Wrathful Warriors and Compassionate Companions

I must have been 22 or 23 when I mentioned to my mother that I was curious to learn something about Mandarin and so I had bought an introductory book and cassette tape. I didn’t presume that I could study the language in a serious way on my own but I thought I might at least begin to get an idea around the structures, inflections, and the like that make the language so utterly alien to the languages I had already studied in school and seminary. My mother exclaimed in response, “Red China! Why on Earth would you want to learn their language?”

What a difference a generation can make. My parents’ generation was conditioned to perceive and relate to the world in a way that seemed to me even in my youth as closed, fearful, and insecure. Naturally, like the better elements of the Boomer Generation, my parents no longer uncritically accept the social narratives forced upon them like a brittle, lifeless catechism that inspires only fear of Hell and not love of God and fellow man.

While I have yet to undertake a serious study of Mandarin, it strikes me that my own beloved homeland, the United States, and that most ancient of lands, China, find themselves in extraordinarily similar crises today. Both are being crushed under the weight of a generation’s failure to live up to the lofty ideals and impossible expectations of their respective founders.

I remember well from my time at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome the refrain of Professor Renato De Zan, who taught liturgical textual criticism: “When we speak of the development of liturgical texts, there is always continuity and discontinuity.” While most of my friends didn’t care for Fr. De Zan’s course, I thought it was the single most important and valuable class at what is considered the finest liturgical studies graduate program in the world.

Continuity and discontinuity.

Fr. De Zan was referring to the creation, evolution, mutation, and deliberate development of the ritual texts that frame the spiritual lives of hundreds of millions of Christians, myself included. While even devout believers pay little attention to the words of the liturgy, every word — at least in the Latin editio typica — is chosen and used with intention and possesses a literary-spiritual potency that theologians call sacramentality, which is to say that the words aren’t just words. They’re transformative actions. The deliberate, ritual speaking (or chanting) of the words brings into existence and makes present that reality the words point toward.

It’s the sort of thing that those powerful world leaders who drone on bombastically at the UN General Assembly hall and the devoted, over-achieving diplomats who labor without recognition at Foggy Bottom could learn from. Perhaps more than they can even imagine.

Continuity and discontinuity.

My Latin professor in Rome, the famous (or infamous!) Fr. Reginald Foster, used to declare that when he looked at his surroundings at the Apostolic Palace where he worked his day job as chief Latinist to the Pope — teaching Latin courses to barely above-average students like me was something he did on his own time — he was quite sure that Our Blessed Lord and St. Peter wouldn’t recognize the finely dressed, fat prelates who supposedly act in God’s name here on Earth. Reggie, as most of us affectionately called him, said things like this, in part, to annoy the many clerical climbers who desperately hoped to one day be finely dressed, fat prelates with power to lord over others. But Reggie had a point, and even as someone who was part of the ecclesiastical “machine” I whole-heartedly agreed with him in my youth and still do today.

There are many young people — tens of millions, actually — in the US and China who think on the revolutionary principles of those radical political actors who founded their respective nations and feel disappointed, if not disgusted, at the ensconced generation of political and economic leaders. Some of them are truly lousy human beings, but most are simply mediocre. They would have been out of place in revolutionary days. Surely they would have kept their distance from those radical men and women who risked everything for the sake of dreams that could change the world and give birth to peoples of great vision and even greater hearts.

Someone once said to me, “It’s easier to save the world than to fix the world.” When I look to the older generation of our world’s political and spiritual leaders, I’m not so much disappointed as sad. Truth be told, they weren’t up to the challenges of the age, though many tried and continue to do what they can in the hope of at least ensuring there’s a world to pass on to their children’s children.

It’s these young people, the generations following my own, that I once saw in a dream. They were not tepid, weak, shallow, and fearful — as the more self-important of their elders too often and too insistently declare. Instead, they appeared to me as a mighty horde of fearless warriors, as terrible in their wrath toward the enemy as they were beautiful in their compassion for one another. In the dream I was all alone in an empty place of endless night, but in the final moment when it seemed that despair would crush my bones and annihilate my spirit, they appeared: an endless stream of warriors who were to me both Friends and Family. And that was just the beginning of the dream.

Naturally, dreams are just dreams. Still, when Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, I see those warriors. I see them in my nieces and nephew back in the Midwest. I saw them in the undergrads at The New School when I was working on my master’s degree just a few years ago. They’re at the skate park, behind the counter at McDonald’s, and lingering at the basketball courts in Highbridge Park. They’re everywhere. And this world is just as important to them as it is to me.

Continuity and discontinuity.

Not “continuity or discontinuity”, as many of those who are soon to exit the places of power mistakenly thought in the folly of a reactionary youth.

All this makes me think on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares from the Gospel. You’ll remember that both the enemies and the servants of the Righteous Farmer thought that if the crop in the field was not pristine, it must be ruined. But the Righteous Farmer knew that there was another way. How surprised both the enemies of the Farmer as well as his servants were at harvest when the reapers did the impossible. They saved the crop and the farm and the Farmer’s entire family.

I’m not a betting man, but if I were I’d bet that the future yet to appear in this world will be even more wondrous than any marvels beheld in a dream.

[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 24, 2017

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The Cry of Jonah

The other day I read a news report detailing the arrest of a young woman accused of prostituting herself for $20 and a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Naturally, every headline emphasized that this person was prepared to trade her body for chicken nuggets. The beautiful, affluent, sanctimonious public figures who tell us what to think and how to live via newspapers, TV news shows, websites, radio programs, and polished pulpits no doubt delighted in the chance to deride and mock this woman. These are the same people Jesus encountered in a well-known Gospel passage.

The powerful of our nation turn their backs to those in need. They despise the poor and the weak. Their hearts are hardened against the plight of the hungry and homeless. Should our nation be utterly annihilated and its name perish from the face of the Earth, even that fate would be too merciful given the crimes we commit collectively and as individuals every single day. We have turned natural abundance and the favor of Providence into a curse. And still you and I delude ourselves that the United States of America is some fabled City Upon a Hill.

The voice of Jonah the Prophet echoes through the ages: Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!

~BT Waldbillig
May 3, 2017

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