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

An Island for Those Seeking Refuge

Recently I came across a short spiritual aspiration known as Shantideva’s Parting Words taken from his famous work, The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). Some months ago I wrote about one of Shantideva’s descriptions of the Bodhisattva and observed that to a Christian the qualities of the Bodhisattva fit quite nicely with the theology of the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.

It’s true that Shantideva lived some 1300 years ago but the desires of his heart well might belong to a contemporary social worker in Brooklyn, a political activist in San Francisco, or a monk in Minnesota:

To the Buddhas residing in all directions
With my palms pressed together I make this request
Please continue to shine the lamp of Dharma
For living beings lost and suffering in the darkness of ignorance

May I become an island for those seeking dry land
A lamp for those needing light,
A place of rest for those who desire one,
And a servant for those needing service

Another way of putting Shantideva’s sentiment might be the well-known injunction of Mohandas Gandhi: Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

We take much for granted in life, above all those fortunate and beneficial realities we experience, but every once in a while we are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that if we wish for the world to be a place of goodness and life we have our work cut out. It’s not enough to desire, or wish, or hope for, or pray for the well-being of our family and friends who pass through this world. We must do something.

I think of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement. During her life Day had no patience with the empty words respectable people toss about in an attempt to seem sincere and admirable in the eyes of others. For Day’s community, words are not nearly so important as deeds. Feeding the poor, finding a bed for the homeless, stretching out a hand to the mentally ill — these things are urgent. Words around taking care of the poor or helping the sick or visiting the imprisoned, as good as they may seem, are of no value without concrete, radical, compassionate action. In fact, words without action are worse than total silence — we might as well not give a damn about the plight of the poor, the sick, the suffering, the outcast, the refugee, the single mother, the veteran with PTSD.

If we want the hungry to eat something, if we want the homeless to be safe while they sleep, if we want those affected by mental illness to feel a little less alone, we ourselves must act in this very moment.

Shantideva doesn’t simply voice his desire for the well-being of all sentient beings. He commits himself to the task of making compassion real, of bearing unconditional love in his own flesh. You and I are more likely to hide behind beautiful words than to transform ourselves and the world through compassionate action. If we were more like Shantideva and Dorothy Day the entire world would be a better place on account of the mystery of compassion and love revealed in our lives.

~BT Waldbillig
March 27, 2017

The Unconquered Sun Rises Anew

According to Christian tradition, a Roman soldier named Longinus was the person who killed Jesus, thrusting his lance through Jesus’ ribs and into his heart. What’s curious about this is that the Gospel accounts attributed to Mark and Matthew are silent about the act that took the life of their spiritual leader. They simply observe that a centurion who stood guard at the execution relayed to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that Jesus was dead. The Roman soldiers, who were undoubtedly from various and likely distant parts of the Roman Empire, had mocked Jesus during the execution ritual, performing their duty to Rome with arrogance, cruelty, and utter confidence in the machine of Empire. But then things get weird: something in the final moment of Jesus’ short life — we don’t know what exactly — changed the soldiers’ attitude toward the troublesome Palestinian rebel. Surely this was a son of god, they declare. I have my own opinion about what happened but history is silent and so are the soldiers, so I have no business with idle chatter.

The story of Longinus shows us that from the darkest and most obscene moments of our lives, the personal transformation we once regarded as impossible arises. Longinus, as a good Roman soldier, was surely guilty of many things far worse than showboating at a public execution. In the Christian story, Jesus is the innocent victim and the Roman soldier is the wicked aggressor. But here’s the thing: both men experienced the suffering of the event. Both were touched by an experience of death. They were strangers until that final moment when they were intimately united by the terrible reality that touches all beings who come into this world. Death, suffering, mortality, impermanence — this is our lot. Instead of turning away from each other, something brought them together, opened them to the experience of an enemy who was really nothing other than a brother. It changed Longinus and it changed the world.

Much of the Christian world — including all of the ancient apostolic communities — venerates the Roman centurion from the Gospel story as a holy man. Perhaps on another occasion I will explore how this very same mystery was manifested by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa and by the prophet Dorothy Day who not so long ago walked the very same city streets that Dante and I venerate.

~BT Waldbillig
March 26, 2017