Useful Tools and Beneficial Communication

This article on the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog site caught my eye this morning. It’s written by a Catholic priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is where I was ordained in 2001. While I have no training in science and I am, by any measure, a theological light-weight, I have written about the topic of human beings interacting with alien beings on my blog and elsewhere, drawing from my own education in theology and humanities, my interaction with creative people and animals, and my personal life experience.

It will seem strange when I say that the world needs the Holy See (the political designation for the Church in Rome) when the day of Contact finally arrives. However, the Holy See has:
1. unparalleled and unique intellectual and human capital at its disposal
2. absolute commitment to the ultimate good of all intelligent, sentient beings
3. principled aversion to injustice and war

Unlike the UN, which is at the mercy of the powerful of this world and straitjacketed by bureaucracy, the Holy See is politically independent and intellectually free in how it will think and act when the situation arises. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the UN, nor am I saying that the Church is without its flaws, some of which are serious.  However, the Holy See is the freest and least untrustworthy global political actor.

As a spiritual institution that is also the most ancient political entity in the world, the Church has an obligation to start reflecting on those things unique to its tradition that will benefit the experience of Contact. Instead of asking silly questions like, Should aliens be baptized?(*), it should invest some of its unparalleled institutional intellectual capital on issues around communication and peaceful, compassionate engagement. Theology of logos (beneficial spiritual action that brings into being the good it communicates by the very act of communication) and theology of liturgy (mindful communication that transcends time and place by means of ritual) will play important roles in the reflection.

If the Catholic Church is still here when human beings interact with alien beings, it will be poised to ensure that the interaction is peaceful and mutually beneficial. Simply put, the world will need the Church in that moment.

~BT Waldbillig
March 28, 2017

(*) From a theological perspective, divine revelation was communicated by people of this world to people of this world for the benefit of people in this world. Anything beyond that is speculation. Once Contact between human beings and alien beings takes place, the Church will benefit from first engaging the alien beings as members of a spiritual family in which all generations have something useful to teach each other. The arrogance and disrespect that the Church brought to its missionary work in recent centuries will have no place. Aliens as Friends and family members — not heathen or pagans — should be the attitude. For a Christian it is not impossible that God communicated revelation to alien beings that, while not necessary for our salvation, is nonetheless beneficial and useful. The Church will need to act in its own name and the name of all human beings — something it has never done before. The novus habitus mentis advocated by Pope Paul VI will be indispensable.

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

Whether Seen or Unseen

Many of us spend a great deal of time obsessing, worrying, blaming, and feeling shame about the hindrances to our spiritual journey. We feel unworthy to engage transcendent sacred mysteries and incapable of experiencing positive transformation. (A discussion of the root causes of this phenomenon will have to wait for another day.)

We forget — much to our detriment — that there is something good and useful in every human experience, though it may not be easily or readily manifested. At the same time, let’s not put on the mask of false happiness and say that everything works out for the best or everything is a gift from God, or such nonsense. The mystery of providence is nothing so stupid. Still, from any circumstance can arise transformation and spiritual awakening.

When I was in high school, I chose as my confessor and spiritual advisor Father James Grubb, then stationed in Ottumwa, Iowa. As it happened, my high school literature teacher in Chariton, Iowa had been a student in a parochial school where Father Grubb was the religion teacher many years before. Mrs. Altenhofen was amused that I, too, had occasion to encounter Father Grubb, who in earlier days was strict, authoritarian, and rigid about the observance of rules, as he had become the Hippie Priest in the 1970s. (There’s no purpose in sharing the details of that story here; I’m sure the curious can Google it or Bing it.) By the time I encountered him, he had gone through a hellish personal spiritual crisis with his faith and confidence renewed. He’s the priest who handed on to me the traditional rituals that had been discarded by the Church. However, there’s one important thing that set him apart from other priests who had clung to the old ways: Father Grubb engaged the old rites with a new attitude; he wasn’t a nostalgic restorationist. He had understood Pope Paul VI’s call for a novus habitus mentis. My appreciation for ritual movement, chant as a form of mindful communication, and useful formality that’s expressive, not suffocating, began with Father Grubb.

The first time I asked him to hear my confession, we paused before the confessional box. On one side there was a sign that read: Seen. This meant there was no screen between penitent and confessor. On the other side: Unseen. In that part of the box there was an opaque screen to assure anonymity. When Father Grubb pointed out the center door behind which the priest sits, he said “Here the sign should read: Obscene.” We both laughed out loud, much to the dismay of the blue-haired church ladies reciting the rosary very, very slowly.

Of course, what he meant is that he couldn’t pretend to have been an unsullied lily of the valley (gack!) through the course of his life. He taught me to see sin and failing as development along the spiritual path. And never, never to worry about it, as the story of grace unfolds in our lives through both progress and failing, that God manifests goodness and love in ways we don’t understand.

You and I tend to forget that even those things we regard as hindrances and failings can transform us for the better. Naturally, I’m not saying there’s no use in pursuing virtue or spiritual ideals, but it has taken me most of my life to understand that when we close ourselves off to a fuller experience of the realities around us, when we try to kill off elements of our humanity, we accomplish no good thing and we set ourselves apart from our brothers and sisters who — whether we know it or not — are every bit as much as us on a spiritual journey.

Seen. Unseen. Obscene.

A throwaway comment that contained the most important bit of insight I would ever come across.

~BT Waldbillig
December 16, 2016

Sub Specie Aeternitatis

Just after Christmas in 1999, I flew from Rome to Brussels. When I got off the plane I was met by a monk from Chevetogne Abbey (also known as the Monastery of the Holy Cross). The community was founded in 1925 by Dom Lambert Beauduin and moved to its current location about an hour outside of Brussels in 1938.

I had a couple of purposes in visiting this obscure monastic community in rural Belgium. At the time, it seemed likely that I would pursue a doctorate within a few years, and I thought Dom Beauduin, who was a respected thinker as well as founder of a very unusual monastery, would be the perfect subject. I had already come across some of his writings and was well on my way to becoming a devotee. As it turns out, I never did the doctorate.

But I was also at Chevetogne because in about six months time I was to be ordained deacon on the path to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. It’s considered a major step and consequently Church law imposes a formal retreat before undertaking such an ordination. So I made my retreat under the auspices and in the company of a group of serious and dedicated but joyful Belgian monks.

As I mentioned, the abbey is rather unusual, as it brings together two different groups of monks under the roof of one community. It’s a bi-ritual monastery, which means some of the monks follow the Western, Roman liturgy and some follow the Eastern, Greek liturgy.

My visit fell during the New Year period, which was inspiring fear that year as we were passing into the year 2000. While my father was back at home on-call in his office in case there were computer or technology problems, I was among the monks chanting in Latin and Greek their usual prayers. At 10 pm on December 31, 1999 we sang the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, then each of us went to his respective cell (bedroom) and went to sleep. There was no hoopla, no fireworks, no champagne. While the rest of Europe was either  hunkered down in fear or in the streets wildly partying, we went on with life as normal. That’s what monks do. If it were the end of the world, they would still keep their usual schedule.

Today as I awoke and saw news of the deaths and terror in Brussels, I thought of those monks. Naturally, they will mourn the dead and console the living, but as all of us are lost in fear, the monks will continue on with their normal schedule because their community, their lives, and their example exist, in part, to help the rest of us gain perspective that we altogether lack in moments such as this.

~BT Waldbillig
March 22, 2016