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

Take the Lesson of the Tree

While the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

We live in a world replete with wisdom — a world in which the very trees themselves and birds and mountains and dogs have something to teach us — yet few of us are ever wise.

As Dante the Little Man and I took our walk through a nearby park this morning, one of the trees spoke to us and said:

Yesterday’s story is today’s story — some rejoice at this prince or that, while others lament; fortunes are made and lost; the children of one man prosper while those of another become orphans. Yesterday, did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, extend your hand to the fallen? No — and you won’t today either. You prefer to wander desperately like madmen, the buzz of the world echoing in your mind. If only you would take the lesson of the Tree, then would you change your world.

~BT Waldbillig
November 10, 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

Man’s Best Friend

This morning as the dog and I took our walk through nearby Highbridge Park, I noticed that Dante sometimes resembles a bull — snorting, shaking his head, and turning up the tall grass with repeated backward digs as if he were preparing to charge forward. Naturally, there’s nothing menacing when it’s just a goofy corgi half-breed acting this way. In fact, I can’t help but laugh that my dog should behave like this, as if he were some mighty bull or the great aurochs that dominated the spiritual consciousness of ancient humans. And yet, if I were a painter or shaman I would honor him in the vault of a great cave just as surely as our ancestors painted sacred bulls in those caves that were the first temples of humanity.

“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind,
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon follows the hoof of the ox.”
~Dhammapada

It’s curious that the mystery of impermanence, mortality, and suffering commemorated in cave-painted bulls later found expression in the cult of the Friend (Mithras). It is also likely alluded to in the very first passage of the Buddhist Dhammapada, which should be no surprise as Buddhism was reshaped by its encounter with Gandharan civilization in the ancient birthplace of Zoroastrianism, which gave birth to Mithraism.

Greco-Roman civilization likewise came into contact with the warrior Gandharan people while the writings of the Christian New Testament were still being formulated. And so in the Gospel when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and when he elsewhere references the slaughter of a calf in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I cannot help but think on the ancient cave paintings or on the depictions of Mithras and the Bull.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
~Gospel of John, Prologue

Re-reading the opening line of the Dhammapada — “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind” — I am reminded of the Christian theology of logos as the creative, generative reality of God made incarnate in Jesus. Perhaps Buddhism hitched a ride to the West with the Gandharan warriors. Or maybe proto-Christian thought found its way back to the East and influenced that famous and quintessentially Buddhist line from the Pali canon.

Not coincidentally, in the Gandharan flourishing of Buddhism one of the central and most honored figures is the Future Buddha-Boddhisatva Maitreya. Both Maitreya and Mithras come from the word: Mitra, which means Friend.

And somehow Dante the Little Man, a mere mongrel dog, led me to think on all these things this morning. Proof that even a wordless dog can become a great spiritual teacher. If a dog can do this, just imagine what you and I might become one day!

~BT Waldbillig
May 15, 2017

Maitreya
Gandharan image of the Future Buddha, who is also the Friend

When Dogs Attack

A few weeks ago as Dante and I were walking in the Bronx section of Highbridge Park, we were attacked by two pitbulls, one juvenile, the other adult. A woman had released her dogs in an open part of the park and once they saw us, they ran straight for us. From her appearance and manner of speech, she was likely from a rough part of the neighborhood, and parts of the Bronx can be rough indeed. The woman did what lots of people who lack proper training or who have no experience with responsible, dog-positive culture do: she let her dogs off leash in a public space so they could defecate without any need for her to clean up after them.

The dogs tried to provoke Dante, though he wouldn’t move from his place between them and me. Had he tried to bite back or run, the results would have been ugly, perhaps even fatal. As the pitbulls pushed and growled and nipped, I pulled Dante up by his collar and put him on my shoulder. It didn’t occur to me to abandon him in order to save myself. After all, when someone you love is in danger, you don’t turn your back. Even when that someone is just a dog.

The woman didn’t have control of her dogs, but she did manage to distract them long enough for me to calmly and slowly walk away with Dante on my shoulder. Once we got ourselves to a safe spot, I realized my right forearm was bruised and I had been bitten on the right thigh. Luckily I’m okay, though I did consult a nurse right away. Dante somehow managed to come out of the conflict with barely a scratch.

Good instincts and a calm response saved us both from a dangerous situation. I always imagined that Dante would willingly put himself in harm’s way for the sake of my well-being. Now I know that I was right.

