The Love of a Mother

Not long ago after a late dinner with a friend I was walking across 125th Street in Harlem to catch the A train. It was probably around midnight and the streets were deserted but I felt quite safe and even paused every now and again to look up at the moon and stars, as they were particularly beautiful in the sky above Harlem that evening. Just as I neared the train station, a prostitute approached me and quite directly propositioned me. I was neither offended nor frightened, nor was I interested in sex. I simply nodded to her, wished her well, and smiled as I walked on.

As I sat alone in the subway car that would take me home to Washington Heights, I wondered why I felt tenderness — and not shame or disgust — toward that desperate, haggard Black woman who had no choice but to walk the merciless Harlem streets at night offering her own flesh to strangers.

My thoughts turned to the mothers of Jesus and the Buddha. While I reverence both of these women through whom two of the greatest spiritual teachers our planet has known came into this world, I recalled that both women became pregnant in highly unusual circumstances.

To me, this was their sure sign of favor. I have no trouble believing that their great sons had a divine origin.

But surely the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī were doubted by many. Surely in their day they endured condescending insults, disapproving whispers, and looks of disgust by those who did not believe the accounts of how they came to bear those sons who would change our world. The Christian and Buddhist traditions and sacred writings cast no doubt upon these women, but surely those with darkened minds could think nothing but ill of them.

I thought on that Harlem prostitute. She must endure disdain and rejection ceaselessly. Just as the holy mothers of Jesus and the Buddha did. And while the Harlem woman would make no claim as to other-worldly origins for own children and would think herself utterly unlike those two ancient holy women, she knows something of what they experienced in a way that you and I will never understand.

A mother is the first teacher of love to her children. The mother of the Buddha loved him unto death when she died not long after giving birth and the mother of Jesus loved him unto death as she stood by in silence during his torturous execution ritual and burial. They never abandoned their children, never regretted suffering for the sake of their sons. They taught their sons how love through hopelessness, loss, and  unspeakable suffering.

And their sons, in turn, taught the entire world.

To my mind love is so powerful, that even a Harlem prostitute could teach you and me something about love. You and I love so little but think so much of ourselves. How many women are regarded by the world as unworthy or unwanted or useless or disgusting — and yet they understand love better than you and me.

It is those who regard themselves as righteous and pure and good who are the unworthy ones. Not the prostitute who walks those merciless Harlem streets. She bears more of the image of the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī than you and I ever will.

Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 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

On the Enduring Power of the Human Heart

Life is full of difficulties, some more bearable than others. As for me, the fact that religious faith, which once came so easily, seems practically impossible at times now causes no little pain. I’m not alone in this difficulty with faith: in fact, it seems that almost everyone I know in the generation following my own is in a similar situation, if they haven’t already jettisoned religious faith altogether. I won’t delve into the possible reasons behind this, other than to say the pious have no reason to feel smug about their own faith and religious practice. When people of good will and positive intention reject faith, the keepers of the faith do well to examine themselves very carefully. As often as not, religious practitioners are a primary stumbling block to faith in others.

If there’s any consolation for those of us who wander in the darkness of doubt and uncertainty, it is this: faith, like hope, was never meant to be permanent. By their very nature, faith and hope are aides along the spiritual path. By the end of the journey, there is no need for faith or hope; they point to something beyond themselves. Many of the great mystics – John of the Cross comes to mind – suffered through doubt and difficulties with faith for much of their spiritual journey.

If faith and hope are temporary, we should direct our attention to love. Love is the one thing that is possible no matter our place in life, no matter our condition. If anything in this life gives us a glimpse of how great and noble our existence can be, it is love. Love is also the place where those of little faith and those whose faith moves mountains can dwell together even now.

~BT Waldbillig
February 26, 2016

Habitare Fratres in Unum

At one time, most of North Africa and the Near East was Christian. Today, the remnants of those ancient Christian communities struggle to survive amid dire economic conditions, brutal dictators, the scourge of war, and religious zealots determined to exterminate anyone who disagrees or disobeys them.

When I was a seminary student at the Angelicum in Rome, my classmates included men and women from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey, as well as various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. My Iraqi classmate, one of the kindest and most joyful people I knew in Rome, was assassinated in Mosul just a couple of years after returning home as a priest.

It’s worth remembering that while extremist groups have a particular hatred for Jews and Christians, they don’t hesitate to torture, murder, or enslave fellow Muslims who oppose them.

The history of the Children of Abraham — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — is full of aggression, hatred, violence, and bloodshed. But that’s obviously not the whole story. Those religions also have the capacity to bring people hope, peace, and joy. That’s why Jews, Christians, and Muslims — along with people of other faith traditions and even atheists — have to work to together to confront the challenges facing our world today.

~BT Waldbillig
April 22, 2015