“The Duh-Vinci Code”

Though I come from a small, forgettable Midwestern town I had the good fortune to receive a top-notch education at the local state-run high school. In fact, my school was one of just a few (fewer than 10 or 12, I think) state schools in the entire U.S. that still offered Latin language study, which in Chariton, Iowa also entailed Roman mythology, civilization, politics, and military history. (We also had a toga party at the end of each year!)

My decidedly not elite or fancy high school years more than sufficiently prepared me for years of humanities, philosophy, theology, and liturgy. Studying Latin when I was young opened me to a cultural and intellectual patrimony that just a century ago most moderately well-educated people understood fully. Did you ever realize that in those 19th century one-room school houses (think Little House on the Prairie), young men and women learned Latin — and Attic Greek! — and it was entirely expected for them to compose metered poetry in those languages? That’s what education was in the Midwest, where nothing was taken for granted and privilege was rare and lean. That’s the kind of place I come from.

Learning Latin forced me to examine my experience of language and communication in ways I might not otherwise have done. So many things we take for granted and know without understanding. But with Latin I didn’t have that convenience. Structures, principles, relationships, purposes, and the necessarily culture-bound connotations that make sense unless you’re not part of the culture — these were the sorts of things I was able to start thinking about when I was just 15 years old. Later on in Rome, Reggie Foster did me the favor of insisting that I (and every other student) have always at hand at least three different English words to translate any given Latin word. Reggie knew all too well how lazy and complacent most seminarians can get and he wouldn’t have it! In fact, he would give any student a passing grade if they weren’t committed to learning but had to take the course, on the condition that he never see them again after the first day. I always sat in the very front row with rapt attention, much as Alexander must have done with Aristotle. When you’re in the presence of genius, you don’t waste a moment or a word or smile or joke. You savor them all. Did I mention that Reggie was also a Midwesterner?

A thought occurs to me. What if our language and alphabet and grammar for say, theoretical physics, isn’t actually as univocal and universal as we think? We are able to understand what we understand in the way we understand it in large part because of certain biological and physiological structures in our brains and in the relationship of our senses to our minds. Maybe science isn’t the universal language we’ve come to think it is. Or mathematics either.

But for now, we must content ourselves with whatever our best understandings are until we have something totally outside our place of experience to compare things with.

There’s an episode of Futurama (“The Duh-Vinci Code”) in which Professor Farnsworth ends up on the fabled Planet Vinci only to discover that while he’s a supergenius on Earth, he’s a dumb-dumb on Planet Vinci. There’s something worth contemplating in that Futurama scene.

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017
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Indeed the Reapers

For most human beings, life without some purpose and meaning is a burden too great to bear. That’s why most of us either choose some form of religion or spiritual belief, or else we spend every waking moment of each day distracting ourselves from the reality of our own mortality and the impermanence of everything and everyone we experience in this world.

To my estimation, the simplest, surest, and most primitive way to discover meaning and purpose to life is to look at the source of life: the Family. Life, as we know it, originates in a community, endures by means of a community, prospers by means of a community, and increases by means of a community. We call that community the Family.

While it seems likely that the conditions that support life as we know it exist abundantly across the Universe, it seems just as likely that it endures only with great difficulty, not unlike a candle that quickly lights but also quickly goes out if not protected from wind or water or dirt.

As it happens, I come from a place where people understand how precious life is and also how precarious life can be. My ancestors who left Luxembourg and settled on a farm in Iowa were intimately acquainted with the precariousness of life. I imagine that when they attended Sunday Mass and heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares they must have seen themselves as characters within the story. Perhaps you remember the it:  A wicked enemy, seeking to destroy the good seed of the righteous farmer, entered his fields under cover of darkness and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the farmhands realized this had happened they didn’t know what to do and feared that the entire harvest would be lost. The righteous farmer, on the other hand, did not let the deeds of wicked men lead him to despair.

