The Story of My First Demontreville Retreat in Lake Elmo, Minnesota

JesuitRetreatHouse

34 years ago, I made my first retreat at Demontreville.  Demontreville is a Jesuit Retreat Center in Lake Elmo Minnesota.  I was not a Jesuit or even a practicing Catholic when I made my first retreat.  In fact, I hailed myself as an atheist or sometimes an agnostic.  I like agnosticism since it is a “just in case” religion.   Just in case there is a heaven, hell, devil or god, I can always claim that I did not totally disavow him/her.  This might give me a chance to get by the pearly gates.  Anyway, I did not go to Demontreville for the religious experience.

WintertrailIt was January of 1986.  I had finished all my course work for my Ph.D. degree.  It had already been a long and cold and snowy Minnesota winter.  I had finally collected all the data I needed to finish my dissertation.  Four years in school, working part-time, divorced, no money and writing a dissertation had just about wrung me out.  I needed a vacation but had no money.  Someone told me about this place called Demontreville which they described as a sort of place to get away from life.  They had beautiful facilities, private rooms and some really nice ski trails.  You could get three free meals for four days and there was no charge.  It was all based on voluntary donations.  Weekend retreats ran from Thursday evening to Sunday evening.

This sounded too good to be true.  I packed my knapsack with some fun reading.  Threw some schoolwork in and loaded my skis on my car ski rack.  Just in case, the trails were not very good, I brought alone my running gear.  Off, I went from St. Paul to Demontreville in Lake Elmo, Mn.

Demontreville-Jesuit-Retreat-House

I arrived at a beautiful (I thought resort) nestled in an old pine forest.  I drove down a wonderfully secluded road and past a horse stable.  “Wow,” I thought, “I might even be able to get some horse back riding in.”  The weather was cold, and snow covered all the grounds and buildings.  It was a scene out of paradise.  I could not believe my good fortune.  Of course, I still wondered whether or not there was a fixed charge in which case I was screwed.  I had brought fifty dollars with me and just in case a check book.  However, my bank account was about zero.

I was directed by a young man in front of a large garage at the end of the road on where to park my car.  I took my suitcase and followed a bunch of older men down a hill and into what appeared to be a large conference center.  It was about 6 pm.  I had been told that arrival time each week was between 6 PM and 7 PM on Thursdays and that I could leave after dinner on Sunday night.  I was perfectly willing to spend three days here.

maxresdefaultWhen I went into the “conference” center, there were many men milling around and talking in small groups.  I am not the most social guy in the world, so I took a seat on a couch by myself and commenced reading a magazine called America.  This is a magazine published by the Jesuits each month and to this day I always enjoy reading it.  depositphotos_201877558-stock-video-male-friends-are-talking-toAt about 6:50 PM or so, a Jesuit priest arrived and after a loud hand clap, announced that dinner was being served.  We first said a short prayer called the Angelus and then went into the dining hall which is connected to the conference center.  The “conference center” is really just a large room to relax in.  It has numerous chairs and sofas scattered about a well-lit room with large windows looking out over the grounds.  It is one of the most peaceful places in the world to sit, reflect and enjoy a coffee.  The conferences (Which I learned about later) are all held in the chapel which is also connected to the dining hall.  The only time you have to leave the building is to go to your room.  I was given a room assignment upon entering the conference center.

seating-arrangements

Tables are organized in the dining center with places for four or five people at each table.  We were advised that once we had a seat, that was where we were expected to stay for the weekend.  We were asked to fill out a dining card specifying what we wanted to drink with each meal (alas, no beer) and any dietary preferences or restrictions.  Once we put this on the table, we needed to take the same table and the same seat for the duration of the retreat.

Things were still going along fine.  Most of the other men who had joined me at a dining table were older men.  I had just turned forty.  We did some chit chat about where we were from and what we did and of course, how many retreats we had done at Demontreville.  One guy at my table had done 40 retreats.  I was astounded that anybody could keep coming back to the same place for that many years.  On the last night of each retreat, awards are given to men who have made 20 or more retreats.  Oh, I should also mention that there were NO women at the retreat.  It is a male only enclave.  I figured that this was my first and last retreat.  I could not see myself as an old guy here getting an award for attending twenty retreats never mind forty or more.

