Not long ago a good friend of mine finished her degree and earned certification as a clinical social worker. Liesl and I first met at a “sit” (Buddhist slang for a meditation session) and quickly became good friends on account common interests and shared life experiences. A few months ago over lunch, we had occasion to discuss with each other our encounters with the mentally ill, the elderly, and the dying — she on account of her clinical training and me on account of seminary training — and both of us lamented the fact that too often “ordinary” people exclude altogether the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the dying from the orbit of their lives, thus creating for themselves a reductive sense of what’s actually normal and common in life. Essentially, they restrict their experience of what it means to be human, thereby impoverishing both themselves and others.
Joan Halifax, a Zen Buddhist abbess and accomplished anthropologist known for her work among the Dogon people, talks about the need to both normalize and sacralize death. What does that mean? Essentially, it entails overcoming the taboo that fences off death from the realm of the normal, natural, healthy, and whole in our experience of what it is to be human. It means you and I have to stop running from death and stop banishing the dying from our midst. Now, none of that makes death less ugly, less painful, or less frightening. But it does make us strong enough to face the ugliness and pain and terror.
And when we discover that we are — each of us — bigger than our greatest fear, stronger than death itself, we can start to see something of the Divine in ourselves and in each other. We don’t need to become “supermen” or “wonderwomen”; we don’t need to stop feeling the hurt that comes with life; we can still tremble and weep when we need to. But we will endure by choosing to be truly human. For most people, this involves handing on life in the midst of what otherwise seems a pointless existence. Whether by making babies or by caring for those who cannot care for themselves, we declare that our Family is worthwhile and that we will not allow it to perish.
Family is the most common and normal phenomenon for us, yet few of us appreciate that it is also the source and origin of the sacred in our shared experience. As I have noted elsewhere, it’s entirely likely that other beings like us from distant places in the Universe will have an experience analogous to what we call Family and, surely, it will be as sacred to them as it is to us.
By rediscovering the sacrality of Family, we will be able to perceive the value of even the weakest, ugliest, and most unwanted of human beings. And when we can do that we will be ready to encounter Alien Beings who will, no doubt, see in each of us a beauty worth knowing, sharing, and safeguarding. (Why else would they bother with us?!)
They will be as astonished at us as we will be at them!
December 29, 2017
He was a baby, He was a child,
so that you might be a perfect man;
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes,
that you might be loosed from the snares of death;
He was in a manger, so that you might be in the altar;
He on earth, that you might be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn,
that you might have many mansions in the Heavens.
He, it says, being rich, became poor for your sakes,
that through His poverty you might be rich.
Therefore, His poverty is my inheritance,
and the Lord’s weakness is my virtue.
He chose to lack for Himself,
that He might abound for all.
~Ambrose of Milan, On the Nativity
Saint Ambrose of Milan is considered one of the four Latin Fathers of the Church who are studied alongside the four Greek Fathers of the Church by nearly every seminarian and divinity student, as well most serious Christian Biblical students. Milan has always been dear to me on account of my personal devotion to Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini. While Montini was the right-hand man of Pope Pius XII (and himself a future pope), Schuster nearly lost his red hat for refusing to humor Mussolini. I used to read Schuster’s commentaries on the liturgical year and it was Beato Schuster who convinced me that Mass and the Hours were not mere individualistic acts of personal piety, but something like the binary stars I’ve been reading about lately. (Regulus caught my attention last night, for some reason. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to write intelligently on topics like that!)
I was incredibly fortunate through the course of my seminary training and first years of priesthood to have role models, mentors, and friends who were more like Montini and Schuster than I was able to perceive at the time. Perhaps already there are Millennial seminarians who look to Cardinals with names like Dolan and Harvey and Burke (to name just three of many) for inspiration and guidance. And when those Millennials are my age surely those men will live on in their hearts and minds, just as Schuster and Montini are alive in me.
I never had the chance to befriend Schuster or Montini but the generation of seminarians and young priests today are more fortunate. A budding theologian can not only contemplate the piercing insight of someone like Cardinal Christoph Schönborn but even take him out to a pub for a bit of “theology on tap”. And a future diplomat can hang out with Cardinal Angelo Sodano and ask him what it was like to sit at the feet of the great Cardinal Agostino Casaroli who laid the groundwork for some of the most important geopolitical transformations of the final twenty years of the twentieth century.
