Aquinas and horses

George Weigel

Lander, Wyo., is not an easy place to get to. I got there in February by flying from Washington to Denver and then sitting around the Denver airport for hours, while the local commuter airline that flies to the airport nearest Lander tried to get its small planes refueled in 15-below-zero weather. While waiting, I was informed that the flight schedule of this particular airline, which will remain nameless, is more subjunctive than indicative.

Yet the wait, the aggravation, and the bitter cold were worth it, for they were part of getting introduced to a new venture in Catholic higher education that’s unfolding in Lander: Wyoming Catholic College, where students read Thomas Aquinas in the original Latin, take a mandatory freshman course in horsemanship, and go on a three-week, survival-skills trek through the Rockies before they crack a book. Oh yes: at Wyoming Catholic, students are not allowed to have cell phones, but the college provides a gun room for their rifles. A visitor from the Ivy League found this combination disconcerting. I found it charming.

Wyoming Catholic College will celebrate its first commencement on May 14—outdoors, of course—with one of its founding fathers, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, in attendance. Bishop Ricken came to the diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., straight from the Roman Curia, which must have been something of a culture shock (or a relief). But he quickly caught the adventurous spirit of the place and decided that Wyoming, which has something short of 70,000 Catholics, needed a Catholic college. Starting such an enterprise these days is an act of faith. But Bishop Ricken, who is not short on faith (or hope, or charity), found partners with a similar pioneer attitude and a similar passion for classic Catholic liberal arts education (cowboy style). Thus Wyoming Catholic College was launched, before the good bishop was translated to a diocese where one of his principal catechetical challenges is explaining why the Lombardi Trophy is not a fit object of Christian worship

Wyoming Catholic is a by-product of the most striking exercise in unintended consequences in the history of federal higher education funding. In 1970, Washington’s largesse led the University of Kansas to create a pilot project in classic liberal arts education called the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, or IHP. The program was led by John Senior, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick, three brilliant teachers who believed passionately that higher education meant immersion in the classic texts of western civilization and civilized conversation about them. Many IHP students soon discovered that wrestling with the literary and philosophical classics of western civilization meant encountering, and thinking seriously about, the Catholic Church.

Conversions, intellectual and religious, followed. Those conversions later produced numerous vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and two bishops. Authoritarian liberals on the KU faculty killed the IHP in 1979. But for several glorious years, your federal tax dollars were building a wholly unexpected vocations factory. As the late Peter Rossi used to say, there are many ironies in the fire.

The people who designed the curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College are disciples of John Senior and the IHP approach to liberal learning. The program they offer students is, obviously, not for everyone, just as reading Aquinas in Latin on horseback (metaphorically if not literally) is not for everyone. But serious students who want to be stretched intellectually, who want to deepen their friendship with Jesus Christ, and who love the outdoors should give Wyoming Catholic College a serious look.

Nature makes me sneeze, which is one reason why I’m a confirmed urbanite. I appreciate the beauty that surrounds Lander, however, and I wish the school and its students the very best as Wyoming Catholic sends its first graduating class out into a world that can use more young men and women steeped in the western classics, serious in their Catholic faith, and ready for just about anything. The school is in the midst of a capital campaign; resources invested in Wyoming Catholic are resources invested in the kind of higher learning from which both Church and society benefit.

COMING UP: Mother Mary: Modeling joy even in suffering

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Where would we be without our mothers? We wouldn’t be! Father Gregory Cleveland, OMV, shares a beautiful quote from Cardinal Mindszenty on the importance of motherhood: “The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby’s body. . . . Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature: God joins force with mothers in performing this act of creation (Beholding Beauty, Pauline Books & Media, 2020, 106).  

The same principle applies in the spiritual life. Mary cooperated with God in such a unique way that without her we simply wouldn’t be the spiritual sons and daughters of the Father that he wants us to be. The Creator came into the world through her, enabling all of us to be reborn. On the Cross, Jesus gave everything to us, including his mother: “Behold your mother” (John 19:27). She cares for us as her son’s own beloved disciple, extending to us her motherly love, and showing us the true model of Christian love. As we show our appreciation to our own mothers this Mother’s Day, Mary models for us the joys of motherhood that endure even the most difficult moments.  