Dinner, the first night was roast beef.  Meals are almost always the same at each retreat.  For 34 years now, I have had roast beef on Thursday night and Prime Rib on Sunday night.  Other meals are also fixed.  One breakfast will include pancakes, one will have French toast and one will include omelets.  The same predictability is true for lunch and supper meals.  Many men can tell you exactly what will be served for each meal.  You soon figure out that consistency is an important concept at Demontreville.  I actually look forward to the meals each day as they are always plentiful and very well prepared.

Lecture or sermons (hard to tell the difference) are on a fixed schedule every day.  We have some in the morning, some in the afternoon and some in the evening.  There are of course the Catholic worship services every day.  These include prayer sessions every morning and a full mass at 5 PM each day followed by Benediction at 8 PM.  Oh, please don’t let me forget to mention the all-important cookies and coffee which are served every morning and afternoon at the same time each day.  If you don’t like the wonderful cookies that are served, there are always bananas and oranges to eat.

Sthokal-Story-Image

So here I sit, my first night at Demontreville.  We have finished eating and desert has been served.  We are almost done with desert when a thunderous voice rings out followed by a loud hand clap.  I turn to see a short but rugged looking little priest named Father Ed. Sthokal, SJ.  Father Sthokal is the Retreat Director.  Father Sthokal was born on January 20, 1922.  He was ordained a Jesuit in 1954 and came to Demontreville in the late fifties.  He was an icon at the Retreat Center due to his longevity.  When he finally retired at the age of 95 to a Jesuit community in Wisconsin, he had served almost sixty years at the Retreat Center in various capacities.  He struck me as a drill sergeant when I first met him.  Tough, no nonsense but with a total dedication to helping the men attending Demontreville to “make” a good retreat.

“Good evening” Father Sthokal said.  He then launched into a mini sermon which in my nearly 30 retreats with him never seemed to vary, except for this first night.  Of course, it was my “virginity” at the time which caused his message to seem very personal.  In actuality, his themes never seemed to change from year to year, but they were always inspiring, funny and somewhat caustic every time I heard them.  He talked about discipline, making a good retreat, being “disposed” and responsibility.  Tonight though, what I heard was this.

“Okay, some of you men are here for the first time.  Well let me tell you, this is not the place for a vacation.  I see some of you guys have brought your work with you, well maybe that is why you can’t get your work done, because you have no boundaries in your life.  Some of you have brought ski’s (Oh MY GOD, he is talking about me!), well this is not a ski resort. The trails are there for you to walk on and meditate on about your reason and purpose in life and what God wants for you in your life.  Some of you have brought fiction books to read so you can escape the daily grind of your boring humdrum lives, while this is not the place for that.  If you want to escape life, go get a room at a hotel and spend the week in a hot tub reading.”

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“We are here this weekend, to spend time reflecting and thinking and praying and meditating.  You will get the most out of this retreat if you are disposed and do not have any agenda.  Let God come into your life and talk to you.  Open your heart and mind to what God has to say to you.  This will allow you to make a good retreat.  Oh, and we expect silence from this point on in the retreat until supper on Sunday night.  One of our key rules is no talking.  This allows each man to listen to God and not to the chatter and gossip that is typical of communication outside of these walls.  We have no radios, no TVs, no internet and no news from the outside for you.  In the event of a family emergency, we will contact you.  Until then, don’t call your wife and kids or friends to chat.  Put your phones away.  Observe silence.  Please adjourn now to the basement where we have some ground rules to go over and we will ask for volunteers to help out with certain parts of the retreat.”

Oh my God!  Except I don’t believe in God.  What am I doing here?  I wonder if I can sneak out when no one is looking.  He must have x ray vision.  How did he know that I had work and books to read?  This is another fine mess I have gotten myself into!

