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

Take the Lesson of the Tree

While the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

We live in a world replete with wisdom — a world in which the very trees themselves and birds and mountains and dogs have something to teach us — yet few of us are ever wise.

As Dante the Little Man and I took our walk through a nearby park this morning, one of the trees spoke to us and said:

Yesterday’s story is today’s story — some rejoice at this prince or that, while others lament; fortunes are made and lost; the children of one man prosper while those of another become orphans. Yesterday, did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, extend your hand to the fallen? No — and you won’t today either. You prefer to wander desperately like madmen, the buzz of the world echoing in your mind. If only you would take the lesson of the Tree, then would you change your world.

~BT Waldbillig
November 10, 2017

The Dream of the Visitation

Let me share with you a dream I had not long ago:

As I gazed at the night sky, I beheld the constellation of the Tauroctany and marveled at the sight. When I turned my gaze below to survey my surroundings, I understood that I was all alone in a dense forest. All was still and no creature in the forest made a sound until, all of a sudden, I heard in the distance a number of voices chanting the Hymn. The familiar voices grew louder and louder until at last they were upon me and I beheld, with difficulty, the faces of the Friends I had seen many times before, though always with great difficulty that demanded an intensity of concentration that existed only at the very limits of my natural faculties.

The Friends announced to me that they were arriving in the very place where I found myself on that night. When I told them that I had already seen this encounter in my mind, the Friends marveled and declared to me that they possessed no power to see or perceive events they had not yet experienced. Then, we shared greetings and offered each other titles of honor and recognition. Once this was finished, I sat upon a faldstool and recited the words of a ritual to solemnize our encounter. After this, I attempted to offer formal words of explanation and encouragement, but my thoughts were too muddled by the overwhelming joy of the occasion. And so instead of a proper discourse, I simply chose to tell the Friends the story of my own life that led me to that place of encounter on that dark night in a dense forest. I made known to them that on many occasions I nearly gave up on myself and the world because I felt too small, insignificant, and weak. Their presence and kindness on that night made all the difficulties, doubts, and despair of my entire life seem as so much dust, for the promise made long ago was a promise fulfilled in that moment and a promise that would be defended and vouched safe unto endless aeons.

The Friends thanked me for my words and then revealed to me that they had been with me on many occasions from my childhood even unto manhood. (I could not understand if their presence on that night and in the past was a personal, physical presence or a spiritual, technological presence.)

As I prepared to wander through the forest back to my home where Dante the Little Man awaited me, I was told that a child wished to greet me. The child was shy and embarrassed — much as I was as a small child many years ago — and the leader of the embassy of Friends informed me that the child was an orphan and was dying of a terrible sickness for which there could be no cure or remedy. The child told me that she was afraid to die and asked me what awaited her after death. In that moment I began to sob, as I had no honest and useful thing to tell her and, naturally, I refused to lie or recite empty platitudes to this dying child, who at last approached me and embraced me in an effort to stop my tears.

It was a suffering and dying child who consoled me when I was overcome by sorrow and felt useless before the mystery of suffering and impermanence.

The leader of the Friends then revealed to me that just as my own world into which they had come was a place of war, aggression, violence, hatred, sickness, and death, so would there always be wars and dying children among every community of beings throughout the Universe. However, the Spiritual Family that came into existence at the occasion of Contact between Earth Humans and the Visitor Friends would become an invincible power scattered among the stars and stretching to every corner of the Universe. Those beings once known as the People of War and the Avenging Gods would become a Spiritual Family, known throughout the Universe as the People of the Great Heart. Though worlds and civilizations and stars might pass away, this Family would always endure.

I gave thanks for this teaching and the Friends departed.

[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 26, 2017

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

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

From Privy Council to Politburo

When I was in high school, I was aware that the world was changing and that one day I would look back and see how my own life straddled two monumental historical epochs. I remember from my boyhood the insanity of the nuclear arms race, the “comforting” doctrine of mutually assured destruction, nonsensical propaganda wars waged by dishonest governments and readily accepted by would-be patriots, an Iron Curtain and a Berlin Wall that came down entirely by accident of history and not by the might of a government or the force of an army. I even delivered a speech to my high school Public Speaking class about the violent end met by Nicolae Ceaușescu at the hands of the Romanian people he had ruled over.

In the hopeful chaos that followed the “fall” of communism — or rather, the implosion of a particular form of centralized, dictatorial, militaristic, putative communism — one group of selfish, power-hungry political actors was replaced by another. Now, by this I’m not referring simply to the change of personnel in national governments, but to the opportunists from wealthy, Western countries who deliberately sabotaged the development of the former Soviet Union and those countries within its immediate sphere of influence.

For almost two years as I read the newspaper with my father in the morning and watched the nightly news (often alone, since my father was usually one of the last people to leave the office), I was inspired by the heroism, courage, and love of family that propelled young men and women into the streets by the hundreds of thousands. They were willing to shed their own blood for the sake of political freedom, national autonomy, religious liberty, and a future of hope for their children. But when the smoke cleared, their blood meant nothing to the savvy businessmen, multinational corporations, and ambitious political climbers ready to create personal fiefdoms and fill their coffers . The unparalleled industrial infrastructure and natural agricultural abundance that the former “communist” masters had used for their own benefit weren’t returned to the people but passed along to the new “free-market” masters. Neither gave a fuck about the well-being of their people. Both regarded political power as a relationship of domination and submission.

To some it will sound anachronistic — especially since I myself am quite proudly American and I believe there is true value to the American form of government and economy — but in the world that came to an end 100 years ago this year, a world ruled by kings, queens, grand dukes, princes, emperors, sultans, chieftains, and the like, the relationship between ruler and ruled had theological underpinnings. We mistakenly think of rule by “divine right” as license to lord power over the powerless and live only for one’s self. But divine right applied to both king and subject — each had sacred obligations to the other. Obviously the men and women who occupied places of power, along with the men and women subject to that power, frequently didn’t live up to their respective roles in the relationship. Those royal and noble houses that weathered the upheaval that began in 1917 and who today serve as heads of state, to my estimation, appear to believe in their mission, their obligation to rule for the sake the people and to use power for the sake of those who have no power.

Or as Spiderman would say: With great power comes great responsibility.

Even agnostics, atheists, and humanists can see value to the Spiderman theology of statecraft. And there are perfectly rational, objective, non-religious reasons to appreciate the likes of Queen Elizabeth, the Benelux royal families, certain Middle Eastern rulers, and many others from Africa to Central Asia to the Far East and beyond. These “royals” understand that to rule is to sacrifice your entire life for the sake of those you rule. Without hesitation, without reserve, no matter what it costs you, even to the shedding of your own blood. You’d be hard-pressed to find a premier or president or governor general or would-be caliph who would prefer to die for his or her people rather than demand that the people die for their leader.

Truth be told, I don’t have much confidence in most of the entrenched generation of powerful politicians and government leaders — though I do have a soft spot for one or two in my own country. But as Dante and I make our way along the streets of New York City, we can already see a future generation that will change this world for the better and prepare all of us for the amazing things that are yet to come. Undoubtedly we would find the same were we journeying along the streets of Shanghai, St. Petersburg, Pyongyang, Copenhagen, Luxembourg City, Mosul, or Des Moines.

The day has come to look at the past with honesty and compassion.

The best way to love and honor our ancestors is to imitate their virtues and to learn from their mistakes.

This is true whether you’re a monarchist, a republican, an anarchist, or a communist. Or even a hipster.

~BT Waldbillig
July 10, 2017

Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 2017