Family as Universal Manifestation of the Mystery of Life

The American theologian Richard John Neuhaus once famously declared, “We are born to die.” Naturally, he did not mean that a human being comes into this world for the sake of leaving it. Rather, each of us is born along a path that will one day end. Every year as I celebrate the anniversary of my own birth, I also prepare for the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, which falls on Thanksgiving this year. Symbolically, it’s the inverse of the Easter story: My rising to life is followed upon by her going down to the netherworld in this annual cycle. She was the world to me and I have lived in a state of mourning for the past 25 years.

As I wrote somewhere, it seems likely that when we encounter intelligent, technological, biological beings from elsewhere in the Universe, we will discover two important facts. Even if they are far more ancient, evolved, and technologically advanced, they will have had, in the course of their collective existence, something of an experience of what we call religion, though it may well be that they relate to it not as religion, strictly speaking, but as a cultural memory or an evolutionary passage. Just as importantly, such beings will understand something of what we call family, since only beings that form closely knit, cooperative, interdependent, mutually supporting units would be able to build civilizations capable of advanced technology and long-term survival across adverse circumstances. Perhaps, as with us, they will find in family a reason to survive, a reason to endure difficulties, a reason for self-sacrifice, a reason to make sure that the life they receive continues on.

There’s no reason to regard my birthday, November 20, as a day of importance, though surely it changed the lives of my parents. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that November 23, the anniversary of Grandma Carol’s death, has any special meaning, though she was the most beautiful person in the world to me.

While we may be inclined to regard as insignificant something like a birthday or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, maybe they have a cosmic significance that’s hard to perceive from where we stand in the Universe. Maybe the life we honor and the life we mourn are not nearly as unimportant as we’re tempted to think.

Perhaps elsewhere in the Universe there are beings on a rocky planet orbiting a star who give thanks for the life they have been given — unlikely though it is that any of us should exist at all. Surely those beings also rejoice in the ancestors who no longer dwell among the living, yet whose life continues in the Universe by means of their descendants.

If the purpose of life is the continuation of life, then Family is the means by which that most important of tasks is accomplished. Somewhere I wrote that for our kind life comes into being, is nurtured, is protected, grows, and spreads by means of a community — and that community is the Family.

We might even go so far as to say that the Family is a sort of Universal manifestation of the mystery of life.

~BT Waldbillig
November 19, 2017

Across the Universe

Life, as we experience it, arises within a community and continues by means of a community. This community is family. To family, there can be nothing more important than life.

The purpose of family is to foster conditions that favor, protect, and propagate life. Members of a family are bound to one another by the life they receive, share, and pass on.

The arising of life is not inevitable, nor is the indefinite continuation of life. Both require great energy, care, and attention.

Any creature that comes into being in this world will eventually pass out of being from this world. This truth inspires urgent attention to life as we experience it in the present moment.

So far as we understand it, biological life is not, of itself, eternal or immortal; hence biological beings are bound together by their mortality. From the understanding of mortality arise both the basest and most noble qualities of human beings.

Beings from some distant place in the Universe, to my estimation, might likewise understand themselves as sharing our condition.

Human beings, grasping the inevitability of their own mortality, transform sadness, despair, and suffering by many different means: religion, spiritual endeavors, music, art, magic, dance, storytelling, the search for wisdom, love, etc.

The sybil, the prophet, the priest, and the astrophysicist all use the means at hand to endow their experience of the world with meaning, purpose, beauty, majesty, and hope.

Even today, when human beings leave this world and its atmosphere by technological means, they describe their experience in terms not unfamiliar to ancient shamans or medieval mystics.

Hope is the virtue of a community that values life and knows how precarious it truly is.

A mother would rather suffer harm herself than see her child harmed; a father willingly and without hesitation places himself in harm’s way in order to protect his children.

Children honor those who gave them life by valuing their own lives, by passing on the gift of life they receive, and by imitating the good and noble example of those who gave them life.

Members of a family do what they are able to do in the manner they judge best, each member possessing something valuable and useful in the family’s mission.

Should we encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, it is entirely likely that they, too, will understand something of what we call family.

Somewhere I wrote about family born of blood and family born of spirit. Just as we embrace others and call them family even when we do not share blood with them, so might we embrace beings from elsewhere in the Universe.

In this way, a spiritual family arises and grows, expanding as in an ever-widening circle and binding together those who once were strangers.

