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By Michael H. Brown

We recently finished a retreat in Las Vegas, and hope to be announcing one in Texas very shortly. Las Vegas presents a contrast that reminds one of San Francisco and New Orleans: tremendous darkness on the one hand, and an extremely strong army of devout Catholic prayer warriors on the other. The Catholics there are magnificent!

But there is that darkness (gambling, risqué shows, prostitution), and in many ways Las Vegas symbolizes what is occurring in the U.S. economy.

Nowhere -- with the possible exceptions of Palm Beach, Manhattan, and Beverly Hills -- is more steeped in materialism.

At the very heart of the Las Vegas strip is Caesar's Palace, and in the very heart (or perhaps one might say bowels) of Caesar's -- after the incredible corridors of luxury shops, boutiques, restaurants, fur dealers, accessory shops, perfume emporiums, art dealers, antique, jewelry, beauty, specialty food, and high-end toy stores (where a stuffed animal can be up to $8,000), and very high-fashion clothing and luggage stores, from Valentino to Louis Vuitton  -- is a huge saltwater aquarium in front of a fountain with moving statues ("animatronic figures") that every hour or so recount the myth of Atlantis. Let those with ears hear!

The story unfolds as King Atlas tries to determine which of his children will rule Atlantis. The siblings try to destroy each another, poisoning the kingdom with their greed. Finally, the gods decide to step in and settle the dispute, causing the fall of the fabled nation-island.

And here we get to the point:

At the very heart of the heart of Las Vegas -- in this incredible conglomeration of hotels (the most rooms on earth), in the lap of unbridled luxury (and debauchery), amid the $10 billion gambled here each year, a twenty-foot winged beast appears from behind Atlas' throne in that display of huge moving figures and watches over the destruction as Atlantis is consumed by fire and then flooding water. In other words, at the epicenter of Las Vegas in what seems like a cavern is a demonic creature.

Perhaps we need to keep that in mind, if indeed Las Vegas is a symbol for what is happening in the U.S. (as in so many ways it is):

Nowhere is there more gambling -- which brings to mind the turmoil in the stock market (which can also resemble a casino) -- and nowhere is there such a focus on mammon. Nowhere is there such lust. Nowhere are there such irreverent comedians (Bill Maher was appearing at the hotel where we had the retreat, and where we spread Blessed Salt).

All hail those great Catholics who took sacramentals to the strip and put in their little prayers of redemption!

What a city this is: the casinos on the one hand -- the skyscrapers that have transformed the desert -- and on the other the gorgeous new churches that go by names like Our Lady of Las Vegas and Our Lady of Wisdom and Our Lady of the Desert.

There is also a splendid Marian group led by a woman named Perla Sanchez and a world-class priest named Monsignor Benjamin J. Franzinelli (now retired), who cast spirits out of our conference room (which like all hotels had a casino) and blessed our water and salt and St. Benedict medals.

Right now, due to the economy, there is a sense that Las Vegas has been subdued and like the rest of the U.S. will be yet more subdued in the not so distant future. The hotel next to Caesar's hints to us. It is called the Mirage.

Let us recall that a few short years ago another towering symbol of materialism (the World Trade Center, with its own reflective glass) came to a sudden crashing end, and let us note too the Mass readings today (12/4/08) from Isaiah 12:1-6:

"Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal Rock. He humbles those in high places, and the lofty city He brings down; He tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust. It is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor." Let the wise hear!

Many still visit Las Vegas, we must report, but numbers are down. There are layoffs. There will be more. Construction of new mega-casinos has ground to a halt (in some cases mid-project). Motionless cranes dominate the skyline. It is difficult to fathom how there could conceivably be enough folks to fill the countless hotels. One of them called MGM Grand has more than 5,000 rooms.

There is the money (limo drivers pack pistols). There are the barely-clad waitresses (our attendees had to brave that, but, being from Vegas, are used to it). There is the mob. There is the drinking at all hours (with hard liquor in hotel shops right with the lifesavers).

And of course there is the ceaseless racket of slots, as so many try to take money out of thin air, which also defines what has occurred in America in the past several decades.

Time to be frugal. Time to stock up. It doesn't hurt to be self-sufficient. Buy a modest car. Run it until it is run into the ground. Mine is 15 years old. It is good. It is purifying. They are trying to stop it -- with more money. But what we approach, no economist will reckon.

The world has become one big Las Vegas. It has become a roulette table -- which now spins so out of control and beyond prediction.

God will guide the faithful, and feed them, and clothe them, in the times to come -- albeit not in the style a Caesar's Forum (which also has the Neptune's Pool and the Fountain of the Gods).

We all toss dice. We all want money to grow on trees.

Just remember that free money is rooted like Caesar's in a dark cavern and that it is too often controlled by a winged creature who -- also too often -- exacts a price at the end.

[resources: Tower of Light and The Day Will Come]

[The Gospel reading for today (Matthew 7:21)? "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock," said Jesus . "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand."]

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