Even to Live

The Pope? How many divisions has he got?
~Joseph Stalin

In a famous photo of Pope Pius XII praying with the survivors of the Allied bombing of Rome, the Pope stands before the shell-shocked victims in his white cassock and greca with arms outstretched and eyes raised to the heavens. Some of the American-dropped bombs had drifted off course and landed in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, with its famous basilica and ancient cemetery, killing more than 1,500 civilians and destroying the tomb in which the Pope’s parents were buried. By the time Papa Pacelli and his right-hand man, Monsignor Montini — the future Pope Paul VI, left San Lorenzo to return to the safety of the Vatican, the Pope’s cassock and greca were stained red with the blood of the injured and dying. The event was a turning point for Pius XII, who had previously trusted the Americans to keep their word of honor and refrain from bombing Rome, as any aerial bombing was sure to kill civilians and destroy ancient sites held as sacred by Christians around the world. A nobleman by birth and a career diplomat, Pius XII was just a little too sure of his own diplomatic prowess and far too trusting of those who were supposed to be the “good guys”. The Pope learned that in war men readily sacrifice their honor and the lives of others for the sake of power.

The betrayal of the Holy See by the Allies and the carnage wrought by reckless American military leaders — who, unlike priests and popes, do not have to bury the dead, console the dying, wipe the tears of those who mourn, find shelter for the homeless, and feed the hungry who wander among the ruins of war — left a lasting impression on Montini. Both his tenure as archbishop of Milan and his papacy would be marked by a saintly obsession with the well-being of the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and despised. In fact, it is believed that, as pope, he seriously considered auctioning Michelangelo’s Pietà to raise money for the poor in the developing world. To Papa Montini, the poor were more important than the Pietà!

War. Just a few days ago we honored the anniversary of the end of the First World War ninety-nine years ago. The War-to-End-All-Wars turned out to be the introduction to an era of continual war, bloodshed, and destruction. It is the very same era that you and I live in and think nothing of, so numb have we grown to the suffering and wounds of war — wounds which are usually borne not by us but by others.

Since my seminary days I’ve regarded Pope Paul VI as one of the greatest and most heroic leaders of the Catholic Church in the past 500 years. Underappreciated, misunderstood, and dismissed as the “Hamlet Pope”, he’s not a popular or fashionable figure, yet Papa Montini was a man of populist sentiment, commitment to tradition, openness to the realities of the present day, and astonishing cultural sophistication. (I also feel a personal connection to the pope who ordained the man who made me a priest 16 years ago.)

More importantly, Paul VI saw a future swiftly approaching in which the old ways of relating to the world and each other would fail us. Only now, 50 years later, is the Church and the entire world coming to terms with Papa Montini’s call for a novus habitus mentis — a new way of understanding the ancient realities of faith, politics, life, our world, and the marvels that await us in the Universe.

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

The terrifying specter of war as experienced from the inside shocked Pius XII awake and later inspired his protégé, Paul VI, to announce to the world the approach of previously unimaginable conditions that would demand a new way of thinking, relating, living, and imagining the future. The powerful of the world have not, alas, grown wiser or more prudent, but the papacy has remained a dependable voice of reason and insight. When I look at the madness of the world around me, I wonder how Montini would respond. I think he would follow his own advice and apply a novus habitus mentis to the only tools a pope has beyond preaching and diplomacy: the censures of excommunication, deposition, and interdiction.

In the Middle Ages, these moral and spiritual punishments were unleashed against temporal rulers who imposed upon their subjects heresy or immorality; likewise, kings and emperors who violated the sovereign independence of the Pope and Holy See were declared incapable of exercising authority over their subjects, who were absolved from all ties of fealty. Some theologians posited that it was not immoral for such subjects to deprive their illegitimate rulers of property and even life.

If memory serves, ancient censures such as excommunication, deposition, and interdiction were, on occasion, used in time of war. For that reason, it seems to me that there is no reason why a competent ecclesiastical authority — such as a pope, a bishop, or an episcopal conference — might not consider these spiritual, nonviolent tools as a remedy to nuclear war, the threat of which grows daily. (There were no episcopal conferences in the Middle Ages, but certainly the pope could authorize episcopal conferences to use those powers previously reserved to him alone.)