~BT Waldbillig
March 15, 2017

Even Gods Need Heroes

There is an ancient saying:
Even the gods
Have need of heroes

Early humans left images of animals on the walls and vaults of the caves where they took refuge. One of the most common images is the bull (in one form or another). In all likelihood this image was a celebration of the successful hunt as well as the expression of hope in continued prosperity. But the animal image also acknowledges the precariousness of life, which depends on the sacrifice and death of some beings for the sake of others. Buddhists will later call this reality (i.e., the precariousness of life) impermanence, while Christians will adopt the mantra memento mori. Presumably, the inspiration for the pre-historic cave paintings is also the origin of the Mithras myth.

The American Christian theologian Richard John Neuhaus said somewhere that we are born to die. Naturally, he didn’t mean that death is our purpose. He simply stated an obvious truth: Each of us is born midway along a journey that will one day end. If we are born into this life, we will one day pass out of this life.

Not surprisingly, our participation in this reality of pain and mortality causes fear, despair, selfishness, hatred, regret, and suffering. Yet instead of resting in these experiences, we have, since the beginning, chosen to give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise be an empty, hopeless existence. This is the spiritual path.

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

For us, as well as for beings similar to us, life arises within a community and is continued by means of a community. This is family, and within family rests hope.

I still recall a phrase I learned in seminary while studying philosophy: Bonum est diffusivum sui. The Good naturally and spontaneously tends toward growth, expansion, and continuation. Family is the incarnation of this principle, though at times it is difficult for us to appreciate this, as by its nature family embraces both sheep and goats, to use a Biblical expression. To put it another way: The mother of a family embraces all of her children. She loves each son as if he were her only child, loves each daughter as if she were her only child. The just and the wicked alike. How difficult it is to be a mother!

Take the example of the grove-keeper. She is careful which branches she prunes and which she allows to remain, which trees she brings down and when. She values the beautiful trees, the fruit-bearing trees, and those with fragrant blossoms, but also trees that appear to the foolish man as ugly and useless. Not all the branches nor all the trees survive the grove-keeper’s labor, but if she chooses wisely and carefully, the grove will survive and flourish.

Life continues by protecting and fostering the place where it arises. In this way, life is able to expand as in an ever-widening circle, stretching out to every corner of the universe.

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 2017

Tearful Day

If memory serves, the famous liturgical poem Dies Irae originally had purpose not at the funeral Requiem Mass but was instead used on the last day of the Church year. Bits of it may stretch back as far as Gregory the Great (7th cent.), though the current form is Late Medieval.

The imagery, which today we associate with death and personal loss, was intended to have a cosmic significance. Just as the people we love all pass away, one day this planet we inhabit will also disappear. And who knows? Perhaps even the universe itself will pass away.

Lacrimosa dies: the tearful day. We shed tears for many different reasons. Tears may be fearful, regretful or sorrowful. We shed tears of pain, despair and emptiness, but we also shed tears of joy, surprise, wonder, marvel, ecstasy and gratitude.

Click here to listen to Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting Lacrimosa from his Requiem for My Friend.

~BT Waldbillig
January 14, 2017

Life (and Death) Lessons

I must have been six or seven years old when our family dog, Buff (named for the yellow-brown color of his coat), was hit by a truck on the busy street to the side of our house. He died immediately. This was my very first encounter with death and my parents taught me two important, and complementary, lessons.

My mother, who I’m quite sure didn’t care much for the dog, broke the news to my little sister and me. My sister began to cry uncontrollably. The three of us sat on the couch in our home’s solarium embracing each other, and pretty soon all three of us were weeping. There was no shame, no injunctions to stifle our emotions, no lectures that tears are a sign of weakness. My mother let me grieve.

But soon my father called me outside and took me to the back yard. He told me that now we needed to give the dog a proper burial, so he and I — mostly him, actually — began to dig a grave for our family dog. We buried him directly in front of the yellow dog house, yellow just like the family house, where Buff used to sit and watch the world. My father taught me that no matter what happens, life has to go on and we have to take care of tasks at hand, whatever they may be.

So this morning as I fed my dog breakfast, I was mindful that one day, hopefully many years from now, I’ll repeat that same cycle just as my parents so skillfully instructed me when I was a boy.

Today after breakfast Dante and I took an extra-long walk in the park. We played in the snow and watched the birds — both of us happy just to be together.

~BT Waldbillig
January 9, 2017

Honoring the Dead

The dead are honored more by our lives than by our words.

About a week ago I commemorated my maternal grandmother’s passing, which still seems recent to me even though it happened 23 years ago. She remains the single most important person I’ve encountered in my journey through life thus far. For some reason another departed friend has also risen to the fore of my consciousness recently.

