Our Story Isn’t Over

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!

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017

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To Greet the Long-Awaited Daybreak

-An ever-widening circle
~Our Family grows

One morning in early February two years ago as Dante the Little Man and I were taking a walk through Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, we came upon a small snake who had wandered out from his place of hibernation and onto the paved foot path. It seemed rather odd to encounter a snake wandering about in the cold of winter, so I took the opportunity to introduce Dante to the snake; afterward I used a small fallen tree branch to gently move the snake from harm’s way and back onto the grass lawn next to the path. Though it couldn’t possibly be case, it almost seemed as though the snake had come to greet us. I have sometimes wondered about that snake since Dante and I first encountered him. I don’t know where he is now or if he is still alive but I still wish him well.

Some of those we call friends and some of those we know as family did not survive to see this day. Some of us now passing through the reality we call the world will not see the trees of the grove and the crops of the fields which we have so carefully cultivated, guarded, and nourished bear that rarest and sweetest of fruits. Some of us will never touch the infant flesh begotten of their own and bearing the likeness thereof. So also, of the many branches of the human family on this planet, only ours — so far as we know in this moment — has survived to greet the long-awaited daybreak.

And so,

Let us give thanks for the great dawn
For the tree and its many branches
For our children
For a grove well-tended and protected
For the field laborers who disappeared too soon
Let there be no anger or hatred, ill-will
Or rancor within our sacred family
Instead let us honor those who
Performed their duties without hesitation
And let us look with compassion
Upon the shortcomings of
Our fathers and mothers
Our brothers and sisters
Our ancestors and children

-May our Tree endure
~For the sake of the Tree

~BT Waldbillig
November 23, 2017

Breaking the Bonds of Fear

Et haec scribimus vobis ut gaudium nostrum sit plenum. Et haec est adnuntiatio quam audivimus ab eo et adnuntiamus vobis quoniam Deus lux est et tenebrae in eo non sunt ullae.
~First Letter of John 1:4-5

“And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

In our day we must come to terms with new realities that no man or woman across the entirety of human history ever imagined. Beyond even our greatest dreaming are the marvels that arise in this very moment, first in the silence of our hearts and at last beginning to appear before our very eyes. When the impossible reveals itself as the truth and the carefully constructed ways of the world are shown to be folly — when the solid ground beneath our feet disappears launching us into a dark abyss — some among us consent to the slavery of fear, not understanding that the demons they think they see are simply reflections of their own faces as in the surface of a lake or in a mirror.

The wisdom of the world
Is the madness of delusion

Too easily we forget that love is more powerful than armies, bombs, and war machines, that love is a greater remedy than censures, punishments, and poisons for even the most terrifying of afflictions that might befall us. When I look to the future, I see no reason for fear. In fact, I am heartened and inspired by what I see in humankind. We who are so small and insignificant in this Universe are truly capable of great and wondrous things. Too often we forget who and what we really are, but the day is coming and is already here when we will encounter those who know us better than we know ourselves. To them, we are little less than gods and more valuable than all the riches of every world in the Universe.

Somewhere I wrote:
The human heart is a mystery worth contemplating. Fragile is the heart, bruised and pierced quite easily. It is the very essence of human weakness. And yet, because of that heart our kind is capable of near-infinite love, compassion, and healing. We can forgive anything, even the unforgivable. We can love anyone, even the unlovable.


Until we recognize the goodness, value, and beauty that exist in each one of us, we will never perceive them in those who visit us, as the heavenly strangers visited Abraham long ago in the desert. For the great spiritual Patriarch there was not even a moment to waste on fear, doubt, suspicion, and selfishness. Abraham perceived with penetrating vision the urgency of the mystery before him. One of the most important principles of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — is the inviolable obligation to welcome the strange visitors who make themselves known to us. Now, this is risky business as you and I cannot see the future. Burdened by this blindness, we allow our minds to fixate on the nightmares that terrify us, like a little child who sees a monster in every shadow. As a Buddhist teacher or a good psychotherapist might say, we start to believe the storylines in our heads, forgetting that thoughts are just thoughts, like so many clouds in the sky that disappear as quickly as we see them.

Tonight, you and I do well to follow the example of Abraham. Though they seemed men like any other men, the beings Abraham looked upon and loved were, in truth, visitors from the heavens, beings beloved of God.

