Bliss and Adventure in God’s Plan

Reflections of a Student from the Studium Generale Program

The International Theological Institute, located in the quaint metropolis of Trumau, Austia, where the wise meet the wiser, foreign mingles with familiar, and, above all, where the creature encounters the Creator in a new and real way more and more each day. Sounds a bit fantastical, huh? Well, it could be because I am inclined to lean a bit on the dramatic side of the personality spectrum; nevertheless, I think I still stand justified in my somewhat idyllic description of my current locale.

It’s worth a chuckle to me now when I think back to when I first heard from a current ITI student about the Studium Generale program, and to recall my initial reaction of laughing it away as an impossibility. There were several factors that attributed to my hesitation: International (far from all things familiar in America. I admit it, I’m a wimp), Theological (am I really up for something like that? I mean, what if the people are so smart you can’t even hold a coherent conversation with them? You just never know.), Institute (that just sounds scary? Yeah, I got nothing). To this day I still can’t pinpoint what it was exactly that changed my mind. I suppose it was the fact that although I doubted its actualization, I never dismissed it entirely, which is key for hearing what God wants us to do, right? Welp, again, God had a much more exciting plan in mind and. . .Tadah!. . .here I am! (queue applause) And what a tremendous blessing coming here has been for me!

The author and the rest of the Studium Generale Class of 2014.


In the end, I decided to come for the Studium Generale program for personal enrichment. It’s not a degree program, so that’s rather the point of the course, I believe. The year thus far has been filled with classes ranging from philosophy, economics, anthropology, and scripture (just to name a few), a rich community life (I’m constantly surrounded by accents…oh, sweet bliss!), and travels! One of the unique things worth noting is that the community is comprised not only of students my age, but also of families with young children, as well as religious and priests. This aspect is such a wonderful addition to the campus. It is the full life of the Church in all her vocations.

Speaking of the life of the Church, I can’t leave out the strong spiritual life offered me here. Daily Mass is offered in the Novus Ordo form (English or German), the Extraordinary Form, or the Byzantine Liturgy (which I have fallen in love with!). All of these options. Everyday. Don’t forget about adoration and rosary every day, then Akathist and confessions every week. Can life get any better? I submit that it cannot!

Icon of The Presentation of the Child Jesus from the Byzantine Chapel.


Then, to add adventure to bliss, let’s take a moment to recall that I’m in Austria. European travels just became extremely more realistic. Within a three month period, I’ve already had the opportunity to travel to Rome, Venice, Bratislava, and, of course, Vienna. Heck, I don’t have to go farther that the mundane streets of seemingly insignificant Trumau to be enchanted! There’s just something about experiencing —no, living—in another culture and continent that serves to enlarge your entire world-view perspective.

Basically, add these three elements together, classes, international community, and a rich liturgical life, and what else can I do but recommend American Airlines? Really. I can’t say it enough: God is good!

Studying Theology in the Midst of a Suffering World

It was a crisp Autumn morning in the fateful year of 1939. In shock, the world watched as the ravings of a mad man beguiled an entire nation, and plunged the world into the unthinkable: another World War. It was under the dark shadow of the Third Reich that the calm, intelligent face of an Oxford Don looked out over a gathering of young people –who could have no way of imagining the horrors that were about to be unleashed upon them and the rest of the world –and explained to them why what they were doing was still worthwhile.

Ever one to see past the first impressions one might have of an event, or writing, or anything really, C.S. Lewis had a keen insight into the fears and hopes that must have gripped the souls of the young people of that day. A wounded veteran of the First World War, he had some idea of what was at stake, and what could be expected. He assuredly asked the questions that were in the minds of all his hearers from the start:

“What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or,  even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?“

CS Lewis

How piercing these questions must have been! How piercing they are now! We too are studying during dark times. We too are engaged in “placid” occupations while we see the lives of Christians and others throughout the Near East torn asunder, or ended utterly. Indeed, the dire situation of Christians of the Middle East in particular was brought to the forefront of the thoughts and minds of ITI students during the Dies Natalis Keynote address by ITI board member Graham Hutton. We sat riveted as we heard stories of the works of evil men, and glorious martyrs who opposed them. “Shouldn’t we do something?”

