Avian Insight and Canine Wisdom

I’ve long struggled with insomnia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve resorted to herbal remedies, prescription tablets, breathing exercises, diet changes, and the like with little success. These days I occasionally take a melatonin supplement but mostly just take the advice of a good doctor I had some years back who encouraged me to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and read or do some writing, take a walk, or play with the dog. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I lazily watch TV; that was the one thing my doctor counseled against! What can I say, I’m far from perfect.)

Lately, in the full throes of summer, I’ve been waking up quite early, often before 5:00 a.m. This morning Dante and I went for a long pre-dawn walk and ended up strolling down Saint Nicholas Avenue and over to my favorite street in the neighborhood, Convent Avenue, where I always gawk at the incredibly beautiful old townhouses. We passed a few older individuals with push carts hunting for glass bottles and aluminum cans, and on a side street I noticed a sign at the entrance to a community garden. ‘Cooling Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ — the garden is transformed into a refuge for people with no access to a cool space during these brutally hot summer days.

This reminded me just how easy it is to be out of touch with the day-to-day, practical challenges many people face. Sometimes these problems are quite serious and can become matters of life and death. For a low-income, elderly person with no family or friends, a couple of days of intensely hot summer weather can be a death sentence. That’s something you and I probably don’t think much about. We don’t have to.

Not long ago I read about a sort of theological war being waged among the cardinals of the Catholic Church over a recent document by Pope Francis. I recognized some of the names on both sides — some are men I once knew, some are thinkers I once admired. It struck me that while the cardinals are bickering over a theological document, the refugee crisis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond continues to rage. Every day children become orphans, women are raped, entire families are slaughtered, and human beings slowly die of hunger and thirst.

I can’t help but think of the Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean friends from my seminary days. Some of them grew up in the Middle East; almost all have family there. For them, there’s nothing abstract or distant about the horrors of war.

Somehow papal documents and cardinalatial quarrels seem far less urgent in light of such unspeakable suffering.

Truth be told, over the past few years I’ve learned more from my mongrel dog and from the birds in the nearby park than I ever learned from a cardinal, theologian, saint, or guru.

Maybe that’s how it should be.

~BT Waldbillig
July 21, 2016

Studying the Bible With a Muslim

One of the advantages to taking my seminary training in Rome was the opportunity to study with men and women from across the globe. I lived among my fellow Americans but each day went into the city to one of the pontifical universities. It was not unlike the old British university system or the American Greek system. At university I refused to sit with my American brothers. I probably seemed like a snob, but in reality I found it too difficult to concentrate on the lectures surrounded by my friends. At the Angelicum, my classmates hailed from the US and Europe, but also East Asia, South East Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Australia, Latin America, and even the Middle East.

I recall arriving at class one morning after learning that the US was (once again) invading Iraq and bombing the hell out of that country. I immediately went over to my Iraqi classmate to ask about his family. He was nearly in tears. Much to my disbelief, he told me I was the only American who would speak to him. I assured him that my brothers had nothing but goodwill toward him — they likely felt too awkward to approach him. (At least, I presumed that was the case.)

Now, normally my classmates were all Christians, but in one course I had a Muslim girl sit next to me. She was from Turkey and came to Rome to do research for her philosophy thesis on the Greek concept of logos. As logos features prominently in the Gospel of John, she signed up for a Biblical exegesis course during her semester in Rome. The first few lectures, before her copies of the required texts arrived, we shared my books, sitting in the front row where neither of us had to look at the dismayed stares we received. After all, it was quite unusual to see a Turkish Muslim woman in headscarf sharing a Bible with an American seminary student in Roman collar. She was smart, opinionated, and intensely focused on her academic endeavor; she was, undoubtedly, one of the best students in the class.

I don’t know what became of her, but I’m quite sure she’s a success today. Wherever she is, I hope she’s well.

~BT Waldbillig
July 16, 2016

Habitare Fratres in Unum

At one time, most of North Africa and the Near East was Christian. Today, the remnants of those ancient Christian communities struggle to survive amid dire economic conditions, brutal dictators, the scourge of war, and religious zealots determined to exterminate anyone who disagrees or disobeys them.

When I was a seminary student at the Angelicum in Rome, my classmates included men and women from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. My Iraqi classmate, one of the kindest and most joyful people I knew in Rome, was assassinated in Mosul just a couple of years after returning home as a priest.

It’s worth remembering that while extremist groups have a particular hatred for Jews and Christians, they don’t hesitate to torture, murder, or enslave fellow Muslims who oppose them.

The history of the Children of Abraham — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — is full of aggression, hatred, violence, and bloodshed. But that’s obviously not the whole story. Those religions also have the capacity to bring people hope, peace, and joy. That’s why Jews, Christians, and Muslims — along with people of other faith traditions and even atheists — have to work to together to confront the challenges facing our world today.

~BT Waldbillig
April 22, 2015