Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT III

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 3

SCENE 1: A SACRED GROVE

On that day a single tree
Will sanctify the entire grove

Not long ago, the dog and I were wandering among the dusty streets of Manhattan’s East Village when we ducked into a small community garden. It was an odd space, situated mid-block and occupying the footprint of a demolished tenement house. There was nothing formal about the garden but it was clear that someone cared for this space quite attentively.

There were plots of flowers scattered about, luscious vines entwined in the chain fence and crawling up the walls of buildings on either side, a couple of small, humble trees, and nary a weed in sight. We sat in the shade of a tree for a few moments and shared a bottle of water before we went on our way.

It was odd to find such a lovely and delightful – albeit simple – garden in so rough a part of that neighborhood, close to the dilapidated housing projects and nowhere near the so-called gentrified areas where the smartly dressed, neatly coiffed schöne leute sip their lattes and stroll with languid detachment from the life-or-death concerns of the panhandlers, drug addicts, homeless veterans, and prostitutes around them.

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

The mind travels back to my seminary days in Rome. There you won’t find lots of ramshackle neighborhood gardens, though you might lose yourself in one of those formal public spaces that started out as Edens for the Roman elite of long ago. In the Eternal City you find chapels and shrines honoring saints you’ve never heard of and servicing obscure, antiquated guilds. Some are simple, others intricately decorated. Some are easily accessible, some open only a few times a year. Just like Manhattan’s community gardens, they are all places of refuge, stop-offs for weary travelers. You might even say the garden and chapel – both home to the sacred tree – serve the same noble purpose.

Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

It’s not surprising that trees loom large in our collective consciousness. After all, we came from the tree:
whether it’s a mythic tree in an ancient garden,
a cosmic tree that spans the universe,
or a mighty tree on the edge of a savanna that dares our primordial ancestors to climb down and explore.

We find the tree featured prominently in many spiritual traditions: The ancient Hebrews who wandered desperately carried with them the essence of their deity in a wooden box. Whether you’re a fan of Gilgamesh or a devotee of Noah, it was a giant wooden ark that saved ancient humanity from that flood-of-all-floods. Jesus the carpenter died on a dead tree to bring life to a hopeless people. The Buddha was freed from the endless cycle of suffering while meditating in the cool shade of the kind Bodhi tree. The tree possesses such power that, whether alive or dead, it can save humanity.

The infinite expanse of the human heart
Will endure forever

As it happens, my family name is an Old German word that signifies a place of trees, a grove of sorts, or perhaps a forest. As a boy I dreamed of becoming the greatest tree in the grove, the wisest tree of the forest. And while a man must put aside the things of his childhood, the dreams of a boy are holy. I may never become great or wise, but wisdom and greatness exist in abundance everywhere around me. As boy I wanted to be the sacred tree, but only now, midway through life’s journey, have I understood that the entire grove is sacred.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF MARS ULTOR

Behold, Dante the Little Man and I took rest in the dark corner of an ancient temple. From upon his throne a mighty and fearless god let out a roar that shook the very walls and pillars of the sacred place. I began to tremble and turned away my gaze but Dante looked on.

The many warriors of the mighty and fearless god at once appeared, clothed in battle apparel with swords drawn. They began growling and roaring and crying out with shouts more fearsome than any I had ever heard.

With raised hand the mighty and fearless god silenced the terrifying warriors. Quiet and stillness filled the temple. Then the mighty and fearless god uttered a single word that echoed like thunder throughout the universe.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

Suddenly the warriors were gone and the doors to the temple were sealed from within. The mighty and fearless god began to weep and the rivers of tears brought life to every corner of the universe.

– – – – –

SCENE 3: DOPO LA PIOGGIA

At the end of this desolate path
She waits in silence

Like a Camorra assassin
Or a Carthusian monk

Her arms outstretched
Reaching to the heavens

Her feet planted deep
Like roots of an ancient tree

But how should I meet her
I who am a tired traveler

Dust covered, heart weary
As I turn away in shame

See the rain is coming
She calls out

It will cleanse us both
And refresh this orchard

Our home
Our family

The oranges will return
With lemons and apples

And cherries
The dirt you bear on your flesh

Will be washed clean
And nourish the soil

Of this sacred place

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 30, 2016

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT II

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 2

SCENE 1: A CINDER PATH

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

Every human life is an unexplainable mystery that takes form and flesh within a story. As fate would have it, my story begins in a place of favor.

