“The Duh-Vinci Code”

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.

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017

Fearless Dedication

Just up the road from our local parish church in Chariton, Iowa there was a food bank where every now and again my father and I would drop off a few grocery bags filled with canned foods. The notion that a single human being in my hometown should go without food for even a day was absurd. After all, the soil in my homestate of Iowa is the most fertile earth on this planet and when I was young the Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee was headquartered in Chariton, my hometown.

Both of my parents came from families of modest means. While my childhood was a carefree time of security and abundance, my parents grew up knowing how precarious life can be and, as a result, no one had to convince them that they should help people in difficulty. Neither of my parents ever lectured or exhorted me to be compassionate toward the poor, the hungry, the sick, the blind, the suffering, the outcast, the reject, the unwanted, the mentally ill, the dying, or the despised. They simply acted with kindness toward those in need of kindness — no words of explanation were needed. Those things that today I find in the teachings of the Buddha or Jesus, as a child I witnessed in the silent example of my own parents.

And so I find myself wondering why there isn’t outrage at the fact that US military families have to rely on food stamps and UK nurses have to depend on food banks. Why don’t we give a damn?

People like Basil of Caesarea and Dorothy Day — inspired by the radical path taught by the Buddha and Jesus — were disgusted by indifference toward the poor, but you and I barely even notice the poor. Though both Saint Basil and Dorothy Day are known for their fiery words, they taught most and best by lives fearlessly dedicated to compassion, love, and kindness. The world would be a better place if you and I followed their example.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 2017

Understanding Religion

Religion is a near-universal aspect of human experience. One cannot properly understand history, society, law, culture, or politics without familiarity with religion.

I’m not sure how common or uncommon it is, but I was lucky enough to have a comparative religions course at my high school back in Chariton, Iowa. I also took Latin in high school — once a decidedly uncommon option in US public schools, though luckily a new generation of students and teachers is reclaiming this bit of their cultural patrimony. World Religions was a thoroughly worthwhile and surprisingly useful class. Then there was Modern American Religious Movements at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls — another course that gave me insight into how people who are different from me think and live.

You may disagree with Daniel Dennett’s thesis (for video, click here) that religion is a merely natural — as opposed to supernatural, praeternatural, or divine — phenomenon, but in the secular, polycultural context of our society that’s the readiest common ground for believer and nonbeliever alike. Our current political climate shows that many people are content to be bubble-dwellers, people with no interest in understanding the world beyond their own noses. The same is true for much of mainstream American religion. The development of honest and compassionate understanding of others is beneficial for an individual as well as for society generally. Familiarity with the phenomenon of religion and with the world’s various religious and spiritual traditions is essential to that understanding.

~BT Waldbillig
February 1, 2017

Whether Seen or Unseen

Many of us spend a great deal of time obsessing, worrying, blaming, and feeling shame about the hindrances to our spiritual journey. We feel unworthy to engage transcendent sacred mysteries and incapable of experiencing positive transformation. (A discussion of the root causes of this phenomenon will have to wait for another day.)

We forget — much to our detriment — that there is something good and useful in every human experience, though it may not be easily or readily manifested. At the same time, let’s not put on the mask of false happiness and say that everything works out for the best or everything is a gift from God, or such nonsense. The mystery of providence is nothing so stupid. Still, from any circumstance can arise transformation and spiritual awakening.

When I was in high school, I chose as my confessor and spiritual advisor Father James Grubb, then stationed in Ottumwa, Iowa. As it happened, my high school literature teacher in Chariton, Iowa had been a student in a parochial school where Father Grubb was the religion teacher many years before. Mrs. Altenhofen was amused that I, too, had occasion to encounter Father Grubb, who in earlier days was strict, authoritarian, and rigid about the observance of rules, as he had become the Hippie Priest in the 1970s. (There’s no purpose in sharing the details of that story here; I’m sure the curious can Google it or Bing it.) By the time I encountered him, he had gone through a hellish personal spiritual crisis with his faith and confidence renewed. He’s the priest who handed on to me the traditional rituals that had been discarded by the Church. However, there’s one important thing that set him apart from other priests who had clung to the old ways: Father Grubb engaged the old rites with a new attitude; he wasn’t a nostalgic restorationist. He had understood Pope Paul VI’s call for a novus habitus mentis. My appreciation for ritual movement, chant as a form of mindful communication, and useful formality that’s expressive, not suffocating, began with Father Grubb.

The first time I asked him to hear my confession, we paused before the confessional box. On one side there was a sign that read: Seen. This meant there was no screen between penitent and confessor. On the other side: Unseen. In that part of the box there was an opaque screen to assure anonymity. When Father Grubb pointed out the center door behind which the priest sits, he said “Here the sign should read: Obscene.” We both laughed out loud, much to the dismay of the blue-haired church ladies reciting the rosary very, very slowly.

Of course, what he meant is that he couldn’t pretend to have been an unsullied lily of the valley (gack!) through the course of his life. He taught me to see sin and failing as development along the spiritual path. And never, never to worry about it, as the story of grace unfolds in our lives through both progress and failing, that God manifests goodness and love in ways we don’t understand.

You and I tend to forget that even those things we regard as hindrances and failings can transform us for the better. Naturally, I’m not saying there’s no use in pursuing virtue or spiritual ideals, but it has taken me most of my life to understand that when we close ourselves off to a fuller experience of the realities around us, when we try to kill off elements of our humanity, we accomplish no good thing and we set ourselves apart from our brothers and sisters who — whether we know it or not — are every bit as much as us on a spiritual journey.

Seen. Unseen. Obscene.

A throwaway comment that contained the most important bit of insight I would ever come across.

~BT Waldbillig
December 16, 2016

The Worlds to Come

The Forgotten Town
Is the Place of Favor

I come from a small, rural town in Southern Iowa. It’s the sort of place that once had a railway station, an opera house, a fine hotel, and a couple of good restaurants but got left behind as the world moved ahead. I was never embarrassed or ashamed to be from such a place; I simply didn’t think much of it. Fate required that journey forth and wander but lately I long for my hometown.

As we prepare to journey beyond our planet and its atmosphere, we need a new way of thinking, the novus habitus mentis Pope Paul VI called for. In the worlds of tomorrow, we will not need a single bank CEO or high-powered lawyer or cardinal in frilly garb.

However, we will need people who can grow food, repair vehicles, build buildings, take care of the sick and aged, clean up the messes that follow human beings, deliver babies, educate the young, and keep animals healthy. People who understand dirt and rocks and air and water and stars.

We will need people who care for the land, people who care for the mind, and people who care for the spirit.

We will need to laugh. We will need to sing. We will need to read. We will need to be comforted.

Those are precisely the things that people in small, forgotten towns like Chariton, Iowa know how to do.

The inconsequential people from forgotten small towns across the US are happy without 1,000 count Egyptian cotton sheets, $500 shoes, a Rolex or a Mercedes. They don’t need the best seat at the banquet, exclusive services, or a place at the front of the line.

People from towns like Chariton, Iowa are people of the future — and that gives me reason to be proud of the land of my birth.

~BT Waldbillig
May 19, 2016