Finding a Teacher (a poem by W.S. Merwin)

FINDING A TEACHER
By W.S. Merwin

In the woods I came on an old friend fishing
and I asked him a question
and he said Wait

fish were rising in the deep stream
but his line was not stirring
but I waited
it was a question about the sun

about my two eyes
my ears my mouth
my heart the earth with its four seasons
my feet where I was standing
where I was going

it slipped through my hands
as though it were water
into the river
it flowed under the trees
it sank under hulls far away
and was gone without me
then where I stood night fell

I no longer knew what to ask
I could tell that his line had no hook
I understood that I was to stay and eat with him

http://www.merwinconservancy.org/2017/05/finding-a-teacher-by-w-s-merwin/

~BT Waldbillig
May 24, 2017

From Darkness to Light

Stat arbor
Dum volvitur orbis

The Tree stands still
While the Earth spins

Almost ten years ago I came across the spiritual autobiography of Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religion and former Catholic nun, as well as British television commentator and one of the authors of the international Charter for Compassion. Through the course of her spiritual crisis in the convent and afterward as she tried to construct a life in the outside world, Armstrong was dogged by discouragement and feelings of failure which led to a period of severe depression. Many years later as she reflected on the path she had forged for herself, she realized that in her youth she looked at the spiritual life as unfolding along a straight line where we’re either going forward or retreating backward. Progress or failure. Now, in later life, she prefers the image of a spiral staircase: In any given present moment, it seems as though we’re stuck turning in circles, while in fact we’re very gradually ascending, growing or progressing in ways that are hidden or difficult to perceive. Only after much time, great effort, lots of failure, and a fair amount of luck can we perceive our true place.

Many people live in close contact with the frustration, desolation, discouragement, and despair that Karen Armstrong experienced. Some choose to abandon their spiritual endeavor altogether, but most do their best to continue despite the seeming uselessness of it all. It’s not unlike other great undertakings in life — marriage, vocation, friendship, education, or positive social transformation.

The way forward
Is the path of return

We all need some kind of help or encouragement or support or sage advice in time of desolation. Often we’re bitterly aware when others respond with silence to our own difficulties, though usually we pay no attention at all to the even greater struggles of those we love.

Fortunately, simple realties — understood for what they are — lead us back to the place of compassion. Something simple like a plucked flower, a fallen leaf, or a crushed sparrow’s egg has power to awaken us from the darkness. So does a kind word, a spontaneous smile, an outstretched hand, or the embrace of a family.

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

The history of our kind shows that once in a very great while some momentous event occurs that plunges all of us into the darkness together at once. In those past moments when we were tempted to think all was lost, our kind always found a source of power beyond imagining.

In our day, we do well to recall that we are not alone. Together, not abandoning even the smallest or most useless among us, we wait in darkness for the appearance of a bright shining light that has already begun to dawn.

~BT Waldbillig
April 24, 2017

From Perception to Thought

When there’s a queue outside the local soup kitchen, I think on consecrated mendicants with their begging bowls

When gang members show their signs, I think on the sacred mudra of holy men and women

When I come across street kids in hoodies, I think on the cowls of monks and nuns

When I behold hipsters with knotted hair, I think on ancient warriors

When I see raving dancers, I think on the trances of prophets and mystics

When I find only darkness, I think on a rising moon reflecting light from the Unconquered Sun

~BT Waldbillig
January 4, 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

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

A Matter of Perspective

Spending time with my dog, Dante, brings me immense joy. In fact, I consider our time together – above all our walks – as sacred. Even though I live in Manhattan, I’m lucky enough to be in a neighborhood with plenty of trees and very few high-rise buildings. For our evening walk, sometimes Dante and I stroll through Highbridge Park and stop in the meadow to gaze up at the heavens. Unfortunately I don’t remember well my astronomy lessons from school, but I can always spot the constellation of Orion the Hunter in the sky. Sometimes, if I think about it hard and squint harder, I can pick out the stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Bellatrix, which form part of the constellation.

Not surprisingly, Dante and I aren’t the first creatures to contemplate Orion. There’s a 40,000-year-old ivory carving from Germany that depicts Orion, and long before Horace and Homer mention him, the Egyptians and Babylonians were talking about Orion. He even appears in the Bible three times.

During my eight years in Rome, I made over 180 visits to the Sistine Chapel and every single time I was mesmerized by the figure of Christ the Judge. It’s believed that Orion served as inspiration to Michelangelo for the figure of Christ above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel. Orion really got around!

Now, for just a moment think on Orion’s belt. From where we stand in the universe, these three stars – whose names I always forget – align in a nice, neat row. Notice I say, “from where we stand in the universe”. From other places in the universe, these stars align differently. In fact, there is a place in the universe where Orion’s imperfectly straight belt appears as a perfect equilateral triangle. If there are other intelligent, physical beings elsewhere in the universe, perhaps they gaze on these same stars and see an altogether different formation.

(It’s curious that to the ancients who followed the cult of Sol Invictus, Orion’s belt and shoulders were seen as the blade of Mithras and the bull’s horns from the depiction of the Tauroctony.)

The same reality is often perceived and experienced in vastly different ways by different beings, and that’s true of more than just stars. This is something for each of us to contemplate the next time we gaze on Orion the Hunter in the night sky.

~BT Waldbillig
March 24, 2016