Beyond Anger

Vain self-contentment is the great trap for people who engage spiritual practice seriously. It’s also quite challenging to recognize the attitude when you’re wallowing in it.

In our day when there are fierce societal conflicts around immigration, abortion, poverty, good government, refugees, guns, etc. religious and spiritual practitioners are no more exempt from rage, arrogance, closed-mindedness, and pusillanimity than the rest of the population.

In itself, anger can be a help or a hindrance; it can be virtuous or vicious. But it’s difficult, more difficult than we imagine, to bring good out of anger. It’s possible, but tough.

Those who stoke their own anger and the anger of others — if they’re sincere in pursuing whatever it is they think is good — should regard anger with reverence and care, not with the casual flippancy we see around us today.

It’s disappointing to witness a Catholic priest suggest that those who oppose the US president and his government might be better off dead; it’s unsettling to know that a prominent Buddhist teacher has suggested that anyone who supports the president is part of a public “sh*tshow”.

You may be familiar with the expression, “The exception proves the rule.” Exceptio regulam probat. Here, the meaning of “prove” is not justify, confirm, or support. Instead, probare means to test, to try, to challenge, to explore critically. Unusual and unforeseen circumstances are a test of one’s character and convictions. To a spiritual practitioner, the current crisis in American society is a test of good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action.

Too many “spiritual” people — wherever they stand on the political spectrum — are coming up wanting with regard to good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. It’s quite likely that both you and I are among them.

This means our daunting task is to move from anger toward good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. Hopefully we’ll accomplish this together.

~BT Waldbillig
January 31, 2017

How Great the Tree

It is a simple fact of the world, as we know it, that some creatures must take the lives of other creatures in order to live. This usually entails physical pain and emotional suffering in those who are killed, but there is a burden that those who take life must carry with them, also.

In human beings, we see this acknowledged in the ancient ritual cave paintings of Lascaux, Alta Mira, Chauvet, etc. and also in the traditional practice of hunting only out of necessity and in wasting no part of the animal whose life is taken.

The taking of life — for any reason whatsoever — wounds both the individual killed and the individual who kills. This is as true of animals as it is of men. Yet some beings take life in order to ensure the continuation of life. Other beings give life in order to ensure that the gift they experience might continue.

In truth, anyone who participates in violence and death, in the taking of life, participates in this mystery. Whether aggressor, victim, or spectator; whether voluntary or involuntary; whether alone or in community; whether wicked or blameless; whether man or woman or child.

Those who dedicate themselves to a spiritual path learn to love and honor all beings, though this is no easy task. We might even call it a foolish, impossible mission, since that is how it seems at times. However, no matter where we stand within our experience of the mystery of suffering, we possess the capacity for positive spiritual transformation.

Look to the Tree:

When we behold the acorn or walnut we cannot believe the power it possesses to transform itself and very place it inhabits. From a small seed, mighty, unseen roots descend, turning useless soil into a place of life, breaking apart even stones.

Like a Titan, its body rises heavenward and stretches out its arms, providing rest and shade for the weary and a home to the birds of the sky.

The Tree creates the air that sustains man and beast. It offers itself as a sacrifice, becoming home and ark. It is the servant of the bringer of fire — fire that destroys, fire that sustains, fire that warms, fire that purifies.

How great is this Tree, like unto a god, stooping down to worship us who should worship it, silent and steadfast, wise beyond human understanding. And how marvelous that we, who deserve so little, are the branches and shoots and leaves and blossoms of this noble Tree. How noble are we, also!

~BT Waldbillig
January 29, 2017

From Anger to Compassion

“People often use their anger at social injustice as a basis for action, but that is unwise. When you are angry you are not lucid, and you can do many harmful things.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Resting in anger is ultimately self-defeating. However, just (“righteous” in Biblical terms) anger can motivate us to transform our own lives for the better through clear mind and compassionate action. Transformed by clear mind and compassionate action, we are better prepared to face the problems and injustices of the world.

Unfortunately, most of us choose to stay with anger rather than changing for the better our own attitudes, actions, and relationships.

As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points out, anger clouds judgment. It inhibits us in our perception of those we disagree with, and it inhibits us in our self-perception. Anger is the perfect emotion for bubble dwellers — people who have no interest in understanding the world beyond their own noses.

That’s not to say that we can’t do anything useful with anger. I still recall what Sister Colleen McGinnity, a nun from my childhood parish, used to say, “The reason you begin an undertaking is often less important than the reason you persevere.”

And so, the chief — and most difficult — task of today’s social activist is to transform anger into compassionate action.