The simple answer to this question is this: We are doing something. In Lewis’ words, applicable now as they were then:

“A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”

For the Christian, discernment is always urgent. We are always in the midst of a battle “against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”(Eph. 6:12)

As Lewis points out:

“Thus the omnipresence of obedience to God in a Christian’s life is, in a way, analogous to the omnipresence of God in space. God does not fill space as a body fills it, in the sense that parts of Him are in different parts of space, excluding other object from them. Yet He is everywhere –totally present at every point of space – according to good theologians.”

Class 3 best

So, yes of course we should be aware of the circumstances of the day and attentive to the needs and concerns of the world around us. And thanks in part to Mr. Hutton, we are better aware. Our desire is not to dwell in the proverbial Ivory Tower.  We have come to the ITI to serve God. It is not always in active participation in relief efforts for those suffering present ills that we serve him. The time may come when we should serve Him thus, and we must be always ready. But for now, we can give thanks to God that we are able to take this time to immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Fathers under the guidance of St. Thomas Aquinas and our Patroness Thérèse of Liseux, and participate in our little way to the furtherance and preservation of the teachings of the Church.

And we can pray.

An ITI Father’s take on “How to Dad”

A current student at the ITI shares some of his reflections on fatherhood here at the ITI. See the Fourth Pillar in action!  From his blog post on Sunday, September 28, 2014:


What is it that makes life fulfilling? When one is doing what he is created to do.  When one finds his purpose so to speak. Being a dad is just that. Men are created to father. What a joy it is to be a father to my children.  I’ve never been more happy, at peace, and rich.  This past month I watched a Cheerios commercial that spoke on ‘How to Dad’ (see below) and so I’ve dedicated this blog post just that.  For being a dad is awesome!

Note: I’m by no means saying I have the corner on fathering, but I do do my best and here is some things that have worked in our family. I’d love to hear your additions!


We know our kids better than anyone else. We know what makes them tick. We know where they need to grow, what habits they need to squash and what ones they need to learn. We know the limits of their skills and we especially know how important it is to continue to always grow.
As a dad, I’m always looking for ways to help my kids get stronger, grow in virtue, and learn.  One thing that I think is key to doing this is getting out in the wilderness. So I jump on every opportunity to get my kids outside of civilization and into the wilderness. And it is here where I can just BE with them in all their personality quirks and just watch them in wonder.  Thus I took a weekend off with my friend Vince and his two kids and we headed out into the Alps to a small town called Hallstatt. We arrived after 4 trains to across the lake at the town.

We took a ferry across the Hallstatt Lake into the townsite.

The following are a few photos as we crossed the lake: (below is the house I plan to buy some day)

Our plan was to do a hike into Hallstatt, but the train didn’t stop where we thought it would so we found our youth hostel and took a bus to the train station we wanted to get off at and then hiked back into Hallstatt.

These next two photos are of how they deal with the waterfall coming off the mountain into their village.

The hostel was closed and it took a bit to work out some details. In the meantime we enjoyed the quaint town.  Here are a few pictures while we waited for the bus to get us to the trailhead.

The toy shop the kids were captivated by.

The trail we wanted to hike was called the Soleleitungsweg trail. It was created in the early 1600’s to carry a pipeline made from 13,000 tree trunks. Through this pipeline was funnelled brine as it was the easiest way to transport salt from the mines above Hallstatt.  Brilliant.


The hike was 7km long carved literally into the side of the mountain. Often we had to duck so as to not smack on head on the stone above us.

This 7km hike was the easiest part of our trip. My kids are becoming better hikers and basically ran this entire hike without blinking an eye. Mind you, there wasn’t a ton of uphill as the old pipeline stayed quite level once hit the right elevation.

By the time we got back to the hostel it was pouring on us and we were soaked and ready for some pizza and beer (and cocoa)!