I stayed for the entire retreat.  I have come back for 34 more.  I now stand up with the old timers when they get awards and recognition for retreats made.  I cannot believe I am still coming.  I am still an Atheist or on some days an Agnostic.  To me Jesus Christ is a great religious leader along with Moses, Muhammed, Baháʼu’lláh, Buddha, Krishnamurti and Osho.  I cannot totally describe how much these retreats have meant to me.

In my next blog, I would like to discuss my 2019 retreat and what it taught me.  In many ways, this retreat was very typical of my other retreats.  Every year, I take notes and jot down reflections.  I would like to share with you some of the insights and thoughts from my 2019 retreat.  These insights were and are very meaningful to me and I hope they may also be meaningful to you.  In any case, they will give you a better idea of why I keep coming back to these retreats.  Father Sthokal once joked that it simply takes some of us longer to “get it” than others.  Perhaps, I am one of those men.

For any of you who might be interested in attending a retreat:

  • The Silent Retreats are held 47 weekends a year at the Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House, 8243 Demontreville Trail N., Lake Elmo.
  • The retreat house is not open on the weekends of New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Men of any denomination are welcome to attend. Free-will donations are accepted.
  • For more information, call 651-777-1311 or go to demontrevilleretreat.com.

Four Things You Should Know About Facebook and the World

I have lost track of how many years I have been using Facebook.  However, I have not lost track of all the times that people say to me “I never use Facebook (FB) because it is etc., etc.”  They then proceed to give me a litany of reasons why they: 1. Have never used Facebook or 2. Why they think Facebook is useless.  I have found the following four beliefs to predominate among the reasons why Facebook has been deemed as either useless or even dangerous.

  1. Facebook is a waste of time. It has too much stupid stuff and trivia.

I would be richer than Mark Zuckerberg if I had a dollar for every time I have heard “What do I care about what people had for breakfast today.”  Great, you don’t want to know where I went, what I did, who I saw and what I eat?  Use your little finger to scroll down or push delete or go to another site.  I have lots of friends who do care and who want to know what I am doing.  I have had many comments on my FB site such as “It was so much fun to follow you on your trip.”  “I love your postings.”  “Thanks for sharing.”

If you think my postings are trivial, meaningless, inane, or asinine, great.  I respect your opinion.  So “Defriend” me.  Go elsewhere for your trivia.  Find your daily dose of bullshit someplace else.  But don’t criticize something you have never tried or condemn others because you find their lives not worth knowing about.

  1. Facebook can’t be trusted. They will sell valuable information about me.

Facebook is a business first and foremost.  How do you think Zuckerberg got so rich?  FB is full of advertising and advertisers want to know everything about you, so they can sell you stuff you don’t think you really need.  They will convince you that you really need it.  This has been going on since Moses convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.

Do I trust FB not to sell my innermost secrets?  Do I trust Zuckerberg not to share information about me with advertisers, political marketers, vendors, pollsters and other information seekers?  No more than I would trust hanging from the Empire State Building with my wife’s sewing thread.  You must either be deaf, dumb or blind if you think you can trust anyone selling you something or giving you something for free not to have some hidden catch or some gimmick to get more money from you.  Did you ever notice that FB is free or has that escaped your attention?  What is free?  Do you really believe it is free?

As far as information privacy goes, observe the following that I tell all my students and you will probably not have much to worry about.  It goes like this: “If you want to protect your privacy, then do not text, tweet, photo, Instagram, email, voicemail or say anything in public that you would not put up on a billboard in downtown New York.”  Period.  That is the only way that you will protect your privacy today and I doubt even this admonition is full proof.

  1. Facebook is full of lies and “false” facts.

So, you want to make decisions based on evidence, data and facts?  Facebook is no doubt full of bullshit, opinions, innuendo, conspiracies, lies and unsubstantiated claims beyond counting.  The lies on FB are more numerous than the stars in the sky or the molecules in the universe.  However, I will tell you a secret. There is no evidence, data or facts that are 100 percent true.  Everything we know about the world is only based on theories buttressed by repetition or replication.  The more our predictions happen, they more confident we are they are accurate.  However, science in like the weather.  You don’t count on the weather forecaster being 100 percent accurate unless you are a fool.

