Some thoughts on the words “Faith” and “Religion”

I recently saw an article that claimed Islam wasn’t a religion. There have been high-profile debates between religious leaders and scientists about which perspective contains more truth. There have even been debates within faith communities, as between Christian sects who acknowledge gay marriage, and those who don’t. It seems that somewhere in the diatribes we’ve collectively lost an understanding of what it means to have “faith” or how to define a “religion.”

Religion indeed seems a difficult thing to define. Christians, by and large, regard it as a free exercise of will to believe. No matter where you come from, if you believe what’s written in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Certain more conservative groupings, however, treat Christianity as a sort of ‘social contract,’ binding those within the group to act and value certain things. My extremely limited experience with Judaism indicates that certain conservative Jews have exclusionary believes about their religion–namely, that it accrues only to the children of Jewish mothers. Less conservative Jewish sects appear to regard Judaism as more of an ethnic identity than a belief system, happily accepting agnosticism or downright atheism among their peers as long as the overarching identity remains.

If my understanding of Judaism is “extremely limited,” then my understanding of Islam is not even worth mentioning. The so-called “fundamentalists” (a charged word, in that it implies that the fundamental tenets of a religion are bad, instead of perhaps a tangential tenet of the religion) treat Islam as a socio-political system, in which laws protecting the status quo are given legitimacy by (it is believed) divine approbation. The status quo in many Islamic countries in the Middle East is, at least regarding the dignity and attendant rights of women and children, oppressive and even barbaric in light of our liberal ideals. Opposition to that system strikes me as more akin to opposing Communism or Fascism insofar as it’s a political system. Islam in that sense is very different than Christianity and Judaism, and rightly condemned.

In the sense of religion, on the other hand, the issue is murky precisely because we use the word “religion” to describe different things. There are Muslims who practice Islam as a free exercise of the will to believe in Allah and the teachings of the Koran. I’ve never read the Koran, so I don’t know if it is filled to the brim with hateful writings, loving writings, or (as is the case with the Jewish and Christian scriptures) a mixture of both. There are other Muslims who probably practice Islam as a social contract, a way of distinguishing their group from others. But using religion to describe the entire practice of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity confuses things, and probably lets unlawful behavior proceed under the First Amendment while simultaneously restricting legitimate religious practice.

By and large, the test for “freedom of religion” ought be simple. If a behavior is lawful in a non-religious context, then it should be permitted as a religious practice. If I may display statues on my lawn, then I may display a Nativity scene at Christmas. If I may wear as much clothing as I’d like, as long as I’m not indecent, then I may wear a hijab or burkha. As a side note, Middle Eastern Christian (some of which who subordinate themselves to either the Pope or the Patriarch) and Jewish sects direct that female adherents wear hijabs. If assaulting someone is illegal, then I should not be able to stone or otherwise injure a person for engaging in lawful sexual behavior. It’s more difficult when trying to decide whether a person should be forced into religious participation, even tangentially. But that sort of question is why we have legislatures and courts.

The word “faith” seems misused as well. The dictionary defines faith as, “1) confidence or trust in a person or thing; 2) belief that is not based on truth; 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards, or merit.” I think the first definition hits closest to the mark on the intent of the word. A religious person, you might say, has confidence and trust in the tenets of his/her religion. The thing is, that attitude seems to apply to a lot of non-religious people too.

There are many voices trying to put faith and/or religion in the same category as ignorance and barbarism. That saddens me because I happen to be religious, of course, but it also strikes me as disingenuous and dishonest. As a Catholic I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that He emptied Himself to become like us and share in our struggles on this earth, and that as He was killed He offered Himself as reparation for all our sins (past, present, and future), and that His offer was worthy because of His own perfection, and so I believe that if I follow Him I will be free of this earth and with Him in paradise. In analyzing that long narrative sentence it is immediately obvious that I could offer no empirical evidence of this. Even if I had a time machine and could record video of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then record all of His miracles, then record His crucifixion and leave the camera in the tomb recording the moment of His resurrection, there is still no way to see and record the thoughts of God, nor attach the camera to Jesus during His ascension into heaven and remotely view the video. My senses are unable to even gather that ‘behind the scenes’ evidence, even if I could prove by two chemical tests on controlled samples of water (for example) that it turned into wine. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

