No secrets over cheesecake

Inside CU-Boulder's Buffalo Awakening retreat

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.”

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The staff and participants of BA 29. Coordinator Karissa Dahlquist is waving the banner. Father Peter Mussett is on the far left. Photo by Sarah Tran.

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.

The need

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.

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Retreatants walk (or dance) down an aisle with members of the BA community cheering them on. Photo by Sarah Tran.

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.

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BA staff member Mary Lynch laughs with her friends during the retreat. Photo by Sarah Tran.

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.

Christian imperfection

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.

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Junior Seth Perry (right), a soft-spoken computer programming major, agreed to emcee the event. “Sometimes God pushes us out of our comfort zone, so maybe He had something I needed to say or do,” Perry said. Photo by Sarah Tran.

“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.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.