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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Salus et Vita

Qui signa invenimus
Sicut et signa offerimus

We are surrounded by wonders beyond our greatest dreaming, if only we could — at least for some brief, passing moment — set aside the fear we feel before the vastness of the Universe and the hopelessness we know when we stare the terror of mortality in the face.

Not long ago I saw in a dream the darkness that dwells in the heart of the every man, myself included. This darkness grew and spread until it began to rip the very stars from the heavens and snuff out the Sun and the Moon, emptying the Universe of all that is living and beautiful. Though only one man, insignificant and small before the immense and endless darkness, I refused to submit to it. While this choice seemed futile as the darkness fell upon me to annihilate its final victim,  my refusal to submit was no longer the futile choice of one man. Instead, it was the battle cry of many generations, mere men and women who made of themselves fearless warriors. They were as terrifying to their enemies as they were beautiful to one another, and together we became invincible.

It’s only in the reality of our frailty, weakness, inadequacy, and brief time in this world that we see ourselves as we truly are: Alone no one among us is immortal, invincible, or all-wise, but when we come together and unite we are strong enough to survive and grow and hope and love in even the most unlikely and impossible of circumstances.

Haec dies
Spes nostra
Nunc nobis
Salus et vita

Our world might not have endured to see this day. Our kind might have perished in the darkness that lingers before the bright shining dawn. And yet: We Are Here

[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 5, 2017

The Dream of a Father

On that day the Family of Blood
Will become a Family of Spirit

Once a people of war
They will no longer bow

To the Avenging God
Never again will they tremble

As they stand before the temple
They will sing and laugh and dance

Like sparrows in the meadow
Who seem easy prey to the hawk

But the hawk has no brothers
And the sparrows are a band

Of fearless warriors
Alone the sparrow is weak

But gathered together
The sparrows are mighty

Even so the spiritual family
Is bound together by the love

Shown to them by their father
Who never abandons his children

Steadfast like the true Friend
In this family father strikes not son

And both rejoice at the return
Of those who once were lost

Whether righteous or wicked
Whether king or poor man

Whether unclean woman or virgin
All are honored

All are loved
Just as Sol sends his gift

From highest heaven
Down upon all equally

Just as a dog lays down his life
For the master he adores

This father remains unconquered
So that his family might endure

Even though worlds pass away
The children of Sol

Live on in the firmament
Bright shining lights

The stuff of stars
Like their father

So long as their light
Fills the dark places

There will be life
There will be hope

And when the light of Sol
Goes out, another will rise

And another and another
Unto endless ages

Their enemies thought them
Creatures of dirt and mud

When they were always
As gods walking among men

Their enemies are no more
But the spiritual family endures

They were as sleepers
Lost in sad dreams

Who awake at cockcrow
To a world filling with light

And shot through with joy
Rising they go forth

To wander the world
As sparrows do

Taking for themselves
The Bread of Sorrow

And the Wine of Bitterness
Not knowing that of such

Is the food of gods
And as gods who wander the world

Leave behind many children
So these wanderers will bring forth

Many sons and daughters
On many worlds across the Universe

They shall become even greater
Than the one who first brought them forth

For that is how a father is honored
When his children become greater

Than their father’s greatest dreams
And love each other

With a love too great
For one Father’s heart to hold

~BT Waldbillig
July 13, 2017

From Friend to Family

The life of every great spiritual hero is a story of struggle and discovery that transforms for the better not only the individual in question but also countless others. It is the story of a human being who becomes a Friend to those in need of friendship and a Father (or Mother) to those in need of family.

Such a Friend and Father dedicates his life completely to those he loves, so that they, in turn, might dedicate themselves to one another like fearless warriors who never abandon one of their own. Those who once were strangers come together as a spiritual family and meaningless lives give way to purpose and mission.

Before such a family enemies flee. Before such a family mountains bow and oceans cower. Before such a family the heavens themselves offer homage.

Canticle of the Family
Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

Under the shade of its kind boughs
We take refuge

From the scorching sun
And from the torrents of rain

Whether alone in silence
Or surrounded by the many peoples

Its roots are watered with tears
Its roots are nourished by blood

Though we are tired and weak
Its noble trunk holds us aright

And its many mighty branches
Reach out to the infinite multitude of stars

To proclaim: WE ARE HERE

~BT Waldbillig
June 6, 2017

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 2017

At the Return of the Warrior Spirit

Not long ago my meditation teacher received his senior citizen Metro pass, entitling him to discount rate travel on the New York City bus and subway system. He joked that now he is “officially” old, though I know from our frequent conversations, regular study sessions, and occasional shared meal that he still sees himself as a young man inspired by his spiritual teacher to abandon everything and set out upon a spiritual path without reserve or hesitation. His teacher, Sangharakshita, is not without controversy but if you’re a modern Westerner, like me, there’s no better, more approachable, or less fetishized enunciation of the Buddhist spiritual tradition than Sangharakshita’s thoughtful and critical attempt at synthesis. I keep a copy of The Essential Sangharakshita close at hand — it’s as useful to a Buddha skeptic like myself as it is to hardcore meditators, snobbish intellectuals, devout atheists, sincere Children of Abraham, and slacker game-boys.

My teacher shared with me his concern that the consuming zeal and single-minded commitment he experienced in the early days of Sanghrakshita’s Triratna (Three Jewels) movement are waning, or at least giving way to new expressions. While it’s no consolation, this is only natural as the founding generation of a spiritual, humanitarian, or activist movement begins to disappear and younger or newer members lack the intimate bonds engendered by uncertainty, risk, and radicality. Those who participate in the events that bring a movement into being in the first place have a unique shared identity that newbies simply can’t understand fully. Instead of leaving careers, homes, families, and social respectability, the new generation tries to balance a normal life with their spiritual path, often remaining in awe of the sacrifice, excitement, creativity, and power of the founders. Call it compromise or practicality, depending on your perspective.

All of this has me thinking back to the first followers of spiritual teachers like Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me that far from planning out great institutions or impressive social movements, these two men first and foremost sought to be the heroic spiritual Friend to those who gathered around them. While we might not look on their followers in this way, both teachers attracted men and women with the spirit of ferocious warriors. What do I mean? The soldier or sailor or tribesman or mercenary sets for himself or herself a duty which is also a good and doesn’t hesitate to accomplish any task or challenge that arises in serving that duty. It might be crown or family or wealth or vengeance or something altogether different, but the uncompromising, seemingly fearless attitude is always the same. For such people, even death ceases to be an obstacle. These are no namby-pamby wimps. For example, some of the first followers of Jesus were fishermen and fishermen, like farmers, are tougher than iron and able to endure brutal, constantly changing conditions. There are also accounts of the Buddha stopping to rest in a mango grove with something like 1,200 followers at hand. I forget the precise number. We could almost say Jesus had a Navy Seal team and the Buddha had an entire army.

But just like my teacher’s community, those first Jesus and Buddha warriors eventually gave way to bankers and bakers and school teachers and old ladies and bus drivers and magazine editors and pharmaceutical reps and personal trainers and grocery clerks and IT nerds. This process, however, isn’t merely one of pure entropy since occasionally — very rarely — the garbage collector and farm wife and swimming instructor and auto mechanic and the rest of the whole damn mediocre gang find themselves faced with an unforeseen and even impossible mission that rekindles in them the spirit of the warrior. This has happened in the past and can happen even in our own day within the spiritual communities, humanitarian endeavors, and activist movements that give meaning to our lives and make the world a better place.

~BT Waldbillig
April 5, 2017