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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Nonsectarian Rituals for the Spiritual Family (Part 2)

N.B.: This represents an initial, unfinished attempt at the creation of a hypothetical ritual. It’s meant to be a model and not a finished product.

Votum et Ritus ad Voti Recipiendum

The Vow of the Little Man
[Votum]

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

[Inspired by the Vow of Shantideva]

– – – – –
– – – – –

Ad Voti Recipiendum
[Rite for Reception of the Vow]

May these words, which you have transformed into a sacred vow, be strength, light, hope, and an enduring promise of compassion for the entire Spiritual Family.

May you be the sacred tree that sanctifies the entire grove.

May you be the Wise Grovekeeper who follows not the ways of this world, for it is written: The wisdom of the world is folly.

May the many other trees that dwell in the grove, which is the Spiritual Family, hide and protect you from those who would lay low every tree of the sacred grove and slay every child of the One who brought into being this Family.

As once they bowed to the Little Man, the entire Family bows to you. By this sacred bow every son and daughter, every brother and sister of so great a Family is honored and remembered.

The suffering of those who gave their lives for the sake of this day was not in vain, for it is written: Behold, I saw a new heaven and a new Earth for the first heaven and the first Earth had passed away.

As a dog abandons not the one he loves, the Spiritual Family will never abandon you. Just as dog and master each regard the other as little less than a god, so the Spiritual Family honors the mystery of compassion made manifest in you.

As the silent tree possesses power to transform light into life, the Spiritual Family has given you life that you may transform the Universe.

-Let fear, doubt, and anxiety no longer dwell in your presence
~Just as night and darkness vanish at the rising of the Unconquered Sun

-As you have passed from darkness to light
~So may our Family pass from death to life

-Truly, we have been blessed
~We are blessed from the very beginning

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
October 9, 2017

Nonsectarian Rituals for the Spiritual Family (Part 1)

N.B.: This represents an initial, unfinished attempt at the creation of a hypothetical ritual. It’s meant to be a model and not a finished product.

Ordo ad Benedictionem

Ritual of Blessing
[at the gathering of the Spiritual Family]

I. Hymnus

abbe gaud
albe gaud
nunce laud
vere char
pae don
benden harch

Rejoice, the Father comes
Rejoice, the dawn is here
Proclaim the praise
Truly, the favor
The Father, the Master
Blessed from of old

II. Commemoratio

With wine and oil
We celebrate this life
Even as we prepare for death

With honey and yoghurt
We honor the Spiritual Family
In youth and in old age

With lemons and oranges
The delight of the body
Tempers the bitterness of suffering

With lavendar and cinnamon
We call to mind the Father
Who is also Mother

With flowers and stalks of grain
We make a fragrant offering
On behalf of the living and the dead

III. Fractio Panis

As the Father is also Mother, may you be both father and mother to one another.

As the Son is also Brother, may you be sons and daughters, brothers and sisters in the one Family.

Know him when you drink this cup of peace.
Know him when you eat this bread of bliss.

IV. Missio

-As a mother loves her only child
~So may we love one another

-As a father protects his Family
~So may we keep watch over one another

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
October 9, 2017

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

Rediscovering Ritual

When I was in high school I would frequently travel 40 to 60 miles on Sundays to attend church services. Now, this wasn’t because services weren’t available close by. The parish church was only three or four blocks away and the pastor, Father Bernard Gottner, was a good man who did his best to care for his parishioners. He later left the ministry to marry. I imagine — and hope — that he found much happiness.

The reason I would travel at least once or twice a month was to experience traditional rituals. I would sometimes visit the Basilica of Saint John in Des Moines, Iowa where my childhood pastor had revived a flagging community and given it pride. Sunday Sung Mass in English with cantor and choir was a big deal there, and Monsignor Frank Chiodo always knew how to put on a show, with just enough flash and a heavy helping of sincere piety. It didn’t hurt that he was also a fine preacher.

I would also travel to a much humbler church in the rusty town of Ottumwa, Iowa where I learned the ancient Latin rituals from Father James Grubb. Once known as the Hippie Priest, he went through a personal journey that was an inspiration to me. Father Grubb got caught up in the wild experimentation of the late 1960s and 70s, but after the novelty wore off and the hippies decided it was better to work on Wall Street than sing Kumbaya in the park, he found himself lost spiritually. He returned to the rituals of his youth and passed along those rituals to me. Even though sometimes there were only a handful of people at his Tridentine Latin Mass, he performed the rituals with dignity and care worthy of any Roman archbasilica.

The rituals Father Grubb taught me had been largely abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church and were granted as a sort of concession for the sake of old-timers who couldn’t handle the modern changes in the liturgy. If Father Grubb hadn’t been around, it’s likely I would never have been able to tap into that inexhaustible wealth of symbol and ritual that was tossed on the dust heap of history.

My interest in the “old ways” was never fundamentally an issue of conservatism or a rejection of modernity. It was a matter of intuiting that the realm of symbol and ritual is essential for a meaningful life. The so-called Tridentine Mass was for me an entrance into a much bigger universe than even that rite could embody. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, it was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to New York City to explore Buddhism, a tradition that has nourished me and complemented my years of Christian seminary training.

We all need to rediscover symbol and ritual — in places of worship, in places of government, in sports arenas, in classrooms, and among family.

~BT Waldbillig
June 15, 2016