I mean this quite literally. My hometown of Chariton, Iowa is named for a river discovered by a French trader who was named for an early Christian hermit who bore the name of an ancient Greek playwright. The etymological root of Chariton is the Greek word for grace or favor, “charis”. So my hometown is, literally, a place of favor. To those of the Mormon faith, it is even a place of miracles.

It would have made the perfect starting point for a hero of yore. Instead of a hero, I turned out to be a smalltown boy who got lost on his wanderings through a world that was much bigger than he ever dreamed.

After the rain
There is silence

At the edge of town was the trackbed of a disused railway that had been transformed into a recreational trail and rather unimaginatively named the Cinder Path. Today it would be trendy; in my childhood, it was simply practical. As a boy, I would sometimes jog with my father along the path, or walk with my mother and sisters, or ride my bicycle with friends.

I spent a great deal of time at the Cinder Path with my mother once those storms of the mind began to visit her. As we wandered the path together, sometimes we spoke – about our lives, hopes, memories, and dreams; or about the trees and flowers and covered bridges. But often we walked together in uncomplicated silence, simply content to find in our love for one another some brief respite from the turmoil and sadness.

I’ve carried the sadness with me across the years and around the world, and as my mother descended into a Hell where no one dared follow, the sadness and pain grew. But never – in the midst of the delusions, rage, and terrible, unbearable words – did she abandon her love for me. It is this realization that has, in these later years, turned pain and sadness into tenderness.

We learn too late that it is only when we continue to love in the midst of suffering that our small, small hearts can become something quite magnificent. We who are bound by our bodies and our brief time on Earth, somehow we partake of the infinite and the eternal. We become infinite and eternal through the love we bear and the love we receive.

In this very moment
Our world is passing away

The day comes for each of us when we must be no longer a daughter or son of anyone, but father and mother to ourselves and therefore to the world. This day inspires both hope and fear!

I myself am yet to be born. Will I be the child who springs forth from the womb with a battle cry, ready to take on any foe? Or will I be the stillborn son, whose life is shrouded from the very beginning in sorrow?

I do not know. Let me say it again: I do not know.

In this very moment, all I know is that my story is not yet finished. And this gives me hope.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF THE LOST MAIDEN

Behold, there was a beautiful young maiden – gentle, innocent, a mere child – lost in a deep ravine, abandoned in a dark forest. It was the dead of night and no light shone from the moon or stars. As she began to weep, a wolf pup appeared to her and bid her to climb on his back.

At once the wolf pup transformed himself into a fearsome war dog and charged through forest, carrying the maiden to safety.

And as they passed through the forest, a hidden legion of warriors appeared with torches to light the way – and their torches became the stars.

And atop a hill appeared a man wearing a hooded cloak, all white. He lifted his torch – and his torch became the moon.

As I awoke from my dream,
I understood that
the war dog is also brother,
the warrior is also family,
and the Father is also Mother.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE LIVING DOG
[vel IN TAUROCTANIA]

In those dark times
When the Friend wounded my heart

Even as he wounded himself
I did the best I could

Looking away to hide
My own tears

Warming his cold body with
The warmth of my own

Licking away that blood
Shed in sadness

I did not abandon him
For my kind will

Never abandon
The ones we love

Never leave behind
The ones we love

Never forget
The ones we love

And we will love them
Even to the end of the world

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 29, 2016

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT I

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 1

SCENE 1: COMPASSION OF THE TREE

Just outside the dining room bay window of my childhood home in Iowa stood a tall tree. To be honest, I don’t even know what sort of tree it was. Was it oak or elm? The tree was old, at least to the little mind of a little man. It was just a tree. And yet, more than most elements of my childhood, the tree still dwells in my consciousness. For all its plainness, I can recall no other tree that was so grand and kind in that little town. Never was there so sweet a tree with such gentle leaves. Perhaps it is the mere nostalgia of a man midway through his journey in this life, a man who could not love a tree when he was a child and now deludes himself with wishful memories. Perhaps it is something else: a wooly intuition that there is something noble and valuable in every experience. That tree is no longer there and I am no longer a little child but, in some way, the tree lives on in me.

The tree is so common an aspect of our human experience that most of us cannot grasp its beauty, significance, or compassion. Perhaps only on a long journey in the desert or across the sea or through the infinite expanse of outer space – those places where the tree seems but fantasy – can our kind laugh with joy or weep in sorrow for something so ordinary as a tree.

