Some takeaways from “Encountering Mercy” in Aspen

Whenever a group of people gathers in Aspen, Colorado, the reason typically has little to do with matters of faith, and is perhaps often devoid of faith altogether. But with a new movement beginning at Aspen’s local Catholic parish, that may become the case less and less.

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Fr. John Hilton, leading Friday’s bike ride along the Rio Grande Trail

In the heart of downtown sits St. Mary’s Catholic Church, its white steeple towering over most buildings in Aspen, keeping watch on the quaint mountain town. Both priest and flock at St. Mary’s are extraordinarily vibrant, simultaneously solid and joyful, and eager to share the love of Jesus Christ with the people of Aspen. It’s as if Christ himself was repeating, as He placed such a parish amidst Aspen’s aggressively secular culture, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Aspen Catholic is the initiative that blossomed from a cultivated passion for evangelization at St. Mary’s. Led by her pastor, Fr. John Hilton (known by many as The Pedaling Priest), and Judy Dunn, Director of Aspen Catholic, last weekend saw over 60 individuals gather to greet the Lord, meet each other, and “Encounter Mercy.”

Here’s some takeaways from a fantastic weekend in the mountains.

Creation is meaningless without God

Dr. Jonathan Reyes, one of the weekend’s featured speakers, quoted C.S. Lewis in his presentation Saturday evening, noting that every human being will outlast the mountains and valleys: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

Bishop Robert Barron often talks about the Creation story as a liturgical procession, as if each piece spoken into existence by God had its place in a giant cosmic liturgy. The final part of any procession – in the Mass, for example – is the priest, the presider of the liturgy whose duty it is to direct and care for all who walked before him. In the great Creation story, Bishop Barron notes, this is man, the culmination of God’s creation, made in the image and likeness of the Creator Himself.

What this analogy implies at its core, especially when pondering how each portion of Creation takes its place in such a procession, is order and meaning. With every piece of the procession being intentionally placed, we can intuit that there must be a mind – God – from which that intention came. Remove God, and we’re left with a by-chance progression, brought together accidentally and left utterly devoid of any meaning whatsoever.

Especially in a place like Aspen, finding truth and beauty in its fullness must start here, with an understanding that life, all that we know, is intelligible, important, overflowing with meaning, precisely because it was spoken into being by God.

A happy life requires encounter – encuentro

Perhaps the most valuable building block from the weekend was Dr. Reyes’ talk of  encuentro (the Spanish form of “encounter,” it turns out, is much richer in meaning).

The Feast of St. Cajetan, a huge celebration each year in Argentina, was a favorite of Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio before he became the 265th Successor of Peter. Despite having to miss the annual August celebration in 2013, his first summer as pope, the Holy Father sent a video message to the pilgrims making the trek to the Shrine of St. Cajetan in lieu of processing with them.

Referring to beggars on either side of the road during the pilgrimage, Pope Francis had some intriguing questions for pilgrims:

I sometimes ask people: “Do you give alms?” They say to me: “Yes, Father.” “And when you give alms, do you look the person you are giving them to in the eye?” “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really notice.” “Then you have not really encountered him. You tossed him the alms and walked off. When you give alms, do you touch the person’s hand or do you throw the coin?” “No, I throw the coin.” “So you did not touch him. And if you don’t touch him you don’t meet him.”

For all we know, as Dr. Reyes pointed out, that person on the side of the road hasn’t heard so much as their own name spoken out loud in weeks, maybe even months. How easily do we take for granted such seemingly small things?

Looking someone in the eye, touching their hand, speaking their name – This is what Pope Francis means when he says he wants a “culture of encounter.” This is encuentro. Every Christian – every human – ought to be striving for this, because encuentro is how we allow Christ to reach us, and how we ultimately come to live life to the full.

A healthy prayer life is within reach for anyone

The weekend’s other featured speakers, Dan Burke and Dr. Anthony Lilles, focused heavily on prayer and the “mysticism of mercy”, particularly through the wisdom of St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Faustina, and Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity (hipster saint alert – you’ve probably never heard of her).

But since an active prayer life can’t be had with the wave of a wand, practical tips always help, even for the most seasoned of prayer warriors. Dan gave six pieces of advice – three elements and three conditions – that improve the quality of one’s prayer life in the measure that they’re present in a person’s life.

Sacred time and sacred space must come first in order to regulate when and where we pray each day. Even 15 minutes daily is a sufficient start, as is a small space in one’s house reserved solely for prayer. The third element, sacred attention, is all about cultivating a “focus on God and God alone” while in prayer. Though it requires nurturing, sacred attention means, as Dan mentioned, removing “iAnything” from the space where you pray – nothing that will distract your in order to enter effectively into prayer.

If the elements involve ordering the space in which one prays, the conditions – clarity, community, and accountability – refer to the ordering of one’s life in general. Clarity is the rule of life by which we live: The things we do and don’t do, music we do or don’t listen to, etc. Community is a reminder that no man is an island, demanding that a person find other people, even a small group, in order to grow in the spiritual life. Finally, accountability involves both the external – a commitment to attend Confession on a schedule – and the internal – a daily examination of conscience where we ask “How have I loved you today, Lord, and where have I failed?”

Attentiveness, surrender, and willingness to suffer are absolutely essential

As it turns out, there can be no such thing as a Couch Potato Christian, if indeed a person is serious about their prayer life and relationship with the Lord. Dr. Lilles drew out this idea by explaining three different ways in which the spiritual life requires action.

Attentiveness to God’s grace working in our lives is important because we live in a temporal reality. Because time is precious, missing and not accepting an opportunity to receive grace is a moment we lose forever. As Dr. Lilles mentioned, we can never get that grace in that way ever again.

Surrendering to the will of God is tied up in our ability to trust. Dr. Lilles pointed out what St. Faustina learned through her encounters with Jesus in the Divine Mercy: Misery is the only possession that we humans own entirely. As our Lord said to St. Faustina, “Daughter, give me your mercy, because it is your exclusive property.” How can we ever truly and freely give a possession to another unless we trust them completely?

The willingness to suffer, is obvious if only by our call to follow Jesus in all things. The spiritual life is no walk in the park, and it was never supposed to be. What’s more, Christ’s mandate to “take up your cross and follow me” implies a need for an active disposition when dealing with all three. Attentiveness, surrender, and suffering are things that require a continuous “yes” to God.

As Dr. Reyes rightly noted, “The only way the Devil can beat a Christian is to get a Christian to quit.”

Aspen Catholic’s “Encountering Mercy” retreat was a fantastic experience and a perfect example that the Holy Spirit is alive and well, working and guiding His Church in the most unlikely of places.

Keep Aspen Catholic on your radar as they hold more retreats in the coming months. The people at St. Mary’s in Aspen are doing great things, and you won’t want to miss out.

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