Wrathful Warriors and Compassionate Companions

I must have been 22 or 23 when I mentioned to my mother that I was curious to learn something about Mandarin and so I had bought an introductory book and cassette tape. I didn’t presume that I could study the language in a serious way on my own but I thought I might at least begin to get an idea around the structures, inflections, and the like that make the language so utterly alien to the languages I had already studied in school and seminary. My mother exclaimed in response, “Red China! Why on Earth would you want to learn their language?”

What a difference a generation can make. My parents’ generation was conditioned to perceive and relate to the world in a way that seemed to me even in my youth as closed, fearful, and insecure. Naturally, like the better elements of the Boomer Generation, my parents no longer uncritically accept the social narratives forced upon them like a brittle, lifeless catechism that inspires only fear of Hell and not love of God and fellow man.

While I have yet to undertake a serious study of Mandarin, it strikes me that my own beloved homeland, the United States, and that most ancient of lands, China, find themselves in extraordinarily similar crises today. Both are being crushed under the weight of a generation’s failure to live up to the lofty ideals and impossible expectations of their respective founders.

I remember well from my time at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome the refrain of Professor Renato De Zan, who taught liturgical textual criticism: “When we speak of the development of liturgical texts, there is always continuity and discontinuity.” While most of my friends didn’t care for Fr. De Zan’s course, I thought it was the single most important and valuable class at what is considered the finest liturgical studies graduate program in the world.

Continuity and discontinuity.

Fr. De Zan was referring to the creation, evolution, mutation, and deliberate development of the ritual texts that frame the spiritual lives of hundreds of millions of Christians, myself included. While even devout believers pay little attention to the words of the liturgy, every word — at least in the Latin editio typica — is chosen and used with intention and possesses a literary-spiritual potency that theologians call sacramentality, which is to say that the words aren’t just words. They’re transformative actions. The deliberate, ritual speaking (or chanting) of the words brings into existence and makes present that reality the words point toward.

It’s the sort of thing that those powerful world leaders who drone on bombastically at the UN General Assembly hall and the devoted, over-achieving diplomats who labor without recognition at Foggy Bottom could learn from. Perhaps more than they can even imagine.

Continuity and discontinuity.

My Latin professor in Rome, the famous (or infamous!) Fr. Reginald Foster, used to declare that when he looked at his surroundings at the Apostolic Palace where he worked his day job as chief Latinist to the Pope — teaching Latin courses to barely above-average students like me was something he did on his own time — he was quite sure that Our Blessed Lord and St. Peter wouldn’t recognize the finely dressed, fat prelates who supposedly act in God’s name here on Earth. Reggie, as most of us affectionately called him, said things like this, in part, to annoy the many clerical climbers who desperately hoped to one day be finely dressed, fat prelates with power to lord over others. But Reggie had a point, and even as someone who was part of the ecclesiastical “machine” I whole-heartedly agreed with him in my youth and still do today.

There are many young people — tens of millions, actually — in the US and China who think on the revolutionary principles of those radical political actors who founded their respective nations and feel disappointed, if not disgusted, at the ensconced generation of political and economic leaders. Some of them are truly lousy human beings, but most are simply mediocre. They would have been out of place in revolutionary days. Surely they would have kept their distance from those radical men and women who risked everything for the sake of dreams that could change the world and give birth to peoples of great vision and even greater hearts.

Someone once said to me, “It’s easier to save the world than to fix the world.” When I look to the older generation of our world’s political and spiritual leaders, I’m not so much disappointed as sad. Truth be told, they weren’t up to the challenges of the age, though many tried and continue to do what they can in the hope of at least ensuring there’s a world to pass on to their children’s children.

It’s these young people, the generations following my own, that I once saw in a dream. They were not tepid, weak, shallow, and fearful — as the more self-important of their elders too often and too insistently declare. Instead, they appeared to me as a mighty horde of fearless warriors, as terrible in their wrath toward the enemy as they were beautiful in their compassion for one another. In the dream I was all alone in an empty place of endless night, but in the final moment when it seemed that despair would crush my bones and annihilate my spirit, they appeared: an endless stream of warriors who were to me both Friends and Family. And that was just the beginning of the dream.

Naturally, dreams are just dreams. Still, when Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, I see those warriors. I see them in my nieces and nephew back in the Midwest. I saw them in the undergrads at The New School when I was working on my master’s degree just a few years ago. They’re at the skate park, behind the counter at McDonald’s, and lingering at the basketball courts in Highbridge Park. They’re everywhere. And this world is just as important to them as it is to me.

Continuity and discontinuity.

Not “continuity or discontinuity”, as many of those who are soon to exit the places of power mistakenly thought in the folly of a reactionary youth.

All this makes me think on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares from the Gospel. You’ll remember that both the enemies and the servants of the Righteous Farmer thought that if the crop in the field was not pristine, it must be ruined. But the Righteous Farmer knew that there was another way. How surprised both the enemies of the Farmer as well as his servants were at harvest when the reapers did the impossible. They saved the crop and the farm and the Farmer’s entire family.