This is not all that different, say, than belief in the Theory of Evolution. Nobody has a time machine that would enable them to bring back irrefutable evidence of evolution, perhaps by filming the birth and maturation of the first Cro-Magnon person with two Neanderthal parents (complete with genetic testing to compare to the remains of both species already cataloged). All we do have is snapshots of evidence, which we believe to be of a certain age, based on the belief that we can tell the age by extrapolating chemical deterioration, which only a few of us have ever observed with our eyes in a microscope (and I’m not sure it’s even possible to observe radiation decay). There is a narrative suggested by these snapshots of evidence–the oldest remains being more ape-like, the newer ones more human-like–but it is the invention of scientists and authors. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

We’ve so far ignored the question of the chicken or the egg. Certain scientists, for example, claim that emotion is merely the work of certain hormones in a human brain. Feelings of arousal are due to release of sex hormones, which (it is theorized) are triggered when presented with a set of conditions, like say a procreatively attractive human of the gender which the subject of arousal finds attractive. Feelings of affection are due to the hormone Oxytocin, which is triggered in certain situations as a hardwired social response, which our genes have developed to increase our rate of survival by causing us to work together. But that is a hypothesis. It is plausible, too. But it is also unprovable. It’s equally plausible (and possible) that such hormone activity is the result of emotions–the mechanism or vehicle by which feelings manifest themselves physically (as arousal or tears). None of us can go inside our brains to determine the exact causal order of whether the emotion is received first, or whether the hormones are released first. Therefore I must have confidence that either one narrative is true, or the other.

The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously noted, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” With respect, I beg to differ. There were a great many scientists who believed in Eugenics between 1880 and 1945 (including Margaret Sanger) along with luminaries like H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenic research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.* By “believe in Eugenics,” I mean its proponents believed that there was a genetic cause which disposed certain people toward poverty, retardation, sexual deviance (i.e. homosexuality), and antisocial behavior. Science was not true in that case, and we shouldn’t be so quick to conveniently compartmentalize that into the “the funny old days when we had silly theories” and “the evil things Nazis did, from which we saved the world.” Science is only as true as the ethics and character of the people who do it, much like religion. One commonality between the two ‘sides’ is that authority figures in both realms–scientists and priests–are only human, and subject to the same propensity to self-deceive and enjoy attention as the worst Hollywood celebrities or politicians.

Ultimately, faith comes down to what inspires confidence. My experience has taught me confidence both in the religious salvation narrative and in the scientific narrative of the world. As another author pointed out, there is not much difference between the big bang theory and the Christian explanation that God said, “Let there be light.” In both cases, our fantastically complicated universe exploded into something without warning or apparent material cause. What does it matter whether one believes it happened randomly or at the will of an entity too big to imagine?

Understanding and meaningful engagement with others demands a certain rigor of thought. Proponents of rational explanations fall into hypocrisy when they succumb to the “blind faith” that others who disagree with their perspective are somehow less important because they are “religious,” and proponents of religious-faith-based explanations fall into hypocrisy when they fail to acknowledge the faith that rationalists have in science-based narratives. It might advance both sides of this odd little culture struggle if we all recognized our own “religious” and “faith” tendencies, including those with no affinity towards and/or opposition to an established religion.

On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.

Retreat

This past weekend was busy. My new squadron celebrated the Marine Corps’ birthday on Friday night, which turned out to be a lot of fun. The celebration takes the form of a Formal Ball, except when Marines are out in the field. Then, I am told, it is usually celebrated over an MRE (or whatever chow is available). Regardless, it is a big deal, and tradition dictates that we follow a specific procedure: first we read the original birthday message from General Lejeune (the 13th Commandant), then we read the message from the current Commandant, then we cut a cake with a sword. The first piece of cake is given to the oldest Marine present, who takes a bite and passes it to the youngest Marine present to symbolize the passing on of tradition. The ceremony this time was followed by a pretty good dinner and dancing, and everyone got pretty convivial. I stayed as sober as possible, however, for I had to drive out of town the next morning.