~BT Waldbillig
January 28, 2017

On Tree-Nature

The tree has been at the fore of my consciousness of late. Of course, the tree is the primordial symbol-reality from which our spiritual impulse arose and around which many religious traditions focus. In both Buddhism and Christianity the tree features prominently and it connects those two religions in a way that is often overlooked.

The liminal event in both religions occurs in relation to a tree: In Buddhism, the Buddha is enlightened under the tree; in Christianity, Christ is killed upon a tree. But the Buddha does not remain under the tree and Christ does not stay upon the cross. Both figures must go forth from the tree, and in so doing bring the reality of their spiritual experience to others. What I mean to say is, the benefit of the mystery they embody is not meant to terminate with them; it is intended to bear fruit in the lives of others and bring about healing in the Universe.

Alas, the clerical and monastic “owners” of these religions, who call themselves leaders, cling selfishly to the advantages their position gives them and so construct systems of power and exclusion to ensure no one might take such privilege and position from them. This is done in the name of orthodoxy, purity, lineage, or succession though it makes utter mockery of those things.

If Buddhism speaks of Buddha-nature and Christianity speaks of Christ-nature (i.e., the potential of all beings to bring forth in themselves that which the Buddha or Christ experienced and the mystery they symbolize), perhaps we could also speak of Tree-nature.

~BT Waldbillig
January 26, 2017

You Who Seemed a Fable

After the rain
There is silence

As on the first morning
Of that first spring day

When the world was fresh
And full of hope

We climbed from the pit
You and I laughing

You turned to me and smiled
The first smile of creation

So I chased you up the hill
Through the fields of yellow flowers

Beyond the tall grass
Through the great forest

When I caught you at last
(You let me catch you!)

We sat on a rock by a tree
At the top of the world

And the first leaf fell
From the first tree of creation

So I held you in my arms
Like my child, my only child

I rocked you to sleep
Watching you dream your last dream

You closed your eyes
For the last time, the first time

You breathed your last breath
And your breath became the wind

I opened my eyes for the first time
For all time when you woke the world

I shed the first tear of creation
For you and it filled the world with water

Even today when the wind stirs the flowers
And shakes the leaves from the trees

You are remembered
You who seemed a fable

The silent wind unnoticed
Moves even the mighty oceans

Bearing men aloft like dreams
To new worlds and new hopes

So did you move my heart
Without even a single word

And now the silent ones
Remember you and call you back

Though I am gone
Never to see you again

You are father and mother
You are brother and friend

You are love and family
You found me and saved me

So long as there is light
So long as there is life

So long as the gentle breeze
Plucks leaves from the trees

So long as there are yellow flowers
And tall grass in the meadow

Until the last mountain disappears
Beneath the waters my tears

This will be our temple
The sparrows our priests

Just like that first day
When you pulled me from the pit

When we danced and laughed
And thought the world would never end

~BT Waldbillig
January 18, 2017

Even Gods Need Heroes

There is an ancient saying:
Even the gods
Have need of heroes

Early humans left images of animals on the walls and vaults of the caves where they took refuge. One of the most common images is the bull (in one form or another). In all likelihood this image was a celebration of the successful hunt as well as the expression of hope in continued prosperity. But the animal image also acknowledges the precariousness of life, which depends on the sacrifice and death of some beings for the sake of others. Buddhists will later call this reality (i.e., the precariousness of life) impermanence, while Christians will adopt the mantra memento mori. Presumably, the inspiration for the pre-historic cave paintings is also the origin of the Mithras myth.

The American Christian theologian Richard John Neuhaus said somewhere that we are born to die. Naturally, he didn’t mean that death is our purpose. He simply stated an obvious truth: Each of us is born midway along a journey that will one day end. If we are born into this life, we will one day pass out of this life.

Not surprisingly, our participation in this reality of pain and mortality causes fear, despair, selfishness, hatred, regret, and suffering. Yet instead of resting in these experiences, we have, since the beginning, chosen to give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise be an empty, hopeless existence. This is the spiritual path.

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

For us, as well as for beings similar to us, life arises within a community and is continued by means of a community. This is family, and within family rests hope.

I still recall a phrase I learned in seminary while studying philosophy: Bonum est diffusivum sui. The Good naturally and spontaneously tends toward growth, expansion, and continuation. Family is the incarnation of this principle, though at times it is difficult for us to appreciate this, as by its nature family embraces both sheep and goats, to use a Biblical expression. To put it another way: The mother of a family embraces all of her children. She loves each son as if he were her only child, loves each daughter as if she were her only child. The just and the wicked alike. How difficult it is to be a mother!

