Reflections on Summer Camp

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. -John Muir

As the summer draws to a close and I prepare for my final year of seminary, I’m drawn to reflect on this year’s summer assignment, what will most likely, and Lord willing, be my last as a seminarian: Camp Chaplain to our diocesan summer camp.

This past summer, I have learned many things: how to make string rosaries, lanyards, and copperplate jewelry. I’ve learned about new animals and plants in the Sierra Nevada mountains of my dear home, California. I’ve learned how to pack so much into a camper’s backpack for an overnight trip that it would make Mary Poppins jealous. I’ve also learned the importance of keeping bug spray on. All. The. Time.

Many other lessons, immensely more valuable and intangible, came to me this summer. While my assignment as Camp Chaplain brought me to camp to serve, listen, and minister to the staff and campers, I found that they taught about and witnessed to the love and truth of Jesus Christ so much more than I could have offered them. From one person I learned what it means to fully dedicate oneself to ministry, giving your all even when you have nothing left to give. From another person, I learned what true patience and grace look like even in the most difficult of situations. One coworker taught me how to appreciate the smallest quiet moments with God’s creation and helped me to rediscover my love of nature, recognizing the love and beauty of our Lord in it all. Someone else showed me how one can live a truly authentic Catholic life as a young person in a world full of adversity, boldly witnessing to Jesus Christ.

Walking Stick

My walking stick had a makeover this summer, courtesy of a new and now dear friend of mine. She replaced the leather hand strap which was lost long ago, added the grip, and adorned it with the feathers. Truly a work of art and a blessing to take on the journey! Now this walking stick will carry even more meaning, for it was given to me by my father and connects me with him and family, and now it connects me to new friends and memories.

This summer I have had the privilege to lead the campers and staff in prayer and to help guide them in their spiritual life here at camp. Each time at exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, my one prayer was that all those present would not see me in my words and actions, but rather Jesus Christ. As I led guided astronomy sessions, my hope was that my campers and their counselors would gain a greater appreciation of the beauty of God’s universe. As we went on meditation hikes, I prayed that through the use of their senses and listening to the scripture passages, those participating would see the beauty of our faith through the sights, sounds, smells, and tactile experiences we encounter in our faith. I also prayed that my own foibles and shortcomings did not get in the way too much and that my mistakes did not impede anyone’s encounter with our Lord.

As a deacon, my time at camp was truly my first experience of having a “flock.” True, I was not pastor and I am not a priest yet, but I was in a way responsible for the spiritual care of the campers and most especially the staff. Through the many conversations, encounters, and even passing moments exchanging knowing glances, I was humbled and honored to take on such a wonderful responsibility, and they, in turn, taught me so much more than I could have ever given them. As the staff and I served together this summer, I was constantly edified by their faith, ingenuity, and perseverance: such as when one counselor got up three times in one night to tend to her kids or when other counselors remained engaged and joyful at 4AM in the morning to bring their campers up a tower to see a sunrise during a thirty-mile trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.

As I prepare for this final year in seminary, I give thanks and praise to our good God who has blessed us in ways known and unknown this summer. I give thanks for the people I have lived and worked with this summer and for the campers I have served. Through our shared experiences, my hope and prayer is that we all have come closer to the Father, that we have come to a more intimate relationship with Christ our Savior, and that the Holy Spirit has greater room to move in our hearts.

Next up: our annual seminarian retreat. Then back to school. God is good. All the time.

The Purpose of Beauty and the Great American Eclipse

Something strange was happening – the sky darkened and took on an eerie character, almost like twilight but something different altogether. A cool breeze picked up, the temperature noticeably dropping. 10:15 in the morning and stars started to twinkly forth along with objects in our own solar system, the planet Venus clearly visible just above us. The sun, that once constant companion in the sky, never-failing and always life-giving, was losing it’s hold, disappearing behind the transient moon. For a moment, one could almost say that a diamond ring hung in the sky, beckoning for someone to come and grasp it.

Then it happened: totality was upon us.

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Total Solar Eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA

Twilight surrounded us on all sides and night seemed to descend right above us. The glowing ring that was the eclipse stared back as if an eye peered down from the heavens. Through my binoculars, shots of hot plasma sprouted from the surface of the sun, reaching out into space for 100,000 kilometers or more, enough to engulf our small place in space in flames if the Earth were right next to it’s normally life-giving star. White wisps of the sun’s corona danced around and seemed to envelop the moon itself, putting on display a sight that unaided eyes rarely get to see, all at once fleeting and fragile yet demonstrating the power and energy contained within the burning-hot heavenly body. The world was silent, focusing on this strange phenomena which hadn’t been seen in this part of the world for 38 years and would not return for another 28 years. Mesmerized by the sight in the sky, I was moved to prayer, thankful for God’s creation, the beautiful intricacy of His universe, and the blessed opportunity to witness this awe-inspiring event, which for many people, may be the only chance they have in their lives to see it.