During the same weekend, my church’s young adult community held it’s annual retreat at Whispering Winds Catholic Retreat center in Julian. If you followed the wildfire saga here in San Diego, you know that Julian was hit pretty hard. It sits up in the mountains east of the city (elevation some 5,000 feet), which is where all the fires start when the Santa Ana winds blow. Fortunately, though, the campus was unscathed, and the utilities were restored mere days before we arrived.

The retreat started on Friday night, and that was when everyone did the icebreaker-type events and made “affirmation bags” where other people could leave them encouraging messages of faith. Saturday morning they heard the first of several talks aimed at young adults–the one I missed concerned Theology of the Body–and had some reflection time followed by lunch. That’s when I arrived.

I showed up in an enthusiastic mood. The road up to Julian winds through narrow canyons, over knife-edge ridges, all in a glory of tight turns and sudden views. My car got quite the workout–I must have taken 10,000 miles off my tires. There is something wild and relaxing about the mountain scenery, the clear sunlight, a zipping car, and solitude. A kind of reflection occurs at such times, unconscious and unintended, driving focus to the immediate present and pushing away external and extraneous worries. It was providential: I arrived in Julian freed from the burdens of everyday life and ready for the retreat.

I know a fair number of the church’s young adults by now, and it felt like ‘going home’ to meet with them–they make up my core friends here in San Diego. But there were also many new people to meet. Fortunately the retreat schedule offered “free time” in the early afternoon where people could go to confession if they wanted, and also participate in any number of social or religious activities. One guy organized a football game; another a hike. I chose to make my confession and then participate in the Rosary walk. This may seem like a silly thing to do, since it involves praying a notoriously “rote” prayer in a group, but for me it brought back sweet memories of my pilgrimages to Medjugorje, where the Rosary and it’s focus on the life of Jesus was second only to the Mass, and nearly always prayed/celebrated as a community. There is also an additional measure of accountability and support when praying as a community, which prevents any worries or whims to distract from the prayer itself. Furthermore, the rosary only occupied a short amount of the “free time,” so I also got to play in a touch football game. Like the drive up, there was something clear and refreshing found in that time spent outside in the sunlight, amid the smell of pines and the thin mountain air. The advantage of the football game over the drive, though, was that I got to share it with others.

Later that afternoon we heard a talk on vocation, and how vocation isn’t necessarily a job, a call to religious life, or a call to marriage; rather it is a responsibility to do God’s will in all the small acts of our lives. As I write this I am shocked to see how obvious it appears, baldly contained in one small sentence. But like many people I am victim to the temptation of focusing only on the big things in my life: my career as a Marine and an Aviator, my important relationships, my spiritual life. I find it easy to overlook what God’s will might be for me when I do a specific thing, like go to a church function, or drive to work, or undertake a job around the squadron. But the speaker explained that making our entire lives a prayer depends on the holiness we exhibit in all our actions, not just the big decisions. This lecture was the first of several events at the retreat which thus far have subtly began to change my life.

After dinner we headed down to the chapel for adoration and confession. Though the team had priests offering the sacrament during the free time, this evening event was much larger in scale. The intent, I think, was to gently remind us that there is an immense acceptance of grace found in the act of adoration and the receipt of the sacrament. Both were once cherished elements of Catholic faith that seem to have fallen off recently (especially among young people). Though I am a rather conservative Catholic myself–and therefore quite open to such practices–it was good to hear again the dogmas and teachings behind the Catholic framework of worship. Because I had gone to confession earlier that afternoon, I prayed silently for a while and left the chapel to pray another rosary with a close friend of mine under the chilly stars.