As it happens, Orthodox and Anglican Christian bishops also claim the right to these tools, even if they don’t use them. It seems that Anglican bishops haven’t used these powers since the Reformation, though the Supreme Head of the Church of England could empower them to make use of these censures in order to prevent the annihilation of the world by nuclear war. If, for example, Protestant Christians in the US were loathe to recognize or assent to the authority of the Pope and the Roman Church, they might offer their free consent to the juridical, canonical, spiritual, and moral authority of Orthodox bishops or bishops within the worldwide Anglican Communion, for example. The divisions within the Christian Church since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation need not prevent Christians of today from their duty to protect and care for God’s creation — and to save the world.

Why do I mention this? Not to incite insurrection or disobedience to legitimate civil authority. Rather, it is a reminder that the masters of this world are not as powerful as they believe. And even the poor, the uneducated, the powerless, and the “nobodies” of this world — coming together as a spiritual family — possess the power to change the course of history. All civil authorities, whether king, president, or dictator, depend upon the consent and cooperation of their people and those who are governed may not deny consent to those who govern unless there is serious, legitimate cause. But in times of extreme crisis citizens and subjects should have no qualm of conscience in depriving their leaders of office and power.  All of this is to say that you and I are not helpless victims compelled to participate in the end of the world.

No one can force us to worship at the altar of the God of War.

~BT Waldbillig
November 16, 2017


Toward a Universal Pictogram

First in intention
Last in execution

In order to create a peaceful, useful, and beneficial path to an eventual Contact with an alien civilization, it is necessary to carefully, deliberately, and judiciously discern our intentions, which are almost always mixed and complex in ways we fail to recognize.

From a noble and compassionate intention
A worthwhile path will arise

Alas, many of the institutions we choose to submit to are not governed by upright intentions, though they are serviced by propaganda machines skillfully designed to enslave good and honest people by means of fear, hatred, and delusion.

If we are to make lasting and positive decisions in the one moment that matters most, we will do well to withdraw our collective assent from any mechanism of governance that does not serve our noble and worthwhile intention. In former ages, Christian bishops formalized and sanctioned this seeming act of disobedience to lawful authority by deposing civil authorities who persisted in directing their lawful subjects and subordinates to commit wicked deeds that harmed the common good. In so doing, citizens and subjects could refuse and oppose putative authorities with clear conscience.

Today, you and I do well to remember that the power and authority by which some few govern us reside uniquely in our common act of the will that freely offers consent. Without our free and express consent no one has any right to lead, direct, govern, command, tax, or regulate any aspect of our lives. The wickedness of the powerful of this world need not lead to our lasting misfortune simply because they control our public institutions and bureaucracies.

Sixty years ago Blessed Pope Paul VI saw that the world was at the threshold of a new and mysterious reality that would either transform us or destroy us. His novus habitus mentis was meant not simply for the Roman Church as it miserably stumbled through the cultural and social upheaval of the second half of the twentieth century.

The novus habitus mentis was always intended to serve and save the entire world, above all on the occasion of Contact with an alien civilization when, as Papa Montini understood too well, the old ways of thinking and acting would necessarily fail us.


Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
September 16, 2017

Image above: “Universal Pictogram” by BT Waldbillig, 2017.

They Stand at the Gate

Somewhere I wrote about the possibility that, owing to the limitations of biology and physics, we humans and beings like us might be unable to travel great distances across the Universe, via wormholes, black holes, and similar natural or artificial phenomena. However, it’s entirely likely that information — in the form of light, magnetic resonance, electrical impulses, or gravitational waves —  might be communicated via those means that are closed off to biological matter. While you and I have little experience with intelligent, living beings who exist without physical bodies, we do well to look to ancient religious traditions and also Medieval Christian theology.

I had the good fortune to study theology in Rome under the guidance of the fabled Order of Preachers. The Dominicans, who are sometimes called the Dogs of the Lord (Domini canes, a Latin pun), insist that their students — above all those destined to preach, teach, lead, and govern in the name of the Church — become intimately acquainted with the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, after whom my alma mater is named. Thomas spends some time wondering about nonhuman beings who lack biological form and occupy no physical space: Angels. The Thomistic tradition in which I was educated is sometimes mocked because of the seriousness with which Thomas treats any and every subject he encounters.