Here are the shots coming into Hallstatt as we walk down the mountain via hundreds of stairs into this ancient town.

And, as always, we always finish our hike with a chocolate bar!


Like any Catholic father, I want my children to continue their journey of faith till their end. I want them to love God and His Church passionately.  One key to this journey is learning how to pray.  We begin our days with prayer, begin our journeys with prayer, we end our days with prayer and supplement our days with prayer.  We pray the prayer from Jesus, the prayers from the Church, the prayers of the saints, the Psalms and our own prayers. So, first thing this morning we headed out to the house of prayer.

Here is the view from our hostel window.

and one from the other window.

We walked to the Catholic Church on the hillside to pray our morning prayers together.

The view of the lake from where we were.

After praying the rosary together in the Church we prayed for ancestors in purgatory in the Ossuary. The town had run out of space to bury the dead so they received permission to dig up those already decomposed in order to have room to bury the newly deceased.

It was good to be reminded of our own mortality. Death isn’t something to fear, but something to prepare for.

A font to fill up with spring water.


One thing that Becca and I decided when we first had Winter was that we wanted our kids to be outdoors so much that they felt at home in the mountains. So we’ve made a concerted effort to not have any video games, to have no television, to limit movies to once/week, and to get outside doing things and learning outdoor skills. Why? Because nature can form our character, it is beautiful, and there is no distractions pulling us apart.

It is now the next day and we were ready to begin our hike up to the hutte. We were in the Dachstein mountain range and and had the goal to reach a hutte at 2203m. This would be the kids first hike over 2000m. The hike was a strenuous 6.5 hours for an adult from Hallstatt. This would equate to 11 hours for us – so we needed a different plan. We took the gondola up the mountain as high as we could get and that knocked 4 hours off the posted time.

Here is a picture of the valley we were hiking through. We were high enough that there were very little trees and lots of shrubs.

At a certain point in the hike, the path began to climb out of the valley and we had to climb up (sometimes with ropes) and scale many rocks.

We thought we were getting close and then we looked to the left and there was our hutte at the top of the mountain. It seemed so far away and we were cold and wet and tired …

It was a great feeling to leave the tree line and enter into a land of rock and stone and cliff.

Below is the famous Dachstein Glacier. Many folks stay at this hutte and hike the glacier with crampons.

Tristan, Johannes and Dr. DeMeo hiked faster and beat us to the Simony Hutte. So they were waiting there for us to cheer us on as we finally made it to the top!  You can see Dr. DeMeo cheering for us in the doorway.

And then, all cozy and warm, with hot cocoa ordered, we ate our tradition. It is great to be with my kids!


As a dad, we know our kids our limits. We try to push them to greater heights and to grow in virtue. Sometimes we have to push them past their limits to get them to where they need to go. This is what happened on the way home.
This was their 3rd day hiking. They were tired and it started to snow wet snow and the wind was blowing in our face. Within an hour their feet and gloves were soaked. And then the breakdowns began.

Here is the highest chapel in Austria where we prayed in the blasting wind before we started our day. It was Sunday morning and we had planned to make it back to Hallstatt for Holy Mass. Now we realized this was an impossibility and so we did a liturgy of the Word and a spiritual communion here at the chapel in the freezing cold.

Here we are catching a moment of peace out of the wind before continuing down the cliff side.

Below you can see the Simony Haus at the very top. It was an accomplishment to make it to the bottom safely!

We entered the valley again with 2 hours of hiking (at least) to go and already we were wringing freezing water out of their winter gloves.  Benedict was the first to breakdown, than Winter, and then my mighty leader Tristan. What was fascinating was that they had to realize that breaking down and crying wasn’t helping at all. As we stood there we only got colder and more wet. We had to keep moving. All three of them gritted their teeth, bore the suffering and continued forward and I told a story to keep their mind off of the cold.

And then the snow stopped. Just that couple degrees was enough to lift all of our spirits. We made it to the gondola lift thankful, tired and wet. And my kids learned what it meant to persevere. What a great way to learn virtue!


