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

CybeleChariot

 

~BT Waldbillig
October 31, 2017

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At the Return of a Father

(vel Expectation of the Beloved)

ACT I
Scene 1

Love in the midst of suffering
Is both teacher and lesson

It is the nature of life, as we experience it, that we must, at times, take life in order to preserve life. While it easy to perceive the suffering of the being whose life is taken, we forget that every being who participates in aggression, violence, and the taking of life — whether perpetrator, victim, or witness; whether directly or indirectly; whether voluntarily, by accident, or against one’s will — is harmed and, therefore, suffers. While each participates in the act from a different place of experience, all are united by the mystery of suffering, mortality, and impermanence. As the Buddha and Jesus taught by the example of their own lives, the experience of suffering and impermanence is the starting place for positive spiritual transformation.

That’s not to say that positive spiritual transformation necessarily arises from the experience of suffering and mortality. In fact, often we deny the reality of our experience, we doubt ourselves, and we think ourselves beyond hope. But you have heard it said: The time of despair is our greatest hope. Whether saint or benevolent being, wicked being or servant of darkness, all share in the same experience and therefore in same possibility for abiding, positive spiritual transformation. But this teaching is difficult to accept — difficult for the righteous person and difficult for the wicked person. You will recall the story of a father who, in welcoming the return of a wayward son, caused his faithful son pain. But surely the formerly wayward son, having returned, felt sadness and pain at his brother’s rejection. Let us look not to the faithful son, nor to the son who turns away from evil. Rather, let us look to the father who loves them both.

The truth is this: The possibility for profound spiritual transformation can arise in any circumstance whatsoever — no matter how unlikely or impossible it seems. Even now, in this very moment, from whichever place we inhabit in the mystery of suffering, we have the power to become new again, to make of ourselves something greater than our dreaming, like unto to some ancient, fabled hero. But the hero who walks among us is no fable: he is brother and son, sister and daughter, father and mother. He is the Friend who looks back at us from behind eyes we have always seen but never beheld. The Friend we thought we might never find was with each of us all along. The Friend was within each of us from the moment of our arising into this world.

However, in this very moment, which is the moment of truth and time of ultimate crisis, those whom the world regards as righteous, respectable, upright, honest, powerful, and important show themselves slaves to their own fear, wickedness, and vanity. For it is written: The wisdom of the world is foolishness.

Those whom the world regards as “superior” — though my own mongrel dog more closely resembles Hyperion and these men mere satyrs — gladly command others to sacrifice their lives, offend the dignity of their station, shame their families, and forsake their future spiritual well-being. These “superiors” think themselves mighty Gods of War. They lust for the blood of the innocent, all the while tightly grasping to their own fleeting lives like a miser to gold or a monkey to a fig. But like the miser and the monkey they will make of their good fortune an unending curse, for so it always is with those who seek to save only themselves, just as it is written: For whosoever will save his life shall lose it.

You have heard it said: For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But do you not recall that the one who gave this teaching was himself a poor man, free from earthly attachments, who knew only one thing in abundance: Love. Any being whose life arises from within a community and whose life is protected and defended by a community, any being whose life is the continuation of another being and who seeks the continuation of that life — such a being understands love, such a being understands family, such a being loves family and loves life.

There are, in this world, many who command others to shed blood. They have little respect for blood that is shed at their demand and they regard the tears of those who suffer as inferior to their own piss. They long for blood to flow and tears to dry up.

But there also those, always few in number, who value the tears of those who suffer as more precious than gems. They readily offer their own blood with a vow that others may be saved. They make themselves protectors of the weak, vindicators of the innocent, mere men become spiritual priests of a spiritual family. Consecrated by love to an impossible mission, in the moment of truth they show themselves mightier than kings and presidents, greater than generals and admirals. They are men of no single nation or race or polity — they are men of every nation and race and polity who fight not for crown and homeland but on behalf the entire world. They bless the believer and the unbeliever alike; they embrace the innocent and the wicked at the same time; they seek the liberation of all beings burdened by suffering; they forsake the common path in order to embrace everyone they meet as son and daughter, brother and sister. They have no swords, no guns, no missiles, no nuclear codes; they have not a single division and not even one warship; they stand alone on the field of war and yet they tremble not. With a word summon an infinite multitude of faithful followers from ever corner of the world, warriors standing side-by-side as far as eye can see, each line of warriors followed by another beyond counting, the young together with the elder, the rich and powerful together with the poor and forgotten, from every tribe and nation.

