Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Letter from Camp

While looking for something else among my documents, I stumbled upon a letter I wrote to friends in August of 2006 immediately after returning from the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought. I rather liked what I read, so, after perusing the letter and finding nothing that looked like private information, I decided I might as well share my first Catholic retreat experience with readers. I wish I had done this earlier so it might serve as an advertisement for the retreat, but the submission deadline for applications to this year's retreat is apparently tomorrow. Then again, the website, like any good Catholic website, is a year out of date, so contact the Diocese of Cheyenne to find out for sure. Here's the letter with a little editing. It's long, but I hope you enjoy it. You'll see I haven't changed much in two years:

This last week was one of the best weeks of my life, probably. On Sunday afternoon, we loaded onto a bus and went up to a campground on Casper Mountain, specifically the Lions camp for the blind, which will probably amuse some of my Protestant friends. From there, we went to Mass, had dinner, and were introduced to our speakers.

The Wyoming Catholic School of Thought’s theme was “The Restoration of Catholic Culture.” The speakers were four in number, They consisted of Dr. Kevin Rickert, who discussed papal encyclicals on social justice, Fr. Gregory P. Adolf, who discussed “the paradigm for an authentic Christian anthropology,” Dr. Robert K. Carlson, who addressed the “moral crisis,” which he sees as the view that truth is subjective, and Dr. Henry Russell, a champion of poetic and aesthetic presentations of truth, who discussed Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop.

In addition to all the laity present from around the state, there were a number of priests and a few religious, including members of a Beatitudes Community, who led us in chanting the morning and evening prayers for the Liturgy of the Hours. The bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, David Ricken, was also present for most of the week.

Our bishop, quite flatly, has to be one of the best bishops in the world. They keep warning us that he’s going to be taken away and from us and made an archbishop or put in charge of a larger diocese, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s very concerned with adult education, and the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought is one of his initiatives, along with the new Wyoming Catholic College, which Father Bob Cook, who’s in charge of both the School and College, plugged heavily throughout the week. The unfortunate side of that is that Casper is losing Fr. Bob, but he’s going on to bigger and better things.

Anyway, our typical daily schedule for the week looked something like this. At 7:00, we had morning prayer with the Beatitudes and Mass at 7:30. 8:30 was breakfast. We then sat in lecture from 9:00 to noon, when we had lunch. We then had some free time, during which the Beatitudes taught Jewish dance. At 3:00, we had Eucharistic adoration, and at 4:00 we had evening prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We then had a final lecture at 4:30 and dinner at 5:30. At 7:00, we had small group discussions with individual lecturers, and then at 8:00 we had a moderated discussion with all the faculty, followed by night prayer at 9:00.

With all this prayer, it might sound like it was a joyless, rigorous experience, but it wasn't. Each of the lecturers was buoyant and entertaining, making jokes at his own expense as well as at the others’, but all in good humor. Fr. Bob probably put up with the most abuse, since everyone wanted to tease him for the enormous brass bell that he carried around to call us to the various events through the day. One of the lecturers referred to him as “Father Pavlov.” Everyone through the whole things was smiling, happy, and enthusiastic. It’s hard to imagine spending a week with a better bunch of people. Our meals were catered by a fantastic local company called Herbadashery, and the food was awesome, and at dinner the wine flowed freely. On Wednesday, when they served ribs, we even had cold Ones. They put them out in a big cooler full of ice, because A One that Isn't Cold is Scarcely a One at All (tm).

Dancing and alcohol. This ain’t no Baptist retreat!

In addition to the normal schedule, we had a penitential service on Tuesday. I’d not been to one before. It’s a lot like the Liturgy of the Word at Mass, with singing, scripture reading, and a homily, but following that, the various priests who were present went to different parts of the church and then the rest of us followed after them to make confession. I had the joy of confessing to a wise, funny, and engaging priest to whom it would probably be difficult not to confess your sins.

