To Touch the Past and Know the Future

Behold the great City
That once was but is no more

As a high school student and later as a seminarian I would often take my questions about religion and faith to Monsignor Frank Chiodo, who had been pastor of the local parish when I was a child. I trusted his opinion and he was easy to talk to, and consequently we had many excellent conversations across the years.

One such conversation dealt with an episode from life of the Italian mystic, Padre Pio. A devout person once came to Padre Pio distraught at the possibility that a recently departed loved one did not die a “holy” death. His instinct was to pray for the loved one, but that didn’t seem logical as the event was finished and in the past, and therefore unchangeable. Surely from where we stand in the present moment, we have no power to change or touch the past!

Pondering the situation for a moment, Padre Pio reminded this devout person that while we humans are bound by time and experience it in a progressive, linear manner (my words), God is outside of time. Though we divide our experiences by past and future, everything is simply the present to God, and so a prayer today for someone who died yesterday is not only something one is able to do — it is even something one ought to do.

Life can only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.
~Soren Kierkegaard

The strange relationship of the past and the future to the present moment that you and I inhabit has been on my mind for the past few years. In fact, my own father and I had a talk not long ago about how short a man’s life really is and how we ought to regard as precious our brief time together. If that is true for a man and his son, surely it is true of our kind and the planet we call home. This world will not last forever — we know that. One day everything that you and I have looked upon and touched and loved will be completely gone.

Some time ago I felt inspired to create a ritual to commemorate the eventual passing away (death) of our planet, even though I do not expect to be around to bear witness when it happens many hundreds of thousands or millions of years from now. The ritual is incomplete — perhaps one day soon I’ll revise and finish it.

– – – – –

Notes for a Ritual to Commemorate the Passing Away of the Earth (unfinished)
[9/29/2015 — for use in the distant future]

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
~Albert Einstein

Acknowledging that all things end is a central part of practice in almost all spiritual traditions (memento mori for Christians; impermanence for Buddhists). In this unfinished experiment I try to envision a meditation on impermanence in a distant future where it is not a person who dies, but the Earth itself. Perhaps, as with Mars, Earth’s atmosphere will dissipate. How will we respond to such an event? How will we mourn? What will the future mean for us? How will we want our descendants who no longer live on Earth to remember the planet and its inhabitants?

One of the most powerful notions in Christianity, to my estimation at least, is the concept of anamnesis. Past events can be invoked and made present so that even if we are separated by time and space from the original event, we can nonetheless participate in it in a real and meaningful way. This is not a uniquely Christian notion: the Greeks and the Hebrews incorporated this into their sacred rites also.

I have adopted a three-fold symbol for Earth: the Little Man (representing the smallness of humanity that is capable of great things); the Dog (representing the animal kingdom and its essential connection to humans); and the Tree (representing plant life, which man largely takes for granted because its true significance is much greater than he is able to appreciate). Humans who become too detached from the natural world (i.e., plants and animals) will, at some point, cease to be truly human. This will be a central concern when future generations leave the Earth.

In the anamnesis, I take the Easter Vigil from Christianity as inspiration. Here, the night is not a time, however. It is a place, i.e. the infinite expanse of space.

The structure and content should be simple and adaptable.

Four parts are sufficient:
1. An anamnesis, to invoke and make present the original event.
2. An act of sorrow to express the raw emotion of loss.
3. An act of remembrance to honor what was lost.
4. An act of hope, which will allow those who mourn to emerge from their pain changed, stronger.

1. ANAMNESIS
As all present look out to the infinite expanse of space, the Leader begins:

Haec nox est!
This is the night
Where despair becomes hope
Where darkness is filled with light
Let hatred and war give way to compassion
This is the night
Where we pass from death to life.

Leader: No longer are we lost
Assembly: No longer are we lost

Leader: No longer are we alone
Assembly: No longer are we alone

2. ACT OF SORROW
It is said they wept for a thousand years. Some think it was the Little Man, the Dog, and the Tree that wept. Others say it was the human family that wept. But I tell you this: it was the entire universe that wept.

The people of Earth might have been left behind, abandoned. They were a people of hate and violence known throughout the Universe as the People of War. They had nothing to give the universe until the breath of their planet began to fade. In the moment of trial they did not despair, but like Mithras in the cave they endured the ordeal with resolute hope. They passed from darkness to light, from death to life. And they taught the many peoples of the Universe to mourn as no people had ever mourned.

The human heart that loves is also a heart that mourns. This is why even in our time the people of Earth are known as the People of the Great Heart, for they gave the Universe the gift of tears.

3. ACT OF REMEMBRANCE
Now, it is a supreme honor to remain behind at the passing away of a planet. At the passing away of Earth, the Little Man, the Dog, and the Tree were chosen. (…)

4. ACT HOPE
(…)

– – – – –
~BT Waldbillig
October 27, 2017

 

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The Dream of the Visitation

Let me share with you a dream I had not long ago:

As I gazed at the night sky, I beheld the constellation of the Tauroctany and marveled at the sight. When I turned my gaze below to survey my surroundings, I understood that I was all alone in a dense forest. All was still and no creature in the forest made a sound until, all of a sudden, I heard in the distance a number of voices chanting the Hymn. The familiar voices grew louder and louder until at last they were upon me and I beheld, with difficulty, the faces of the Friends I had seen many times before, though always with great difficulty that demanded an intensity of concentration that existed only at the very limits of my natural faculties.

