Beyond mothers
He had become the Friend
The one who walks among us even today
And if you watch carefully
You will see him among the trees
Swiftly following the faithful Dog
Together stalking the mighty Stag
Together hunting the raging Bull
To offer as sacrifice
In the hidden place of light and water
Where the memory still abides
Though few know it
That place of empty lands
And undiscovered woods

Therefore, I say this to you:

Together let us journey to that place
For there is much to discover
The dwelling place where once
There was a boy and a pup like no other
The place where he rests
There they  offer sacrifice as to a god
There they refresh themselves in cool waters
There you, too, will travel one day
When you are no longer children
There you will offer sacrifice on behalf
Of your Father
There you will know
That you are loved
And so long as your love endures
That place will endure
Your Father, too, will endure
Just as his Master endures
Just as your children endure
And take refuge under a mighty tree
The sacred tree that arose from a shepherd boy’s staff
In a grove that offers refuge from all sorrow
Where children and pups and sparrows
Fish and insects and serpents
Even creatures of darkest night
Gather no longer in silence
They gather there
To sing wondrous songs
To tell stories more fantastical than fables
In that place where all discover
That they waited for no god or titan
For no father or mother or lost friend
They waited for each other
For they were always

The People of the Great Heart

~BT Waldbillig
June 19, 2017

 

 

 

We Are Here

The heart is sacred
Just as you and I are sacred

Two years ago at about this time of year I made my way to a weekly meditation class and paused beneath the cloudy New York City sky to marvel at the sight that appeared above me. In that moment it seemed as though I had never before seen a cloud in the sky, so strange were the shapes, depth, textures, colors, delicateness, layers, and vastness of the clouds. After class as I walked with my teacher to the subway station, I recounted to him my experience with the clouds, still amazed and troubled at the intensity of the experience. He listened in silence and then encouraged me to continue “seeing” the clouds for as long as I could, mindful that the experience was likely to fade. The confusion of the experience passed but the wonder remained with me, and to this day every time I step outside to walk my dog the first thing I do is look to the sky and then to Dante before we begin our journey together.

Just like the stray dog
Just like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face
Just like the sweet refuge of calm waters
Just like the branches of an ancient tree
Just like each and every breath

Wonders exist all around us, if only we could see them. The life we know as we pass through this world is greater than any dream or fable, and yet most of us are unable to see it that way until we have a child. Once a mother or a father looks into the eyes of their child, they behold the miracle of an entire family made present in that one beautiful, helpless being. In the eyes of that one insignificant being already destined to die one day, the mystery of every life that will ever exist anywhere is revealed. They find a family worth dying for — and more importantly, a family worth living for.

On the tree of every family, of every people
There are many branches
Some are foolish men, others wise women
Some are hopeful children, some cynical elders

If there are beings like us elsewhere in the Universe on planets or moons orbiting stars, it seems likely that they share our experience of family, even if their biology dictates forms of mating and reproduction that differ from ours. Life as we know it arises within a community, continues by means of community, grows by means of a community, and endures by means of a community. That’s the entire purpose of family. In certain circumstances we even look beyond our own flesh and blood to others and regard them as part of our family. If we encounter beings like us from some distant place in the Universe, they, too, might wish to become part of our family and we might wish to become part of theirs. And if for reasons of physics or biology we are never able to be directly and physically present to each other, by the very fact of communication and shared experience of the nature of life we still might call each other family.

There are farmers and beggars
There are peoples of the forest
There are peoples of the sea
There are peoples of hate and war
Some are deaf and blind
While others are oracles of an impossible future

Once we thought we were alone in the Universe. Today it seems unlikely that we’re alone. We have yet to understand what it means for us if there are other beings like us somewhere in the Universe. We will need a novus habitus mentis, a new way of thinking and relating, if we wish to befriend such beings. The task of developing a useful novus habitus mentis will take time, patience, and love — rare commodities for any of us individually but practically infinite when we come together for a great purpose.

The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever

There’s no reason our species should have survived on this planet, since the vast majority of species that ever existed on Earth are all extinct. Our survival was not inevitable and yet we are here. We ourselves are more amazing than dreams or fables, and if we ever encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, surely they will recognize that.

Even if we don’t.

~BT Waldbillig
June 15, 2017

Place (a poem by W.S. Merwin)

PLACE
By W.S. Merwin

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

https://www.merwinconservancy.org/2015/04/poem-of-the-week-place/

~BT Waldbillig
June 8, 2017