Upon Glimpsing a Plaster-Cracked Virgin

I recently discovered a handful of poems I wrote many years ago in Rome. When I was in need of a place to stay for a few months, my friends Miriam and Chris let me crash in their guest room. Every morning I would walk in a nearby park and write a few verses as a sort of spiritual exercise. Some of the poems are stiff and mannered but a few, like Roman Market, aren’t entirely terrible. In that spirit, I dedicate this poem to Lilli, my friends’ departed canine companion who brought joy to everyone she encountered. Well, almost everyone, since there’s a waiter at a restaurant near the Lungotevere in Rome who might disagree. Much like the Zen master slamming his pupil’s foot with a door again and again until the pupil attains enlightenment,  Lilli used her canine chompers to awaken the careless waiter with big feet. To my experience dogs, like rain drops, are far more effective spiritual teachers than even the most learned and eloquent of men.

Lilli

~BT Waldbillig
March 26, 2017
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Roman Market

October 2003

I turn my wine-heavy head
and hurry past an ancient
tribal matron
settling into a forgotten corner
of the abandoned market
still littered with rotting abundance

settling under a faded Madonna
she hopes perhaps for shelter
from the delirious clouds
swiftly drifting across the muddy sky
and whistling hot-cold gusts
over the asphalt desert

thunder-crackle deafens me
to her mumbled request
as I lift my eyes to glimpse
the tempest’s first droplets alight
the plaster-cracked Virgin

and marvel at how
they resemble tears

Umbra Mortis

While I was a seminary student in Rome, I made a number of visits to Naples. Now, Naples is not for the faint of heart: its reputation as a rough-and-tumble city is, at least in part, deserved. For some people it’s too filthy, for others it’s too dangerous. Frankly, I always felt quite safe there, though perhaps that was just my small-town Midwestern naivety. I’ve always been a bit too casual about marching into situations that a wiser man might have avoided. During one trip with a group of seminary classmates, I lost my backpack. I retraced my steps to the McDonald’s where we had taken our morning break and as I glanced about for my bag, a man sitting at a crowded table waved at me from across the restaurant. He held up my trusty blue JanSport backpack and pulled out my book of hours, handing it to me carefully as if to assure me that nothing had happened to my possessions. In that moment I felt watched over, looked out for – not the sort of thing I expected but something for which I was most grateful. As wandered back to meet my classmates, I ducked into San Domenico Maggiore and offered the afternoon prayer for my kind protectors and new-found friends.

You can’t help but have a sense that there’s something special about people in Naples. When they fight, the streets run with blood. When they love, their hearts are bigger than you can imagine. When they feast, they feast like gods of yore. Their passion and devotion are singular — for good and for ill. They live in a city of faded glory, where things feel used and trashy but you know that once upon a time there was no more spectacular place on earth. Whether rich or poor, everyone has the bearing of some descendant of a great, long-forgotten noble family.

They also live in the shadow of Vesuvius. You could almost say the shadow of death, because this titan has more than once mercilessly pummeled proud Naples into submission. I’m quite convinced that each and every Neapolitan understands that any day can be the end of the world, and this is something most of us never really grasp. It is, to my estimation, the seed and beginning of true spiritual transformation.

~BT Waldbillig
March 10, 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

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

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