The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever

Not long ago I discovered in my own DNA remnants of a past I never knew. From far away places like Northern India and the Caucasus Mountains there are hints of ancient migrations, of survival in unlikely circumstances, of love in the midst of suffering. In the DNA of every human – in your DNA and in mine – there is courage to embark upon impossible journeys, to survive and evolve in hopeless situations. There is ancient wisdom we never knew we possessed.

The human heart is a mystery worth contemplating. Fragile is the heart, bruised and pierced quite easily. It is the very essence of human weakness. And yet, because of that heart our kind is capable of near-infinite love, compassion, and healing. We can forgive anything, even the unforgivable. We can love anyone, even the unlovable.

The heart is sacred, just as you and I are sacred
Just like the stray dog
Just like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face
Just like the sweet refuge of calm waters
Just like the branches of an ancient tree
Just like each and every breath

When I was young nothing seemed so vain, so unnecessary, so terrifying as having children. Now, midway through life’s journey, I wonder differently.

On the tree of every family, of every people
There are many branches
Some are foolish men, others wise women
Some are hopeful children, some cynical elders
There are farmers and beggars
There are peoples of the forest
There are peoples of the sea
There are peoples of hate and war
Some are deaf and blind
While others are oracles of an impossible future

Should my branch never produce even a single shoot, the tree will continue. My tree will continue. Your tree will continue. OUR tree will endure and the fragile human heart will make many marvelous, unimaginable, glorious journeys.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF AMBER LIGHT

Behold, a man found himself alone in the great darkness
The great darkness opened beneath him
And the man began to plummet
Into an abyss of amber light
In that moment when the man feared that all was lost
A saving hand reached out to him
And pulled him through the abyss of amber light
And the man passed through the abyss of amber light at great speed
Before the man passed a vision of the whole of existence as in a brief flash
Here he beheld a man with a torch painting mysteries
On the walls of a dark cave
There he saw another constructing an earthen dugout
Hidden among verdant hills and great rivers
Here he beheld a man building a magnificent temple in the desert
There he saw another erecting a mighty vault in the midst of a city
He saw these and many other marvelous things
Too numerous and amazing to recount
And as he passed out of the amber light he beheld one last vision

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE TREE
[vel SONG OF THE MOTHER]

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
December 28, 2016

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 3)

The Practice of the Presence of God is, to most readers, a little-known Catholic spiritual classic from the late 17th century. It is brief and somewhat unusual, insofar as the model it presents for the spiritual life is quite simple and direct, devoting little attention to the sorts of the concerns that tend to dominate most Christian (and not only Christian) spiritual literature.

This tiny gem was written by a French Carmelite lay brother. As it would happen, one of the first religious communities I seriously considered joining in my youth — I was still in high school at the time — was a small group of strict-observance Carmelites in rural Minnesota. Perhaps this was because of my superficial acquaintance with those great Carmelite mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Perhaps it was the attractiveness of a life so completely and unreservedly dedicated to a spiritual ideal that inspired me. Life took me along other paths, but I still regard those mystic-saints highly. Perhaps one day soon I’ll return to their writings, engaging them not as the boy of certainties that I was in my youth but as a man who has had the grace to experience something of life, who has known doubt and uncertainty intimately and at length, who understands from the inside what failure, difficulty, and despair are.

Not surprisingly, The Practice of the Presence of God (PPG) is cloaked in the language and theological scaffolding of a particular moment in the history of the Catholic Church. To many this will be an obstacle. For my part, I am attempting to give a fresh read to the text, exploring points of commonality with the Buddhist spiritual tradition, and proposing a synthesis that is useful and sensible to me. I leave it to others to judge the actual value of what I write. The work I offer here is an initial, provisional attempt — it will need thoughtful revision at some stage in the future.

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)
Third Conversation, 1666

The impulse for this spiritual endeavor arises from the conviction that it is a most noble and beneficial pursuit.

Distractions and failures of mindfulness are not important and need not cause bother, for once recognized they help us return to our spiritual focus with renewed confidence and fresh insight.

Trust in the One who inspires the spiritual journey is the greatest honor we can offer and is a source of grace and strength.

Let us have trust and confidence that the path is not futile, even when we cannot see a way out of the darkness we might experience.

We perceive and experience the reality of our spiritual journey in detached moments, not in its totality; therefore our judgment is limited in usefulness at times and always provisional.