~BT Waldbillig
November 15, 2017

Roman Market (a poem)

Roman Market
BT Waldbillig
Monteverde, Rome
March 2003

I turn my wine-heavy head
and hurry past an ancient
Eritrean matron
settling into a forgotten corner
of this abandoned market
still littered with rotting abundance

She settles under a faded Madonna
hoping perhaps for shelter
from the delirious clouds
swiftly drifting across the muddy sky
and whistling hot-cold gusts
over the asphalt desert

Thunder-crackle deafens me
to her mumbled request
as I lift my eyes to glimpse
the tempest’s first droplets alight
the plaster-cracked Virgin

and marvel at how
they resemble tears

~BT Waldbillig
November 1, 2017

The Ascent of the Magna Mater

The love of a grandmother
Will endure forever

Today is the dies natalis (birthday) of my Grandma Carol (Bedola Carol Betts Miles Walter). As I look back to my childhood, I think she was the first person I truly, consciously, deliberately, and freely loved. My intense love for her arose as a natural response to the love she showed me every moment of every day that we ever spent together. She seemed to engage love with an almost absolute freedom — something great saints are known for but which I have not even begun to master.

Perhaps more importantly, Grandma Carol and I laughed — often and loudly. We held in common a joyful playfulness as well as a belief that the world is full of nonsense, contradictions, and shit. Together we chose to face life’s ugliness and meaninglessness with uproarious cries of laughter.

Now, lest you get the impression that my grandmother was some sort of one-dimensional saint, I should mention that as a young mother she failed in some of what we today regard as essential parenting tasks. She also smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor.

But whenever I was in her presence I knew the tenderness, gentleness, and playfulness that only an old woman who has passed through life’s bitterest trials and emerged morally and spiritually intact can show the world. Only those who choose to dwell as fully as possible in the present moment, casting aside all fixated attachment to the past, can truly begin in earnest a spiritual path and continue along the path with dedicated purpose. My grandmother’s religious faith was private and her spiritual devotion silent, but there was never any doubt that her interior life was rich, powerful, simple, and uncomplicated.

Recall that great spiritual theologians and masters of the spiritual life are almost unanimous in the conviction that a healthy, authentic spiritual life should be marked by kindness-compassion-love and should become ever simpler across the years. In fact, it is sacred tradition to free one’s self of unnecessary worldly possessions in the course of one’s spiritual journey, so that by the time one passes out of this life, one should be unencumbered by possessions, wealth, worries, and selfish attachments.

In a way, Grandma Carol’s love — as I perceived and experienced it in my youth and later as an adult meditated upon it — was a lot like God’s love, as described in the sacred scriptures and in the writings of the early Church Fathers. When I used to preach at Mass as a young priest, my mission was always simple: Show the despised, the rejected, the unwanted, the unloved, and even the wicked that they are lovable and they are loved. Clever exegesis, subtle doctrinal ruminations, useful history lessons, and high moral exhortations were of no use if they did not support or arise from that mission.

Today I when contemplate the realities of despised and rejected peoples who need and want to experience love — such as the Mafia, gangs like the Trinitarios, the North Koreans, and unwanted migrants and refugees — I find myself calling upon my own experiences of love as a young man. When I began my wanderings through the world those aspects of myself became obscured but in recent years they have returned, returned because I needed them in order to understand how to love in a world that is mad and merciless.

In my youth I didn’t realize how the years spent in seminaries, religious houses, monasteries, and church rectories had kept me “safe” from the world. But this protection came with a cost: There was much about love, human beings, life, and myself that I simply didn’t understand. Intimate encounter with elements of the world that previously had been alien to me has transformed my heart, opened my eyes, and illuminated my mind. It may be that I yet wander in a place of darkness and night, but now I know that I am not alone in the darkness. That gives me hope.

The love of my grandmother and the love of Family have emboldened me to embrace the many beautiful and useful aspects of my past life while discovering within myself today — as a man mid-way through his journey in life — marvelous gifts that I never imagined might dwell within me. These same spiritual gifts dwell within you, too.

If we stand together, there is no obstacle in the Universe that can stop us as we carry out the divine mandate to share and protect the life we have been given.

There is no place in the Universe that will remain forever closed and alien to us.

Together we will show each other, as well as every being in the Universe, what love truly is.

Ave mater beata magna
Sicut et amica mea
Tu fortis et alma
Prudens et pulchra
Nunc in caelo Solis sponsa
Imago per saecula cordis divini
Salvatrix mihi et canis fidelis
O magna mater esto nobis
Familiae et genetrix spiritualis

Hail, O Great Mother
You who are likewise my friend
You are the strong and tender one
The wise and beautiful one
Now the bride of Sol in heaven
For all ages, a mirror of divine love
To me, a saving helper and faithful dog
Be unto us also, O Magna Mater,
The Progenitor of this spiritual family

CybeleChariot

 

~BT Waldbillig
October 31, 2017

Beyond Palace Walls

Bear ye one another’s burdens
~Galatians 6:2

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s the sort of throwaway line we use when we’re confronted with the suffering of another human being and think they need us to show them some purpose behind their misfortune or else reassure them that everything will somehow be well in the end.

