Possibility in the Present Moment

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
~WS Merwin

Let me tell you of a dream I once had:
I awoke in my childhood home. I was alone and it was night. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again it was day but in place of the sun’s rays the sky was filled with gray light. I arose from my place of rest and went forth to care for the plants that surrounded my childhood home — the grass, the trees, the hedgerows, and the flowers. The world was still and silent. I was alone but this filled me with neither joy nor dread.

We are, none of us, completely free. We experience the limitations of the physical world we inhabit. The social and political realities of family, community, and nation bind us throughout life; some of these obligations begin before we are even born.

We live our lives at the threshold of a new reality, but instead of crossing the threshold we look continually behind, like Lot’s wife or like Orpheus. We cannot change the past in our present state, but to deny the past is to give it greater power over the present.

After the rain
There is silence

When I was young I thought I more or less understood the world and myself. At a certain moment I became aware that this was not, in fact, the case and I was overcome with fear and despair. Today I am no more enlightened than I was before and this fills me with neither joy nor dread.

In the spaciousness of this present moment possibility exists.

~BT Waldbillig
December 14, 2015

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

The End of the Affair

There’s something comforting about a holding a familiar book in your hands, something about the feel, the scent, the sight. Not to mention the eternal universe contained in the decaying pages. A good friend of mine re-reads Moby Dick every year. I used to have a copy of Graham Greene’s The Moviegoer close at hand, but my library has disappeared little by little, year by year, the victim of cross-Atlantic moves, cross-city moves, and the dreary apathy of our digital age. I’m still quite fond of Greene, even though — much to my shame — I haven’t re-read The Moviegoer, The Pride and the Glory, or The End of the Affair in quite a few years. The End of the Affair was made into a rather good film with top-notch actors a few years ago. While the movie got one or two small but important details wrong, a sign that the director didn’t quite “get” Greene, in my opinion, the film version is still well worth the watch.

When I was in seminary, I felt immense sadness for the main character in The End of the Affair, a man filled with hate and resentment for God. Life is funny, though. Today I look on him more with compassion, recognizing something of myself in him. To the pious it might be difficult to grasp, but for many people the only way to affirm something like God is by denying it. Now, this actually has theological basis in the so-called apophatic tradition. This ancient theology states that the only true way to know God is by knowing what God is not. All the positive statements we make — God is good, loving, merciful, father, mother, shepherd — these things don’t really tell us much, for two reasons: (1) They are mostly metaphors, not literal statements, and (2) our concepts will always fall short of transcendent reality. Our experience of what a father or mother is, our idea of what a father or mother could be, is never more than a faint approximation of what God would be like, according to the Greek theologians. Interestingly, this is also an approach many Buddhists take when examining the mystery of God. I imagine Wikipedia has a clearer explanation of the apophatic theological tradition.

I’m sometimes tempted to refer to myself as an atheist. Curiously, this would be completely acceptable to the medieval theologian Duns Scotus because for him God transcends being, therefore in a literal sense God is-not because God is beyond being and not-being in the sense that you and I can understand. But for me, the God of stone and plaster statues, the God of certainties, the God of street corner preachers, the God who comforts the afflicted, who makes all things right in the end — I don’t find much evidence of this God in my life. The God I know is the God who isn’t there, the Absent God. Like a lot of people, I find myself in a bind: I’m not comfortable as a believer, and I’m not comfortable as a non-believer. Still, there’s something worthwhile in that contradiction, something meaningful in that existential tension.

~BT Waldbillig
December 3, 2015

Honoring the Dead

The dead are honored more by our lives than by our words.

About a week ago I commemorated my maternal grandmother’s passing, which still seems recent to me even though it happened 23 years ago. She remains the single most important person I’ve encountered in my journey through life thus far. For some reason another departed friend has also risen to the fore of my consciousness recently.

When I was a young boy, every summer my mother would drive me across town to spend a day or two with Aaron Vredenberg. His grandfather was the president of the company my father worked for and to my mother it was something of an honor for me to be asked over to spend time with Dwight’s grandson. I didn’t understand that at the time, naturally. I just enjoyed my days with Aaron, exploring his grandparents’ architecturally remarkable house, riding bicycles around the neighborhood, admiring each others’ Star Wars figures, playing board games, getting ourselves covered in dirt and grass stains from the yard. The house was massive, or at least I remember it that way, and it always felt empty to me. At noontime, Ruth would call us to the kitchen and make us sandwiches. She was always very sweet and gracious to me, treating me as if I were her grandson, too. I have nothing but warm, kind memories of those days, and even though Aaron and I drifted apart over the years, I always considered him my friend.

A memory stands out to me now, though the incident was meaningless to me at the time. One particular summer day, Aaron pulled out a Ouija board, that quaint and commercialized leftover from 19th-century spiritualism. We pushed the glass around the board for a while and them went on to some other game. Later on Aaron confided to me that he had spoken to someone named Ajax, who he thought was a slave buried somewhere on the grounds of his grandparents’ home. This had the tenor of a ghost story for me and I took it as nothing else. You know how young boys are.

Aaron died of an apparent suicide when we were teenagers. Only just recently did his reference to Ajax pop back into my mind, however. You may recall from the story of the Iliad that Ajax was a great warrior who survived the Trojan War but was driven mad by Athena and ultimately killed himself in shame. Aaron and I were too young to know much of anything about the Iliad and while his reference to Ajax is a coincidence, to me it has served as a timely reminder to remember and honor him.

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2015