When I was a young boy, every summer my mother would drive me across town to spend a day or two with Aaron Vredenberg. His grandfather was the president of the company my father worked for and to my mother it was something of an honor for me to be asked over to spend time with Dwight’s grandson. I didn’t understand that at the time, naturally. I just enjoyed my days with Aaron, exploring his grandparents’ architecturally remarkable house, riding bicycles around the neighborhood, admiring each others’ Star Wars figures, playing board games, getting ourselves covered in dirt and grass stains from the yard. The house was massive, or at least I remember it that way, and it always felt empty to me. At noontime, Ruth would call us to the kitchen and make us sandwiches. She was always very sweet and gracious to me, treating me as if I were her grandson, too. I have nothing but warm, kind memories of those days, and even though Aaron and I drifted apart over the years, I always considered him my friend.

A memory stands out to me now, though the incident was meaningless to me at the time. One particular summer day, Aaron pulled out a Ouija board, that quaint and commercialized leftover from 19th-century spiritualism. We pushed the glass around the board for a while and them went on to some other game. Later on Aaron confided to me that he had spoken to someone named Ajax, who he thought was a slave buried somewhere on the grounds of his grandparents’ home. This had the tenor of a ghost story for me and I took it as nothing else. You know how young boys are.

Aaron died of an apparent suicide when we were teenagers. Only just recently did his reference to Ajax pop back into my mind, however. You may recall from the story of the Iliad that Ajax was a great warrior who survived the Trojan War but was driven mad by Athena and ultimately killed himself in shame. Aaron and I were too young to know much of anything about the Iliad and while his reference to Ajax is a coincidence, to me it has served as a timely reminder to remember and honor him.

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2015

Of Family and Grandmothers

Pietas was one of the chief virtues for the ancient Romans. We might translate the word as duty, devotion, or filial piety, but no single expression captures the universe contained in that word for the Romans. The person who practices pietas and embodies that virtue honors his or her family, offers the gods due reverence, and performs his or her duty to the state. Naturally, each of those elements is pregnant with meaning and great thinkers like Cicero and Catullus could hardly write enough about pietas. I don’t consider myself a particularly virtuous person but I try to keep myself on a trajectory of becoming better at the business of living and being human, and by some mysterious grace many of my failings and blunders, my apparent deviations from that trajectory, have ultimately allowed me to better chart my course. I imagine this experience rings true for other people, as well.

I have sometimes wondered what it might be like to encounter beings from some distant place in the universe. Presumably I would seem quite strange to them and they to me. If we were able to make ourselves understandable to one another, what would we have to talk about? Once we’d got past the novelty of the situation, what meaningful points of connection would we find? I think Family would probably be one of them. They might understand Family somewhat differently, based on their experience, their social conventions, and their biology. Perhaps they reproduce asexually. Perhaps they have genders that are somehow different from ours. Perhaps sex, reproduction, and mating have a different relationship for them than they do for us. Perhaps they come from a place where they live alongside other closely related evolutionary variations of their own kind – as if we might today walk out the front door and meet Australopithecus or Nalendi. But even with all those possible variations, I’m sure they would value the continuation of life as much as we do, and isn’t that fundamentally what Family is about?

The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever

Today is the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. She remains the most important person in my life, more than my parents, siblings, and friends – as important as all those people are. In a way it feels odd to say that, since I can hardly remember what we talked about, even though we had countless long conversations, and the sound of her voice, like the soft touch of her cheek or the scent of her perfume, exists now only faintly and tenuously in my memory. I wept a great deal at her passing, though I tried to be private about my tears. That’s how it is with young men – their insecurities force them to wear many masks. I still cry sometimes when I think of Grandma Carol, and I think about her a lot despite the years that have passed. Only recently have I understood that when I was young I wept out of pain for my own loss, for the void created by my grandmother’s absence. I also wept because she died in a horrible, painful manner – by fire. But what moves me to tears today is her love. There’s still sadness, that’s undeniable, but more than anything I’m aware how much she loved me.

Love is the surest source of strength and also the place of greatest pain. We can’t dwell in love and remain unwounded. Perhaps love has the power to transform all our pain and suffering, to give meaning to meaningless situations, to engender hope in dire circumstances. I’m still figuring life out, quite honestly, and the love of my grandmother is one of the few things of true and lasting value that I’ve found on my journey thus far.

~BT Waldbillig
November 23, 2015