Take the example of the grove-keeper. She is careful which branches she prunes and which she allows to remain, which trees she brings down and when. She values the beautiful trees, the fruit-bearing trees, and those with fragrant blossoms, but also trees that appear to the foolish man as ugly and useless. Not all the branches nor all the trees survive the grove-keeper’s labor, but if she chooses wisely and carefully, the grove will survive and flourish.

Life continues by protecting and fostering the place where it arises. In this way, life is able to expand as in an ever-widening circle, stretching out to every corner of the universe.

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 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

Tearful Day

If memory serves, the famous liturgical poem Dies Irae originally had purpose not at the funeral Requiem Mass but was instead used on the last day of the Church year. Bits of it may stretch back as far as Gregory the Great (7th cent.), though the current form is Late Medieval.

The imagery, which today we associate with death and personal loss, was intended to have a cosmic significance. Just as the people we love all pass away, one day this planet we inhabit will also disappear. And who knows? Perhaps even the universe itself will pass away.

Lacrimosa dies: the tearful day. We shed tears for many different reasons. Tears may be fearful, regretful or sorrowful. We shed tears of pain, despair and emptiness, but we also shed tears of joy, surprise, wonder, marvel, ecstasy and gratitude.

Click here to listen to Zbigniew Preisner’s haunting Lacrimosa from his Requiem for My Friend.

~BT Waldbillig
January 14, 2017

‘Being Poor’ by John Scalzi

Being Poor
John Scalzi
September 3, 2005

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.

Being poor is wondering if your well-off sibling is lying when he says he doesn’t mind when you ask for help.

Being poor is off-brand toys.

Being poor is a heater in only one room of the house.

Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.

Being poor is hoping your kids don’t have a growth spurt.

Being poor is stealing meat from the store, frying it up before your mom gets home and then telling her she doesn’t have make dinner tonight because you’re not hungry anyway.

Being poor is Goodwill underwear.

Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.

Being poor is feeling the glued soles tear off your supermarket shoes when you run around the playground.

Being poor is your kid’s school being the one with the 15-year-old textbooks and no air conditioning.

Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal.

Being poor is relying on people who don’t give a damn about you.

Being poor is an overnight shift under florescent lights.

Being poor is finding the letter your mom wrote to your dad, begging him for the child support.

Being poor is a bathtub you have to empty into the toilet.

Being poor is stopping the car to take a lamp from a stranger’s trash.

Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw.

Being poor is believing a GED actually makes a goddamned difference.

Being poor is people angry at you just for walking around in the mall.

Being poor is not taking the job because you can’t find someone you trust to watch your kids.

Being poor is the police busting into the apartment right next to yours.

Being poor is not talking to that girl because she’ll probably just laugh at your clothes.

Being poor is hoping you’ll be invited for dinner.

Being poor is a sidewalk with lots of brown glass on it.

Being poor is people thinking they know something about you by the way you talk.

Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.

Being poor is your kid’s teacher assuming you don’t have any books in your home.

Being poor is six dollars short on the utility bill and no way to close the gap.

Being poor is crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.

Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually stupid.

Being poor is people surprised to discover you’re not actually lazy.

Being poor is a six-hour wait in an emergency room with a sick child asleep on your lap.

Being poor is never buying anything someone else hasn’t bought first.

Being poor is picking the 10 cent ramen instead of the 12 cent ramen because that’s two extra packages for every dollar.

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being poor is getting tired of people wanting you to be grateful.

Being poor is knowing you’re being judged.

Being poor is a box of crayons and a $1 coloring book from a community center Santa.

Being poor is checking the coin return slot of every soda machine you go by.

Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.

Being poor is knowing you really shouldn’t spend that buck on a Lotto ticket.

Being poor is hoping the register lady will spot you the dime.

Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.

Being poor is a cough that doesn’t go away.

Being poor is making sure you don’t spill on the couch, just in case you have to give it back before the lease is up.

Being poor is a $200 paycheck advance from a company that takes $250 when the paycheck comes in.

Being poor is four years of night classes for an Associates of Art degree.

Being poor is a lumpy futon bed.

Being poor is knowing where the shelter is.

Being poor is people who have never been poor wondering why you choose to be so.

Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.

Being poor is seeing how few options you have.

Being poor is running in place.

Being poor is people wondering why you didn’t leave.

[Click here for original.]

– – – – –

The Masters of this world have no idea how divorced they are from the lived experience of most of the inhabitants of the planet. To my estimation, this is true across political, social,  economic, national, and religious factions.

In my mind, the successful, the rich, the powerful, the beautiful, the highly regarded, the just, and the holy of this world possess little of value next to the mystery of humanity revealed in the lives of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, the marginalized, the abandoned, the hopeless, the suffering, the weak, and the helpless.

Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
January 14, 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