Throughout history, we have seen theories and facts overthrown by newer theories, newer facts and newer evidence that help better match reality with theory.  The world was once flat, then it was round, now it is more elliptical.  Our knowledge of everything keeps evolving and changing.  Some people see it as a search for the TRUTH.  However, the TRUTH does not exist or if it does, it is only like the wind.  It will blow one way today and another way tomorrow.  Facts, data and evidence have a probability of being accurate.  They will never be 100 percent true.  My father used to say, “believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.”  I have found this to be moderately good advice.  It works very well on FB and on the Internet in general.

  1. Facebook should be a social media and not political.

“John, you are too political.”  “I don’t want to hear your rants and raves.”  “Why can’t you keep your politics out of your Facebook site.”  “Facebook is for family and friends and should not be political.”

The splash page on my FB site now shows a picture of Elie Wiesel and a quote by him that reads “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”  He also said, “We must take sides.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  Before this, my splash page had a picture of Martin Luther King and a quote by him that read, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I believe that living in a society and hence to be social means to be political.  If you live in a society, politics is the coin of the realm that defines the rules and procedures that govern the interactions between human beings.  No one can be apolitical in a society.  To believe so is to lie to yourself.  I put my politics out there.  I don’t care if you like them or if you don’t.  I want others to know that there is someone in the universe who probably feels like they do.

Before Trump was elected, I put up a Hillary sign in my front yard.  My neighbor who was also a Hillary supporter came over to warn me.  She said “John, I would not put that sign up in this town if I were you.  It could be dangerous.”  I decided to talk this over with my wife Karen.  I did not feel that I had the right to jeopardize her safety as well mine.  She said that she supported keeping the sign up.  My decision was sealed by her willingness to risk whatever might happen by putting a sign up in a mostly pro-Trump rural town in Arizona.  A week or so later, one of my good friends who lived nearby saw my sign.  She asked me to if I could get her one.  I did get her a sign and I think we might have had the only two Hillary signs up in our town.

I use FB as a means to share with others who in these rather trying times might have fears of speaking out or who might feel that they are alone.  I want my friends to know that I am political and that I share with some of them the same beliefs, values and ideas that they have.  I firmly believe that we cannot change our present problems or deal with issues by silence.  However, if you don’t like my politics or ideas then you can do as so many others have and simply defriend me.  Frankly, they say we are defined by the company we keep.  I would rather keep company with those who share similar convictions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Time for Questions:

Do you use Facebook?  Why or why not

Life is just beginning.

“You should protest about the views of people you disagree with over major moral issues, and argue them down, but you should not try to silence them, however repugnant you find them. That is the bitter pill free speech requires us to swallow.” — Julian Baggini

 

 

 

Notes from a Trump Hater and That Includes Trump Supporters.

free-speech-churchillOnce upon a time I had more friends on Facebook.  I had both Democratic friends, Republican Friends and friends who cared not one whit about politics.  Many of all political persuasions were friends who simply wanted to ignore politics.  During the run-up to Trump’s election, I discussed, debated, argued, reasoned and fought with many friends who wanted to support Trump.  The results were not pretty.  Zero changed their minds.  I was angry and frustrated.

I unfriended many Republican friends.  Many unfriended me.  There seemed to be no middle ground.  It was like the Civil War.  You had to choose a side and the outcome was hatred and disdain for people I formerly called friends.  The loss of many former friends (Or were they simply just acquaintances?) has caused a great deal of soul searching on my part.  I realize that I am not alone in this.

I doubt if anyone wants to be labeled as narrow minded and unwilling to listen to the other side of things.  For years, I accepted Republican politics as a counterbalance to some of the extremism of the Democratic party, particularly when it came to social spending.

