There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.
December 13, 2017
Therefore, look to the Tree:
Like a Titan, its body rises heavenward and stretches out its arms, providing rest and shade for the weary and a home to the birds of the sky.
The Tree creates the air that sustains man and beast.
It offers itself as a sacrifice, becoming home and ark.
It is the servant of the bringer of fire — fire that destroys, fire that sustains, fire that warms, fire that purifies.
How great is this Tree, like unto a god, stooping down to worship us who should worship it, silent and steadfast, wise beyond human understanding.
And how marvelous that we, who deserve so little, are the branches and shoots and leaves and blossoms of this noble Tree.
How noble are we also!
December 13, 2017
– – – – –
After the rain
There is silence
As on the first morning
Of that first spring day
When the world was fresh
And full of hope
We climbed from the pit
You and I laughing
You turned to me and smiled
The first smile of creation
So I chased you up the hill
Through the fields of yellow flowers
Beyond the tall grass
And into the forest
When I caught you at last
— You let me catch you! —
We sat on a rock by a tree
At the top of the world
And the first leaf fell
From the first tree of creation
So I held you in my arms
Like my child, my only child
I rocked you to sleep
Watching you dream your last dream
You closed your eyes for
The last time, the first time
You breathed your last breath
And your breath became the wind
I opened my eyes for the first time
For all time and the world awoke
I shed the first tear of creation
For you and it filled the world with water
Even today when the wind stirs the flowers
And shakes the leaves from the trees
You are remembered
You who seem a fable
The silent wind unnoticed
Moves even the mighty oceans
And bears men aloft like dreams
To new worlds and new hopes
So did you move my heart
Without even a single word
And now the silent ones
Remember you and call you back
Though I am gone
Never to see you again
You are father and mother
You are brother and friend
You are love and family
You found me and saved me
So long as there is light
So long as there is life
So long as the gentle breeze
Plucks leaves from the trees
So long as there are yellow flowers
And tall grass in the meadow
Until the last mountain disappears
Beneath the waters, my tears
This will be our temple
The sparrows our priests
Just like that first day
When you pulled me from the pit
When we danced and laughed
And thought the world would never end
December 13, 2017
Somewhere I wrote:
The tree is so common an aspect of our human experience that most of us cannot grasp its beauty, significance, or compassion. Perhaps only on a long journey in the desert or across the sea or through the infinite expanse of outer space – those places where the tree seems but fantasy – can our kind laugh with joy or weep in sorrow for something so ordinary as a tree.
The desert wanderer who inspired me was Muhammad the Prophet for, to my estimation, the heart and power of the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching is this: God is compassion and compassion is pleasing to God.
I cannot help but remember that Christians were responsible for the Shoah less than a century ago. Any Christian who hates Muslims simply because they’re Muslim is no different than those Lutheran and Catholic bishops (and “faithful”) in Nazi Germany who proudly offered the very same salute under which tens of millions of men, women, and even children across the world were defiled and slaughtered.
As a Christian I regard the Jewish people as older siblings and those of the Muslim faith as younger siblings — we are Family to one another.
And an older brother always sticks up for his kid brother!
December 11, 2017
And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
Somewhere I wrote about a dream I called The Vision of Green Light.
In this dream I found myself alone with Dante in my bedroom in the dead of night when all of a sudden I sat straight up as I became aware of the presence of beings not of this Earth. It was the end of the world and the Alien Beings wished to save me, taking me away from this world while everyone else perished. Truth be told, I wasn’t all that concerned with everyone else on this planet — I was concerned for my dog.
As the dog was not to be saved, I turned down the offer of the Alien Beings and refused to leave. I would not let the one person — a canine person is how I regard Dante — I loved more than my own life and even the life of the whole world meet his end afraid and alone. He would not do that to me!
In hindsight, it was clear that I understood without need for reflection that if the Alien Beings wished to take me to them, then I occupied a place of advantage (leverage) in the situation. I don’t regard myself as worth saving above anyone else on this planet, but in my dream I was chosen. Go figure. If the Alien Beings wished to save me, they would have to save the entire world! An utterly irresponsible gamble on my part, admittedly, but in the dream it worked.