After the shock of the situation subsided, I was quite angry with the woman who, whether from ignorance or irresponsibility, put Dante and me in danger. Then I recalled the problems a good friend of mine had with his dog, a sweet but large and powerful animal who spontaneously and seemingly without provocation attacked another dog. Recalling my friend’s difficulties became an opening for compassion toward the lady in the park. I will likely never encounter her again, but each time Dante nuzzles me, each time we play catch I’m thankful that all of us — Dante, me, the woman, her dogs — emerged from that difficult situation safe.

~BT Waldbillig
February 13, 2017

Of Snakes and Dogs

This morning before Dante and I set out for our morning trek, we had to bundle up and prepare ourselves since NYC finally received its first proper snowfall of the season. This morning’s crisp wind, cold temperature, and rising snowbanks were a far cry from our experience along the same route one year ago at this time, right around Epiphany. I remember this only because of an odd incident that still lingers in my consciousness.

Last year as the dog and I took our walk on a balmy Epiphany morning, we came upon a garter snake who had wandered out and onto the paved foot path leading to the pedestrian bridge on the Washington Heights side of Highbridge Park. While I’m not an ophidiophobe, my lack of familiarity with snakes usually causes me hesitation when I encounter them. Still, I find them beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Many of us know snakes in the unfavorable symbolic form they take within the Judeo-Christian cultural context, but of course in ancient times snakes held the sign of healing and medicine. Then there’s the famous story of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment: As the tale goes, on the eve of his spiritual transformation a giant, primordial lake serpent protected the Buddha from the danger of wild predators and from the harsh natural elements while he meditated.

The snake has a role, also, in what is arguably the world’s oldest global religion, Mithraism. Since this defunct cult was primarily ritual and visual, as opposed to written, we know with certainty very little about it. Yet in virtually every known intact and semi-intact place of worship we find Mithras, the Friend, depicted with several animals, including a dog and a snake.

Incidentally, Mithras is normally shown wearing a Phrygian cap, essentially a hipster hat, which covers his knotted hair — think today’s man-bun. How funny the cycle of history can be!

So last year I was keen for my dog to see and meet this snake, which was a first experience for him so far as I could tell. I made Dante stop and sit about a foot away from the garter snake and I brought his attention to the little guy sunning on the pavement, sure that he didn’t try to play with the snake or eat him. Once that was done, I broke off a twig off from a nearby tree branch and used it to move the snake to the side of the path, lest he be trampled by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, or careless dogs.

Later that same day Dante presented me with a stick he had cleaned and whittled a bit at one end. I assured him I’d keep it for the next time I encounter a snake in need of help.

~BT Waldbillig
January 8, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

Spending time with my dog, Dante, brings me immense joy. In fact, I consider our time together – above all our walks – as sacred. Even though I live in Manhattan, I’m lucky enough to be in a neighborhood with plenty of trees and very few high-rise buildings. For our evening walk, sometimes Dante and I stroll through Highbridge Park and stop in the meadow to gaze up at the heavens. Unfortunately I don’t remember well my astronomy lessons from school, but I can always spot the constellation of Orion the Hunter in the sky. Sometimes, if I think about it hard and squint harder, I can pick out the stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Bellatrix, which form part of the constellation.

Not surprisingly, Dante and I aren’t the first creatures to contemplate Orion. There’s a 40,000-year-old ivory carving from Germany that depicts Orion, and long before Horace and Homer mention him, the Egyptians and Babylonians were talking about Orion. He even appears in the Bible three times.

During my eight years in Rome, I made over 180 visits to the Sistine Chapel and every single time I was mesmerized by the figure of Christ the Judge. It’s believed that Orion served as inspiration to Michelangelo for the figure of Christ above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel. Orion really got around!

Now, for just a moment think on Orion’s belt. From where we stand in the universe, these three stars – whose names I always forget – align in a nice, neat row. Notice I say, “from where we stand in the universe”. From other places in the universe, these stars align differently. In fact, there is a place in the universe where Orion’s imperfectly straight belt appears as a perfect equilateral triangle. If there are other intelligent, physical beings elsewhere in the universe, perhaps they gaze on these same stars and see an altogether different formation.

(It’s curious that to the ancients who followed the cult of Sol Invictus, Orion’s belt and shoulders were seen as the blade of Mithras and the bull’s horns from the depiction of the Tauroctony.)

The same reality is often perceived and experienced in vastly different ways by different beings, and that’s true of more than just stars. This is something for each of us to contemplate the next time we gaze on Orion the Hunter in the night sky.

~BT Waldbillig
March 24, 2016