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

Of Snakes and Dogs

This morning before Dante and I set out for our morning trek, we had to bundle up and prepare ourselves since NYC finally received its first proper snowfall of the season. This morning’s crisp wind, cold temperature, and rising snowbanks were a far cry from our experience along the same route one year ago at this time, right around Epiphany. I remember this only because of an odd incident that still lingers in my consciousness.

Last year as the dog and I took our walk on a balmy Epiphany morning, we came upon a garter snake who had wandered out and onto the paved foot path leading to the pedestrian bridge on the Washington Heights side of Highbridge Park. While I’m not an ophidiophobe, my lack of familiarity with snakes usually causes me hesitation when I encounter them. Still, I find them beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Many of us know snakes in the unfavorable symbolic form they take within the Judeo-Christian cultural context, but of course in ancient times snakes held the sign of healing and medicine. Then there’s the famous story of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment: As the tale goes, on the eve of his spiritual transformation a giant, primordial lake serpent protected the Buddha from the danger of wild predators and from the harsh natural elements while he meditated.

The snake has a role, also, in what is arguably the world’s oldest global religion, Mithraism. Since this defunct cult was primarily ritual and visual, as opposed to written, we know with certainty very little about it. Yet in virtually every known intact and semi-intact place of worship we find Mithras, the Friend, depicted with several animals, including a dog and a snake.

Incidentally, Mithras is normally shown wearing a Phrygian cap, essentially a hipster hat, which covers his knotted hair — think today’s man-bun. How funny the cycle of history can be!

So last year I was keen for my dog to see and meet this snake, which was a first experience for him so far as I could tell. I made Dante stop and sit about a foot away from the garter snake and I brought his attention to the little guy sunning on the pavement, sure that he didn’t try to play with the snake or eat him. Once that was done, I broke off a twig off from a nearby tree branch and used it to move the snake to the side of the path, lest he be trampled by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, or careless dogs.

Later that same day Dante presented me with a stick he had cleaned and whittled a bit at one end. I assured him I’d keep it for the next time I encounter a snake in need of help.

~BT Waldbillig
January 8, 2017

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

Silent Expectation

Some say choose the Path of Renunciation
Others claim the Path of Excess is best

There are those who offer a Middle Path
But this I tell you:

Everything in this world has value
And even sorrow is useful

One man cannot in himself
Experience fully this world

But we are many Brothers
A legion of mighty warriors

We are the wicked, the damned, the lost
We are the saints, the just, the light

Scattered throughout history
Like the sands of time

And so:

That which we have received
Let us hand on to others

Honoring one another
In silent expectation

~BT Waldbillig
December 6, 2016

On Compassion of the Dog

Today is Valentine’s Day (or the Feast of Saint Valentine, Bishop and Martyr, if you’re the traditional type) and the thoughts of many people turn toward those they love. While I don’t have a romantic partner, I do have a constant companion who brings me much joy and who daily gives me unexpected lessons in love: my dog Dante, whose birthday just happens to be tomorrow.

Not long ago I came across a story about a medieval Christian holy man, Saint Roch (whose name you might find spelled as Rocco, Rock, or Rollox). While we are rightly skeptical about the details found in medieval hagiography, the stories themselves often present useful ideas that have value quite apart from any connection to historical events. According to this particular tale, Roch was renowned for serving and aiding plague victims and, not surprisingly, he himself eventually contracted plague. Finding that no one would feed him or give him shelter, Roch retired to the forest where a nobleman’s dog would bring him food and lick his wounds clean.

Religions present us with many different attitudes toward animals generally and dogs in particular. Some of those attitudes have changed and developed over the centuries. In modern times there’s a fair bit of inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Some prominent Christian thinkers, like Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin, have accentuated Buddhist principles in their own Christian teaching and spiritual practice. Some well-known Buddhists, like Thich Nhat Hahn, have shown deep knowledge of and sympathy toward Christianity. While there was some interaction of Christians and Buddhists in the ancient world – we have only to think on the Indian merchant travelers to the Roman-Mediterranean world or the establishment of monasteries by Nestorian Christians traveling along the Silk Road as far east as China – it’s difficult to prove there was any kind of meaningful theological or philosophical cross-pollination. Yet monasticism has been key to the development of both religions and, for some reason, monasteries tend to be friendly places for dogs, who often receive abusive and even sadistic treatment from humans.

In the US, the monks of the New Skete community, an ecumenically minded Orthodox Christian monastery, live among dogs and raise them to be service and companion animals. They even have their own training program so that people outside the monastery can benefit from the monks’ years of canine experience. In Tibet and Thailand, monastic hospitality toward dogs is near-legendary. It’s not uncommon to see dogs lounging or milling about in the midst of the monks.

Now, I don’t know if dogs can be “saved” in a Christian sense or “enlightened” in a Buddhist sense. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter to me – let theological pedants and idle monks argue over that. I know that I’m a better human being because of the presence and companionship of my dog, Dante. Our relationship might not be friendship as defined by someone like Aristotle (peace be to Aristotle!) but it’s friendship to me, maybe one of my most beautiful friendships, in fact. There are days, too many of them, when life doesn’t have much meaning or purpose to me, days when I can dwell in the midst of people who love me yet remain unable to feel love at all. Then an absurd, slobbering, furry bundle of cosmic energies inconveniently interrupts everything, like a prophet or a thunderstorm, and something in me awakens. Animal behaviorists might admonish me for anthropomorphizing a dog, for imposing on him human-based psychological attributes, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that Dante understands me. That he shares in my joy and sorrow. That he wishes me well in his own particular dog way that might be different from our human way but nonetheless is every bit as real and valuable. Perhaps it’s just about the food and affection – most human interactions are about food or affection — though I can’t help but think there’s something more going on inside the mind and heart of my dog.

Some Buddhist traditions speak of bodhisattvas, beings who put off their own release from the cycle of suffering in order to dedicate themselves to the enlightenment and liberation of other beings. In fact, some of these bodhisattvas are symbolized by a dog or even take the earthly form of a dog. There’s no doubt to me that Dante would willingly and without complaint forgo his own release from suffering and endure endless aeons for the sake of my well-being. In a sense, he is probably much further along on his spiritual path than I am on mine. (If I practiced mindfulness meditation with even the tiniest fraction of the concentration he shows toward food, I would probably become spiritually enlightened instantly.)

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

Naturally, we could mention also the forest-dwelling Dog Buddhists in Thailand who believe that dogs are closest to humans in the cycle of rebirth; or the central role of the dog in the ancient Mithraic mystery religion; or the teaching of the modern Japanese Zen master, Joshu, regarding the spiritual enlightenment of dogs; or the recent compassionate fatwas of certain Muslim imams regarding dogs.

There is a traditional Tibetan saying that goes something like this: “Do not harm the monastery dogs for it will break the heart of the Living Buddha.” I’m not quite certain who or what the Living Buddha is, but I know that any heart moved by suffering and inspired to alleviate suffering is a noble, sacred heart. Whether it’s your heart or mine – or the heart of a dog that knows things you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
February 14, 2016