But that was just a dream.
You and I don’t need dreams to teach us that love is real and that the world is worth saving. Some may call it blasphemy when I say this: Never in my entire life, not even in my most sincere and pious days, have I ever experienced love so intensely, with such purity, or as powerfully as I do when I look into the eyes of my dog and he communicates to me love by the means available to him — devotion, affection, and playfulness.
I recall once at seminary that in a spiritual conference given by visiting priest who was full of moral sureties and dogmatic opinions we were told that emotions had no part in the spiritual life. Christian love, he declared, is not some fickle and passing emotion but an act of the will, a choice in which there is no place for emotions. This darling of the shallow end of the American Catholic conservative movement was full of shit. But I could not understand this clearly and reject it fully until I was introduced to Buddhism, which has a highly articulated and well formulated psychology of the spiritual life that integrates things that, in Western Christianity, we have historically regarded as opposed: the body, the mind, and the emotions; personal experience and doctrinal teachings; the individual and the community; the authority of the leaders of the spiritual community and the wisdom of personal experience; the common mode of experiencing spiritual realities and the seemingly unintelligible path of mystics.
I have practiced meditation and studied dharma with a Buddhist sangha here in New York City since 2008, and were it not for my Buddhist teachers and friends, I would not be a Christian today. They saved my spiritual life and my Christian faith when life no longer made sense to me and it felt as though God was nowhere to be found.
Now, it is unseemly to complain about such matters, as many Christians have known darkness and a sense of spiritual abandonment across the millennia. (Jesus himself had this kind of experience during the suffering of the Passion. “Why have you forsaken me!” was probably followed by words one cannot even imagine issuing forth from the mouth of Christ.)
Generally, the advice of wise teachers who, while often knowing nothing personally and firsthand of this sort of experience, do their best to respect the experience of such men and women entrusted to their care is this: Don’t give up on yourself even when God gives no signs of His presence. Rather, when your experience seems completely different from those around you and even from what you believe it should be, do not retreat to secrecy but make sure that someone else — the wise are preferred to the holy — knows what you are doing and what you think might be the significance of your experience. In that way, you keep yourself within the community of the Church and protect yourself from the trap of self-delusion. Those whom you entrust with your experience will test it against what they judge to be helpful, useful, and beneficial, according to the traditional teaching and universal practice of the Church. They will also turn to historical records, whether public or secret, of those in the past who had similar experiences and were judged honorable by competent ecclesiastical authorities.
I should say one more thing: While I would not declare that I love my dog more than I love God, I have never experienced such intensity and clarity of emotional content toward God in my spiritual practice. Love is an emotion and a deliberate act of the will — not just one or the other, after all. To me, it is as if Dante communicates to me something of the love of God that, for whatever reason, I have never been able to experience in my emotional life. I imagine it is not unlike the kind of love that a father has for his only son, something like the way my dad feels for me. Or maybe something of the love God the Father has for His Son, a love so powerful that it brings into being the entire Universe by the power and in the person of the Holy Spirit.
It’s that kind of love that motivates us today to ensure the continuation of God’s generative, creative love manifested in the lives of beings like us by seeding the Universe. We already know that this one planet will not last forever — no planet does. Hundreds of millions of years from now this planet will no longer be a place where our kind can exist. It would be a sin against the Holy Spirit for our kind of life to end with this planet, when we have the means to save life and spread life throughout the Universe. If we do not choose this path now, then we merit eternal separation from God in Hell.
BUT there’s no need to believe traditional Christian doctrines or even to believe in God in order to understand that if we do nothing to ensure the continuation of life, well, then we’re just shitty fucking human beings.
December 11, 2017
CANTICLE OF THE TEMPLE GUARD
(vel USUQUE AD SANGUINIS EFFUSIONEM)
From the seed of one man
Many warriors are born
From the devotion of one warrior
A fearless legion is born
From the dedication of a legion
A mighty empire is born
Before the power of an empire
Entire worlds bow down
And when worlds bow down
Because of one man’s seed
An infinite number of benevolent beings
Come together as one Spiritual Family
From the mouth of the Sybil:
[Beyond human words!]