What a night it was! In an earlier post I talked about suddenly discovering stars, and the impact of that experience was no less in Julian. Ringed by mountains, undimmed by human lights, the stars above us that night shone forth in pre-industrial splendor. The Milky Way and the familiar constellations stood out clearly among thousands of stars I had all but forgotten. The crisp still air seemed to sharpen my senses and evoke a sense of exhilaration. I spent little time examining the panorama above, but its presence seemed to infuse the conversations that evening with a excitement and wit and laughter that I seldom experience, even among my closest friends.

During one such conversation a fellow retreatant told me that because I had no “affirmation bag”–I didn’t arrive until Saturday, so I wasn’t around during their creation–he made one for me. It may seem a small thing, but for me that represented the ultimate act of kindness. Having something kind to say, and guessing that others might as well, this friend out of charity decorated a paper bag so that I could receive notes and small gifts. I was humbled. I took about an hour and a half that evening to sit and write notes to all the people at the church who meant something to me, and it was a cathartic experience. I have found kindness, hospitality, challenges to be a better person, support, and companionship among this community, and it felt right and satisfying to thank each and every person for what they gave me. When I first heard of the concept of an “affirmation bag,” I cringed inwardly. Here, I thought, there would be sentimental, yearbook-style, banal notes that would sound the same for everybody: “so nice to meet you, hope we see more of each other, you’re so cool.” But as I wrote to my friends I found I had something unique to say to each of them. I realized then that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was part of a cohesive group of friends, where I could appreciate them individually and collectively, not just as my personal friend but as friends of each other too. I have much to be grateful for.

The next morning started with Sunday Mass, then ended with breakfast and the pack up. An easy camaraderie had formed among us that made the worship and the meal a simple and penetrating joy. In its closing the effect of the retreat is hard to put into words. Long had I known the right spiritual steps to take in my life, regarding both my personal prayer life and my interactions with others. But long had I put off taking those steps, due perhaps to fear that I would find spiritual dryness, or to my own selfish clinging to a comfortable routine, or even simply to a kind of spiritual apathy. But since I’ve returned I’ve discovered a subtle inspiration born of gratitude and humility. Perhaps that is the manifestation of accepted grace, brought on by the constant prayer at Whispering Winds. I write this more deeply grateful for all that the church community has given me; I am humbled by the good and virtuous company of my friends. I have received a great gift.

Early Cross-Countries and Wildfires

The past several weeks have been very busy – so busy, in fact, that I have not seen the last four Notre Dame games, which for those of you who know me well is quite rare. On the flying side, there was a two-week period where I went on three cross-countries: the first to Phoenix, the second to Las Vegas, and the third to Yuma, AZ (though that one was more of necessity than by choice). The whole idea of a cross country is to take a weekend with a jet and complete some needed training.

This is good from the squadron’s point of view because aircrew get extra flights (and qualifications!) outside of normal working hour, without increasing the maintenance burden. Aircrew get something out of it too: we get to travel on the weekend to places like Phoenix or Las Vegas, and in a F/A-18D. Also, it is fun to fly around unfamiliar places – the sense of detachment and appreciation that comes from looking on new cities and the countryside from the air is always exhilarating.

The Phoenix trip occurred in the middle of the week, because Miramar shut down for the upcoming weekend airshow (October 12-14). We flew over as a two-ship section from San Diego in two legs, stopping each time to dogfight each other. Those kinds of flights are my favorite: high-G, intense, competitive, and just plain fun. We made it to Phoenix without incident, checked into our hotel for the night, and went out for a quiet evening of college football over steaks (I was pleased to see Navy beat Pitt in overtime) and turned in early. The next morning, we got up, drove to the airport for two more flights; the first was another dogfight, the second was practice dive-bombing. That night–Thursday–we went out with the ASU kids in Tempe, spending our evening at a bar called “The Library.” It was decorated with bookshelves (and real books!), but it served strong drinks and boasted the entertainment of an 80s Metal cover band called Metal Head–which meant we rocked out to Def Leppard and Van Halen covers for the rest of the night. It was a little like being back in college, but it was one of the better nights I have experienced since Pensacola.