Now, there’s something missing from the Gospel account: Jesus tells us that the farmer instructed the farmhands to let the good and bad seed continue to grow in the field together until harvest, at which time the reapers would sort out the good from the bad. This implies that the wicked men who sought to destroy the harvest were unaware that this could be done, otherwise they would have been little more than hoodlums. But more strangely, the farmhands don’t know how to handle the situation. The farmer, however, knows precisely the best course of action to take. Perhaps this is not surprising, as he is familiar every inch of his land. He knows how to survive in times of clement weather and also through drought and plague. He has seen many harvests and plenty of weeds.  The farmer’s patient endurance in caring for the land across the years gives him greater wisdom than both his enemies and his helpers.

I can’t help but wonder if the righteous farmer, by telling his farmhands to do nothing, was also biding his time, letting the wicked men think they held the place of power and advantage. Perhaps they would reveal themselves in order to taunt and mock the farmer, the farmhands, and even their women and children. And when they reveal themselves, they will become the cause of their own perdition. In this context the mention of reapers takes on a darker significance. Indeed, the reapers will sort the wheat from the weeds!

Now, as anyone from my hometown can tell you,  there’s nothing romantic or picturesque about life on a farm. It is relentless and exhausting, merciless and back-breaking. Farmers perform an essential and difficult task for the community, and yet their recompense is meager and every harvest is precarious. Few of us recognize just how impressive farmers are. I can attest that many an Iowa farmboy can stare down a bear or a coyote without breaking a sweat, and I know farmgirls who can drag an escaped bull back into his pen and still make it to the homecoming dance on time. Though I didn’t understand it in my youth, I was incredibly fortunate to grow up around farms and farm families.

It all goes back to family. What I’ve learned from my experience in spiritual communities is that people who seem different, with nothing in common and no reason to want to know and love each other, can create a Spiritual Family that’s stronger and more certain to endure than any blood line.

I’ve even learned this truth from my dog. The love I have for Dante and the bond I experience with him is more powerful than anything I’ve ever known. Even though we seem entirely different sorts of beings, he has become family to me. Surely if a man and a dog can discover something like family in each other, then you and I could experience that also with beings from some distant place in the Universe.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan but something odd strikes me about the ways we envision the future and an encounter with alien beings. For some reason we usually depict ourselves as either passive and insignificant, just sitting around waiting for someone to find us, or else anyone who’s not like us is an enemy or a danger. I think that only now are we discovering that we need a shared purpose to make something like First Contact both possible and desirable.

But what if we’re alone in Universe? Why hasn’t it occurred to anyone that we should vouchsafe the continuation of life? For my part, I am convinced that this place and our form of life are worthwhile, but even now, in this moment, our world is passing away. This should be motive enough for us to spread life wherever it can take hold. However it was that we got here, we are meant exist and we are meant to spread the life we have received. In this context, the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply takes on a new and more urgent meaning.

If the farmer doesn’t sow seed and labor tirelessly there’s no harvest and when there’s no harvest the living soon become the dead. The wicked men in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares thought they had power to destroy the harvest of the righteous farmer. But the power was always with the farmer. It was up to him to decide if the harvest was worth saving.

You and I are the righteous farmer.

~BT Waldbillig
September 7, 2017

Of Bait Dogs and Navy Cooks

Most of us choose to believe the prosperity, fortunate events, and pleasurable relationships that arise in our lives are more or less the result of our own merits. It’s as if we’ve earned the good things that are actually beyond meriting. Life itself — in its origin and in its continuation — is the supreme example.

When I look to my own life with clear judgment and compassion, I find a series of random and improbable turns of fate. I am a white male of European descent born in one the of world’s greatest nations (though its empire is waning). I was raised by parents who loved me and provided very well for me. My ancestral religion resides in the Catholic Church, a powerful spiritual institution with global political influence. While I’m far from genius, nature placed in me no obstacles of mind or body to hinder my education or work across the years. I spent my entire childhood in the State of Iowa, a land of fruitful abundance where honest people look out for each other and value matters of the spirit more than the trappings of worldly success, where the soil is more valuable than gold.