We are the enforcer in the family, but also the reinforcement. Our kids look for our approval continually. They want to know that we are proud of them. They want to hear the words and know that they meet our approval. They need us to celebrate them.
Celebration times should be rich with tradition, honour, and food. Here we are celebrating Benedict’s 5th birthday. We began by going to Holy Mass (that’s why he’s dressed up so nice).

Here was the present Margi left for Benedict by the front door:

One of our traditions to celebrate birthdays is that the kids get to choose the type of cake they want. Benedict wanted a honey cake with blue icing and a ‘B’ with cars. Well, Becca made him just what he asked for!

One thing we’ve loved about ITI is that no one really has a lot of money. Thus gifts at birthday parties are always crafts and cards made from friends.  It is fascinating to see how meaningful these become to the kids. It is good to live simply.

And of course we end the day with birthday bumps!


I read a quote once that went something like this: “Go on vacation every year even if you can’t afford it.” I completely agree. Why? Because it gives the family a chance to build memories together. These memories become a strong foundation in the future, form the kids, and bind the family into a tighter unit. The role of the father? To make this a priority and make sure it happens.

One of the things we do as a family is collect spring water.  In Alberta we were heading out every month into nature to spend the afternoon as a family collecting spring water. We can’t do it as often in Austria as we don’t have a vehicle. However, when we get out together to do so – we jump on the opportunity to build these memories.

Here are photos from latest trip to Talhof for spring water.

Good water has a reading of 100 or less of dissolved hard minerals. Our water in Trumau has a reading of over 330ppm. This water at Talhof has a reading of 30ppm!

Talhof is a little retreat center run by a priest. Many people come here for pilgrimages and for rest. No one lives all year round.


We are God to our children. The way our kids look at us and relate to us is how they will understand God the Father. This places a massive importance on how we act with our children. We must discipline as God the Father disciplines (because a good God disciplines those He loves) and yet exercise abundant mercy. We must be both friend and father. We must be the enforcement and the reinforcement.
This past month, a Catholic TV station from Slovakia came and filmed our family being and living out the Catholic the faith: being role models. The theme was ‘Kids are worth it!’ They filmed our kids playing and then filmed Becca and I talking about raising kids. There will be two episodes shown with our family.

Of course, Mothers are examples and role models as well. On the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, ITI always does a 26km pilgrimage to Heiligenkreuz – the 1300 yr old monastery with a piece of the actual cross of Christ. This year Becca took the oldest two to walk and pray their pilgrimage.


Here Becca is just coming into to Heiligenkreuz just in time for Holy Mass.  She walked from 7:30 to 3pm over mud and hills and rocks and fields.

And we made sure we stayed at the end for a chance to venerate and kiss the piece of the cross that held our Lord.


My goal for the St. George the Dragonslayer club this fall was to begin it with an overnight hike in the ruins of a castle.  There are many castles in this late Holy Roman Empire and we found one close to home. So I gathered up my kids and the Dragonslayer boys and then realized I could hardly take my sons and not my daughter Winter. We always explore together. So I decided to take Winter and then figured Kate could do her first overnight trip and then I invited a friend for Winter and Kate’s mentor Margi and soon it wasn’t so much a Dragonslayer club campout anymore. Alas. Nevertheless, it was fantastic!

Here is the full group of us ready to hike. We near Baden on the west end of the hills behind Baden.

Kate begins her virtue training: perseverance. This is the first hike where Katie walked the whole way by herself. I was pretty proud of her!

We arrive at the castle ruins! There is no one there. We have the castle to ourselves. And we don’t have to pay to get in! This rocked!


As is our tradition, we celebrated this (short) hike with a chocolate bar and Kate received her very first hiking chocolate bar! I guess she’s part of the team now, eh?

This place was magical. And to think we could stay here the night and have the castle to ourselves … the kids literally ran up and down and around the castle for 4 hours straight playing whatever make believe games they were playing. It was awesome.