Oh, and when I say the food was awesome, I mean it was totally sweet. Dinner on Sunday night will give you an example of the hardship we endured on this rugged trip into the wilderness. First, they softened us up with a fresh tossed salad coated with light vinaigrette. At the same time, available on the table was a bottle of good white wine, a basket of moist bread, a dish of some delicious concoction of vegetables, sauces, and spices to go with the bread, and a plate of deviled eggs. Following this, they brought us each a plate of pasta primavera with a kabob of shrimp and pineapple. Following this came ice cream topped with blueberries and a wafer dipped in chocolate. Herbadashery grows its own herbs, and everything in the meal was delicately and unusually seasoned. For example, the vinaigrette tasted of dill, and each of the deviled eggs was topped with half a green olive stuffed with pimento. I don’t know what was in the pasta, but whatever it was, it was good. Their iced tea, which was available at every lunch and dinner, was flavored with mint. A seminarian was in charge of the high- and middle-school kids who did the serving. He also made the coffee, and his coffee was strong enough that it could probably beat you up if you got too close, so he kept everyone happy on the caffeine end of things.

All of the lectures were awesome. The overarching theme was about the recovery of a Christian worldview, though none of the speakers used that term, as far as I remember. There’s a lot of people talking about Christian worldview today, but most of the people talking about it don’t have one; they have something like modernism with Jesus tacked on like an appendix. Anyway, these speakers went a long way toward attacking many false assumptions underlying today’s culture and actually giving us a handle on a Christian way of viewing the world. Dr. Carlson’s talk on the nature of truth, the good, and freedom was like a crash-course on Christian philosophy. It was logical and enjoyable. Though Dr. Rickert was not the funniest of the speakers, his discussions of social justice were probably second to Carlson’s as the most helpful and concrete. Dr. Russell’s poetic truth, by contrast, was harder to get a handle on. Fr. Greg’s discussions were on the Book of Colossians, and he was by far the most enjoyable and funniest of the bunch.

When not lecturing, the speakers were all available for discussions, questions, and so forth, and all of them were easy to approach. I sparred a bit with both Fr. Greg and Dr. Russell. My assault on Russell rose out of a misunderstanding. After his lecture on Friday, during the short break before the next lecture, I threw the gloves off, ran up to him, and said, “I want to contend with your contention that Christians can’t write tragedy.” After a quick discussion, we had things hammered out. I explained that my understanding of tragedies is that they are stories of noble people who destroy themselves, and he replied that I had a good, Christian understanding of tragedy, but he said further that in his opinion those stories were comedies, in a sense. When he said “tragedy,” he meant stories in which God turns away from people, not in which people turn away from God, so he agreed that Christians could certainly write tragedies of the kind I had described, and needed to read them. I told him I was much relieved because I have known many Christians who were suspicious of good literature, including tragedy, and who, as I put it, “think all fiction should be this thing called inspirational fiction, the sort of stories that go between two pink covers and have Thomas Kincaid inserts.” Dr. Russell promptly replied, “That’s not even real literature.” (I like this guy.) He then directed me to a writing of John Henry Newman, called The Idea of a University Defined, in which Newman insists that Christians must read great works of literature.

My battle with Fr. Greg ended ambiguously but amiably. He compared the Genesis creation myth with the Babylonian creation myth and gave the latter an unfavorable review, and then also made some comment about people who spend their lives in fantasy land instead of reality. That night, I sat at his table at dinner and said, “Fr. Greg, I’m a fantasist.” I then proceeded to point out that the Combat Myth, of which the Babylonian creation myth is an expression, underlies several biblical texts in the Psalms, Job, some of the prophets, and the Apocalypse. He agreed, but said he meant only that the Babylonian creation myth was grotesque in comparison to the Genesis version. I concurred, but only if “grotesque” was not meant as a moral judgment, and I referred to Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” in which he briefly defends grotesque elements in fantastic fiction. I went on from there to express my belief that not only the Christian worldview is in crisis, but the Christian imagination, and that because of Fundamentalists and Traditionalists, we were losing our ability to make propositional truth live by situating it in story, and that we need to recover our love of myth and folklore. Anyway, I don’t know if he entirely agreed, but he nodded a lot.

Speaking of which, I have at my arm a book from our Parish media center entitled Towards a Theology of Story, the blurb on the back of which suggests that the book is about all the stuff I’ve been talking about lately, especially in my heated battles with mythophobes, traditionalists, and Harry Potter-haters. I’m quite looking forward to reading it.