Now, one of the great virtues of my homeland, the United States, is liberty that makes possible good things that the entire world desires. At the same time, my nation has a deeply rooted and profoundly ugly fault: prosperity renders many citizens vain and lacking in compassion, and arrogance blinds them to the institutional injustices, societal inequities, and moral cruelties that make the same prosperity unattainable to others. In the secret place of the heart, many people regarded as virtuous actually disdain the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the weak, the sick, the blind, the lame, those with mental illness, people of despised religions, and those with the wrong skin color. Some of these people attend church faithfully and rule over others.

At the same time, I am not embarrassed for the lucky circumstances of my life. I owe no one an apology at being American, or white, or middle class, or well educated, etc. Rather, I believe that along with others who know good fortune, I am obligated to make of prosperity an instrument of social, political, economic, and spiritual transformation. This is the outward manifestation of compassionate love and compassionate love is the one thing that makes life worth living.  As it happens, compassionate love put into action brings together people of all circumstances and backgrounds as they transform for the better themselves, each other, the world, and the entire Universe.

Saint Basil the Great said somewhere ( I’m paraphrasing): If we have piles of fine coats or stacks of costly garments or rich food (or a sneaker collection, etc.) that we do not use and hide away in chests or closets, then we are stealing from the poor who have need of the leftover abundance we keep for ourselves. You and I who regard ourselves as just human beings can hardly understand how radical and demanding this teaching is. Saint Basil sits before the Church as bishop and successor to Christ’s apostles shouting: “Fuck you, arrogant and selfish men! You have understood nothing.” Today our Prosperity Gospel preachers and comfortable suburban bishops put higher value on perfect hair, gleaming teeth, tanned bodies, luxury cars, Club Med holidays, academic degrees from the right universities, eye-candy personal assistants, brand new McMansions, and fat bank accounts than they do on the poor.

As a son of Abraham inspired by Saint Basil, I would even say that the Crusader, the Zionist, and the Jihadi — in so far as all these titles have been corrupted — are one in the same. They have not understood the origin or expression of the compassionate love that their ancestors treasured. It is compassionate action that pleases the Compassionate One — not war, violence, hatred, rape, oppression, and injustice.

And let’s not start with the smartly dressed, over-educated, self-important trendy urban Buddhists (or others belonging to this or that spiritual movement) who are actually dedicated to numbing themselves to the horrible pain of impermanence and mortality, turning their backs to the suffering of others as much to their own suffering. The path of the Buddha was nothing so comfortable and it certainly was not socially respectable.

My thoughts turn to Dante the Little Man. Truly, there was no reason I should have encountered this quirky mongrel who inspires in me greater love than I’ve known for any other creature on the planet. Had I not wandered over to East 1st Street on that one particular day when I was able to sneak out of the office early, or had I waited just one more day and missed an adoption event on the Upper East Side, some hipster with a trust fund might have taken him home. (Peace be to hipsters with trust funds!) And without Dante the Little Man I might not have persevered through the saddest days of my mother’s mental illness. If a Memphis, Tennessee dog rescue with little space and no money hadn’t found him and passed him along to Social Tees Animal Rescue in New York City, Dante well might have met his end in the hell reserved to bait dogs at some gory dog fight organized in a filthy garage or dank basement or secluded backwoods property. What are the odds that Dante the Little Man should find his way from Memphis to the East Village and been in the office and not the kennel on that afternoon when I decided to look for a dog because I had a couple of hours free and nothing interesting to do?

And how much of life is precisely like this! If only we had eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and hearts for loving. How different the world would be!

As gratitude arises in my heart for lucky twists of fate and providential encounters that changed my life, I think on poor Black and Latina women with serious mental illness in places like the Bronx. They start the day with three strikes against them in a country where “good” people instrumentalize religion and success to justify their selfishness and to oppress others.

I think on countries like North Korea, where suffering continues because of war and injustice; where its young men have been so much meat for worms and its women objects to serve the needs of the powerful; where even today mighty and so-called great nations — my own included — seek to possess the land and people for their own benefit and not out of compassion for the infants with empty bellies or homeless old women freezing to death on cold winter nights. (Obviously, this represents only one aspect of the complicated history and political reality of that part of the world.)