Before such men clothed in the honor of their own blood offered on behalf of others, the Gods of War reveal themselves weak and pathetic. Like the Superhero or Time Lord that the child sitting before a television watches with attention and admiration, the world looks to the few who gladly offer their lives and their blood to protect not just this world, but even the entire Universe.  And like the Athenian Heroine and the lonely Hero who is continually reborn, all the armies in the world stand no chance against the unarmed Friend of humanity. Yet comic books, Hollywood films, and flashy television programs could never compare to the Heroic Friends who walk the world even today.

– – – – –

Scene 2

You have heard it said: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.

But I say this to you: Strike the shepherd and another will arise … and another and another, for the love of a shepherd is as invincible as the bright shining Sun in the sky. The love of a spiritual shepherd is stronger than the mighty oak tree whose roots render it immovable, whose seeds are small in size but almost infinite in number. And like the tree, the shepherd offers himself to the ax and to the fire without hesitation; with sure knowledge that death is no match for him; never doubting that he dies for the sake of those who are his spiritual seed; confident that from the very same family another, even greater shepherd will immediately rise up.

Qui potest capere capiat.

– – – – – –

Scene 3
TO THE GOD OF WAR

To the mighty God of War
The Boy of the Forest says Nothing

He laughs, he sings,
He dances, he weeps

For at last the fearsome warriors
Bow no longer to that Dead God

Mars Ultor, whose name inspired
Not love but fear, despair not hope

Behold! Mighty Sol, hidden in lowly form,
Pisses on the offering of Ares

Like a wandering mongrel cur
Or some mischievous boy

Who smiles while he offends
Not fearing, though others bow

Nor turning to look behind
As he walks away laughing

Like a faun or a satyr, he disappears
Lost among the trees, his friends

A Friend among Friends
Like a god among gods

And even to this day
His Friends offer sacrifice

On behalf of Silvanus, the Forest Boy
It is a sacrifice of praise

Deathless and bloodless
Joyful and fearless

Those who once were strangers
Gather as a great Family

Bowing not to a dead god
Bowing instead to each other

Thus honoring the One
Who first brought them together

A Father and a Master
Blessed from the very beginning

From the mouth of the Sybil:
Beyond understanding!

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
July 31, 2017

Plucked Flowers and Fallen Leaves

“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

When I was boy — I must have been four or five years old — a recurring dream frightened me so intensely that often I would wake up in the dead of night startled, calling out for my father. Still half asleep, he would wander down the hallway in the dark to comfort and calm me so that both of us could get some rest. In the dream I saw myself hovering above a green meadow dotted with yellow flowers and surrounded by a dense forest. All of a sudden I began to plummet, terrified as I was unable to halt the descent. This boyhood dream returned to me about ten years ago, though now with one curious difference — as I fell from the sky I experienced joy in place of fear. Now as I plummeted to Earth, I beheld a crowd of people below in the meadow waiting for me, smiling and laughing.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
~Gospel of Luke

There is a Zen story in which the Buddha stands silent before his disciples and simply holds up before them a plucked flower. Of all the many disciples present, only one, Mahākāśyapa, perceived the transformative spiritual teaching that all the Buddha’s words could never so directly or perfectly communicate. Mahākāśyapa could not suppress his smile and the Buddha knew that at least one of his followers understood the silent teaching. The story is almost a thousand years old and was probably formulated in China at about the time of the birth of Saint Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order and follower of the silent path.