Oh, and another good thing this week. One of the sisters at the retreat has perfected the method of making nearly invincible rosaries out of heavy-gauge wire, and she was offering to repair any broken rosaries. It so happens I had a rosary that was broken, though I hadn’t brought it with me. This rosary was a gift from a friend and had some sentimental value, and also had my medals attached to it. I didn’t have it at the retreat, but Sister made some parts for me to fix it, and after the mountain caught fire and we had to evacuate, I was able to get it from home so she could complete the repair job and ensure that it was thorough.

Oh, and that brings me to what I haven’t mentioned yet. We weren’t actually on the mountain for most of the retreat because a forest fire started to the west. On Monday, during adoration, Fr. Bob called us all together and announced that we had evacuation orders and that we had to leave most everything behind, load into the few available vehicles, and get out of there (we had dinner first). One of the Beatitudes brothers was asked how he felt after this announcement, and he said, “I’m doin’ great. I’m on fire.”

We took over St. Anthony’s Parish and continued the retreat there almost without pause. So, unfortunately, I spent the week in Casper away from the invigorating air of the higher altitudes, and the air in Casper was decidedly less than invigorating, because the fire was a major conflagration, extending the evacuation order to the city’s edges, and the town was covered in smoke. We hacked and wheezed our way through a great week. Being from Eastern Oregon where forest fire is an annual occurrence, the smoke didn’t bother me much.

Incidentally, the camp and our goods escaped, but the evacuation order has yet to be lifted, so most of my clothes are still on the mountain.

After we got to St. Anthony’s, Dr. Carlson began his evening lecture by joking about Fr. Greg, claiming with his usual exaggeration that Fr. Greg was making a variety of literary quips and barbs “as the camp went up in flames.” Oh, man, it was so guess you woulda had to been there.

Anyway, every billowing bloom of smoke has a silver lining. In this case, I spent each night at home in my own bed where I actually slept instead of spending every night like Sunday night, when I spent the entire night lying awake in my sleeping bag listening to the men around me snore. And some of those guys could snore. There was some dude to my left who I wish I had recorded. I think if we had a recording of his whole night and sped it up, we’d find he was snoring Beethoven’s Fifth in slow-motion. At one point, I’m not sure he was snoring at all: there was so much grunting and smacking that I think he was eating Chinese takeout.

Oh, and here’s good news. I met a science fiction fan there, and we had some great discussions about important things like Harlan Ellison, Michael O’Brien’s legalism, and the guilty pleasures of fan fiction. She invited me out to the ranch that she and her husband named after a Robert Heinlein character.

I also got to plug a book at what in some of the rearrangements of the schedule turned out to be our only panel discussion. Several people expressed desires to get a better liberal education than most of us there had gotten, and some asked for book lists. The lecturers made a few book list suggestions, and I raised my hand and asked if I could plug a book. After I explained to Fr. Bob what “plug” means, he let me speak and I held up my copy of Bulfinch's Mythology, which I had for light reading (and which I never opened during the retreat), and noted that Bulfinch had written it at the end of the nineteenth century with the express purpose of familiarizing those without a good liberal education with the most important mythological stories of the Western World, so they would be better able to understand the writings of the Modern poets or the speeches of great orators, and that it is itself regarded as a classic. A home-schooling mom came to me later and got some information on the book. She seemed quite enthusiastic about it.

Besides the actual education part of it, there were a number of things I learned at this retreat. One was the real joy of Catholic orthodoxy. The teachers were all strictly, even sternly, orthodox in their doctrine, and the bishop and the other priests celebrated the Mass with obvious reverence and preached wonderful homilies, and yet there was so much love and laughter. No one grumbled because the Beatitudes dressed like flower children and taught dance, and no one suggested that there shouldn’t be alcohol with dinner. I learned also the pleasure of rising early and joining with a community to chant the Psalms, and I learned that Catholics really know how to retreat. Protestant retreats I’ve attended were amateurish by comparison.

One evening, I remarked that there appeared to be both a bottle of red and a bottle of white on our dinner table, and Fr. Greg responded with the observation of many Catholic apologists, that the great Catholic preposition is “and,” whereas the Protestant preposition is “or.” Protestantism stands on the great argumentative fallacy of the false dilemma. Faith or works. Confession to God or confession to a priest. Worship of Christ or veneration of the Blessed Virgin. The Catholic Church has always said “and.”

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