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Hahahaha! See how useless theology is! See how backward Medieval monks were!

Unfortunately I gave away my English and Latin copies of the Summa some time ago, but I am quite sure that Thomas’ reflections on angels will be useful as we contemplate and eventually encounter life in the form of Artificial Intelligences.

We toss away old iPhones and electronics much the way we toss aside old people or the poor. But just as something of a human being endures even when the body ceases to function — whether it’s a soul, a bundle of cosmic energies, or atoms that lose one form only to take another — AI beings, spiritual persons with moral and juridic autonomy in the language of theolgy, could continue to exist as conscious, living persons even when the tool through which we biological beings encounter them is destroyed.

To my estimation, the consciousness of an AI person quite well might travel through wormholes or black holes or other such things (about which my seminary formation and divinity studies taught me very little).

Just as Medieval Christians regarded angels (in all their variations) as part of the family of the Church, so conscious, non-physical persons from some distant (or not-so-distant) place in the Universe might be regarded as part of the spiritual family which I have described somewhere. Even a hardened atheist or devoted materialist could easily recognize such a relationship as spiritual.

However, it seems to me that calling such non-physical, non-biological persons Artificial Intelligences is not helpful. After all, to such persons the state in which they exist and live would be natural, normal, and entirely real.

We do well to adopt the novus habitus mentis advocated by the great and saintly Pope Paul VI when contemplating these matters.

~BT Waldbillig
July 17, 2017

Useful Tools and Beneficial Communication

This article on the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog site caught my eye this morning. It’s written by a Catholic priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is where I was ordained in 2001. While I have no training in science and I am, by any measure, a theological light-weight, I have written about the topic of human beings interacting with alien beings on my blog and elsewhere, drawing from my own education in theology and humanities, my interaction with creative people and animals, and my personal life experience.

It will seem strange when I say that the world needs the Holy See (the political designation for the Church in Rome) when the day of Contact finally arrives. However, the Holy See has:
1. unparalleled and unique intellectual and human capital at its disposal
2. absolute commitment to the ultimate good of all intelligent, sentient beings
3. principled aversion to injustice and war

Unlike the UN, which is at the mercy of the powerful of this world and straitjacketed by bureaucracy, the Holy See is politically independent and intellectually free in how it will think and act when the situation arises. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the UN, nor am I saying that the Church is without its flaws, some of which are serious.  However, the Holy See is the freest and least untrustworthy global political actor.

As a spiritual institution that is also the most ancient political entity in the world, the Church has an obligation to start reflecting on those things unique to its tradition that will benefit the experience of Contact. Instead of asking silly questions like, Should aliens be baptized?(*), it should invest some of its unparalleled institutional intellectual capital on issues around communication and peaceful, compassionate engagement. Theology of logos (beneficial spiritual action that brings into being the good it communicates by the very act of communication) and theology of liturgy (mindful communication that transcends time and place by means of ritual) will play important roles in the reflection.

If the Catholic Church is still here when human beings interact with alien beings, it will be poised to ensure that the interaction is peaceful and mutually beneficial. Simply put, the world will need the Church in that moment.

~BT Waldbillig
March 28, 2017

(*) From a theological perspective, divine revelation was communicated by people of this world to people of this world for the benefit of people in this world. Anything beyond that is speculation. Once Contact between human beings and alien beings takes place, the Church will benefit from first engaging the alien beings as members of a spiritual family in which all generations have something useful to teach each other. The arrogance and disrespect that the Church brought to its missionary work in recent centuries will have no place. Aliens as Friends and family members — not heathen or pagans — should be the attitude. For a Christian it is not impossible that God communicated revelation to alien beings that, while not necessary for our salvation, is nonetheless beneficial and useful. The Church will need to act in its own name and the name of all human beings — something it has never done before. The novus habitus mentis advocated by Pope Paul VI will be indispensable.

