Of Bait Dogs and Navy Cooks

Most of us choose to believe the prosperity, fortunate events, and pleasurable relationships that arise in our lives are more or less the result of our own merits. It’s as if we’ve earned the good things that are actually beyond meriting. Life itself — in its origin and in its continuation — is the supreme example.

When I look to my own life with clear judgment and compassion, I find a series of random and improbable turns of fate. I am a white male of European descent born in one the of world’s greatest nations (though its empire is waning). I was raised by parents who loved me and provided very well for me. My ancestral religion resides in the Catholic Church, a powerful spiritual institution with global political influence. While I’m far from genius, nature placed in me no obstacles of mind or body to hinder my education or work across the years. I spent my entire childhood in the State of Iowa, a land of fruitful abundance where honest people look out for each other and value matters of the spirit more than the trappings of worldly success, where the soil is more valuable than gold.

Now, one of the great virtues of my homeland, the United States, is liberty that makes possible good things that the entire world desires. At the same time, my nation has a deeply rooted and profoundly ugly fault: prosperity renders many citizens vain and lacking in compassion, and arrogance blinds them to the institutional injustices, societal inequities, and moral cruelties that make the same prosperity unattainable to others. In the secret place of the heart, many people regarded as virtuous actually disdain the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the weak, the sick, the blind, the lame, those with mental illness, people of despised religions, and those with the wrong skin color. Some of these people attend church faithfully and rule over others.

At the same time, I am not embarrassed for the lucky circumstances of my life. I owe no one an apology at being American, or white, or middle class, or well educated, etc. Rather, I believe that along with others who know good fortune, I am obligated to make of prosperity an instrument of social, political, economic, and spiritual transformation. This is the outward manifestation of compassionate love and compassionate love is the one thing that makes life worth living.  As it happens, compassionate love put into action brings together people of all circumstances and backgrounds as they transform for the better themselves, each other, the world, and the entire Universe.

Saint Basil the Great said somewhere ( I’m paraphrasing): If we have piles of fine coats or stacks of costly garments or rich food (or a sneaker collection, etc.) that we do not use and hide away in chests or closets, then we are stealing from the poor who have need of the leftover abundance we keep for ourselves. You and I who regard ourselves as just human beings can hardly understand how radical and demanding this teaching is. Saint Basil sits before the Church as bishop and successor to Christ’s apostles shouting: “Fuck you, arrogant and selfish men! You have understood nothing.” Today our Prosperity Gospel preachers and comfortable suburban bishops put higher value on perfect hair, gleaming teeth, tanned bodies, luxury cars, Club Med holidays, academic degrees from the right universities, eye-candy personal assistants, brand new McMansions, and fat bank accounts than they do on the poor.

As a son of Abraham inspired by Saint Basil, I would even say that the Crusader, the Zionist, and the Jihadi — in so far as all these titles have been corrupted — are one in the same. They have not understood the origin or expression of the compassionate love that their ancestors treasured. It is compassionate action that pleases the Compassionate One — not war, violence, hatred, rape, oppression, and injustice.

And let’s not start with the smartly dressed, over-educated, self-important trendy urban Buddhists (or others belonging to this or that spiritual movement) who are actually dedicated to numbing themselves to the horrible pain of impermanence and mortality, turning their backs to the suffering of others as much to their own suffering. The path of the Buddha was nothing so comfortable and it certainly was not socially respectable.

My thoughts turn to Dante the Little Man. Truly, there was no reason I should have encountered this quirky mongrel who inspires in me greater love than I’ve known for any other creature on the planet. Had I not wandered over to East 1st Street on that one particular day when I was able to sneak out of the office early, or had I waited just one more day and missed an adoption event on the Upper East Side, some hipster with a trust fund might have taken him home. (Peace be to hipsters with trust funds!) And without Dante the Little Man I might not have persevered through the saddest days of my mother’s mental illness. If a Memphis, Tennessee dog rescue with little space and no money hadn’t found him and passed him along to Social Tees Animal Rescue in New York City, Dante well might have met his end in the hell reserved to bait dogs at some gory dog fight organized in a filthy garage or dank basement or secluded backwoods property. What are the odds that Dante the Little Man should find his way from Memphis to the East Village and been in the office and not the kennel on that afternoon when I decided to look for a dog because I had a couple of hours free and nothing interesting to do?

And how much of life is precisely like this! If only we had eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and hearts for loving. How different the world would be!

As gratitude arises in my heart for lucky twists of fate and providential encounters that changed my life, I think on poor Black and Latina women with serious mental illness in places like the Bronx. They start the day with three strikes against them in a country where “good” people instrumentalize religion and success to justify their selfishness and to oppress others.

I think on countries like North Korea, where suffering continues because of war and injustice; where its young men have been so much meat for worms and its women objects to serve the needs of the powerful; where even today mighty and so-called great nations — my own included — seek to possess the land and people for their own benefit and not out of compassion for the infants with empty bellies or homeless old women freezing to death on cold winter nights. (Obviously, this represents only one aspect of the complicated history and political reality of that part of the world.)

I also honor the sacrifices of my two uncles who honorably served in the Korean War for the sake of the country my family loves and cherishes. Both did what they could to mitigate their participation in unjust acts and in the taking of life. One uncle deliberately found his way to the duties of cook aboard a US Navy ship in order to avoid taking life in battle. The other was a beautiful man broken by the PTSD that was his continual companion when he came home from war. PTSD destroyed his marriage, made a career difficult at times, and alienated him from the people he loved most. How many men and women are like my uncles!