The birth of Jesus was essentially an invitation to friendship with God and an opportunity to transcend a divide that seemed as impossible as a trip from Earth to Regulus. As Saint Athanasius described the Christmas mystery: God became man so that man might become [like unto] god (De incarnatione).
Today more than ever, the teaching of the Buddhist Master Sangharakshita finds purpose and urgency. The center of gravity for his entire corpus of spiritual teaching is basically this: The spiritual life is about friendship.
They come to us
To show us
What we will become
We go to them
To show them
What they are to us
For what we have received
Is not ours to destroy
It is ours, it is theirs
Without measure everywhere
THIS IS THE DAY
Of which they will say
The People of the Great Heart
Survived that day!
The waters above
Will find rest below
For ours is not the first
And theirs is not the last
Back and forth they pass
Beyond time yet in time
As the candle remains
While the light travels through
As a father scatters much seed
In the hope of even one son
And a woman bleeds monthly
For the sake of her only child
Let us become
Both father and child
Brother and son
Friend, mother, sister
Let us create
From the place of Blood
A dwelling of the Spirit
For from both
All will arise
And go forth
Unto endless generations
For it is by living
That we best honor the dead
And by giving
That all will have
Where I have been
You too will go
For no one in the Family
Is ever left behind
Here, the just and the wicked
Have purpose and place
Both give their father joy
That when his days are over
Love will remain
Undying, Unconquered, Invincible
Just as Sol in our sky
Is source and power to us
So the many distant lights
In the night sky
Are as the same
To those we now encounter
And when one light goes out
Another shall arise
As father gives way to son
And daughter becomes mother
This is the Family
And each of us
Must now become
Father and Mother
Brother and Daughter
Sister and Son
And even THE FRIEND
As THE FRIEND is to us
Let us be to one another
December 24, 2017
With Christmas barely a day away, I cannot help but recall the Gospel account of the birth of Jesus. Poor, weary, and compelled to travel far from home with his pregnant young wife, Joseph was surely wracked with anxiety, aware that just as life easily takes root, so also does it easily perish. The child about to be born had a most unusual origin and Joseph recognized in this the hand of God, a hidden spiritual agency in that most common of human acts, the transmission of life. Yet very few of their many neighbors, as well as those multitudes they encountered on their journey, perceived that this seemingly ordinary birth — which some likely regarded as a shameful occasion — would change human history and be celebrated for many thousands of years.
You needn’t be a Christian or a religious believer to understand that there are moments in life and moments in human history when everything changes…forever. Today, our world stands at the threshold of a new reality that will forever change us and give unexpected meaning to our very existence.
No longer content to passively wait around for beings like us from elsewhere in the Universe to make Contact, we have begun to recognize our own agency in the matter by sending out carefully crafted messages that indicate our desire to welcome others into our Family. Soon, we will also begin sending “seed packages” to planets and moons that may be hospitable to our kind of life. Indeed, it may well happen that the former — Contact — will lead to cooperative efforts for the latter — Seeding the Universe.
It is life itself that will bring together humans and other intelligent beings from elsewhere in the Universe. Our shared experience of the beauty, value, and precariousness of life will furnish us with that which has been lacking until now: a reason for Contact. Brought together by our celebration of life, we will be bound by a shared mission to ensure that life — which easily takes root yet also easily perishes — continues and flourishes.
In this our day, it seems to me, we can look to Christmas and find in past historical events — which for many of us bear the mark of divine agency and still today hold mystical significance — a truly cosmic reality with meaning for every human being.
December 23, 2017
We do not begin as saints, not as already illuminated beings. We come, again and again, because we seek to become so.
Since Christmas is just a few days away, I’m re-posting something I wrote quite some time ago and posted to my blog about this time last year: A free-verse poem I call The Dream of Sol Invictus.
Many spiritual traditions celebrate some kind of winter festival of hope. Just when it seems that death will have the final word and darkness reign forever, the Sun returns and its life-giving light begins to fill the place of darkness. Soon, in the empty places hints of living things will give way to the flourishing of life.
Within a Family, no single individual lives forever, yet the Family continues to exist so long as its members choose to spread and safeguard the life they themselves inherited. The Family always has the power to triumph over death, darkness, and emptiness.