And, the Austrian government even refurbished the old style castle toilet! With a good 40ft drop for your ‘job’ to travel.

The tower was still intact so we made our way to the top. The picture below is looking at the castle from the base of the tower.

Here is the view of the valley that this watch tower and the one across the valley used to protect. If only I could travel back 600 years …

Margi and Winter watching a squirrel in a tree.

Here is Alex Harb, one of our kids favourite babysitters!


Now Becca says this point is redundant as practically the whole blog is about being outside – but I think the point needs to be stated. There is something precious and magical when it comes to camping. What was so wonderful about the trip was getting into a tent with my kids and cuddling with them as the cold of the night settled in and rain pelted the outside of our tent. And yet, we were together. Safe and on an adventure. This is the quality time we love together.
The morning came rather quickly as my dearest Tristan was up at 4:50am and decided he wanted to explore the castle some more and subsequently, despite my most concerted efforts, all my kids were up.

The night time rain clouds were gone and beautiful fog seemed through the whole valley.

Breakfast around the fire and Kate happily eating Alex’s granola mix!


Kate and her best friend Margi!

And we came home closer together and with a daddy completely exhausted. I figured the kids might be tired, but rather they returned to campus and ran around till bed time. Crazy crazy amounts of energy…


Reflections on Summer at the ITI

ITI Summer SkyTwentieth Century English spiritual writer Caryll Houselander, waxes eloquently about the importance and beauty of the purposeful emptiness that occupies the center of our very being in her wonderful book, Reed of God. The title of the book also acts as a principle image as she exhorts us to be reeds of God, filled with the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, and allowing Him to pass through us to into the world beyond. The whole of her teaching is perhaps fittingly summed up in her words, “The one thing she [Mary] did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.”

I am blessed to be able to spend the summer here at the ITI with my family. Being sensitive to the needs of families, the ITI wisely and mercifully has no expectations that families can move out of their apartments for the summer as the single students do. No, the families remain in their place, working and living and surviving the summer heat as we are able. But it is this distinction in the kinds of students at the ITI; the variety in the ways of Christian life represented in the student body, that is a great strength of the school. How fitting for the families to remain! We represent the stability of Christian life and are blessed to be images (however imperfectly) of the Heavenly Home towards which we are all striving. So also, the single students represent and remind us of our pilgrim state, that “we have here, no lasting city” (Heb. 13:14). This life is a journey.

I could go on about the various ways each kind of group can and does benefit the overall life of the school, expounding on the evident graces we have from having student-seminarians, religious and priests; or the great meeting of East and West, but this will lead us way from the final purpose of this little reflection. Now is not the time because all of these benefits are, as it were, suspended, while the vast majority of the student body is away.  Indeed, the whole Institute feels as though it is an empty reed, and even outside summer programs do little to enliven the place. There is a kind of hope filled expectation in the air as the Institute awaits the return of her students, who are the purpose and life of the school.

What a humbling thing to be a part of this! All our generous donors and dedicated faculty and staff are all here for the students. While this is true anywhere, at the ITI this takes on a special importance and significance. First of all, because we are a school of theology. Here we study the most important of all the sciences, and consequently are entrusted with the greatest responsibilities. Moreover, we stand out from other theological schools because we have a special mission as found in the four pillars of our Institute. The ITI is a kind of focal point for dialogue and the meeting place for the various parts of the Catholic Church. It is as a microcosm of the global Catholic Communion. Consequently, our ability to succeed, to learn from one another and with one another, to grow in charity together, and, in short, act as reed of God, can portend either success or greater struggle for the whole of the Church here on earth.

Therefore, while certainly always at least tacitly acknowledged in the midst of the busy academic year, it is the summer where we experience so keenly how the students comprise the “that for the sake of which” of the school. All things at this Institute are and should be ordered to her students. For, if the Institute is a reed of God, then we students in turn are as the breath of God; and if we are as the breath of God, then we must bring the life and light of God into the world. This is a great and wondrous thing, indeed.