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

Advertisements

Impermanence as Universal Condition

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.
~Dhammapada (v.50)

1
Two things are clear as we journey through the world:
Life is short and death is certain.

2
Despite this sure knowledge, most of us waste our years in distraction, delusion, and denial.

3
Behold the plucked flower wither and fade!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

4
Behold the fallen leaf turn brittle and crumble to dust!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

5
Behold a mother’s sorrow in the crushed sparrow’s egg!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

6
The flower and leaf and sparrow each possess power enough to dispel the darkness of our delusion, if only we would allow them.

7
For most of us it takes something too painful to ignore: the unjust condemnation of a righteous person; the death of someone whose life we value more than our own; imprisonment in a mercilessly infirm mind or body; a life without purpose or meaning; a Universe void of intelligent, technological, biological civilizations.

8
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Sic transit gloria mundi!

9
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas!

10
Though all things pass away, one thing alone remains.
Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
December 8, 2017

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

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

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

A Real-Life Wonder Woman

We tend to think of high office as an honor to be sought and a reward to be desired. Yet no one in high office — such as sovereign or president or bishop or teacher or general — stands worthy before those entrusted to their care. Those who are chosen, having accepted the responsibilities of office, cannot but fail in the attainment of an ideal. Still, they can embrace that failure with wisdom, grace, strength, hope, and patient endurance, drawing forth something good and worthwhile from any situation they encounter.

The honor is also a burden

This thought came to me not long ago as I reflected on the trials of my ancestral homeland during the first half of the twentieth century. The murderous folly of the First World War saw Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg forced from the throne, while the nation itself barely survived. Having only recently regained its rightful autonomy, Luxembourg well might have ended up once again as the property of one of the greater powers of the region. By sacrificing the throne in the wake of the First World War and ceding it to her younger sister, Marie-Adélaïde showed humility and wisdom in an age not known for either.

Like Queen Elizabeth II, Grand Duchess Charlotte was born a “spare” and not an heir, so her education and training did not prepare her in the ways one would expect for a future monarch. She was forced into exile along with her children during the Second World War in order to ensure that the entire royal family would not be exterminated by the Nazi-Fascists. While it pained her to be safe and secure while her people suffered brutally, she worked tirelessly to awaken powers like the United States to the realities in Europe. By saving herself and her family, she ensured the survival of the Grand Duchy.

Even today she is honored as a hero and a saint.

There is a famous photo (and even some video) of Charlotte on the balcony of the Grand Ducal Palace presenting herself to the people upon her return from exile. The massive crowd is seen weeping and cheering at her return, but it must have been a moment of joy tinged with sadness and regret. Surely she would have offered her own life in the place of those who suffered and died, but she was only one human being — a woman and not a titan — and therefore she could not stop the cruel fate dealt to an innocent and powerless people.

I imagine Charlotte crushed under the weight of the failure to live up to the impossibly noble and selfless expectations she set for herself when she accepted the crown. I have had this sort of experience in my own life, and perhaps you have, too. It happens quite often that I feel inadequate before the challenges of life or unworthy to undertake a certain path, but in those moments I think on Grand Duchess Charlotte on the balcony of the Grand Ducal Palace summoning more strength than she imagined possible. She was strong for a people who needed strength. She was fearless and composed for the sake of a nation that needed courage and order in the wake of war. I think that the cheering and weeping crowds understood that she had made of herself an Atlas, mighty enough to bear up the entire world. She was nothing more than a human being like the rest of us, but she became something like a titan in that moment when the world needed a titan.

Like Charlotte the Great, you and I are something like titans. If only we could see this reality in ourselves and in each other — how we would change the world and create something we never knew we could.

The Universe would be a better place because of us — imperfect, weak, flawed, and beautiful beings that we are!

(Photos above: Portrait of Grand Duchess Charlotte; Charlotte with Prince Felix at her abdication in favor of Grand Duke Jean; Prince Guillaume — heir of Grand Duke Henri — and Princess Stephanie; statue of Grand Duchess Charlotte. To me they are like Family — an invincible source of hope and strength.)

~BT Waldbillig
October 15, 2017

Nonsectarian Rituals for the Spiritual Family (Part 2)

N.B.: This represents an initial, unfinished attempt at the creation of a hypothetical ritual. It’s meant to be a model and not a finished product.

Votum et Ritus ad Voti Recipiendum

The Vow of the Little Man
[Votum]

May I be:
Light in the darkness
Life in the place of death
Hope to those who despair
Courage to the fearful
Freedom to the enslaved
Strength to the weak
Mutual affection to all sentient beings
Enduring compassion of the Tree

[Inspired by the Vow of Shantideva]

– – – – –
– – – – –

Ad Voti Recipiendum
[Rite for Reception of the Vow]

May these words, which you have transformed into a sacred vow, be strength, light, hope, and an enduring promise of compassion for the entire Spiritual Family.

May you be the sacred tree that sanctifies the entire grove.

May you be the Wise Grovekeeper who follows not the ways of this world, for it is written: The wisdom of the world is folly.

May the many other trees that dwell in the grove, which is the Spiritual Family, hide and protect you from those who would lay low every tree of the sacred grove and slay every child of the One who brought into being this Family.

As once they bowed to the Little Man, the entire Family bows to you. By this sacred bow every son and daughter, every brother and sister of so great a Family is honored and remembered.

The suffering of those who gave their lives for the sake of this day was not in vain, for it is written: Behold, I saw a new heaven and a new Earth for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away.

As a dog abandons not the one he loves, the Spiritual Family will never abandon you. Just as dog and master each regard the other as little less than a god, so the Spiritual Family honors the mystery of compassion made manifest in you.

As the silent tree possesses power to transform light into life, the Spiritual Family has given you life that you may transform the Universe.

-Let fear, doubt, and anxiety no longer dwell in your presence
~Just as night and darkness vanish at the rising of the Unconquered Sun

-As you have passed from darkness to light
~So may our Family pass from death to life

-Truly, we have been blessed
~We are blessed from the very beginning

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
October 9, 2017