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Time-lapse of total eclipse over Madras, OR. Photo Credit: NASA

No words can adequately capture the moment of totality during the 2017 Great American Eclipse. No pictures or video can do it justice if you didn’t have a chance to see it in person, although I still highly recommend finding those pictures and watching some of those videos (being wary, of course, of some social media photoshop fakes that are floating around). Viewing a total eclipse is a life-changing event, with the potential to alter one’s view of the world.

The total eclipse is a reminder, however, that no matter what beauty we behold here on Earth, it is all a foretaste of that ultimate beauty, love, and truth for which we strive to be with for eternity in Heaven. While the eclipse was wonderful, it is a reminder that just as it was fleeting, our own lives are fleeting as well, and we must remember that we should be preparing ourselves for something so wondrous, so fantastic, that nothing we see here on Earth, not even a total eclipse, can ever approach the magnificence of residing forever in it’s presence: I am of course talking about that beauty and truth which we will experience in the Beatific Vision. With all of the excitement surrounding an event such as the eclipse, we need to remind ourselves that all of it, no matter how wonderful, should be used to glorify God, who gave us His only Son, and leaves His Spirit with us always, to guide us and draw us closer to Him.

The Great American Eclipse inspired millions to learn and grow, but it’s primary purpose in this writer’s opinion? To serve as an example of the beauty of His creation and remind us that He remains with us always, whether in the celestial heavens or here on our Earthly home. May God be praised in all we do.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his love endures for ever;

who alone has wrought marvelous works,
for his love endures for ever;
whose wisdom it was made the skies,
for his love endures for ever;
who fixed the earth firmly on the seas,
for his love endures for ever.

It was he who made the great lights,
for his love endures for ever;
the sun to rule in the day,
for his love endures for ever;
the moon and the stars in the night,
for his love endures for ever.

-From Psalm 136

The next total solar eclipse to hit the United States, although on a massively different trajectory will occur on April 8, 2024. Personally, I wouldn’t mind heading to Argentina in 2019. Anyone want to go?

Finding Joy in the Heavens

In a recent post, Br. Guy Consolmagno pondered two different questions,”Why does science need God?” and “Why do we need science?”

1280px-castel_gandolfo_specola_vaticana_1_by_stefano_bolognini

One of the telescopes owned by the Vatican Observatory, this one located at Castel Gondolfo – another main telescope is also located in Arizona. By Stefano Bolognini (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons.

We have to ask ourselves, what’s the point? Why do I spend late nights gazing at the heavens, studying stars, planets, and nebulae? Over the years, my love of astronomy has developed out of a search for understanding and discovery, the desire to know the universe on a deeper level. As I’ve explored topics such as cosmology and theoretical physics on an amateur level, while preparing on a professional (or rather, in a more appropriate term, vocational) level, for the priesthood.

Ultimately, both pursuits are the result of a deeper need to know, to learn, and to come closer to truth, albeit from different perspectives. When I do come closer, at the same time discovering just how much further I really have to go, I also discover something more, something unexpected, and something that Br. Guy discovers in his search as well: joy. The search for truth, both from a scientific and spiritual standpoint both lead to joy: we need science to better understand our physical world, and religion helps us to move ever deeper, discovering the foundation of the beauty of our universe.

As Br. Guy states it, “This is not a sort of pantheism. God is not the same thing as the laws of nature. But everything that makes science worth doing, desirable to do, everything that gets us out of bed in the morning to do it, is a pointer toward God.”

In my own journey, the scientific has led to the religious, and the religious has led me to a greater desire to study the natural world: the more I study science, the greater the awe increases in my heart, and I realize how God the Father has created a universe beyond words and understanding, drawing me into an ever deeper desire to study said universe. Indeed, my continued study of science is what led me to religion, and Catholicism, in the first place, helping me to realize not only the necessity of a Creator behind our magnificent universe, but also the necessity of a Savior, and the faithful presence the Spirit in our lives.

You can read the rest of his article over at the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog.