December 10, 2017
It is a source of great honor at my alma mater, the Pontifical North American College in Rome, that when Rome fell to Garibaldi in 1870 seminarians from the College saved the life, if not the worldly kingdom, of Pope Pius IX. Honorable young men who had been on opposite sides of the American Civil War just a few years earlier, some of whom may have met each other on the field of battle back home before meeting again on the ship that took them to Rome, refused to abandon Pio Nono to the revolutionary mob crying for blood and gold.
That’s how the North American College got the reputation it has today and why the seminarians have a particularly strong bond with every pope, from Pius IX to Pope Francis.
But it’s easy to forget that for every naive smalltown Midwestern boy who can’t hold his liquor, has never won a fistfight, and wouldn’t use a gun to save his own life — guys like me — there are others who have been to war and, therefore, understand matters of war from a place of personal experience. There are even some seminarians in the College in Rome who give up the future of a mansion to call home, gourmet meals cooked just for them every day, and an annual club-med vacation on a manicured beach somewhere, choosing instead military service as chaplain ministering to U.S. troops in places like Sadr City and Kabul, and every other place where there are Catholic (and non-Catholic) troops who need a priest who understands along with them what the Prophet Isaiah taught: Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.
When I was a seminarian in Rome, I spent my time doing what I thought would best prepare me for a future of serving the world through the Church — practicing and studying and praying the liturgy in as many forms as I could. Surely it seemed odd that while my brothers at the College spent time together after Sunday Mass, I rushed off to attend Mass in a different rite. Sometimes I attended Mass three times on Sunday, and evening Vespers twice!
Why? Not piety, though I tried and failed to be as pious as I thought I should be. Certainly not rebellion or protest, as there’s no need to spend the widow’s mite on such frivolity. (It’s not exactly cheap to spend four or more years in Rome!) Rather, I had an intuition already back then that the only way to arrive at the spiritual reality — the “mystery” in ancient theological terms — expressed by means of words, movements, symbols, sounds, and rituals (and that’s what liturgy is, the intersection of all those things) is to set aside exclusive attachment to one’s own fixed, habitual experience and enter into an alien expression of the very same reality.
The priests of the Dominican Order at the Angelicum made sure that I understood something of St. Thomas Aquinas’ epistemology: the words we use point to something beyond themselves, to realities that are beyond human words altogether. But we’re human and so we have to make the best of who we are and what we have and what we’re able to do. That was essentially my motivation in learning how ritual communication is able to ensure the transmission of profound and complex ideas while making use of common and even simple physical elements to evoke lived experience. (Something akin to “form” and “matter” in sacramental theology, and anamnesis in liturgical theology.)
I wish I had played baseball or soccer with my brothers back at the College. Shared a beer and cigar with a Brother to celebrate his approval for ordination and final trip home. Or sat on the edge of my chair with everyone else as one last Hail Mary pass decides an entire Superbowl. But I had to figure out whatever it was that only I could do, so while I was doing what I needed to do, everyone else was doing what they needed to do. Each of us discovering our part in the future of the Church and the world.
For the past three years, in preparation for an inevitable encounter with alien beings from far away places in the Universe (and maybe even not-so-far-away places), I’ve been writing about things that must have seemed odd, silly, or useless. Certainly they seemed that way to me at times. I often doubted myself and wondered if I was simply indulging my vanity. That’s why I took down my Tumblr site and my first blog site and came close to chucking desktop folders full of half-written, over-written, and barely-written reflections and dream accounts, most of which I’ve never publicly posted or even shared with another human being. Too many times I came close to destroying every single word I wrote across these years. Yet here I am even today, still writing. Still hoping.
So let me just put this out there: When the folks at SETI and METI (and the rest), discover repeating signals from deep space and do all the science-y things they have to do to make sure they’re not deluding themselves or the world, I’m pretty sure that beyond a shared means of communicating (language) and a common mode for expressing experience of natural phenomena (science and mathematics), we’ll find that things like culture and religion, mortality and Family, purpose and hope, will give us something to talk about with each other. When we find someone to talk to and figure out how to talk to them, we’ll have something worthwhile to talk about. And maybe even something to do together — like seed the Universe.