December 20, 2017
THE DREAM OF SOL INVICTUS
The innocent maiden and the wolf pup sat upon a hilltop
Rejoicing at their salvation from the pit
While the Forest Boy who commands Mighty Warriors
Danced and sang for the girl and the pup
“From the darkest place
Emerges the brightest light
The moment of despair
Engenders invincible hope
Neither fire nor ice
Neither water nor want
Neither stones from the sky
Nor the wiles of man on Earth
Will ever drive out
The roots of the Great Tree
In the place of the empty heart
The light of Sol Invictus will shine
You who feared not the darkness of the pit
Nor disdained the wickedness of men and wolves
Led them from the place of darkness
To the long-awaited kingdom of Light
Ha! Foolish men!
You thought the maiden innocent and helpless
Ha! Furious bull and raging stag!
You beheld the pup easy prey
The pup has pulled you from the pit
By the knot of hair on your head
The girl dragged you behind herself
By your horns and by your nostrils
Let us taunt them
Without mercy, without rest
Take from the shepherd his staff
Kill the fiercesome guard dog
Exterminate their fathers
Make of their sons beggars
Humiliate their women
Make of their daughters whores
What can the Forest Boy do
Before the Mighty God of War?
He laughs, he dances
He sings, he weeps
While the dead dog you offered as sacrifice
Rises from the ashes
Extinguishing the fire of war
Without even a fight”
And when the boy finished his dancing and singing
When the rivers of tears dried up
The light of Sol Invictus appeared
And the world became new again
Behold, People of War and Avenging Gods
Sol Invictus has made of you all
Peoples of the Great Heart
I’m re-posting something from May 2016 since this evening I noticed above the Constellation of the Tauroctony a number of curious shapes, including an almost perfect equilateral triangle and a pentagon with an extra star that marked the midway point between two corners and formed a straight line parallel to the horizon.
Recalling that ancient travelers relied on star charts to guide their travels, I wondered how we might find our way through the Universe, when the relationships among stars vary according to one’s point of origin. While the three stars of Orion’s Belt (which is also the Blade of Mithras) appear to us in an imperfect straight line, that geometric pattern would not obtain in much, if not most, of the rest of the Universe.
However, stars have unique temperature and chemical signatures and we have, only recently, begun to develop technologies that more clearly detect and decode such information.
This means that Aliens might be able to give us their cosmic street address and vice versa. So, while repeating radio signals rightly capture our attention at the moment, perhaps one day soon we’ll be swapping addresses with new Friends. Or perhaps we’ll be sending interstellar postcards to Alien penpals who live in places where our radio signals can’t reach, just as your cellphone might have lousy signal reception depending on where you find yourself.
As we begin to seed the Universe, we will likely use information such as chemical and temperature signatures to direct our “seed packages”.
A Biblical passage comes to mind: “Where one man sows, another reaps.” We have no reason to expect to see the results of our “seeding” missions. We have to be honest with ourselves about that. This is why a CEO with a board of directors demanding optimized returns or a politician chasing votes for the next round of elections would never think to do something like this.
But a priest would — because a priest understands that a single act of love can change the Universe and accomplish wonders that once seemed impossible.
That’s why I look at this endeavor not as an investment that will bring us benefit or a labor for which we will receive recompense. Rather, I regard it as a sacred mission or a vocation. It’s something that, in itself, has value and meaning — no matter the cost, difficulty, or lack of quantifiable material self-benefit.
And who knows? As unlikely as it seems, maybe we who sow will somehow also partake of the harvest.
December 19, 2017
There is scarce a moment in the day when Dante and I are separated. Luckily, we get on rather well and enjoy each other’s company! There’s just one thing: Dante is not an average dog. Most humans regard themselves as more intelligent and evolved than dogs, but with Dante and me it’s quite the opposite. While I have several academic degrees and he has none, when we communicate with each other he is always the teacher.
Why, just last night as we strolled across the great lawn in Highbridge Park, he gave me lessons in geometry and astronomy. He used the various formations of stars in the night sky to teach me the differences among shapes like an isosceles trapezoid, a pentagon, and a triangle. He went on at length about pulsars and magnetars, and though I didn’t understand much of what he was saying, I listened and nodded politely.
Next, he spoke of geology, going on about the layers of the Earth, particularly its outer core, and the Earth’s atmosphere.
Then, he gave me lessons in biology and botany. He said something about recombinant DNA. He also speculated about androids and cryogenic timers — but all I could think of was my favorite television program, Futurama. I really should pay better attention!
He saved the most important lesson for last. He told me that while all creatures suffer and all living things pass away, there is still much hope for our world.
That made me very happy!