Ad Multos Gloriosque Annos!

It is a source of great honor at my alma mater, the Pontifical North American College in Rome, that when Rome fell to Garibaldi in 1870 seminarians from the College saved the life, if not the worldly kingdom, of Pope Pius IX. Honorable young men who had been on opposite sides of the American Civil War just a few years earlier, some of whom may have met each other on the field of battle back home before meeting again on the ship that took them to Rome, refused to abandon Pio Nono to the revolutionary mob crying for blood and gold.

That’s how the North American College got the reputation it has today and why the seminarians have a particularly strong bond with every pope, from Pius IX to Pope Francis.

But it’s easy to forget that for every naive smalltown Midwestern boy who can’t hold his liquor, has never won a fistfight, and wouldn’t use a gun to save his own life — guys like me — there are others who have been to war and, therefore, understand matters of war from a place of personal experience. There are even some seminarians in the College in Rome who give up the future of a mansion to call home, gourmet meals cooked just for them every day, and an annual club-med vacation on a manicured beach somewhere, choosing instead military service as chaplain ministering to U.S. troops in places like Sadr City and Kabul, and every other place where there are Catholic (and non-Catholic) troops who need a priest who understands along with them what the Prophet Isaiah taught: Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.

When I was a seminarian in Rome, I spent my time doing what I thought would best prepare me for a future of serving the world through the Church — practicing and studying and praying the liturgy in as many forms as I could. Surely it seemed odd that while my brothers at the College spent time together after Sunday Mass, I rushed off to attend Mass in a different rite. Sometimes I attended Mass three times on Sunday, and evening Vespers twice!

Why? Not piety, though I tried and failed to be as pious as I thought I should be. Certainly not rebellion or protest, as there’s no need to spend the widow’s mite on such frivolity. (It’s not exactly cheap to spend four or more years in Rome!) Rather, I had an intuition already back then that the only way to arrive at the spiritual reality — the “mystery” in ancient theological terms — expressed by means of words, movements, symbols, sounds, and rituals (and that’s what liturgy is, the intersection of all those things) is to set aside exclusive attachment to one’s own fixed, habitual experience and enter into an alien expression of the very same reality.

The priests of the Dominican Order at the Angelicum made sure that I understood something of St. Thomas Aquinas’ epistemology: the words we use point to something beyond themselves, to realities that are beyond human words altogether. But we’re human and so we have to make the best of who we are and what we have and what we’re able to do. That was essentially my motivation in learning how ritual communication is able to ensure the transmission of profound and complex ideas while making use of common and even simple physical elements to evoke lived experience. (Something akin to “form” and “matter” in sacramental theology, and anamnesis in liturgical theology.)

I wish I had played baseball or soccer with my brothers back at the College. Shared a beer and cigar  with a Brother to celebrate his approval for ordination and final trip home. Or sat on the edge of my chair with everyone else as one last Hail Mary pass decides an entire Superbowl. But I had to figure out whatever it was that only I could do, so while I was doing what I needed to do, everyone else was doing what they needed to do. Each of us discovering our part in the future of the Church and the world.

For the past three years, in preparation for an inevitable encounter with alien beings from far away places in the Universe (and maybe even not-so-far-away places), I’ve been writing about things that must have seemed odd, silly, or useless. Certainly they seemed that way to me at times. I often doubted myself and wondered if I was simply indulging my vanity. That’s why I took down my Tumblr site and my first blog site and came close to chucking desktop folders full of half-written, over-written, and barely-written reflections and dream accounts, most of which I’ve never publicly posted or even shared with another human being. Too many times I came close to destroying every single word I wrote across these years. Yet here I am even today, still writing. Still hoping.

So let me just put this out there: When the folks at SETI and METI (and the rest), discover repeating signals from deep space and do all the science-y things they have to do to make sure they’re not deluding themselves or the world, I’m pretty sure that beyond a shared means of communicating (language) and a common mode for expressing experience of natural phenomena (science and mathematics), we’ll find that things like culture and religion, mortality and Family, purpose and hope, will give us something to talk about with each other. When we find someone to talk to and figure out how to talk to them, we’ll have something worthwhile to talk about. And maybe even something to do together — like seed the Universe.