I’m not a betting man, but if I were I’d bet that the future yet to appear in this world will be even more wondrous than any marvels beheld in a dream.

[Regarding dreams: I’ve found that the meaning I extract from my dreams changes and evolves, especially in the case of recurring dreams. Sometimes the benefit of experience or reflection sheds light on aspects that were obscured previously. His dictis, dreams are just dreams. They are entirely and only what we make of them.]

~BT Waldbillig
September 24, 2017

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The Madness of the World

Since I spend a good deal of time outdoors with my dog, I created a music playlist so I’d have something to listen to while Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx. Each song possesses something of spiritual value to me: it might be a title, some particular lyric, the refrain, an idea, a feeling, a harmonization, or the specific beat. Now, there’s scarcely a song that would qualify as “religious” in a conventional sense, yet the songs all express something of the experience of the human beings who created them and, therefore, each song has some spiritual content that renders it beautiful.

I’m not talking about aesthetics in a superficial sense — not that there’s anything wrong with aesthetics. Rather, it seems to me that, had we eyes to see and ears to hear, we would find meaning and value everywhere, not just in grand cathedrals or carefully groomed public gardens or the hushed hallways of museums. We’d also find something of the transcendent (the divine!) in every person — and that includes the junkie, the prostitute, the convict, the mobster, the murderer, the unwanted child, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the immigrant, the old person, the ugly person … and even ourselves.

As I wrote somewhere: The human heart is so powerful that it gives us the ability to forgive the unforgivable and to love the unlovable.

If only our hearts were bigger! Then you and I could accomplish anything. We could save the world and transform the Universe if we wanted to.

Buddhists sometimes refer to human delusion and the madness of the world, while Christians speak of original sin and the fallen state of creation. In essence, both traditions recognize that the world is fucked up and so are we. There’s just something about the way we live and the way we relate to the world, to each other, and to ourselves that isn’t what it should be. We all experience this but usually we prefer to distract ourselves rather than dwell in the discomfort. We pretend that cheeriness is happiness. We avoid tears at all cost. We live as though we will never die.

But we know it doesn’t have to be that way. In this very moment we can choose to live differently. We can make this world a little less fucked up if we want to.

~BT Waldbillig
July 19, 2017

The Red Bicycle

I must have been six or seven years old when my father bought me a bicycle and taught me how to ride it. Despite my expectations and my mother’s pleas, he refused to allow me training wheels, those additional, temporary small wheels that provide balance and stability. Instead, I tumbled over and fell down quite a bit at first. Only today, mid-way through life’s journey, do I understand how fortunate I was that my father had the vision and wisdom to allow me to learn well through difficulty.  Thanks to him and thanks to that red bicycle, to this day I carry within me a wellspring of strength and confidence for difficult moments. I still tumble and fall down at times, but I always rise up again and continue my journey.

It took only a couple of weeks to perfect the skill (riding) and master the tool (the bike), but it felt like ages until I could claim calm control of that extra-small red bicycle, specially ordered by my father for his very short son. (I’m still shorter than my dad!) Once I took my place on the bicycle and set forth on whatever my journey might be, I was fearless — to my parents’ dismay sometimes. But in that small Midwestern town, I was never afraid and never in danger. That place where neighbor looks out for neighbor — where neighbor loves neighbor — stayed in my heart across the years as I made my way through the world.

These days, Dante and I wander the world with that same spirit of purpose in our journey and with abiding love for those we encounter in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx. And I still think fondly on that extra-small red bike my father taught me to ride with confidence all those years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
April 12, 2017

The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of Family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017

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

The Wisdom of Avenue D

A few evenings ago, Dante and I were in Manhattan’s East Village to share a pizza with a good friend, and after our meal the dog and I took a stroll down Avenue D.

Now, once upon a time that might not have been a wise choice since that end of Alphabet City was regarded as especially dangerous. My friend, a native New Yorker, shared with me a saying he learned as a youngster:

If you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous.
If you go to Avenue B, you’re bold.
If you go to Avenue C, you’re courageous.
But if you go to Avenue D, you’re dead.

These days the situation is not nearly so dramatic, though many people still avoid the area altogether. It’s true Avenue D can be sketchy, particularly at night, and there’s likely a certain degree of local gang activity, but I’ve never felt threatened despite the odd looks I sometimes receive. Dante and I will continue to visit Avenue D whenever occasion arises for a simple reason: it is a holy place, consecrated by the hope and kindness that endure in the midst of poverty, violence, marginalization, and suffering.

Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate that fact, thanks to a number of ordinary events that touched me in a meaningful way: the reading of a meditation on impermanence by the Japanese spiritual teacher Dogen; the particular beauty of the moon and stars in the night sky on several occasions; the unexpected passing by of an asteroid on the birthday of my late grandmother; the grace to perceive simple things, like clouds and trees and birds, with fresh sight. I have shared these things with Dante, who has in turn imparted his own wisdom during our walking meditations down Avenue D, and at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, and along the High Bridge into the Bronx.

The night sky, a compassionate tree, a loved one’s birthday, the friendship of a dog – these simple things contain all the wisdom one could ever need.

~BT Waldbillig
February 4, 2016