The Ascent of the Magna Mater

The love of a grandmother
Will endure forever

Today is the dies natalis (birthday) of my Grandma Carol (Bedola Carol Betts Miles Walter). As I look back to my childhood, I think she was the first person I truly, consciously, deliberately, and freely loved. My intense love for her arose as a natural response to the love she showed me every moment of every day that we ever spent together. She seemed to engage love with an almost absolute freedom — something great saints are known for but which I have not even begun to master.

Perhaps more importantly, Grandma Carol and I laughed — often and loudly. We held in common a joyful playfulness as well as a belief that the world is full of nonsense, contradictions, and shit. Together we chose to face life’s ugliness and meaninglessness with uproarious cries of laughter.

Now, lest you get the impression that my grandmother was some sort of one-dimensional saint, I should mention that as a young mother she failed in some of what we today regard as essential parenting tasks. She also smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor.

But whenever I was in her presence I knew the tenderness, gentleness, and playfulness that only an old woman who has passed through life’s bitterest trials and emerged morally and spiritually intact can show the world. Only those who choose to dwell as fully as possible in the present moment, casting aside all fixated attachment to the past, can truly begin in earnest a spiritual path and continue along the path with dedicated purpose. My grandmother’s religious faith was private and her spiritual devotion silent, but there was never any doubt that her interior life was rich, powerful, simple, and uncomplicated.

Recall that great spiritual theologians and masters of the spiritual life are almost unanimous in the conviction that a healthy, authentic spiritual life should be marked by kindness-compassion-love and should become ever simpler across the years. In fact, it is sacred tradition to free one’s self of unnecessary worldly possessions in the course of one’s spiritual journey, so that by the time one passes out of this life, one should be unencumbered by possessions, wealth, worries, and selfish attachments.

In a way, Grandma Carol’s love — as I perceived and experienced it in my youth and later as an adult meditated upon it — was a lot like God’s love, as described in the sacred scriptures and in the writings of the early Church Fathers. When I used to preach at Mass as a young priest, my mission was always simple: Show the despised, the rejected, the unwanted, the unloved, and even the wicked that they are lovable and they are loved. Clever exegesis, subtle doctrinal ruminations, useful history lessons, and high moral exhortations were of no use if they did not support or arise from that mission.

Today I when contemplate the realities of despised and rejected peoples who need and want to experience love — such as the Mafia, gangs like the Trinitarios, the North Koreans, and unwanted migrants and refugees — I find myself calling upon my own experiences of love as a young man. When I began my wanderings through the world those aspects of myself became obscured but in recent years they have returned, returned because I needed them in order to understand how to love in a world that is mad and merciless.

In my youth I didn’t realize how the years spent in seminaries, religious houses, monasteries, and church rectories had kept me “safe” from the world. But this protection came with a cost: There was much about love, human beings, life, and myself that I simply didn’t understand. Intimate encounter with elements of the world that previously had been alien to me has transformed my heart, opened my eyes, and illuminated my mind. It may be that I yet wander in a place of darkness and night, but now I know that I am not alone in the darkness. That gives me hope.

The love of my grandmother and the love of Family have emboldened me to embrace the many beautiful and useful aspects of my past life while discovering within myself today — as a man mid-way through his journey in life — marvelous gifts that I never imagined might dwell within me. These same spiritual gifts dwell within you, too.

If we stand together, there is no obstacle in the Universe that can stop us as we carry out the divine mandate to share and protect the life we have been given.

There is no place in the Universe that will remain forever closed and alien to us.

Together we will show each other, as well as every being in the Universe, what love truly is.

Ave mater beata magna
Sicut et amica mea
Tu fortis et alma
Prudens et pulchra
Nunc in caelo Solis sponsa
Imago per saecula cordis divini
Salvatrix mihi et canis fidelis
O magna mater esto nobis
Familiae et genetrix spiritualis

Hail, O Great Mother
You who are likewise my friend
You are the strong and tender one
The wise and beautiful one
Now the bride of Sol in heaven
For all ages, a mirror of divine love
To me, a saving helper and faithful dog
Be unto us also, O Magna Mater,
The Progenitor of this spiritual family



~BT Waldbillig
October 31, 2017

The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of Family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017

Ultimate Purpose and Supreme Joy

This past week I experienced a first health scare with the dog, who had ingested a hard plastic condiment container that caused a partial blockage of his digestive tract. Luckily, the problem resolved itself without the need for surgery and Dante is well again. When yesterday arrived, I felt more than ready for my usual Christmas Eve ritual: parking myself on the couch next to the dog and watching repeats of Doctor Who all day long.

When I was a kid, I had quite a different routine for Christmas Eve. That was the day when Grandma Carol would arrive for her holiday visit. The house would be thoroughly cleaned and the guest room prepared by the time she arrived in the early afternoon. Luggage, Christmas gifts, and holiday sweets would find their way into the house. While the adults sat in the kitchen sipping coffee, we children would arrange the gifts around the Christmas tree and begin speculating on what might be in the packages.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a great deal over the past year. By pure coincidence, asteroids passed by Earth on her Halloween birthday and again on Christmas Eve this year, bringing her memory to the fore of my consciousness even more intensely.

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

We could almost say that both the ultimate purpose of life and the supreme joy of life is the continuation of life itself. Yet, the continuation of life is always enshrouded in uncertainty, precariousness, and pain. Despite this, we choose to carry on in the great endeavor of life and, from time to time, we even find happiness.

~BT Waldbillig
December 25, 2015

An Awakening

Some people say the end of the world is near
Others think the world will never end
But I tell you this:
The world as we know it is already passing away

By curious chance, an asteroid unexpectedly passed by Earth on October 31, which also happens to be the birthday of my departed grandmother. This random occurrence reminded me of a series of unusual and vivid dreams I experienced about a year or so ago. Somewhere I attempted to write about two of the dreams, at first in simple narrative form and then again in verse. Truth be told, my re-telling of the dreams leaves me dissatisfied. Perhaps that is the nature of dreams: they embody a world where the categories that strictly order our daily lives dissolve into something quite different. And while dreams are not ‘real’ in the sense that our daily lives are ‘real’, they have power to give us new vision when we wake up.

One of the dreams, the one I call A Vision of Green Light, involved an asteroid, visitors from a distant place in the universe, a dog, and the end of a world. In a sense, the story of the dream is less important than the meaning found in it. Or maybe I should say ‘meanings’, since dreams operate on many different planes of meaning simultaneously. Since we usually experience these various meaning-strands as one thing even though they are distinct, dreams can be frustratingly confusing or utterly transcendent.

We tend to regard the world we inhabit as essentially permanent and relatively static; this isn’t surprising given the way we experience and perceive it. But there is a different way of looking at the world: as a place where everything is in flux, continually changing, more process than thing, more action than place. Spiritual traditions and modern physics both affirm this, in different ways and with metaphors they find useful.

In this very moment
Our world is passing away

Whether it’s a dream, an asteroid, or the death of a loved one, we need reminders that whatever we experience can and will change. In that simple realization we find the root of both fear and hope, as well as the overcoming of fear and hope.

~BT Waldbillig
December 11, 2015

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