You and I are surrounded by plucked flowers and fallen leaves, sparrow eggs safe in a mother’s nest and chicks passed too soon from this world. Like Mahākāśyapa and Saint Bruno,  we have the capacity to find in the precariousness and impermanence of this passing world a source of hope and joy to sustain us in moments of difficulty and darkness.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 2017

From Darkness to Light

Stat arbor
Dum volvitur orbis

The Tree stands still
While the Earth spins

Almost ten years ago I came across the spiritual autobiography of Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religion and former Catholic nun, as well as British television commentator and one of the authors of the international Charter for Compassion. Through the course of her spiritual crisis in the convent and afterward as she tried to construct a life in the outside world, Armstrong was dogged by discouragement and feelings of failure which led to a period of severe depression. Many years later as she reflected on the path she had forged for herself, she realized that in her youth she looked at the spiritual life as unfolding along a straight line where we’re either going forward or retreating backward. Progress or failure. Now, in later life, she prefers the image of a spiral staircase: In any given present moment, it seems as though we’re stuck turning in circles, while in fact we’re very gradually ascending, growing or progressing in ways that are hidden or difficult to perceive. Only after much time, great effort, lots of failure, and a fair amount of luck can we perceive our true place.

Many people live in close contact with the frustration, desolation, discouragement, and despair that Karen Armstrong experienced. Some choose to abandon their spiritual endeavor altogether, but most do their best to continue despite the seeming uselessness of it all. It’s not unlike other great undertakings in life — marriage, vocation, friendship, education, or positive social transformation.

The way forward
Is the path of return

We all need some kind of help or encouragement or support or sage advice in time of desolation. Often we’re bitterly aware when others respond with silence to our own difficulties, though usually we pay no attention at all to the even greater struggles of those we love.

Fortunately, simple realties — understood for what they are — lead us back to the place of compassion. Something simple like a plucked flower, a fallen leaf, or a crushed sparrow’s egg has power to awaken us from the darkness. So does a kind word, a spontaneous smile, an outstretched hand, or the embrace of a family.

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

The history of our kind shows that once in a very great while some momentous event occurs that plunges all of us into the darkness together at once. In those past moments when we were tempted to think all was lost, our kind always found a source of power beyond imagining.

In our day, we do well to recall that we are not alone. Together, not abandoning even the smallest or most useless among us, we wait in darkness for the appearance of a bright shining light that has already begun to dawn.

~BT Waldbillig
April 24, 2017

At the Arising of a Spiritual Family

The causes of death are many,
Those of staying alive are few,
These too can become the causes of death,
Therefore always perform the practices.
~Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland (n. 278)

When I was young I did not understand how precarious and uncertain life truly is. Only now, mid-way through life’s journey, have I seen how easily the life of a man, or indeed his entire family, might disappear so completely that beings in some later time might think him only a fable. Somewhere I wrote about the urgent obligation for a family of blood to transcend useless attachment to the love of some and the hatred of many, and in so doing become a family of spirit, transcending common barriers of vain self-interest and outwitting the wise and powerful of this world.

A family of blood alone or flesh alone is easily exterminated, whether by chance or by the design of those who call themselves righteous, superior, and pure. But a family of spirit is indestructible, impassable, unfailing, capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of noble tasks. Such a family -embraces every son and daughter as a loving father does. It stretches back in time, to an age before beings of our kind looked up to the heavens for signs. It stretches forward through time to realities you and I cannot even imagine. And if there is some knowable reality that stands outside of time completely, this family reaches even to that place.

But the true marvel is this: you and I have the power to bring into being this family.  Now, in this very moment. If we choose to. Each and every one of us, in the way we are best able, has a part in the arising of the spiritual family.

For this reason, somewhere Nagarjuna says this:

You should always analyze well
Everything before you act,
And through seeing things correctly as they are
Do not put full reliance on others.

Here he’s not speaking of self-reliance in the modern American sense. The ancient Indian master refers to something more subtle and quite important: When power is concentrated in the hands of a few men, some (perhaps all) of those few men will use it to wicked purpose, making themselves like unto gods, determining who merits life and who deserves to die. Or perhaps they will be foolish, like the mindless farmer who is unable to recognize in the loss of a single ear of wheat an abundance of bread that might have fed the hungry.

