Sense and Nonsense: Wyoming

The sky west prop plane from Salt Lake to Casper passed over mountains, valleys, ridges, and clefts, mostly barren. A road, town, or farm was rarely sighted.

Bishop David Ricken, D.D., of Cheyenne—only one bishop in Wyoming—realized that Catholics in Wyoming had no Catholic college (it may have been a blessing!). The University of Wyoming at Laramie is flanked by several junior colleges, as at Casper, where Professor Robert Carlson has taught for many years.

Along with the bishop, Carlson and Rev. Robert Cook, a civil lawyer and Colorado prosecutor gone cleric, sought to devise some way whereby the cultural and intellectual heritage of Catholicism might be made more vibrant in the state. The state has a good number of Catholics, many well-educated. But something more would be helpful. What?

They came up with a weeklong—can I call it “encampment”? on 7,000-foot Casper Mountain, at a Lions’ Club–built summer grounds designed for the recreation of blind persons. The notion of “the blind leading the blind” often came up in the considerable humor over the five days spent there.

Actually, a memorable experience it was to put on blackened goggles and walk blindly along the trail erected to teach the blind how trees, ferns, bark, and grass feel; how to listen to brooks, birds, and wind; how to smell the differing odors and fragrances. With the expert guidance of Margaret Farley, a young mother, whose own mother had been blind since Margaret was nine, several of us negotiated this trail. Margaret read to us what the Braille signs said about the surrounding trail and its foliage. I, with my one good eye, was just amazed at how different the hilly trail appeared when we took it a second time with the blinders off.

Each of the five days consisted of a voluntary attendance at morning prayer, followed by Mass with the bishop. Each day ended with a common discussion followed by night prayer. The organizers maintained the monastic principle, bona culina, bona disciplina. Each Mass had its own music led by The Beatitudes, a religious group out of Denver. The music—not just liturgical, but all kinds—made the days especially joyful ones. Indeed, the presence of both the singers and the bishop transformed what might have been a rather heavy five days of lectures into a more lightsome and indeed “happy” gathering. But I use the word “happy” cautiously as Deal Hudson’s own five talks were insightfully devoted to the difficulties and intricacies of understanding just what “happiness,” including its “pursuit,” might or might not mean. “Happiness,” as Hudson pointed out in multiple ways, is not just what “makes you happy.”

Carlson lead the group through St. Augustine’s Confessions in a lively and refreshing manner. One of the intellectual exercises of Catholicism, even in Wyoming, is surely a reading and rereading of this wonderful book of the great African doctor. Mitchell Kalpakian had several marvelous talks on the nature of the family, of home, of children, and of hospitality, as seen through the classical and poetic traditions. Scott Bloch spoke of American politics. I was given the freedom to ramble on whatever moved me, always a dangerous liberty, as readers of CRISIS by now surely realize. We did not “coordinate” our lectures, which had the fruitful result of several making the same points in different ways.

The attendees were all Wyoming adults, though a number of college students were there with their unique contributions. I learned of towns I’ve never heard of—Glenrock, Sheridan, Saratoga, Gillette, Big Piney, Basin, Sundance, and Lander. I had, of course, known of Cheyenne, Casper, Cody, Jackson Hole, Rock Springs, and Laramie. This was not a “retreat,” nor was it intended to be, even though a pronounced effort was made to keep the Catholic religious tradition present as precisely a part of the Catholic mind.

What I think was unique about this “intellectual encampment” was the emphasis that intelligence, music, art, work, worship, politics, good fellowship, and personal conversation all go together. Everyone needs to know of books and ideas that he had missed, not known, or forgotten. Bishop Ricken made a point of reaffirming that attention to the mind, truth, and intelligence is itself a peculiarly Catholic thing, not to be neglected.

Yet, reflecting on this experience, this is what I learned: To be a man in Wyoming, you need to be able, without boasting, to ride a horse, shoot a rifle, fish, hunt elk, repair and drive a truck, build and rebuild a house, know how to drive in snow drifts, wear a cowboy hat and western boots, dance in them, think, pray, speak softly, and, as St. Paul said, obey your wife in all things.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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