Of course, the same extravagant spending by the Republicans was always accepted by my Republican friends since it generally went to building a “strong” military.  A military that it was taken for granted would protect us from the evil doers out there that hate democracy.  It was a party that would create a huge monster that was a glutton for military spending and ever more wars to be fought in the name of democracy and free enterprise.

Dietrich

I believe that choosing sides is not just a matter of politics but a matter of integrity.  It is easier when someone is only a “friend”, but it becomes much more difficult when it is your mother, sister or brother.  I realize that many people think I speak out too much.  I am too opinioned.  I voice my ideas and ideology too much, etc., etc.

“We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” –  Elie Wiesel

Furthermore, there is a certain hypocrisy coming from those who condemn people like me.  It goes like this.

Republican Friend to Me: 

“Why do you have to revile, criticize and make such pejorative remarks about Trump?  About Republican politics etc.  Why do you have to have such a negative attitude?  Do you realize that I am a life long Republican and you ‘hurt’ my feelings?”

Republican Hidden Message: 

Keep your mouth shut and do not speak out.  However, it is okay for people in my party to be racists, bigots, xenophobes, greedy and against policies to help the poor and needy.  We are very polite about this, while you are very obnoxious and impolite.  Hatred is ok if it is polite.

Republican Friend to Me:

“I don’t see why you are so negative.  All you do is complain about the way things are in this country.”

Republican Hidden Message:

I don’t see any problems.  All I see are needs.  We need more prisons.  We need more police.  We need a stronger military.  We need more guns.  We need more walls.  We need more free enterprise.  We need less government.  We need less taxes.

Republican Friend to Me:

“Why can’t you be ‘for’ something rather than against everything.  No one likes anyone who is continually criticizing and complaining about things.”

Republican Hidden Message:

It is okay to screw people, to take things away from people, to make life harder for people, to create a bigger gap between the rich and the poor if you do it without “complaining.”

The way many people speak out against anyone who is willing to stand up for their beliefs reminds me of the song in the play 1776.  In the play, John Adams is continually haranguing his colleagues to get them to agree to rebel against the British.  His efforts are often met with disdain by his erstwhile colleagues.

ADAMS –  Vote yes!

CONGRESS – Oh, for God’s sake, John, sit down!

ADAMS – Good God! Consider yourself fortunate that you have John Adams to abuse, for no sane man would tolerate it!

CONGRESS – John, you’re a bore; we’ve heard this before, now for God’s sake, John, sit down!

ADAMS – I say vote yes!

political language

If one is polite about it and not too obnoxious, then racism, sexism and bigotry are tolerable.  Those who protest, those who march and those who speak up are labeled by our polite quiet society as trouble makers, hippies and know nothings.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  – Martin Luther King

There is a challenge implicit here in being a human.  It is a challenge I offer to all my “Friends” to speak out.  Do not ask why I insult and use derogatory remarks against racists and bigots.  We condone evil with our silence and inaction.   Ask why you are not speaking out against the racists and bigot groups that sow hate and discord in our nation.  When have you spoke out against the KKK?  When have you spoken out against the Neo-Nazi groups?  When have you spoken out against those so greedy that they begrudge a dime spent to help the poor and sick?  Do not come to me and tell me to be quiet and to tone down my rhetoric.

the free press

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

Jesus had this to say about his beliefs:

“Then his mother and his brothers came but were unable to join him because of the crowd.  He was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, and they wish to see you.’ He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” — Luke 8:19-21.

Maybe, Jesus was trying to tell us that right actions and right thoughts are more important than relationships.

Time for Questions:

Who would be the man/woman with enough courage to give up a friend who was a racist, sexist or bigot?

Life is just beginning.

  1. “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
  2. “Every human must decide whether they will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
  3. “If a person has not discovered something that they will die for, they are not fit to live.”
  4. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
  5. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
  6. “The ultimate measure of a human is not where he/she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he/she stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
  7. “An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of his/her individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
  8. “Anyone who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as those who help to perpetrate it. Those who accept evil without protesting against it is are really cooperating with it.”
  9. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Above quotes are all from the speeches or writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

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