Family as Universal Manifestation of the Mystery of Life

The American theologian Richard John Neuhaus once famously declared, “We are born to die.” Naturally, he did not mean that a human being comes into this world for the sake of leaving it. Rather, each of us is born along a path that will one day end. Every year as I celebrate the anniversary of my own birth, I also prepare for the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, which falls on Thanksgiving this year. Symbolically, it’s the inverse of the Easter story: My rising to life is followed upon by her going down to the netherworld in this annual cycle. She was the world to me and I have lived in a state of mourning for the past 25 years.

As I wrote somewhere, it seems likely that when we encounter intelligent, technological, biological beings from elsewhere in the Universe, we will discover two important facts. Even if they are far more ancient, evolved, and technologically advanced, they will have had, in the course of their collective existence, something of an experience of what we call religion, though it may well be that they relate to it not as religion, strictly speaking, but as a cultural memory or an evolutionary passage. Just as importantly, such beings will understand something of what we call family, since only beings that form closely knit, cooperative, interdependent, mutually supporting units would be able to build civilizations capable of advanced technology and long-term survival across adverse circumstances. Perhaps, as with us, they will find in family a reason to survive, a reason to endure difficulties, a reason for self-sacrifice, a reason to make sure that the life they receive continues on.

There’s no reason to regard my birthday, November 20, as a day of importance, though surely it changed the lives of my parents. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that November 23, the anniversary of Grandma Carol’s death, has any special meaning, though she was the most beautiful person in the world to me.

While we may be inclined to regard as insignificant something like a birthday or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, maybe they have a cosmic significance that’s hard to perceive from where we stand in the Universe. Maybe the life we honor and the life we mourn are not nearly as unimportant as we’re tempted to think.

Perhaps elsewhere in the Universe there are beings on a rocky planet orbiting a star who give thanks for the life they have been given — unlikely though it is that any of us should exist at all. Surely those beings also rejoice in the ancestors who no longer dwell among the living, yet whose life continues in the Universe by means of their descendants.

If the purpose of life is the continuation of life, then Family is the means by which that most important of tasks is accomplished. Somewhere I wrote that for our kind life comes into being, is nurtured, is protected, grows, and spreads by means of a community — and that community is the Family.

We might even go so far as to say that the Family is a sort of Universal manifestation of the mystery of life.

~BT Waldbillig
November 19, 2017

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In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year (a poem by WS Merwin)

In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year
WS Merwin

It sounds unconvincing to say When I was young
Though I have long wondered what it would be like
To be me now
No older at all it seems from here
As far from myself as ever

Walking in fog and rain and seeing nothing
I imagine all the clocks have died in the night
Now no one is looking I could choose my age
It would be younger I suppose so I am older
It is there at hand I could take it
Except for the things I think I would do differently
They keep coming between they are what I am
They have taught me little I did not know when I was young

There is nothing wrong with my age now probably
It is how I have come to it
Like a thing I kept putting off as I did my youth

There is nothing the matter with speech
Just because it lent itself
To my uses

Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning

– – – – –
– – – – –
~BT Waldbillig
November 19, 2017

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

Salus et Vita

Qui signa invenimus
Sicut et signa offerimus

We are surrounded by wonders beyond our greatest dreaming, if only we could — at least for some brief, passing moment — set aside the fear we feel before the vastness of the Universe and the hopelessness we know when we stare the terror of mortality in the face.

Not long ago I saw in a dream the darkness that dwells in the heart of the every man, myself included. This darkness grew and spread until it began to rip the very stars from the heavens and snuff out the Sun and the Moon, emptying the Universe of all that is living and beautiful. Though only one man, insignificant and small before the immense and endless darkness, I refused to submit to it. While this choice seemed futile as the darkness fell upon me to annihilate its final victim,  my refusal to submit was no longer the futile choice of one man. Instead, it was the battle cry of many generations, mere men and women who made of themselves fearless warriors. They were as terrifying to their enemies as they were beautiful to one another, and together we became invincible.

It’s only in the reality of our frailty, weakness, inadequacy, and brief time in this world that we see ourselves as we truly are: Alone no one among us is immortal, invincible, or all-wise, but when we come together and unite we are strong enough to survive and grow and hope and love in even the most unlikely and impossible of circumstances.

Haec dies
Spes nostra
Nunc nobis
Salus et vita

Our world might not have endured to see this day. Our kind might have perished in the darkness that lingers before the bright shining dawn. And yet: We Are Here

[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 5, 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