As we develop spiritually, we may begin to experience the present moment more fully and in ways we don’t always understand; the past and the future take on a different significance.

When our minds wander, as they will, through our own effort and by some special grace they will return to the present moment or to our object of concentration.

As we cultivate attitudes of love/loving kindness and compassion, they will assist us in our attempt to dwell more fully in the present.

Sometimes, this dwelling in the present takes curious forms: crying out, spontaneous singing, and strange, impulsive dancing. (Confer Buddhist mudra.)

Ordinary, daily activities are often of more use than explicitly spiritual activities.

Periods of dryness, confusion, self-doubt, and even despair will occur to anyone on a spiritual path for any length of time; confidence in our innate capacity for spiritual transformation and letting go of worries and anxieties, though not easy, will benefit us in difficult moments.

It may be the case that at the beginning of our spiritual path we need to devote ourselves to certain disciplines, teachings, and practices; however, those are merely tools: love is the one thing that is truly necessary.

We do well to recognize that some spiritual practices and disciplines may be harmful or hinder us, above all if they impede the expression and development of loving kindness and compassion.

Neither skill nor knowledge are absolutely necessary; rather, a devoted heart is the one needful thing. (Confer Sayings of Eihei Dogen: “The study of the Way does not rely on knowledge and genius and cleverness and brilliance.”)

~BT Waldbillig
December 27, 2016

Sol Invictus and the Christmas Celebration

If the Gospels reliably communicate any historical information, in all likelihood Jesus was born in spring, not winter. Details such as shepherds keeping watch all night in the fields with their flocks tell us there was no December birth. The temperature would be too cold to spend the night outdoors.

It turns out that the Christian celebration of Christmas is a synthesis of winter festivals from the ancient world: the Solstice, the Roman Saturnalia, the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, and the Jewish festival of light recounted in the Books of the Maccabees. One of the reasons that the Christian religion survived at all was precisely its ability to communicate its message while adapting itself to external circumstances. Christmas is the perfect illustration of this principle.

December 25 was, in ancient times, honored as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. It’s worth noting that Jesus is referred to in solar terms: the Sun of Justice, the Sun that Never Sets, etc. To honor Sol Invictus, there was a special feast in his honor on this day.

Something Jesus would have heartily approved was the reversal of roles that masters and servants observed today. Servants and slaves would partake of great feasts at the expense of their masters and owners. In some cases, though probably not too frequently as the Roman world was very rigidly divided between the free and the enslaved, the Master of the House would serve the meal himself.

Apparently, Sol Invictus was honored most when the mighty and powerful humbled themselves to take care of the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the sick, and the marginalized. A nice thought for those who recall the birth of Jesus — who himself preached a very similar Gospel.

~BT Waldbillig
December 25, 2016

Dream of Sol Invictus

With Christmas nearly at hand, I offer a hymn to the original feast-holder of that day: Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Here, I imagine a battle between Mars Ultor, the Avenging War God, and Silvanus, the Boy-God of the Forest.

– – – – –

DREAM OF SOL INVICTUS

The innocent maiden and the wolf pup sat upon a hilltop
Rejoicing at their salvation from the pit

While the Forest Boy who commands Mighty Warriors
Danced and sang for the girl and the pup

“From the darkest place emerges the brightest light
The moment of despair engenders invincible hope

Neither fire nor ice
Neither water nor want

Neither stones from the sky
Nor the wiles of man on Earth

Will ever drive out
The roots of the Great Tree

In the place of the empty heart
The light of Sol Invictus will shine

You who feared not the darkness of the pit
Nor disdained the wickedness of men and wolves

Led them from the place of darkness
To the long-awaited kingdom of Light

Ha! Foolish men!
You thought the maiden innocent and helpless

Ha! Furious bull and raging stag!
You beheld the pup easy prey

The pup has pulled you from the pit
By the knot of hair on your head

The girl dragged you behind herself
By your horns and by your nostrils

Let us taunt them
Without mercy, without rest

Take from the shepherd his staff
Kill the fiercesome guard dog

Exterminate their fathers
Make of their sons beggars

Humiliate their women
Make of their daughters whores

What can the Forest Boy do
Before the Mighty God of War?

He laughs, he dances
He sings, he weeps

While the dead dog you offered as sacrifice
Rises from the ashes

Extinguishing the fire of war
Without even a fight”

And when the boy finished his dancing and singing
When the rivers of tears dried up

The light of Sol Invictus appeared
And the world became new again

Behold, People of War and Avenging Gods
Sol Invictus has made of you all

Peoples of the Great Heart

~BT Waldbillig
December 23, 2016

Hymn of Silvanus

As Christmas approaches, I offer a piece in honor of the original feast-holder of that day: Sol Invictus.