Naturally, it’s nonsense. And the truth is, we usually say things like this to make ourselves feel better when the ugliness of reality imposes itself on the carefully curated and altogether fragile charade that we mistake for a happy life. Whereas compassion draws us close to the person who suffers, pity separates us and creates distance between us and the person who suffers.

Perhaps you recall that the Buddha was a prince and his father carefully shielded him from anything that might cause him sadness or suffering or discomfort. The young prince lived his life behind physical and spiritual walls until, against his father’s wishes, he ventured forth into the world and encountered the reality of life when he observed pain, illness, old age, and death. Instead of retreating from the trauma and returning to the delusion he had known at his father’s palace, he began a spiritual path that even today inspires many of us. The Buddha found a way to transform suffering through compassion.

Some time ago as I chatted with a Buddhist friend, he observed that the primary symbol of Christianity — a dead man on a dead tree — seemed brutal and vulgar next to the image cherished by Buddhists — a man at peace resting in the shade of a verdant tree. Now, there is something disturbing and even fucked up about the tortured image of Christ on the Cross. But what my friend failed to understand is that the Buddha sitting self-contentedly all alone under a shade tree is likewise an obscene and offensive image, as the world is filled with suffering and misery and people who need help. In truth, the primary images of both Christianity and Buddhism are easily misunderstood and both fail to communicate the full story of the men in whose names these religions were founded. To my mind, the point is this: Both Jesus and the Buddha were transformed by their encounter with the Tree; once transformed, both of them arose and went forth from the Tree. As I wrote somewhere, their transformative spiritual experience was not meant to end with them — it was meant to transform the Universe.

Congressman John Lewis, one of the great Americans of our time, speaks of redemptive suffering, using language that he and I both learned in seminary when we were young men. This expression doesn’t mean that suffering necessarily brings us positive transformation. Like any human experience, suffering can be a help or a hindrance. Though we cannot control much of what happens to us in life — those things that we suffer — each of us has the capacity to choose our response. We can anchor ourselves in anger, bitterness, hatred, selfishness, or resentment. In Biblical language, this is called hardening our hearts, and when we harden our hearts we end up progressively alone and alienated from others. Some theologians describe Hell as the state of absolute, unending alienation and loneliness, while the Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita notes that suffering is compounded by isolation and loneliness.

On the other hand, since all of us suffer, suffering can be a place of encounter with other beings who seem different, unconnected, even unintelligible to us. We become aware of our shared experience of life that is precarious, difficult, confusing, fearful, uncertain, unjust, and all too short. We may not actually feel each other’s pain (ahem!) but we understand something of each other’s pain because we have experienced pain in our own lives.

For example, I don’t know what it’s like for you to lose your grandmother, but I lost my grandmother and losing her brought me sadness and pain that I feel still today, decades later. And while I can’t take away your suffering, I can help ease the loneliness and alienation that accompany your suffering. I think that’s something of what John Lewis is getting at when he talks about redemptive suffering. His own traumatic experiences during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s might have made him a bitter, nasty, resentful man. But they didn’t. Instead, they inspired him to help those who need help and to love those who need love. His commitment to compassionate nonviolence has inspired millions of people — myself included.

~BT Waldbillig
October 19, 2017

 

Beholding Him, He Loved Him

Then Jesus beholding him, loved him.
~Mark 10:21

In our time of protest and counterprotest, in which we lionize those who “speak truth to power” and idolize those who defend the authority of public institutions, we forget entirely the lesson of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha. We mistakenly believe that people followed them and listened to their teachings because they were wise.

Indeed, they were wise. But countless wise spiritual teachers have walked the Earth. What set Jesus and the Buddha apart is that they truly loved the men and women they taught. Most importantly, they loved the people no one else would.

So I ask myself, if Jesus or the Buddha were walking among us today, who would they “behold and love”? Who is it that no one loves, that no one dedicates their life to, that no one would die for the sake of?

To my mind, it’s the men and women of the Mafia, gangs like the Trinitarios (who operate in my neighborhood), and the people of North Korea. Were Jesus or the Buddha walking among us today, they would look upon these people and love them. And motivated by that love, they would endeavor to teach them a beneficial, transformative spiritual path. Their purpose wouldn’t be to damn and condemn, but to heal and save — and their words, full of love and truth, would show that.

Today, our social and political protests are so useless and our preaching and spiritual teaching so ineffective for a simple reason. We lack the compassionate love of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha.

Cardinal James Harvey cut to the heart of the matter when he observed, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

You and I know a great many things. But knowledge and wisdom alone will not transform the world.

Only love will.

~BT Waldbillig
October 18, 2017