I’m not much use in a fistfight or a gunfight, but I’m willing to risk everything and even shed my own blood for the sake of life and family — not just here on Earth but across the Universe. Isaiah’s God is my God — and when I wanted to give up on myself and on my own life, it was the act of living and the love of Family that kept me going, that kept me alive.

Axios! Axios! Axios!

One of my own classmates from Rome — our rooms were right next to each other for most of our time at the College —  is already a bishop. (Steve Lopes was one of the few true intellectuals in our class — we couldn’t have found a better guy to represent us.) A few of those who were upperclassmen when I was a freshman (a New Man, in College lingo) are bishops now, too.

One day soon, I imagine there will even be a cardinal among them, the first Gen X cardinal.

A Gen X cardinal — how absurd that sounds.

A Gen X cardinal — how beautiful that sounds!

~BT Waldbillig
December 8, 2017
Patronal Feast Day of the College

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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

Dreams of Dogs and Sparrows

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

Beset by woes, I made to escape the travails of the world. As I crept from my dwelling in the dead of night, a sparrow set himself in my path and asked, “Would you abandon us?”

I turned away, only to find a dog who asked, “Am I an orphan now?”

Understanding the mystery before me, I returned to my dwelling and took rest in the silence that lingers between dream and dawn.

[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
October 23, 2017

The Dream of the Temple

Somewhere I wrote of a recurring dream that took place within an ancient temple:
 

In the first experience of the dream, it was the temple of Mars Ultor, the God of Vengeance and War. When the god commanded the warriors, who were my friends, to “Go Forth!”, I was consumed by sorrow at the knowledge that they would die in battle. But sorrow quickly gave place to so great a rage at the indifference of Mars toward the lives of my brothers that I myself murdered him as he sat on his throne. On that day the blood of Mars flowed from the temple.

In a second experience of the dream, the temple belonged to Apollo Abaeus and at his command to “Go Forth!”, I beheld the warriors depart swiftly in every possible direction. So urgent was their mission that there was not even time for me to ask them what they were doing. And so I asked Apollo himself and he told me that he was sending my friends forth to every corner of the Universe and even to places unknown to the gods so that at least some of them might survive and produce children.

In the final experience of the dream, I myself was the priest of the temple of Sol Invictus, but this time the command did not come from a god. Rather, the temple guard who lived with me in the temple precinct commanded me to “Go Forth! Be Seen by the Family!” As it was not the custom of the guard to command the priest, I understood how important this was. I left the temple unaccompanied and made my way to the Family in order to bring them hope in the moment when they had most need of it. When at last I returned through the grove that surrounded the temple, a thylacine pup fell from above as I passed beneath the last tree. The pup cried and clung to me, so I carried him with me into the temple and raised him as my son. The tree he fell from was revealed as the Sacred Tree that sanctified the entire temple grove and even the temple itself. The pup was Sol Invictus clothed in Earthly form.

[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
October 15, 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

Salus et Vita

Qui signa invenimus
Sicut et signa offerimus

We are surrounded by wonders beyond our greatest dreaming, if only we could — at least for some brief, passing moment — set aside the fear we feel before the vastness of the Universe and the hopelessness we know when we stare the terror of mortality in the face.

Not long ago I saw in a dream the darkness that dwells in the heart of the every man, myself included. This darkness grew and spread until it began to rip the very stars from the heavens and snuff out the Sun and the Moon, emptying the Universe of all that is living and beautiful. Though only one man, insignificant and small before the immense and endless darkness, I refused to submit to it. While this choice seemed futile as the darkness fell upon me to annihilate its final victim,  my refusal to submit was no longer the futile choice of one man. Instead, it was the battle cry of many generations, mere men and women who made of themselves fearless warriors. They were as terrifying to their enemies as they were beautiful to one another, and together we became invincible.

It’s only in the reality of our frailty, weakness, inadequacy, and brief time in this world that we see ourselves as we truly are: Alone no one among us is immortal, invincible, or all-wise, but when we come together and unite we are strong enough to survive and grow and hope and love in even the most unlikely and impossible of circumstances.

Haec dies
Spes nostra
Nunc nobis
Salus et vita

Our world might not have endured to see this day. Our kind might have perished in the darkness that lingers before the bright shining dawn. And yet: We Are Here

[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 5, 2017