Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In the course of seminary studies I had occasion to read ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. Naturally, the Book of Revelation from the Christian Bible falls into this category. One thing that has always given me pause is the relative inability of our forefathers to envision an end of this world cycle and the beginning of a new one that does not entail destruction, vengeance, and suffering. Like anything we read in sacred writings, this vision reveals far more about the people who wrote the scriptures than it does about the One who inspired the scriptures.

After many years of intense struggle and doubt around faith, I still find the story of Jesus beautiful, moving, and life-changing. But I ask myself: If Jesus were willing to dwell among us, to teach us a path of love and compassion, to suffer on our behalf, what business would he have with this pornographic blood-lust sort of apocalypse? We seem to think that God has no choice but to punish and destroy;  this is a problematic way of thinking with troublesome implications. However, I’m no great theologian or biblical scholar, so I’ll leave the answer to those who are better educated and more competent in such matters.

For my part, I say this: We do well to regard with caution and suspicion those who appear to us holy, righteous, and just. These are precisely the people who long for the world to burn, who ardently desire the destruction and damnation of their brothers and sisters. All in the name of God.

Were I to encounter the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I would send them to the stables and then offer them a stiff drink. Death, vengeance, and destruction can wait. There’s too much life yet to enjoy and share in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
December 17, 2016

The Blind Man of Bethsaida

I will seem simple to some when I say that, in my experience, spiritual movements that endure and attract people of positive intention and good will offer something worthwhile – a way of life, a supportive community, a common purpose, mystical insight, refuge in times of danger, meaningful shared work. Most of the spiritual traditions that I’ve encountered, experienced, or studied remind me of a Gospel story you may recall:

“And he [Jesus] cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.”

You and I forget that “we see through a glass, darkly” in our present condition. This is true across religions and spiritual traditions. So long as we lack clear vision and penetrating mind, we have no choice but to use those elements of our experience that seem to fit with our provisional understanding of the sacred mysteries and that those we encounter have some possibility of understanding. The scholastic dictum comes to mind: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. That which is received is received in the way that the recipient is able to receive it. We could almost substitute “perceive” for “receive”.

(As an aside, the story of Jesus healing the blind man reminds me very much of what Buddhists call enlightenment, expressed in a Semitic, Near-Eastern framework. Perhaps that’s a reflection for another day.)

Somewhere I wrote of the problems that arise when we are unable to look through and beyond the particular veils that cloak the sacred mysteries honored by whichever particular spiritual tradition one might follow. That’s not to say that there are no real, meaningful differences or conflicts among our various religious and spiritual traditions. I would be dishonest and disrespectful if I regarded other traditions in such a dismissive manner. Still, we do well to harken back to those first longings that inspired our shared spiritual journey.

To my estimation, the spiritual impulse was there in the heart and mind of the Neanderthal who gained some sort of insight in a handful of seashells or river-polished pebbles left beneath a tree that bore up the mortal remains of a friend or child or mate or leader. That same longing for the numinous and transcendent inspired whoever it was that carefully collected the remains of a Nalendi family and hid them away in the Chamber of Stars discovered in South Africa just a few years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016

Ephphatha!

It happens, every once in a great while, that we discover the world as we thought we knew it turns out to be something quite different. The blessing-command of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark comes to mind: Ephphatha!

“And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.”

We, too, in our day witness events that are beyond measure astonishing. Yet most of us simply lose ourselves in astonishment, rather than experiencing the clarity of opened minds, opened ears, opened hearts. Open mind, open perception, and open heart belong to our nature, though few of us understand this. We simply refuse to set aside the mask we receive at birth and wear throughout life; we turn our backs on our innate courage to experience who and what we really are. We are like the wretched apostles of Jesus who always miss the point of the miracles and wonders Jesus is said to have performed. In the Ephphatha story we see the apostles behave like rabid groupies or silly school girls (peace be to school girls!). See how they fail to carry the secret! They mistakenly believe that the present opening of this particular man’s eyes and the present loosening of the string of his particular tongue constitute the wonder. Oh, poor apostles!

And so I say this to you: Ephphatha! The true wonder and great miracle is that the eye exists and humans can experience it in a manifestation of openness; that the tongue exists and humans can experience it in a manifestation of direct communication. Now, this is not to say that the miracle Jesus is said to have performed is of no significance. Rather, the small wonder participates in the great mystery of mind and communication. This reality is far more marvelous than any miracle or circus trick. Alas, it seems that apostles have something of circus-miracle fetish.

May we who participate in a new experience of mind and communication in this our favored day not lose our way along the journey.

~BT Waldbillig
December 8, 2016

Reverent Wonder

There are moments in life when ordinary language cannot communicate the fullness of our experience. As I took the dog for a late night walk yesterday, we paused below the magnificent, marvelous moon and together stood and gazed in reverent wonder. Neither of us had words adequate to describe the sense of connection to the Universe that such a moment engenders.

It’s not that we humans don’t have any words at all for moments of mystery and transcendence. When we read the Vimalakirti Nirdesa from the canon of Buddhist sacred texts or listen to the Exultet chant from the Christian paschal vigil liturgy we engage the world, ourselves, and the universe in a fresh, unexpected way. That’s why even if you’re an atheist or a cynic, reading the Bible or the Koran or visiting a church or temple is still a useful experience.

We’re fortunate to have a precise scientific language to describe what we perceive and experience. Yet when we learned not long ago that Homo nalendi, an ancient and distant relative to our Homo sapiens family, treated the remains of their dead with immense deliberate care that would seem to indicate reverence and remembrance, the vocabularies of geology and anthropology fell short. Other creatures that once dwelt on this planet were capable of behaviors and attitudes that we believed quite resolutely only we ‘true’ humans could. Now we know that liquid water exists beyond the confines of the Earth. How lucky we are to have the physicists and biologists from NASA who investigate these things. Yet I have a suspicion that even the scientists and engineers at NASA and ESA understand that there is a greater mystery here for us to explore.

~BT Waldbillig
September 28, 2015