I’m not much use in a fistfight or a gunfight, but I’m willing to risk everything and even shed my own blood for the sake of life and family — not just here on Earth but across the Universe. Isaiah’s God is my God — and when I wanted to give up on myself and on my own life, it was the act of living and the love of Family that kept me going, that kept me alive.
Axios! Axios! Axios!
One of my own classmates from Rome — our rooms were right next to each other for most of our time at the College — is already a bishop. (Steve Lopes was one of the few true intellectuals in our class — we couldn’t have found a better guy to represent us.) A few of those who were upperclassmen when I was a freshman (a New Man, in College lingo) are bishops now, too.
One day soon, I imagine there will even be a cardinal among them, the first Gen X cardinal.
A Gen X cardinal — how absurd that sounds.
A Gen X cardinal — how beautiful that sounds!
December 8, 2017
Patronal Feast Day of the College
One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.
Two things are clear as we journey through the world:
Life is short and death is certain.
Despite this sure knowledge, most of us waste our years in distraction, delusion, and denial.
Behold the plucked flower wither and fade!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?
Behold the fallen leaf turn brittle and crumble to dust!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?
Behold a mother’s sorrow in the crushed sparrow’s egg!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?
The flower and leaf and sparrow each possess power enough to dispel the darkness of our delusion, if only we would allow them.
For most of us it takes something too painful to ignore: the unjust condemnation of a righteous person; the death of someone whose life we value more than our own; imprisonment in a mercilessly infirm mind or body; a life without purpose or meaning; a Universe void of intelligent, technological, biological civilizations.
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Sic transit gloria mundi!
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas!
Though all things pass away, one thing alone remains.
Qui potest capere capiat.
December 8, 2017
Though I come from a small, forgettable Midwestern town I had the good fortune to receive a top-notch education at the local state-run high school. In fact, my school was one of just a few (fewer than 10 or 12, I think) state schools in the entire U.S. that still offered Latin language study, which in Chariton, Iowa also entailed Roman mythology, civilization, politics, and military history. (We also had a toga party at the end of each year!)
My decidedly not elite or fancy high school years more than sufficiently prepared me for years of humanities, philosophy, theology, and liturgy. Studying Latin when I was young opened me to a cultural and intellectual patrimony that just a century ago most moderately well-educated people understood fully. Did you ever realize that in those 19th century one-room school houses (think Little House on the Prairie), young men and women learned Latin — and Attic Greek! — and it was entirely expected for them to compose metered poetry in those languages? That’s what education was in the Midwest, where nothing was taken for granted and privilege was rare and lean. That’s the kind of place I come from.
Learning Latin forced me to examine my experience of language and communication in ways I might not otherwise have done. So many things we take for granted and know without understanding. But with Latin I didn’t have that convenience. Structures, principles, relationships, purposes, and the necessarily culture-bound connotations that make sense unless you’re not part of the culture — these were the sorts of things I was able to start thinking about when I was just 15 years old. Later on in Rome, Reggie Foster did me the favor of insisting that I (and every other student) have always at hand at least three different English words to translate any given Latin word. Reggie knew all too well how lazy and complacent most seminarians can get and he wouldn’t have it! In fact, he would give any student a passing grade if they weren’t committed to learning but had to take the course, on the condition that he never see them again after the first day. I always sat in the very front row with rapt attention, much as Alexander must have done with Aristotle. When you’re in the presence of genius, you don’t waste a moment or a word or smile or joke. You savor them all. Did I mention that Reggie was also a Midwesterner?
A thought occurs to me. What if our language and alphabet and grammar for say, theoretical physics, isn’t actually as univocal and universal as we think? We are able to understand what we understand in the way we understand it in large part because of certain biological and physiological structures in our brains and in the relationship of our senses to our minds. Maybe science isn’t the universal language we’ve come to think it is. Or mathematics either.
But for now, we must content ourselves with whatever our best understandings are until we have something totally outside our place of experience to compare things with.