I also honor the sacrifices of my two uncles who honorably served in the Korean War for the sake of the country my family loves and cherishes. Both did what they could to mitigate their participation in unjust acts and in the taking of life. One uncle deliberately found his way to the duties of cook aboard a US Navy ship in order to avoid taking life in battle. The other was a beautiful man broken by the PTSD that was his continual companion when he came home from war. PTSD destroyed his marriage, made a career difficult at times, and alienated him from the people he loved most. How many men and women are like my uncles!

By all means we do well to take the project of life into our own hands, to be masters of our destinies, to take responsibility for ourselves. But let us not delude ourselves. In truth, we owe much to the unseen beneficial forces that make good things possible. Whether it’s luck, karma, providence, benevolent beings … or the love of a dog that makes life worth living.

~BT Waldbillig
April 8, 2017

Broken Bowls and Shattered Cups

My friend Sarah has moved house and consolidated households a few times in recent years. As a consequence, she has a box of broken items. Just recently she told me that she’s decided to try her hand at kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing broken items in such a way as both to recall the brokenness of the item and honor its beauty. Usually this is done with bowls and cups, but you can do it with just about anything that’s broken.

The practice of kintsugi is inspired by the philosophical aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which acknowledges that all things in the world are impermanent and imperfect, including beautiful things. Far from denigrating beauty, wabi-sabi finds beauty in places that many of us would overlook. Even in broken bowls and shattered cups.

Wabi-sabi has a special significance to people like Sarah and me. You see, my friend and I have both experienced the brokenness of serious mental illness among close friends and even family members. In my case, it’s a mother with schizoaffective disorder.

Serious mental illness is brutal. It’s ugly. It’s painful. Yet behind the outward displays of the illness, there is always a human being, someone’s child or parent or spouse or sibling or neighbor or friend. To a child, a mother is always beautiful; to a parent, a child is beautiful; and there’s nothing in the world more beautiful than a beloved friend. Even a friend with mental illness.

I often express pride in my home state of Iowa, but lately something unsettling has happened. Over the past couple of years, a number of important mental health facilities have closed down. Most recently it happened in Oskaloosa, though not long ago it was Mount Pleasant and Independence. My mother was absent from my high school graduation because ten days prior to the event she had been admitted, against her will, to the mental health facility at Independence, Iowa. I was sad at the time, but my mother got the help and care she needed in that moment and that’s something to be thankful for, maybe even something to celebrate.

Surely fiscal responsibility is important and necessary but every budget that’s slashed and every mental health facility that’s closed will bear consequence in the lives of actual, living human beings. There’s nothing theoretical, abstract, or impersonal about it.

The poor, the sick, the suffering, the rejected, the useless, the unloved, the aged, the mentally ill — these people are every bit as important as you and me. And they’re beautiful, too. If only we could see that.

~BT Waldbillig
March 23, 2017

Rediscovering Ritual

When I was in high school I would frequently travel 40 to 60 miles on Sundays to attend church services. Now, this wasn’t because services weren’t available close by. The parish church was only three or four blocks away and the pastor, Father Bernard Gottner, was a good man who did his best to care for his parishioners. He later left the ministry to marry. I imagine — and hope — that he found much happiness.

The reason I would travel at least once or twice a month was to experience traditional rituals. I would sometimes visit the Basilica of Saint John in Des Moines, Iowa where my childhood pastor had revived a flagging community and given it pride. Sunday Sung Mass in English with cantor and choir was a big deal there, and Monsignor Frank Chiodo always knew how to put on a show, with just enough flash and a heavy helping of sincere piety. It didn’t hurt that he was also a fine preacher.