We recovered Friday morning over a full breakfast spread, kindly (and anonymously) purchased for us by a patron of the hotel who noticed our uniforms. It was the first time I’d received that particular gesture, and I was humbled to realize that, in uniform, I was the steward of others’ respect and hope. I was also very grateful.

After breakfast, I joined my comrades for our two flights back to San Diego. On these legs we fought each other again, and landed Friday afternoon exhausted but satiated with high-performance flying–just in time for the weekend.

That weekend was one of labor for me, as I moved from my La Jolla condo to a San Diego apartment. My new room-mate, Brooks, had his girlfriend, brother, and sister-in-law help us move everything across town, and I had some friends from St. Brigid’s to assist, and overall it was pretty fun. As when the anonymous hotel patron bought me breakfast, I was humbled by the friendship and charity present I found in my friends, who gave up their Saturday to help me move my belongings (in the rain, no less).

The following weekend was the Las Vegas trip, which was a little different from our jaunt to Phoenix. My part in the plan was to get Low Altitude Tactics (LAT) qualified. Next to dogfighting, it is the most fun you can have in a fighter jet: raging around scarce hundreds of feet above the ground, diving through valleys and pulling hard over ridges. Like dogfighting, it is hard physical work– we pull a lot of Gs in LAT due to the high speed of our flight–important because we want enough speed to maneuver and climb if we need to, and high speeds mean high Gs in the turn. LAT also makes the cockpit very warm, because the air entering the jet is ground temperature and does little to mitigate the heat of the sun coming through the thick canopy. Each flight is roughly like an exhilarating, hour-long workout. We flew two sorties that day, stopping in between at Edwards Air Force Base (and landing behind an F-22 which was kind of cool).

Flying into Las Vegas itself was extremely busy, since we have to compete with all the commercial carriers and the corporate jets for airspace. Yet despite the intensity of the approach, I couldn’t help notice in the gigantic multicolored desert cliffs that surround the city, cast into sharp dramatic relief by the setting sun. I always get a sense of awe flying over the high desert–it seems to be all jagged ridges and blasted lakebeds, like a foretaste of the apocalypse. Nearly as impressive is the massive metropolis springing out of bare desert, tucked into a deep valley and bordered by a giant still lake. It looked like something out of the Arabian Nights.

Las Vegas is kind of a destination for military aviators. The airports there are kind to us, the city itself is close to the restricted airspace where we do our training, and there is a lot of entertainment for the evenings. That Friday night we were staying in the Stratosphere hotel, and decided that we would “stay local” – eat dinner there and go afterwards to the Stratosphere nightclub. Before that, however, I was subjected to a “hasty callsign review,” where amongst much drinking “Vigo” was rejected and I was awarded the moniker “ECMO-2.” An ECMO is the backseater in an EA-6B prowler, and is responsible for jamming enemy radar signals. Because that job is so technical, ECMOs are considered the nerdiest of nerds. So am I, apparently. After that was over, we went to the nightclub where I happily sang along to all the 80s music they played until I couldn’t stand up any more and went to bed.

The next morning I didn’t have to fly, so I was free to recover and sightsee as I pleased. It was actually a very depressing day. The temperature was cool–for which I wasn’t prepared–and I was fighting off the nauseating after-effect of the previous evening. I was struck by how quickly and disconcertingly grand impressive casino facades and sumptuous casino lobbies transitioned to tawdry glitter and cheap furnishings adorning the actual casino floors. The entire city seems designed to be overwhelming and beautiful on the outside, but ultimately industrial and soul-less at it’s gambling core. The sight of elderly men and women chain-smoking and drinking alone at slot machines, looking miserable and alone; and that of stylish but easily frustrated young men with bored pretty women aimlessly shopping or sitting at quiet, bitter blackjack tables–it shocked and saddened me. If Vegas is supposed to be a center of entertainment and fun, why are so many of it’s pilgrims unhappy?