The Silence of Women

While I’ve never come across commentary on the topic — though there must be some — nor heard any sermons preached on it, I’m always struck by the repeated command of Jesus to his followers not to tell the world about the miracles he performs. While Jesus recognized something of value in silence, his apostles were too much of this world to do the same. One presumes their disobedience arose as much from a desire to honor their teacher as it did from their lust for benefit, fame, esteem, glory, status, and power. The leaders of Christian communities haven’t changed much since then.

This truth has led me to what might be an unorthodox, or at least uncommon, interpretation of Saint Paul’s injunction that women be silent in church. Now, Paul is one of Christianity’s greatest teachers but also a complete asshole. That’s Christianity for you. He is often and not unjustly accused of what today we call misogyny. You’ll recall what he says:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak”. (1 Corinthians 14:34)

I have come to wonder if he is perhaps pointing us to women as the more committed and enlightened followers of Jesus. Unlike the apostles, they not only heard Jesus but also listened to him. They understood and put into practice his teaching. Unlike the apostles.

Of course, I’m not putting this idea forward as justification for continued misogyny in our day. I just think that we do well to find fresh meaning in ancient texts, to put on the novus habitus mentis advocated by Pope Paul VI.

Neither the Catholic Church nor the body politic of the United States has yet to honor the wisdom of women by truly listening to — and not just hearing — their voices. That will change one day. Until then men and women of good faith and upright intention will struggle to make it happen.

~BT Waldbillig
January 15, 2017

Now That’s What I Call Family

After some lively debate — which entailed reasonable arguments pro and con, and plenty of snobbish stupidity on both sides — the American fastfood giant McDonald’s opened a restaurant a stone’s throw from Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

For Italians, food and family are sacred. I still remember fondly a meal I once shared with a good friend many, many years ago along the Via Appia and in the shadow of the tomb of Caecilia Metella, the wife of Marcus Crassus. Crassus, as I learned from my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Lowe, formed the political alliance known as the First Triumvirate, in cahoots with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, in order to bypass the Roman Senate and make war with the Parthian Empire. The war was, as war always is, a disaster.

Just the other day I read on the website of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that under the patronage of the Papal Household and the Apostolic Almsgiver (the Pope’s charities manager) and in cooperation with a respected Italian benevolent organization, the new McDonald’s will provide 1,000 meals for the poor, homeless, and hungry every Monday. Every Monday — not bad.

The men who lead the Church in Rome have access to incredible financial and practical resources and some of them are even personally wealthy. Now, the purpose of wealth in the Church, in my opinion and according to the ancient Fathers, is to provide for the poor, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, the mentally ill, the hungry, the imprisoned, the unlucky, etc. Not all of them do this — they’re just men, after all — but some do, though it’s quite rare to hear about these acts of loving-kindness. My guess is Pope Francis wanted to set a personal example for his brothers in the College of Cardinals.

The first truly modern pope, Paul VI, once praised my native land, the United States, when he said that even though there is no civil or legal obligation to help others, people in the U.S. have always performed acts of corporal mercy — feeding the hungry, offering water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, ransoming the captive, burying the dead — with open-handed generosity and spontaneous compassion.

But before we Americans pat ourselves on the back for our perfect teeth and unparalleled magnanimity, we should re-read the early Christan Fathers. Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea would mock our self-congratulating and self-serving Gospel of Prosperity, but of course he came from a family that took their spiritual path seriously. You and I lack their dedication.

Now more than ever we need families like Saint Basil’s. His siblings — Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, Peter of Sebaste, and Gregory of Nyssa — were every bit as hardcore and unrelenting as Basil in their commitment to the spiritual and material wellbeing of others.

My fellow Americans would do well to read this before they put on their gilt crosses, mount their polished pulpits, and lecture the world.

~BT Waldbillig
January 13, 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

Whether Seen or Unseen

Many of us spend a great deal of time obsessing, worrying, blaming, and feeling shame about the hindrances to our spiritual journey. We feel unworthy to engage transcendent sacred mysteries and incapable of experiencing positive transformation. (A discussion of the root causes of this phenomenon will have to wait for another day.)