Father Cleveland, the director of the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Denver, helps us to reflect on Mary’s essential role as mother and model in his book Beholding Beauty: Mary and the Song of Songs. The book uses passages from the Old Testament poem, the Song of Songs, as a springboard to come to know Mary as in her deep love for God. The biblical book speaks of the love of Solomon and his beloved, referring allegorically to God’s love for his people. Rather than offering a Bible study, Cleveland connects the Song to the New Testament, offering a portrait of Mary as God’s beloved and how we can come closer to Jesus through her, imitating her spousal love of God. Each chapter offers practical examples and questions for reflection, making the book ideal for daily meditation.  

The book explains the unique privileges of Mary, while using them to invite us to share in them as well: “No human being ever received God’s love and grace as fully as did Mary, to the point of God becoming man in her. She conceived Christ in her heart and then in the womb. Mary, as spouse of the Holy Spirit, shows us our capacity to receive God and be entirely possessed by him. In receiving Christ, she was also empowered to completely give herself to him, spirit, soul, and body, in love as his mother. She became his partner in the work of salvation and was exalted to reign with him as Queen of heaven and earth” (2). Mary models the life of the disciple in giving oneself completely to God so that he becomes fully present in our lives and through us to others.  

Mary’s vocation of motherhood leads directly to her queenship in drawing others closer to her Son. Her motherhood is founded in her fiat, her “yes” to the will of God at the Annunciation. In her role as Queen Mother, she asks us to imitate her obedience when she says at the Wedding of Cana, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Fathe Cleveland explains the need for a daily obedience that will inconvenience us and even interrupt our lives: “Mary invites us to do whatever Jesus tells us. When we come to serve the Lord, we first listen to what Jesus is asking of us. . . . As servants of Christ and others, we are willing to be available and inconvenienced in offering people our practical and substantial help. We allow ourselves to be interrupted by people crossing our paths and overturning our plans with their claims and petitions” (153). Mothers know better than anyone else that love requires this willingness to stop everything to attend to others’ needs.  

Even after much sacrifice, however, we know that so often things do not turn out as we expect. Mary models the necessity of suffering in giving our lives to Christ and sacrificially loving others: “Just as Christ gave the blood of his heart to the last drop, so Mary completely gave of her heart, broken in compassion. Mary’s yes to God, her vocation to motherhood, her purpose in life, all seemed to be extinguished. She would naturally have cause for the deepest possible despair, and yet she was given supernatural hope. She abandoned herself to the Father’s will and trusted his plan. Her fiat was then realized in a completely new way and offered with Christ in those ignoble circumstances. We too are called to co-offer Christ’s sacrifice” (138). Mary’s suffering shows the full extent of her motherhood — not just bringing life forth but offering it to God. Giving birth is painful and the bringing forth of spiritual life, likewise, requires sacrifice. The Song of Songs shows how greatly God desires us and calls us to put him first, sacrificing other things to focus on him above all else. God asks us to trust in him even when things do not make sense or when we’ve been hurt by those we love.  

Overall, Beholding Beauty invites us to focus on the eternal a wedding feast of the lamb, to which God is calling us, a perfect union that Mary already models for us. Father Cleveland explains how Mary’s relationship with God serves as both a model and invitation for us: “Our encounter with Mary will always lead us to Jesus. She is one with Jesus in the desires of his heart. Her only desire is that we share the same life of heavenly beatitude that she enjoys. Mary is the queenly maiden of the Song of Songs .  . . We entrust our lives to her as our exceedingly beautiful queen, knowing that she will guide us to Christ our King” (229). In giving herself completely to God and loving him completely, Mary could serve as God’s mother and our spiritual mother as well. 

This Mother’s Day, let’s be grateful for our earthly mothers and also for our heavenly mother who teaches us how to love God and our family more fully.  


Featured image: The Annunciation, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660