The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 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

Among the Tools of Survival

Every Latin student learns a fair bit of military history, translating ancient texts that describe Rome’s exploits. There’s Caesar and the Gallic Wars, fought against my ancestors, the Belgian Celts (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”); the legendary Spartacus and the Servile Wars, those ancient slave uprisings that found their way into a wildly popular television series a few years ago; and the Punic Wars, with the mighty Hannibal and his legendary his Alps-crossing elephants.

Just about a week ago we marked the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, which took place on August 2, 216 BC. At the end of a day of fierce fighting, the Carthaginians (led by Hannibal) lost fewer than 6,000 men while the Roman losses numbered greater than 60,000, thanks in large part to Hannibal’s famous double-envelopment ploy. The carnage was terrifying, even by Roman standards. One historian tells us that the Carthaginians slashed the thighs and tendons of the Roman fallen so they couldn’t flee. As Hannibal surveyed the site after the battle, Roman soldiers offered him their necks, hoping to be put out of their suffering. To this day, the Battle of Cannae and Hannibal’s tactics are studied in places like the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Back in those days, warriors suffered PTSD as surely as some do still today, even if there was no clinical diagnosis. The suicide of Ajax from the story of the Trojan War is undoubtedly a description of something resembling unbearable battle trauma, the effects of which linger in the bodies and minds of survivors.

I keep re-reading Anne Carson’s preface to her translation of Euripides:

“Grief and rage — you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you — may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

We seem to be rediscovering that — along with therapy and pharmacology — the stage, cinema, literature, music, dance, tattoo and other arts are indispensable tools of survival and healing for our brothers and sisters who wander the world bearing wounds you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
August 9, 2016

Avian Insight and Canine Wisdom

I’ve long struggled with insomnia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve resorted to herbal remedies, prescription tablets, breathing exercises, diet changes, and the like with little success. These days I occasionally take a melatonin supplement but mostly just take the advice of a good doctor I had some years back who encouraged me to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and read or do some writing, take a walk, or play with the dog. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I lazily watch TV; that was the one thing my doctor counseled against! What can I say, I’m far from perfect.)

Lately, in the full throes of summer, I’ve been waking up quite early, often before 5:00 a.m. This morning Dante and I went for a long pre-dawn walk and ended up strolling down Saint Nicholas Avenue and over to my favorite street in the neighborhood, Convent Avenue, where I always gawk at the incredibly beautiful old townhouses. We passed a few older individuals with push carts hunting for glass bottles and aluminum cans, and on a side street I noticed a sign at the entrance to a community garden. ‘Cooling Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ — the garden is transformed into a refuge for people with no access to a cool space during these brutally hot summer days.

This reminded me just how easy it is to be out of touch with the day-to-day, practical challenges many people face. Sometimes these problems are quite serious and can become matters of life and death. For a low-income, elderly person with no family or friends, a couple of days of intensely hot summer weather can be a death sentence. That’s something you and I probably don’t think much about. We don’t have to.

Not long ago I read about a sort of theological war being waged among the cardinals of the Catholic Church over a recent document by Pope Francis. I recognized some of the names on both sides — some are men I once knew, some are thinkers I once admired. It struck me that while the cardinals are bickering over a theological document, the refugee crisis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond continues to rage. Every day children become orphans, women are raped, entire families are slaughtered, and human beings slowly die of hunger and thirst.

I can’t help but think of the Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean friends from my seminary days. Some of them grew up in the Middle East; almost all have family there. For them, there’s nothing abstract or distant about the horrors of war.

Somehow papal documents and cardinalatial quarrels seem far less urgent in light of such unspeakable suffering.

Truth be told, over the past few years I’ve learned more from my mongrel dog and from the birds in the nearby park than I ever learned from a cardinal, theologian, saint, or guru.

Maybe that’s how it should be.

~BT Waldbillig
July 21, 2016