I would also travel to a much humbler church in the rusty town of Ottumwa, Iowa where I learned the ancient Latin rituals from Father James Grubb. Once known as the Hippie Priest, he went through a personal journey that was an inspiration to me. Father Grubb got caught up in the wild experimentation of the late 1960s and 70s, but after the novelty wore off and the hippies decided it was better to work on Wall Street than sing Kumbaya in the park, he found himself lost spiritually. He returned to the rituals of his youth and passed along those rituals to me. Even though sometimes there were only a handful of people at his Tridentine Latin Mass, he performed the rituals with dignity and care worthy of any Roman archbasilica.

The rituals Father Grubb taught me had been largely abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church and were granted as a sort of concession for the sake of old-timers who couldn’t handle the modern changes in the liturgy. If Father Grubb hadn’t been around, it’s likely I would never have been able to tap into that inexhaustible wealth of symbol and ritual that was tossed on the dust heap of history.

My interest in the “old ways” was never fundamentally an issue of conservatism or a rejection of modernity. It was a matter of intuiting that the realm of symbol and ritual is essential for a meaningful life. The so-called Tridentine Mass was for me an entrance into a much bigger universe than even that rite could embody. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to New York City to explore Buddhism, a tradition that has nourished me and complemented my years of Christian seminary training.

We all need to rediscover symbol and ritual — in places of worship, in places of government, in sports arenas, in classrooms, and among family.

~BT Waldbillig
June 15, 2016

The Worlds to Come

The Forgotten Town
Is the Place of Favor

I come from a small, rural town in Southern Iowa. It’s the sort of place that once had a railway station, an opera house, a fine hotel, and a couple of good restaurants but got left behind as the world moved ahead. I was never embarrassed or ashamed to be from such a place; I simply didn’t think much of it. Fate required that journey forth and wander but lately I long for my hometown.

As we prepare to journey beyond our planet and its atmosphere, we need a new way of thinking, the novus habitus mentis Pope Paul VI called for. In the worlds of tomorrow, we will not need a single bank CEO or high-powered lawyer or cardinal in frilly garb.

However, we will need people who can grow food, repair vehicles, build buildings, take care of the sick and aged, clean up the messes that follow human beings, deliver babies, educate the young, and keep animals healthy. People who understand dirt and rocks and air and water and stars.

We will need people who care for the land, people who care for the mind, and people who care for the spirit.

We will need to laugh. We will need to sing. We will need to read. We will need to be comforted.

Those are precisely the things that people in small, forgotten towns like Chariton, Iowa know how to do.

The inconsequential people from forgotten small towns across the US are happy without 1,000 count Egyptian cotton sheets, $500 shoes, a Rolex or a Mercedes. They don’t need the best seat at the banquet, exclusive services, or a place at the front of the line.

People from towns like Chariton, Iowa are people of the future — and that gives me reason to be proud of the land of my birth.

~BT Waldbillig
May 19, 2016

Which America?

I’m not a political junkie like some of my friends but I do try to keep up on current affairs, and one way I do that is by watching The McLaughlin Group on Sunday mornings. Back in my church days I kept company with some pretty hard-core conservative types — the kind that made Ratzinger look like a liberal — and I had occasion to meet Pat Buchanan, who’s a regular on TMG. He’s charming, affable, super smart and, the reason I still listen to him on Sunday mornings, every once in a while he’ll put forward an opinion or position that no one else dares to mention. At times he comes off as someone’s crazy uncle, other times he seems like the only sane conservative in the room.

Lately he talks a lot about restoring “the America we grew up in”. The problem for me is that the America I grew up in had some serious problems. The America of my youth was the America of the farm crisis, where the Republican president and Democrat-controlled congress did almost nothing to prevent the avoidable suffering of tens of thousands of honest, hard-working families who dedicated their lives to caring for the land (the land of my native Iowa is literally some of the most fertile land on the face of the Earth) and feeding all of us.

I still remember riding the bus to school and seeing a 10-foot high sign in the shape of a tombstone announcing the death of the American family farm. Our country never recovered from the farm crisis. Instead we created inter-generational rural poverty and handed over food production to corporations with no commitment to local communities and no love for the land.

~BT Waldbillig
March 13, 2016