Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 4) … First of Two Posts

[revised 1/6/17]
Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Fourth Conversation, 1667

Our dear Brother Lawrence communicated his spiritual experience within the conceptual framework available to him as a 17th-century white European Roman Catholic Christian French male Carmelite monk. Naturally those elements of his identity leave a mark on his spiritual teaching, but we do well to recall that spiritual realities are neither defined nor bound by the particular limitations that we bring to them. However, our communication regarding spiritual realities is very much bound and defined by our limitations.

A Buddhist reading Brother Lawrence might think this Christian monk has nothing to offer. But if a Buddhist comes to Brother Lawrence with something of an understanding of the epistemology, anthropology, cosmology, etc. that shaped the mind of Brother Lawrence, he or she might recognize embedded within the monk’s teaching ideas that quite closely resemble bodichitta and the bodhisattva ideal.

Now, I’m not trying to reduce the differences between the Christian and Buddhist theological and mystical traditions so far as to say there are no real, consequential, meaningful differences. Still, to my estimation the differences are quite easy to perceive while the points of connection require greater intellectual acuity and benefit from personal acquaintance with lived spiritual practice.

We should be mindful that great historical spiritual figures like Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad the Prophet did not subscribe to the philosophical systems you and I take for granted. Likewise, our experience is quite alien and far removed from the lived reality embodied in such teachers.

Meditation and Synthesis to follow.

~BT Waldbillig
January 3, 2017

The Brief Rule of Saint Romuald

I recently came across the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, an 11th-century European Christian monastic reformer. Now, I’m quite sure I read this Rule, which is only a few paragraphs long, many years ago in seminary and gave it no consideration, but returning to it today I found it quite interesting, unusual, and potentially useful.

Since moving to New York City from Rome in 2005, I’ve had the good fortune of finding a Buddhist sagnha (spiritual community) to study and practice meditation in, and the sangha members are truly good friends, almost like family at times. Yet lately, I find myself impelled by my own interior promptings to return to the spiritual roots that nourished my youth and inspired the first flourishing of my humanity. This return is not without difficulties, but that’s topic for another day.

I was struck and amazed at this little passage from Romuald’s rule:

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

I’ve never come across anything that so clearly, succinctly, and helpfully places the commonalities of Buddhist spirituality and the Christian mysticism¬†into such a useful and (rather) easily intelligible Christian context.

Perhaps there are many more useful discoveries to be made in other spiritual traditions, also.

~BT Waldbillig
December 12, 2016

By the Sign of Hermes

As Dante the Little Man and I take our daily walks through New York City, typically in Washington Heights and the Bronx, every once in a while we come across the Sign of Hermes: a pair of shoes (or construction boots, go-go heels, football cleats, etc.) tied together and dangling from a light pole or telephone wire or tree limb. Hermes, you recall, was the ancient Greek messenger god known for his winged sandals. He was the patron of dreams and divination, transitions and journeys; he was also a bringer of fire, not unlike Prometheus.

People give their sneakers a toss for a variety of reasons, but most often they do it to commemorate some sort of passage. It might be a graduation, moving on from an unhelpful relationship, bringing a child into the world, an important sports victory. Many people also make the Sign of Hermes to mark a moment of spiritual significance, like a bat mitzvah, conversion of life, some flash of insight, or commitment to a path that will forever change the course of life.

Whether we realize it or not, we all stand at a threshold, a place of passage from the world we once knew to a new reality that we do not yet understand. However, there is no need to feel small or weak or inadequate, as no one crosses this threshold alone. We make this passage together, as a family.

If, at times, we experience fear or hesitation, let us not worry, for together we have strength, wisdom, and courage sufficient to face whatever may arise. Together we will make the journey from darkness to light. Together we will pass from death to life.

~BT Waldbillig
December 11, 2016

Ephphatha!

It happens, every once in a great while, that we discover the world as we thought we knew it turns out to be something quite different. The blessing-command of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark comes to mind: Ephphatha!

“And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it; And were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.”

We, too, in our day witness events that are beyond measure astonishing. Yet most of us simply lose ourselves in astonishment, rather than experiencing the clarity of opened minds, opened ears, opened hearts. Open mind, open perception, and open heart belong to our nature, though few of us understand this. We simply refuse to set aside the mask we receive at birth and wear throughout life; we turn our backs on our innate courage to experience who and what we really are. We are like the wretched apostles of Jesus who always miss the point of the miracles and wonders Jesus is said to have performed. In the Ephphatha story we see the apostles behave like rabid groupies or silly school girls (peace be to school girls!). See how they fail to carry the secret! They mistakenly believe that the present opening of this particular man’s eyes and the present loosening of the string of his particular tongue constitute the wonder. Oh, poor apostles!

And so I say this to you: Ephphatha! The true wonder and great miracle is that the eye exists and humans can experience it in a manifestation of openness; that the tongue exists and humans can experience it in a manifestation of direct communication. Now, this is not to say that the miracle Jesus is said to have performed is of no significance. Rather, the small wonder participates in the great mystery of mind and communication. This reality is far more marvelous than any miracle or circus trick. Alas, it seems that apostles have something of circus-miracle fetish.

May we who participate in a new experience of mind and communication in this our favored day not lose our way along the journey.

~BT Waldbillig
December 8, 2016