Those who seem reliable and trustworthy often show themselves to be nothing of the sort. If only one man or only one privileged group possesses power to bring into being a spiritual family, then the family is doomed. For this reason providence has placed a generative, spiritual power within every member of the family.

The creative force that brings into being the spiritual family stands not outside us, but within each of us. Each and every one of us can bring forth from within this power to give life and create the spiritual family. Perhaps those beings whose compassionate love and dedication to life we fail to appreciate also have this power. Perhaps there is a secret hidden for us in the rocks, in the water, in the trees, beneath the flowers, beyond the stars, and in the heart of a dog sitting at a boy’s feet.

Now, our kind is capable of acting with wisdom and generosity but the cycles of history show that rarely do we manifest our more noble nature. The famous phrase of Pascal comes to mind (I’m paraphrasing): Those men who mistakenly regard themselves as beings higher than angels, such men are destined to become the most hellish of beasts. Let angels be angels. Let beings of flesh and blood be what they are.

For this reason, a spiritual family belongs to no one single manifestation of the universal spiritual path, for human language is not capable of fully and completely communicating any reality, let alone that which is altogether beyond words as we know them. Some members of this family follow one god, some many, others none at all or something altogether different, but all members of  this family are united by love of life and compassion for one another — despite the many irreconcilable and contrary beliefs that exist in this world. Within the spiritual family, some are poor, some rich, some kingly, some little more than mongrel dogs, some well known, others yet to be known — there is place for all. They hide themselves in every place of power and among the powerless, indistinguishable from those around them. The sons and daughters of the spiritual family do this to ensure that on the dread day of destruction, at least some of them will endure, and the family will live on in them. This sort of spiritual family cannot be wiped out or extinguished.  Such a family will endure.

And should some Mighty People War seek the end of our manifestation of life in this world, the Family of the Great Heart will vouchsafe the continuation of life and compassion by the many means they have long prepared in silent expectation.

One day I will no longer exist in this world — just like any other man. So far as we understand, any being who comes into existence in this world eventually passes out of existence in this world. The sad mystery of impermanence and mortality shines an invincible light on the greater mystery of life manifested in fathers and mothers, in children and grandchildren, in trees and flowers and dogs, in wind and water and rocks, in pain and love and loneliness. You and I have encountered all these realities through the course of our brief lives so far. Perhaps they have inspired you, as they have inspired me, just as they inspired others before us, and will continue to inspire beings in need of hope long after we are gone, never to return to this present world.

For so long as there is a present moment in which we are able to become friend to those who seek a friend and a family able to welcome those in need of family, that moment will be a time in which life can thrive and flourish and invite and inspire.

Lest I paint too fantastical an image, the secret is this:  All we have to do is love each other. It is that simple, yet most of us think it impossible entirely. As Cardinal Newman wrote somewhere: We begin by loving those who are nearest to us — ourselves, our family, our friends. From the sure love that exists within the spiritual family, we are able to expand our experience of compassionate-love until it grows as in an ever-widening circle and embraces even those regarded as unlovable.

Here, in the present moment and within the spiritual family, we find a place where life begins, a means by which life continues, and a shining beacon of hope for all who dwell in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
April 20, 2017
– – – – –
Hymn of the Spiritual Family

abbe gaud
albe gaud
nonce laud
ver bend
pae don
bend en harc

Rejoice, the Father comes
Rejoice, the Rising Sun brings dawn
Let all proclaim the praise
Truly we are sacred
To our Father and to His Master
We are blessed from the very beginning

Across the Universe

Life, as we experience it, arises within a community and continues by means of a community. This community is family. To family, there can be nothing more important than life.

The purpose of family is to foster conditions that favor, protect, and propagate life. Members of a family are bound to one another by the life they receive, share, and pass on.

The arising of life is not inevitable, nor is the indefinite continuation of life. Both require great energy, care, and attention.

