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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Of Astronauts and Mystics

We tend to think of science and spiritual experience as strangers, if not enemies. What’s curious is this: the men and women who have traveled in space — many of whom do not regard themselves as people of faith — describe the experience in terms reminiscent of the ancient mystical tradition. Naturally they don’t use the rigid, stale religious lexicon that straitjackets our religious discourse and drives people out of temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, and sacred places. We could almost say that space travelers are anonymous mystics, to paraphrase an idea developed by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.

Edgar Mitchell, who walked on the moon for over nine hours during the Apollo 14 mission, says he was changed completely by the new view of his home planet…“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” he told People in 1974. “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”

Generally speaking, mystics are regarded with suspicion by religious authority. By having a direct spiritual experience, instead of one mediated through the hierarchical authorities (or the approved scriptures or the community of peers, depending on the tradition), they stand outside the realm of the normal and that’s a dangerous thing for the community, as religious communities rely on authority and need some level of order to function well. In the Catholic tradition, mystics like John of the Cross or Catherine of Siena could be co-opted to serve the agenda of the Church’s hierarchy so they were endorsed by the Church. But others like Meister Eckart or Julian of Norwich would remain largely at the periphery.

Mystical experience is life-changing and consciousness-altering but not always pleasant. In fact, quite often mystical experience is frightening and traumatic. What seems to us fantasy is reality to the mystic. What seems to us impossible is possible to the mystic. What seems to us doubtful is certain to the mystic. But the reverse can also be true: our certainties and realities appear as sad delusions to the mystic.

Mystics can be difficult people to live with. In the language of today’s world, we might say they frequently show signs of PTSD. They have known transformational experiences that people like you and me can hardly understand — and once they cross the threshold, they can’t go back to life as it was before.

Most of us are too bogged down in the minutiae of our small, small lives. We desperately need mystics today — whether they’re nuns in remote forest monasteries, activists in Latin American slums, or astronauts who can truly see the bigger picture.

~BT Waldbillig
March 12, 2017

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