Social Networks, Nanobots, and the Dignity of the Human Person

We just recently took part in a two-day symposium here at the seminary looking at the place of technology and social media in our lives, what it means for our ministries, and the impact that it may have on our future. While I hope to write a longer post in the coming days regarding the symposium, I will say that we covered many topics with our presenters, Sr. Mary Timothy Fokes, FSE, and Fr. William Holtzinger of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, ranging from social networking to nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, and even the integration of technology and the human mind itself. I just stumbled upon this article focusing on a recent interview of Ray Kurzweil by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the authors from which Sr. Timothy derived her research. Fascinating and thought provoking…

From the article:

When I talk about computers reaching human levels of intelligence, I’m not talking about logical intelligence…It is being funny, and expressing a loving sentiment… That is the cutting edge of human intelligence.

The question with which we will be faced: how do we maintain the dignity of the human person in this rapidly evolving world and what can we personally do to achieve this goal, no matter what the technology? I am certainly not saying there is no answer to this question, I am simply saying that we need to keep it at the forefront as we develop these technologies!

Be sure to check out the article and accompanying video of the interview with Kurzweil and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson!

Pax.

On the Journey: Bad Grades and Prideful Students

Augustine’s Confessions: Book I, Chapters 13-15

(I will provide a link to an online translation next week; my usual source seems to be down at the moment. Although for my personal use and for these reflections, I am using this translation.)

“O God, You are the Light of my heart, the Bread of my inmost soul, and the Power that weds my mind and the thoughts of my inmost heart.” (I.13)

I've always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books...

I’ve always had my head buried in a book. Especially these books…

When I was in high school, I was a horrible student. OK, in elementary and middle school too… But I just was not interested in the subjects being taught! Instead of learning my multiplication tables, I wanted to study the stars. Instead of learning how to tell the difference between passive and active sentences, I wanted to read Sherlock Holmes. Instead of studying the rise and fall of the Roman Empire from a textbook, I wanted to read first-hand accounts of the people who were there.

How prideful of me!

But as one who used to teach in a classroom, it prepared me for encountering the same difficulties in my own students, and I can certainly identify with the struggles that St. Augustine expresses in this week’s reading: he preferred the great stories over learning the basics of reading, writing, and math. He thought he knew what was best for his education, rather than defer to the wisdom of those who had gone before him.

How often do we think we know what is best without deferring to the such wisdom? I wonder how often that happens when we struggle against God, trying to make manifest our own will instead of his?! Again, there’s that ugly pride popping up again…

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics! Painting by Caravaggio - "Saint Jerome" Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This picture says it all. We must get back to basics!
Painting by Caravaggio – “Saint Jerome” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

We are sometimes given tasks that we don’t want to do, especially when we are young. We want to venture out into the world, and yet we forget that we have barely left our front yard. In all things, however, we need to start of with the basics. Whether mathematics, English, science, or history, we have to build upon a firm foundation. This reality is no less true for the spiritual life. We must build a firm foundation first. Even though we may “prefer more empty romances to more valuable studies” (Confessions I.13), that does not mean we can eschew these studies, for even though we may prefer quantum mechanics to 1+1, 1+1 has in itself its own mysteries, and is vital for us in the pursuit of knowledge.

I think, however, that there is a deeper truth that Augustine is trying to express here, namely that we must begin with God first, for He must be our foundation. Whether we are budding astronomers, intrepid historians, or the next great American novelist, all that we do is naught without Him, for it is through Him that we receive our foundation, our bearing, and our purpose. Before all else, we need to focus on our relationship with Him, then everything will fall into place.

In other words, we need to focus on our multiplication facts before moving on to differential calculus.

I think it is best to end with this prayer from the conclusion of Confessions I.15:

“Grant my prayer, O Lord, and do not allow my soul to wilt under the discipline which you prescribe. Let me not tire of thanking you for your mercy in rescuing me from all my wicked ways, so that you may be sweeter to me than all the joys which used to tempt me; so that I may love you most intensely and clasp your hand with all the power of my devotion; so that you may save me from all temptation until the end of my days.”

Amen.

Questions for reflection:

  • Who or what is the foundation in my life? Is it God or is it someone/something else?
  • What can I do to better learn about the Lord and His action in my life?

This is part of a continuing series, Companions on the Journey, which travels along with a particular companion in the spiritual life, one of the great saints, in order discover how some of their writings might be applicable to our everyday lives. Currently, we are traveling with Augustine of Hippo through his work, Confessions. You can take a look at previous posts in the series or read the introduction.