There’s an episode of Futurama (“The Duh-Vinci Code”) in which Professor Farnsworth ends up on the fabled Planet Vinci only to discover that while he’s a supergenius on Earth, he’s a dumb-dumb on Planet Vinci. There’s something worth contemplating in that Futurama scene.
Life is difficult for everyone. The Wall Street hotshot is suffering and the homeless prostitute is suffering and the White Supremacist is suffering and the Antifa protester is suffering. When I lament my lot in life, Dante tells me “It’s time to take a walk.”
And then I look at my neighbors in Washington Heights. I see in them the suffering like usual, but they make me stop and look at the rest of the story. They don’t mope around and weep like a child. They make love, they play basketball, they heckle the cops, they hang out with the cops, and they just get on with life.
As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Life is the story of suffering and of the overcoming of suffering.”
I always forget to be vigilant and watchful for the part that is yet to come. I suppose I’m as guilty as the next Christian for making the Cross seem like a miserable curse instead of a transformative blessing. No wonder people turn their noses up at religion. There are plenty of reasons not to believe in God and most of them are at the front of the church preaching every Sunday doing their best to make the Word a dead letter.
But the Word isn’t dead and we’re not done. Not me, not the cops at the 33rd, not the drug dealers and hookers and bodega guys and old ladies picking up aluminum cans. And not my dog, Dante, and my friends who drag me out to see a movie or to share a bottle of wine over dinner when I would just as well mope and weep and lament.
What kind of Christian am I? Not a very good one, but then most of us aren’t. And even the otherworldly Buddhists, it turns out, aren’t very good at being what they’re suppose to be. I don’t suppose that’s much consolation to Muslims, like my friend down at West 145th Street or like the kid behind the counter at the bodega who makes sure that I don’t overpay and that my egg and cheese on a roll is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
The Muslims I know — in truth they are few — are awesome, happy, positive, kind people. They always make me smile and laugh, as if they know that I won’t smile and laugh if left to myself. Joy. My Muslim friends keep joy in my life. Would that Christians and Buddhists valued such human, earthy, real things.
But naturally, they do! Like every Muslim and every Jew, each Christian and each Buddhist is not really good at being what they’re supposed to be. In effect, we’re all in the same absurd situation.
If it were to happen that one day there were no more Christians, that would be okay. But it would make me sad that no one else would find the love that the religion of my birth and ancestors helped me experience. It almost happened that my elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people, were annihilated and removed from the face of the Earth. Thank goodness that some of my Christian monastic brothers — those fearless Benedictine and Carthusian monks come to mind — refused to sit by and let it happen. They didn’t save many, let alone everyone, but even one person matters.
What kind of Christian would lead Jews to the slaughter, like cattle? What kind of Buddhist dares to become indignant before the world when someone simply points out the truth: Buddhists in Burma are complicit in genocide. Just as Christians not so long ago did the same to Jews. What the fuck do they think the Buddha would do if he were walking in their land today?
No need to worry about Christian sanctimony. My people are not innocent either.
What kind of HUMANS would we be if we just sat down and waited for everything to slowly come to an end? I’m not going to let the Apocalypse happen so long as I’m able to do something. I still believe that God meant what he said to Noah. It’s the same thing every father wants for his son — that he might go on living and making life and giving life for as long as possible.
It’s not just the story of us, you and me on this rocky planet in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a reason to live and to go on living.
And when there’s nothing worth living for, then you just have to make something the reason. Create a reason. Be a reason.
We live as though we will never die. But everything we love will pass away. It’s true for you. And it’s true for me.
But we will not let the story end. Let harbingers of the End Times get what they’re looking for. The rest of us have life to live and life to make.
I had a dream not long ago, that once in the Universe there were tens of millions of civilizations but no one did anything when one disappeared. Or when thousands vanished forever. And when it was almost too late, those few 16 remaining civilizations woke up to the beauty and preciousness and passing reality that everyone is in the end.
And they said: WE WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!
They found a reason. But that was just a dream. We don’t need to look to the stars to find a reason. We just need to look at each other.
I WILL NOT GIVE UP. I WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!
December 1, 2017