By all means we do well to take the project of life into our own hands, to be masters of our destinies, to take responsibility for ourselves. But let us not delude ourselves. In truth, we owe much to the unseen beneficial forces that make good things possible. Whether it’s luck, karma, providence, benevolent beings … or the love of a dog that makes life worth living.

~BT Waldbillig
April 8, 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

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 1)

Using a Roman Catholic spiritual classic from the 17th century, I’ll explore possible common strands in Christian and Buddhist mysticism, and offer my own particular synthesis. It’s all very much an experiment for me, so we’ll see what becomes of it.

You can find a link to a translation of the complete original text here.

– – – – –

Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
First Conversation, 1666

Each of us has the capacity, the potential, and the ability to awaken.

For some this happens in youth when the mind is less attached to a fixed perception of reality.

For others it occurs later in life as a fruit of experience, both positive and negative.

Spiritual awakening inserts a moment of discontinuity into our experience of life; this is frightening and disorienting.

Our expectations will always be upset; both positive and negative elements of life are transformational; even insignificant things, or moral evil, or failure, or deliberate pursuit of what we hold as antithetical to awakening.

Christian concept of providence and Buddhist concept of karma are similar and overlapping; both providence and karma can bring about spiritual advancement and awakening in circumstances we regard as unlikely or impossible.

The Middle Path and the Practice of Virtue (in medio stat virtus) — neither of which necessarily bring about awakening — provide the [only] helpful framework of spiritual teaching to describe a process-reality which is not — to the experience of an individual — consistent, predictable, or logical.

Useful tools are also obstacles; hindrances are also beneficial instruments.

We are neither purely passive nor purely active in the process of awakening.

The nature of human intellect is both helpful in the process and our greatest obstacle: it leads us toward but then blocks our experience of the simplicity, directness, and absence of mediation that mark awakening; this is why so-called lower animals might experience awakening more readily than us (i.e., dog); perhaps other beings [creatures] we regard as lacking in intellect and will (i.e., tree) are capable of awakening.

It may well be that in an experience of awakening the only sensible course of action is to continue on for some time in what we would regard as our pre-awakened way of life if there is no clear and spontaneous insight into that which are becoming; an awakened person might resemble precisely what we regard as unawakened, spiritually dead, damned, hopeless, or lost.

Faith and confidence are useful in the process: in ourselves, the process, the experience, the cause of awakening (for Christians, God).

This is not to say that change and transformation do not or will not occur; we simply don’t know what they actually look like; this is why there is no one model or ideal to imitate or accommodate.

Tension, contradiction, and irreconcilability are therefore also part of the process-experience: between our goals, ideals, and purpose and that which we perceive and experience.

Therefore, even those we consider as unawakened or spiritually dead are our teachers, alongside those who have entered into higher spiritually transformational states

~BT Waldbillig
December 15, 2016

An Unlikely Encounter With Compassion

A few days after 9/11, when I should have been revising my French lesson for the following day, I decided to see a bit of the city and so I hopped on the Metro to explore Paris. Somehow I ended up around the Bastille at 10pm or so and a young, naive American priest should not be in that neighborhood by himself at that hour; or at least that was the case 14 years ago. The city was still tense but there seemed a resoluteness not to let the tragedy in New York keep life from going on. Bravo to the Parisians, I thought, as I started down a long, darkened street that, unlike the subway, led directly to the bus that would take back to the seminary.

My Italian pay-as-you-go mobile phone didn’t work in France — I think all that has changed by now — and so I popped into a phone booth to call home and let my family know I was still okay. Before dialing I glanced quickly up and down the street. Still empty. As I fumbled with my address book and tried to make out the digits on a prepaid calling card, I suddenly became aware that I wasn’t in the phone booth alone. Out of nowhere appeared a group of four or five young men, one of whom pushed his way into the phone booth with me before I even had time to understand what was happening.

“Give me your wallet,” my new friend said in heavily accented French. He was North African. Algerian, I presumed. My head was numb as I handed over the wallet. He took out the cash first. A paltry 200 Francs. Then he rummaged through my cards and pulled out my Iowa driver’s license.

“Americain?” he asked in a deliberate, measured voice.

“Oui, je suis americain”, I replied, my voice cracking nervously.

I looked outside and noticed his buddies watching carefully for any on-comers. One of them looked directly at me and repeatedly punched his fist into his palm.

“I’m sorry about the Towers,” my phone booth companion said in smooth English.

He carefully folded my wallet back up, leaving the ID and credit cards inside. He put the cash in his pocket and gently handed the wallet back to me. As he and his buddies raced off into the dark, shock set in and my knees began to shake at the realization of what might have happened. I wouldn’t have stood a chance against those five guys that night.

But of course, nothing bad happened. Yes, I did lose 200 Francs (something like 70 bucks, I think) — not the end of the world. As far as assailants go, I think I lucked out: It almost felt as though he wished me well in the wake of the disaster back in the US.

The next day my tutor Laurence gave me a stern talking-to about how poorly I was doing on the day’s lesson. Clearly I hadn’t prepared. She was right. After I told her of my unfortunate incident the night before, she felt so badly for me that for the next lesson we took a drive to the house of Monet at Giverny outside Paris and talked about art, water lilies, and country life. I picked up a couple of postcards for my mother, who loved Monet but never had the chance to visit Paris.

I still don’t know what to make of it all: An Algerian mugger who consoles me after 9/11 and a French tutor who rewards my indolence with a road trip.

Life is full mystery.

~BT Waldbillig
December 4, 2015