From Perception to Thought

When there’s a queue outside the local soup kitchen, I think on consecrated mendicants with their begging bowls

When gang members show their signs, I think on the sacred mudra of holy men and women

When I come across street kids in hoodies, I think on the cowls of monks and nuns

When I behold hipsters with knotted hair, I think on ancient warriors

When I see raving dancers, I think on the trances of prophets and mystics

When I find only darkness, I think on a rising moon reflecting light from the Unconquered Sun

~BT Waldbillig
January 4, 2017

A New Way of Thinking

“These mountains that you are carrying,
You were only supposed to climb”
~Najwa Zebian

We tend to live our lives in a habitual way. We have a certain understanding of who we are and how the world works. Our habitual manner of living our habitual lives gets us through most of whatever we encounter, but sometimes we realize that we need to engage life in a new, different, fresh manner. We need, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a novus habitus mentis — a new way of thinking.

I was raised with a certain respect for military service and for those who dedicate themselves to the public good in the military and law enforcement. When I was young I gave myself to service in the Church, but my father served honorably in the US Marine Corps, three of my uncles as well as several cousins all performed military service, and my brother-in-law is a former police officer. Over the past few years I’ve also had the good fortune to meet a number of former military personnel through nonprofit work.

Something that has always impressed me about, say, a Marine or a cop, is the ferocious focus on the mission at hand, whatever it may be, with little or no thought as to the personal cost or risk. There’s essentially no room or time for considerations such as, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will I be rewarded?’ or ‘What are the chances of success?’ or ‘Will my work be appreciated by my commanding officer?’ The cop or the Marine simply executes his or her role in the mission, attentive to the well-being of the other members of the team or platoon, etc. Anything else is distraction.

For someone journeying along a spiritual path, a similar attitude is useful.

Most of us learn religion or faith or spiritual practice in this way: If we adhere to certain tenets (faith), perform good acts (virtue) and avoid wicked deeds (sin) we’ll be rewarded (heaven or some such thing). It’s the sort of mentality an exhausted parent employs to get misbehaving children in line. Now, I’m not saying this approach to the spiritual life is bad or wrong or useless; however, it’s not the only way of understanding and living one’s spiritual path.

That’s precisely why I’ve returned to a little book I first read when I entered seminary back in 1993 and haven’t touched since then. Somehow, despite changing continents and moving home several times, this tiny tome has stayed with me. The book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was written in the second half of the 17th century and provides a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the transactional religion of our day. You can read my commentaries here, here, and here.

As Brother Lawrence reminds us, it’s entirely healthy and traditional to live one’s spiritual life and follow one’s spiritual path without worries for the rewards and punishments of some world-to-come. Belief that the spiritual life is in itself good and useful, as well as beneficial to others, inspires many people far more than Heaven-and-Hell discourses.

Each of us could be a little more like a US Marine or a Carmelite monk. The world would be a better place for it.

~BT Waldbillig
January 1, 2017

Into the Desert

Just the other day I shared a meal with one of my spiritual teachers who is also a beloved friend. He was preparing to embark upon a solitary spiritual retreat during which he will have no direct contact with other human beings, living in isolation without the distraction – or luxury – of easily accessible internet or telephone connections, without television or YouTube, without a pile of magazines or a stack of books to shuffle through. To those who overestimate their spiritual development or who lack a certain kind of experience in the world, it doesn’t sound all that bad. We complain that our telefonini dominate us. Oh, how we’d jump at the chance to get away from all the demands people make of us! Hell, we’d probably pay a handsome sum to have this kind of experience. Well, if we could have our lattes in the morning. And only the proper kind of all-natural, cruelty-free, vegan items from WholeFoods. And maybe a small stash of designer weed. And hot showers followed by fresh, fluffy towels whenever we want. That’s how serious most of us are about our spiritual and human experience – and we’re the ones who prance about smug and satisfied at how “spiritual” we are, how much “progress” we’ve made. Such is the nonsense of our delusions. (Don’t get me wrong, those of us who are spiritually deluded needn’t abandon all hope, but that’s a topic of another day.)

My friend will have none of these conveniences. He’ll be in the mountains in winter, receiving food provisions left for him every couple of days over a period of about four weeks. He has chosen to freely and temporarily enter into the lifestyle of a Carthusian or Camaldolese monk, a Zen hermit, or a convict behind bars. It is an experience that changes a person, destroys the human spirit, or endows insight that you and I cannot begin to understand. Far from a life of escape from the world, it is an encounter with all that we cannot bear to know in ourselves, all those aspects of life that we ignore and block out.

In the primitive Christian community, many men and women received the inspiration to set out for the desert, with this caveat: “You do not take refuge in the desert to escape the devil. You go forth to the desert to find him.”

We honor and celebrate those among us who choose to leave the comfort and safety of the home they know for the homelessness of a spiritual path. We even call them “saints”. Let us not forget those others who are also “saints” – the ones lost in prison compounds, held out of sight, treated as less than dogs. The Carthusian monk and the Zen hermit regard them as brother, sister, friend, and teacher. You and I do well to regard them with as much affection and respect as we might any [would-be] saint or [so-called] enlightened person. In fact, on the day of judgment, I’d much rather cast my lot with a death-row inmate than a sappy saint. (Peace be to sappy saints! They gave me much inspiration in my youth, and that was no small task.)

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016

The Brief Rule of Saint Romuald

I recently came across the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, an 11th-century European Christian monastic reformer. Now, I’m quite sure I read this Rule, which is only a few paragraphs long, many years ago in seminary and gave it no consideration, but returning to it today I found it quite interesting, unusual, and potentially useful.

Since moving to New York City from Rome in 2005, I’ve had the good fortune of finding a Buddhist sagnha (spiritual community) to study and practice meditation in, and the sangha members are truly good friends, almost like family at times. Yet lately, I find myself impelled by my own interior promptings to return to the spiritual roots that nourished my youth and inspired the first flourishing of my humanity. This return is not without difficulties, but that’s topic for another day.

I was struck and amazed at this little passage from Romuald’s rule:

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

I’ve never come across anything that so clearly, succinctly, and helpfully places the commonalities of Buddhist spirituality and the Christian mysticism into such a useful and (rather) easily intelligible Christian context.

Perhaps there are many more useful discoveries to be made in other spiritual traditions, also.

~BT Waldbillig
December 12, 2016