University of Colorado–Boulder is known nationally for its strong academic reputation and picturesque setting among the Flatiron mountains. Its setting and culture give it a reputation as a party school, but it also contains a suprisingly vibrant Catholic community. Many factors help make St. Thomas Aquinas student center a presence: a common life of prayer and sacraments, intellectual formation and Scripture studies, community meals, and an emphasis on encountering Christ through beauty.
However, the community at the heart of these activities is more than fellow participants in a program. To spend time with them is to see a group united through deep relationships and mutual support that can only be compared to the bond between family members.
“This is a beautiful community that is really inspiring,” said junior Seth Perry. “It’s so weird — I can draw from the faith of these other people when I’m going through a hard time. If I’m having a hard time believing, they carry me. I’ll be praying and floundering, then I think of them and I can be drawn up a little higher just knowing how close my friends are to God.”
Perry participates in Buffalo Awakening (BA) retreats, a weekend event held each semester in which new students are welcomed into the community. The retreat takes place at YMCA of the Rockies, surrounded by striking views of snow-capped mountains. The “retreaters” are exposed to deepening levels of vulnerability and support throughout the weekend, culminating in impressive demonstrations of the community’s willingness to share their burdens.
“As a leader, you can be Christ in so many ways. As a retreater, there are so many ways you can be loved,” Perry said.
Many campuses have Awakening retreats, and each takes on an individual flavor to reflect the community in which it is grounded. CU-Boulder chaplain Father Peter Mussett has served on 20 Buffalo Awakenings. He said that even within CU-Boulder, the needs for the retreat have evolved.
“It changes every time,” Father Mussett said. “Ten years from now, if it were the same retreat, it wouldn’t be right. The cultural needs and expressions of these college students would be different.”
However, he said the heart of the retreat remains the same.
“The big need is to be able to have people who are courageous to invite others into the love of God. This is an excuse for that,” he said.
No secrets over cheesecake
The full retreat took up three of YMCA of the Rockies’ large reunion cabins. Retreatants and staff spent the weekend together, listening to talks from community members and discussing their own spiritual lives. Staffers also prayed constantly for the retreatants using a combination of adoration, Liturgy of the Hours, rosaries, and prayers special to the BA community.
Some of the group moments were heavy and necessitated a deep vulnerability with others in the community. Other times were fun and chaotic, and were often resolved by a spontaneous dance party (or three). Some of the best moments fell in between those two extremes.
On Friday night, a group of staffers decided to go on a chilly night hike while praying a rosary for the retreatants. They panted through the prayers as they walked in near-darkness up a narrow trail next to a brook, some of them putting their rosaries away as they used their hands to climb. When they reached the summit, they voted to lie down and simply take in the night sky, reveling in each shooting star. A spirit of prayer and community was with the group.
Then they began to try to scare each other with stories about mountain lions. They laughed the entire way back to the cabins.
The laughter and prayerful attitude was present throughout the retreat. After one particularly trying exercise, staff and retreatants ate dinner together and partook in a conversation that would have seemed bizarre in any other setting. They alternated between asking each other probing questions and teasing. At one point, one of the staffers interrupted a conversation about retreatants’ families to inform a friend that he “looked like Swedish Fabio.” The constant interplay kept the conversation from becoming somber and stifling. They simply shared their hearts with one another over dessert, laughing the whole time.
“There are no secrets over cheesecake,” one staffer observed.
No retreat goes smoothly. In fact, as she was setting up for this year’s Awakening, hanging dozens of banners from past retreats from the rafters in the main cabin, coordinator Karissa Dahlquist learned that 15 retreatants had dropped out. Activity froze as the staff learned that a mere 22 retreatants were coming, and unprecedented number for a staff so large.
Dahlquist hastily redistributed small groups–called “families” in BA lingo– and discussed with Father Mussett ways to make sure the missing retreants were still prayed for. For his part, Mussett was beaming at how his flock handled the crisis.
“This is how I know we’re being effective,” he said. “She’s delegating.”
Dalqust resigned herself to the fact that she would have substantially more staff than actual retreatants. She said that while the chaos was alarming at first, she was eventually able to see it as a blessing.
“The beautiful thing about this retreat is that we had 30 more staffers than a normal retreat does,” Dahlquist said. She said that she saw this as God’s way of reminding the community that ultimately, the retreat was in his hands.
“This time, being able to serve was more important than bringing 60 retreatantss. It made it possible for the staffers to all take on someone in a more personalized way than when we do have 60 people,” she said.
Perry, a soft spoken computer programming student who surprisingly agreed to emcee the event, said he thought the unexpected events made the message of the retreat stronger.
“We had decided on a theme of mercy and suffering. We were going to thread that through a lot of talks and things we were going to do this weekend, but then it took on a life of its own. It became an emphasis on imperfection in the Christian life,” Perry said.
He said that he was grateful to be reminded of the inevitable imperfection in living the Christian life.
“I think that especially nowadays you get the sense that God’s going to fix everything, and my life is going to be perfect. If I follow him, everything is going to be fine and he’s going to speak very clearly into my life. It’s like you believe that or you don’t believe in him,” Perry said, adding that this view is inherently flawed.
“Life is tough sometimes, but God is with us in it,” Perry said. “Especially when you’re taking little steps and it’s hard and you just want to be close to him, he is still there. I think that’s a good reminder.”
Overall, Perry said he hoped that was the message his community received from the weekend.
“I would hope that everyone goes away from this retreat knowing that God is with them. They don’t have to even feel it. I just want them to know that he’s there in our sufferings,” he said.