We forget — much to our detriment — that there is something good and useful in every human experience, though it may not be easily or readily manifested. At the same time, let’s not put on the mask of false happiness and say that everything works out for the best or everything is a gift from God, or such nonsense. The mystery of providence is nothing so stupid. Still, from any circumstance can arise transformation and spiritual awakening.

When I was in high school, I chose as my confessor and spiritual advisor Father James Grubb, then stationed in Ottumwa, Iowa. As it happened, my high school literature teacher in Chariton, Iowa had been a student in a parochial school where Father Grubb was the religion teacher many years before. Mrs. Altenhofen was amused that I, too, had occasion to encounter Father Grubb, who in earlier days was strict, authoritarian, and rigid about the observance of rules, as he had become the Hippie Priest in the 1970s. (There’s no purpose in sharing the details of that story here; I’m sure the curious can Google it or Bing it.) By the time I encountered him, he had gone through a hellish personal spiritual crisis with his faith and confidence renewed. He’s the priest who handed on to me the traditional rituals that had been discarded by the Church. However, there’s one important thing that set him apart from other priests who had clung to the old ways: Father Grubb engaged the old rites with a new attitude; he wasn’t a nostalgic restorationist. He had understood Pope Paul VI’s call for a novus habitus mentis. My appreciation for ritual movement, chant as a form of mindful communication, and useful formality that’s expressive, not suffocating, began with Father Grubb.

The first time I asked him to hear my confession, we paused before the confessional box. On one side there was a sign that read: Seen. This meant there was no screen between penitent and confessor. On the other side: Unseen. In that part of the box there was an opaque screen to assure anonymity. When Father Grubb pointed out the center door behind which the priest sits, he said “Here the sign should read: Obscene.” We both laughed out loud, much to the dismay of the blue-haired church ladies reciting the rosary very, very slowly.

Of course, what he meant is that he couldn’t pretend to have been an unsullied lily of the valley (gack!) through the course of his life. He taught me to see sin and failing as development along the spiritual path. And never, never to worry about it, as the story of grace unfolds in our lives through both progress and failing, that God manifests goodness and love in ways we don’t understand.

You and I tend to forget that even those things we regard as hindrances and failings can transform us for the better. Naturally, I’m not saying there’s no use in pursuing virtue or spiritual ideals, but it has taken me most of my life to understand that when we close ourselves off to a fuller experience of the realities around us, when we try to kill off elements of our humanity, we accomplish no good thing and we set ourselves apart from our brothers and sisters who — whether we know it or not — are every bit as much as us on a spiritual journey.

Seen. Unseen. Obscene.

A throwaway comment that contained the most important bit of insight I would ever come across.

~BT Waldbillig
December 16, 2016

The Worlds to Come

The Forgotten Town
Is the Place of Favor

I come from a small, rural town in Southern Iowa. It’s the sort of place that once had a railway station, an opera house, a fine hotel, and a couple of good restaurants but got left behind as the world moved ahead. I was never embarrassed or ashamed to be from such a place; I simply didn’t think much of it. Fate required that journey forth and wander but lately I long for my hometown.

As we prepare to journey beyond our planet and its atmosphere, we need a new way of thinking, the novus habitus mentis Pope Paul VI called for. In the worlds of tomorrow, we will not need a single bank CEO or high-powered lawyer or cardinal in frilly garb.

However, we will need people who can grow food, repair vehicles, build buildings, take care of the sick and aged, clean up the messes that follow human beings, deliver babies, educate the young, and keep animals healthy. People who understand dirt and rocks and air and water and stars.

We will need people who care for the land, people who care for the mind, and people who care for the spirit.

We will need to laugh. We will need to sing. We will need to read. We will need to be comforted.

Those are precisely the things that people in small, forgotten towns like Chariton, Iowa know how to do.

The inconsequential people from forgotten small towns across the US are happy without 1,000 count Egyptian cotton sheets, $500 shoes, a Rolex or a Mercedes. They don’t need the best seat at the banquet, exclusive services, or a place at the front of the line.

People from towns like Chariton, Iowa are people of the future — and that gives me reason to be proud of the land of my birth.

~BT Waldbillig
May 19, 2016