Here, Silvanus, the Boy-God of the Forest, sings to all who wait for the Unconquered Sun.

– – – – –

HYMN OF SILVANUS

The God of War commands with extended arm
The Boy of the Forest uses the other for play

But Sol Invictus bestows blessing
With both arms outstretched

His palms looking down to us
His fingers the sun’s rays

The light of Sol Invictus
Is bound by no map or chart

Like two-faced Janus
His gaze extends to us

Whether backward in history
Or forward in time

Fear not for we are Brothers
Fear not for we are Friends

We will save each other
Faithful like a cur

Hail!
The Great Tree!

Hail!
The Little Man!

Hail!
The Living Dog!

The poor, the wicked, the unforgiven
The mighty, the holy, the innocent

All drink from one cup
All eat from one table

In this house dwell all
Masters and servants alike

The wicked and just alike
Senex, progenitor, filius

In this family the father
Strikes not his son

We, mighty and arrogant males
Believed we were paterfamilias

While our females tended
To every needful thing

They cared for the plants
Tended the orchards and vineyards

The sheep, the cattle, and even the pigs
They attended mindfully

They vouched safe the embers of the hearth
Fed all, taking for themselves the scraps

And so I tell you:

Watch and keep vigil
Guarding the secret in your heart

Know that what you do
In the open and before the world

As well as all that you do
In the darkness of the hidden place

Fulfilling your duty with[out] hesitation
Giving of yourself completely

Will one day
Save the world

~BT Waldbillig
December 23, 2016

Who Is the Bodhisattva?

I recently came across a text that quite vividly describes the sort of spiritual ideal toward which many aspire. With Christmas approaching, we could also envision this ideal as the motivation for the Incarnation.

– – – – –

Description of a Bodhisattva
(from the Ratnagotravibhaga)

He has gone beyond all that is worldly, yet he has not moved out of the world;

In the world he pursues his course for the world’s weal, unstained by worldly taints.

As a lotus flower, though it grows in water, is not polluted by the water,

So he, though born in the world, is not polluted by worldly dharmas.

Like a fire his mind constantly blazes up into good works for others;

At the same time he always remains merged in the calm of trances and formless attainments.

Through the power of his previous penetration (into reality), and because he has left all discrimination behind,

He again exerts no effort when he brings living things to maturity.

He knows exactly who is to be educated, how, and by what means,

Whether by his teaching, his physical appearance, his practices, or his bearing.

Without turning towards anything, always unobstructed in his wisdom,

He goes along, in the world of living beings, boundless as space, acting for the weal of beings.

[taken from Puja Readings and Other Texts as Used In the Triratna Buddhist Community]

~BT Waldbillig
December 19, 2016

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 2)

Written in the second half of the 17th century by a French Carmelite lay brother, The Practice of the Presence of God is divided into three sections: Section One, comprising accounts of four personal conversations; Section Two, comprising 16 letters to various individuals; and Section Three, comprising six “maxims”, or brief reflections.

To begin, I plan on commenting upon each of the conversations individually. I may group together several letters or several maxims when I reach those sections. We’ll see what works best.

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)
Second Conversation, 1666

Lex suprema amor: Love is the inspiration, path, and goal of our spiritual endeavor.

As most of us cannot fully and perfectly love all beings, we do well to love those who are closest to us: ourselves and our family.

This practice (love of self and family) is more important and useful than imitation of those the world regards as virtuous, holy, wise, etc.

Let others worry about reward and punishment, heaven and hell, and the like, for our endeavor is too important, difficult, necessary, and universal for such considerations.

Let us commit ourselves completely and with[out] hesitation to whatever part we might have in our common endeavor, even if it entails the loss of whatever it is that we most cherish or hope for.

The One who set us upon our path is the Silent One: as few of us can penetrate the silence, we must content ourselves with words.

As the Psalmist tell us: Those the world regards as little are not lesser beings than those than those the world regards as great.

We do well to remember that few of us will see the good fruit of our shared mission.

That which we have received [from those who came before], we must hand on [to those who are yet to come].

Bonum est diffusivum sui: A single tree possesses power sufficient to sanctify an entire grove.

~BT Waldbillig
December 18, 2016