Any creature that comes into being in this world will eventually pass out of being from this world. This truth inspires urgent attention to life as we experience it in the present moment.

So far as we understand it, biological life is not, of itself, eternal or immortal; hence biological beings are bound together by their mortality. From the understanding of mortality arise both the basest and most noble qualities of human beings.

Beings from some distant place in the Universe, to my estimation, might likewise understand themselves as sharing our condition.

Human beings, grasping the inevitability of their own mortality, transform sadness, despair, and suffering by many different means: religion, spiritual endeavors, music, art, magic, dance, storytelling, the search for wisdom, love, etc.

The sybil, the prophet, the priest, and the astrophysicist all use the means at hand to endow their experience of the world with meaning, purpose, beauty, majesty, and hope.

Even today, when human beings leave this world and its atmosphere by technological means, they describe their experience in terms not unfamiliar to ancient shamans or medieval mystics.

Hope is the virtue of a community that values life and knows how precarious it truly is.

A mother would rather suffer harm herself than see her child harmed; a father willingly and without hesitation places himself in harm’s way in order to protect his children.

Children honor those who gave them life by valuing their own lives, by passing on the gift of life they receive, and by imitating the good and noble example of those who gave them life.

Members of a family do what they are able to do in the manner they judge best, each member possessing something valuable and useful in the family’s mission.

Should we encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, it is entirely likely that they, too, will understand something of what we call family.

Somewhere I wrote about family born of blood and family born of spirit. Just as we embrace others and call them family even when we do not share blood with them, so might we embrace beings from elsewhere in the Universe.

In this way, a spiritual family arises and grows, expanding as in an ever-widening circle and binding together those who once were strangers.

~BT Waldbillig
March 15, 2017

Even Gods Need Heroes

There is an ancient saying:
Even the gods
Have need of heroes

Early humans left images of animals on the walls and vaults of the caves where they took refuge. One of the most common images is the bull (in one form or another). In all likelihood this image was a celebration of the successful hunt as well as the expression of hope in continued prosperity. But the animal image also acknowledges the precariousness of life, which depends on the sacrifice and death of some beings for the sake of others. Buddhists will later call this reality (i.e., the precariousness of life) impermanence, while Christians will adopt the mantra memento mori. Presumably, the inspiration for the pre-historic cave paintings is also the origin of the Mithras myth.

The American Christian theologian Richard John Neuhaus said somewhere that we are born to die. Naturally, he didn’t mean that death is our purpose. He simply stated an obvious truth: Each of us is born midway along a journey that will one day end. If we are born into this life, we will one day pass out of this life.

Not surprisingly, our participation in this reality of pain and mortality causes fear, despair, selfishness, hatred, regret, and suffering. Yet instead of resting in these experiences, we have, since the beginning, chosen to give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise be an empty, hopeless existence. This is the spiritual path.

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

For us, as well as for beings similar to us, life arises within a community and is continued by means of a community. This is family, and within family rests hope.

I still recall a phrase I learned in seminary while studying philosophy: Bonum est diffusivum sui. The Good naturally and spontaneously tends toward growth, expansion, and continuation. Family is the incarnation of this principle, though at times it is difficult for us to appreciate this, as by its nature family embraces both sheep and goats, to use a Biblical expression. To put it another way: The mother of a family embraces all of her children. She loves each son as if he were her only child, loves each daughter as if she were her only child. The just and the wicked alike. How difficult it is to be a mother!

Take the example of the grove-keeper. She is careful which branches she prunes and which she allows to remain, which trees she brings down and when. She values the beautiful trees, the fruit-bearing trees, and those with fragrant blossoms, but also trees that appear to the foolish man as ugly and useless. Not all the branches nor all the trees survive the grove-keeper’s labor, but if she chooses wisely and carefully, the grove will survive and flourish.

Life continues by protecting and fostering the place where it arises. In this way, life is able to expand as in an ever-widening circle, stretching out to every corner of the universe.

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 2017