Then I went to Mass. The Cathedral for the diocese of Las Vegas sits almost directly on the Strip, just north of the Wynn casino. It is a dramatic, geometric building that looks to have been built in the late ’50s. The façade had a mural showing three men paying homage to a Christ in apotheosis, accompanied by the exhortations “Prayer…Penance…Peace.” Inside, the retablo behind the altar consisted of another, pure art-deco mural showing what I assume to be the resurrection: a noble, powerful, youthful, clean-shaven, and, well, virile Jesus (identifiable only by the holes in hands, feet, and side) springing up from the tabernacle in a burst of atomic light, surrounded by similarly virile angels, spreading his arms wide toward the ceiling. It was unlike any religious art I had ever seen. Also, the trappings on the altar themselves were beautifully carved and impressive, and the church itself was remarkably clean and well-maintained. It occurred to me later that the diocese of Las Vegas was probably quite wealthy.

Despite the jarring decorations, the mass itself was orthodox and heartfelt, and preached to a full congregation. It felt good to shut out the huge palaces on the Strip and retreat for an hour into familiar church hymns and rituals. The depression and the sadness of my day melted away, and I exited the church in a more cheerful frame of mind.

Stepping out the church door into twilight, I was greeted by a gritty blast of cool dry desert wind. The palm trees were bowing toward the horizontal and sheets of dust raged howling up the Strip. Well-dressed gamblers and partygoers, hunched against the assault of sand and air, scurried along to get cabs or get inside. I slitted my eyes and strode as best I could down to the Flamingo, two miles to the south, where I was staying for the night. I passed the silent, wind-lashed fountain outside the Bellagio and inwardly rejoiced at this desert windstorm that had shut down the painful, frenetic pace of the city. At my hotel I ate a nice, quiet dinner with my room-mate, declined my comrades’ offer to go to the Playboy Club, and retired early.

The following morning we ferried the jets home from Las Vegas in one trip, dropping into a range for some LAT (which was fun). More arresting were the small wildfires we flew over to the east of San Diego, but on the whole it was simply good to be back “home” in the solid reality of my own routine and apartment. I looked forward to a week not living out of a suitcase.

But Providence had other plans. The small fires we saw on Sunday grew and threatened the metro area of San Diego itself. On Monday morning, pilots in the squadron flew the jets to Arizona (to get them out of the danger zone) while the WSOs–like me–stayed back to run the squadron. There was much to do. My job was standing Tower ODO, as the officer in charge of running the airfield itself. It is largely a supervisory role and it isn’t too difficult. Mostly I just take phone calls and watch the Marines who operate the actual control tower, the refueling equipment, and the fire trucks do their jobs. My only excitement was some planning for a visit by the President later in the week, which I turned over to my replacement at the end of my shift.

The following day the squadron was shut down, so I sort of had the day off. The day after that, Wednesday, the jets flew back in and I was asked to fly to Yuma as part of a training detachment. Even when fires threaten our home town, training must go on. Significantly, those of us who went to train lived in areas not threatened by the fires.

It was supposed to be a quick trip: fly over Wednesday night, complete the training flights Thursday morning, be back that afternoon. But all of our jets broke. And they broke hard. We spent Thursday trying to fix them, reluctantly stayed Thursday night in Yuma, and found out Friday that the maintenance would take probably several more days. So we rented a car and drove three hours back to San Diego. Although the trip ended up a frustrating experience in many ways, I was surprised and humbled by how well my fellow aircrew and the maintenance Marines handled it. You learn a lot about the quality of your comrades when you watch them deal with adversity. We complained a lot, but not in a negative way. They did it to be funny, and they do it while working very hard to fix what is wrong. They didn’t whine or give up. As a result, the trip turned out to be kind of fun. I am reminded again that I am in the company of Marines.

The events of the last three weeks or so have left me with a wealth of experience. I am not sure how it all fits together. Phoenix, Vegas, Mass in Vegas, moving, wildfires, getting stuck in Yuma–I am fortunate to have enjoyed and learned so much. As a new guy to the squadron, I get the more thankless tasks and the rougher hours, but there is a definite bright side.

Still, I hope I can go at least a couple of weeks without a cross country.