Finding Meaning in Life

I came across a quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson recently that has me thinking:

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

This broad panorama of the Carina Nebula, a region of massive star formation in the southern skies, was taken in infrared light using the HAWK-I camera on ESO's Very Large Telescope. Many previously hidden features, scattered across a spectacular celestial landscape of gas, dust and young stars, have emerged. Picture: ESO/T. Preibisch

This broad panorama of the Carina Nebula, a region of massive star formation in the southern skies, was taken in infrared light using the HAWK-I camera on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Many previously hidden features, scattered across a spectacular celestial landscape of gas, dust and young stars, have emerged. Picture: ESO/T. Preibisch

I am a huge fan of Tyson. He has done a great deal to further science education and awareness. Despite some misgivings about his portrayal of the Church in his remake of Cosmos, which is probably the result of Seth MacFarlane more than Tyson himself, I have seen every episode. I also listen to his podcast, StarTalk, regularly. So when I read this quote, I thought, “That sounds nice. It makes sense. We are responsible for our own destinies.” But something wasn’t quite working for me. While the sentiment was nice, there was something missing. I agree with Tyson’s thought that we should constantly be learning, and work towards lessening the suffering of others. His statement on how we create our own love and meaning, however, gives me pause.

The answer to my misgivings is best expressed in Sunday, May 18th’s, reading from the Gospel of St. John:

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

In some sense, Tyson is right; we must work to create love and meaning in our lives. That love, however, does not originate from ourselves. The love, the meaning we find in life, is in Jesus Christ. He is the only “way” that can give us true meaning and fulfillment. In His “truth” we find the reality of love, and the power of mercy and forgiveness. In His “life” we discover our vocation to holiness. Tyson is correct when he says love and meaning cannot be found behind a tree or a under a rock. In fact, they cannot even be found in studying astrophysics and piecing together the secrets of the cosmos, a pursuit which I have enjoyed following since I was a young child.

The pursuit of learning and scientific truth remains laudable, and can carry a person far in life, but it cannot carry a person to the fullness of truth; they are but roads to Truth. The love and meaning that Tyson speaks of, whether we realize it or not, comes from a journey with something greater than ourselves. This something, rather someONE, brings us to the fullness of Truth, the Word of God.

Study the world. Study the universe, but remember that the true meaning of life goes much deeper.

Pax et bonum.

PS: There’s a new post over at Consider Priesthood. Check it out!

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

Or not.

On a side note, I highly recommend checking out more of Dr. Tyson’s work. I may disagree with him in regards to religion, but as far as astrophysics goes, he is humorous and engaging, bringing difficult concepts to the people and enlivening their interest in the development of science and technology.

Anyways, on to the point at hand…

I came from a New Age and Pagan background before being baptized in 2005, and so I am well versed in a lot of these subjects. Planet Nibiru/X, the shift to a higher consciousness, psychic energies, and enlightenment in the “aquarian” sense were all very much a part of my life and study for several years. I devoured any books that I could find, and I really believed some of this stuff. Coast to Coast AM was my favorite radio show (actually, I do still listen to it except when there are more…outlandish…guests on the air).

But I eventually found that these theories did not hold up. They did not make sense. There was no “proof” to their validity. Around the same time, I came in contact with the Church, and while that is a much more in depth story, the rest is, as they say, history. In fact, it was my love of subjects such as theoretical physics and quantum theory that helped to draw me closer to the faith. In their beauty, I found the imprint of the Creator of the Universe. I found real Truth in the Faith.

But I digress, as usual. I can hear some people now: “Well Catholicism doesn’t have proof either!” No, it doesn’t. At least not the empirical evidence that our society seeks. The evidence is there, if one is willing to open his or her heart to it. Picking up a history book or two doesn’t hurt either. In the case of the Doomsday supporters, however, there is literally no evidence. Everything they have put forward has been disproven and is not well-researched. The Mayan calendar ending? That’s just a coincidence. The Mayans themselves didn’t believe that the world would end. The alignment with the galactic core? As Dr. Tyson points out, that happens every year. Planet X? There is not a shred of gravitational or other types of evidence to say that there is a rogue planet barreling down on us right now. Besides, we would have already felt the effects of it (extreme tides submerging San Francisco, anyone?).

We need to stop worrying about all of these end-times theories  Only the Lord knows when the world will end. What we must worry about is our lives as they are right now. Are we striving to love God and neighbor? Do we reach out to others, and work to deepen our relationship with Him? All of our actions, even the most mundane daily activities, should strive toward these goals, toward this Love.

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt. 24:36-44)

My prophecy? Just like this guy, the doomsday prophets will pull back and make new “predictions” on December 22. May the Lord grant us the grace to seek Him in all things…

Pax et bonum.