The Friends announced to me that they were arriving in the very place where I found myself on that night. When I told them that I had already seen this encounter in my mind, the Friends marveled and declared to me that they possessed no power to see or perceive events they had not yet experienced. Then, we shared greetings and offered each other titles of honor and recognition. Once this was finished, I sat upon a faldstool and recited the words of a ritual to solemnize our encounter. After this, I attempted to offer formal words of explanation and encouragement, but my thoughts were too muddled by the overwhelming joy of the occasion. And so instead of a proper discourse, I simply chose to tell the Friends the story of my own life that led me to that place of encounter on that dark night in a dense forest. I made known to them that on many occasions I nearly gave up on myself and the world because I felt too small, insignificant, and weak. Their presence and kindness on that night made all the difficulties, doubts, and despair of my entire life seem as so much dust, for the promise made long ago was a promise fulfilled in that moment and a promise that would be defended and vouched safe unto endless aeons.

The Friends thanked me for my words and then revealed to me that they had been with me on many occasions from my childhood even unto manhood. (I could not understand if their presence on that night and in the past was a personal, physical presence or a spiritual, technological presence.)

As I prepared to wander through the forest back to my home where Dante the Little Man awaited me, I was told that a child wished to greet me. The child was shy and embarrassed — much as I was as a small child many years ago — and the leader of the embassy of Friends informed me that the child was an orphan and was dying of a terrible sickness for which there could be no cure or remedy. The child told me that she was afraid to die and asked me what awaited her after death. In that moment I began to sob, as I had no honest and useful thing to tell her and, naturally, I refused to lie or recite empty platitudes to this dying child, who at last approached me and embraced me in an effort to stop my tears.

It was a suffering and dying child who consoled me when I was overcome by sorrow and felt useless before the mystery of suffering and impermanence.

The leader of the Friends then revealed to me that just as my own world into which they had come was a place of war, aggression, violence, hatred, sickness, and death, so would there always be wars and dying children among every community of beings throughout the Universe. However, the Spiritual Family that came into existence at the occasion of Contact between Earth Humans and the Visitor Friends would become an invincible power scattered among the stars and stretching to every corner of the Universe. Those beings once known as the People of War and the Avenging Gods would become a Spiritual Family, known throughout the Universe as the People of the Great Heart. Though worlds and civilizations and stars might pass away, this Family would always endure.

I gave thanks for this teaching and the Friends departed.

[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 26, 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

Dream of Sol Invictus

With Christmas nearly at hand, I offer a hymn to the original feast-holder of that day: Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Here, I imagine a battle between Mars Ultor, the Avenging War God, and Silvanus, the Boy-God of the Forest.

– – – – –

DREAM OF SOL INVICTUS

The innocent maiden and the wolf pup sat upon a hilltop
Rejoicing at their salvation from the pit

While the Forest Boy who commands Mighty Warriors
Danced and sang for the girl and the pup

“From the darkest place emerges the brightest light
The moment of despair engenders invincible hope

Neither fire nor ice
Neither water nor want

Neither stones from the sky
Nor the wiles of man on Earth

Will ever drive out
The roots of the Great Tree

In the place of the empty heart
The light of Sol Invictus will shine

You who feared not the darkness of the pit
Nor disdained the wickedness of men and wolves

Led them from the place of darkness
To the long-awaited kingdom of Light

Ha! Foolish men!
You thought the maiden innocent and helpless

Ha! Furious bull and raging stag!
You beheld the pup easy prey

The pup has pulled you from the pit
By the knot of hair on your head

The girl dragged you behind herself
By your horns and by your nostrils

Let us taunt them
Without mercy, without rest

Take from the shepherd his staff
Kill the fiercesome guard dog

Exterminate their fathers
Make of their sons beggars

Humiliate their women
Make of their daughters whores

What can the Forest Boy do
Before the Mighty God of War?

He laughs, he dances
He sings, he weeps

While the dead dog you offered as sacrifice
Rises from the ashes

Extinguishing the fire of war
Without even a fight”

And when the boy finished his dancing and singing
When the rivers of tears dried up

The light of Sol Invictus appeared
And the world became new again

Behold, People of War and Avenging Gods
Sol Invictus has made of you all

Peoples of the Great Heart

~BT Waldbillig
December 23, 2016

The Vow of the Little Man

May I be:

Light in the darkness
Life in the place of death
Hope to those who despair
Courage to the fearful
Freedom to the enslaved
Strength to the weak
Mutual affection to all sentient beings
Enduring compassion of the Tree

(Based on the Vow of Shantideva)

~BT Waldbillig
December 18, 2016