“Show me what you give your time and attention to, and I’ll show you what you love.”
So, scores of times in my presence, said the Rev. Ed Sthokal, a man of God who wielded a large but quiet influence in the Twin Cities for well over half a century — and who died, quietly, last week, at a home for aging Jesuits in Milwaukee. He was 98.
Sthokal served in leadership roles for just under 60 of those years — and as the animating, playfully irascible spirit until his dying day — at Demontreville Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minn. It’s an unusual Twin Cities institution where, since 1948, thousands of men have gathered, 70 or so at a time, for three-day weekends of silent reflection, guided by the 500-year-old Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. (I’ve struggled to explain this inexplicable, decadeslong habit of mine before.)
I’m struggling now to decide how to pay tribute to Sthokal. He was no great admirer of the modern news media. He favored terms like “the front page” and “the 5:30 news” as shorthand for most of what’s wrong with our shallow and soulless world. He wouldn’t approve of a sentimental send-off about what an unforgettable character he was.
And yet, he spoke often about the importance of “gifts.” Some people have athletic gifts, he’d say, others musical gifts, still others the gifts of salesmanship or mathematics. Each can do certain things other people can’t do, can appreciate things in a way other people don’t.
His point was that we “retreatants,” drawn now and then to “make a retreat,” as Sthokal always put it, into several days of silent self-examination, possess “spiritual gifts” many people don’t share (or much envy).
Well, maybe. But every man who ever heard that and other emblematic talks knows that Sthokal’s spiritual gifts were of a different caliber altogether.
Out of the swirling sea of Sthokal wisdom that rushes into my mind, I remember his basic advice on how to pray (and live) — “Go as far as you can go. Just as far as you can go. And then reach for outside help.”
And from the cataracts of Sthokal drollery I recall: “If you see something in your room that needs attention, see me or Father M. If it needs immediate attention, see Father M.”
And: “If you’d like to stop by my office to talk about how your retreat is going, some problem you’re wrestling with, that’s great. If you’re dying to share your thoughts on politics, or the state of Catholic education, save that for your in-laws. They deserve it.”
A few years back, after Sthokal had departed Demontreville for the retirement home, he sent back word that he was well-settled there among his brother Jesuits. He’d discovered he even liked a couple of them.
But if there was one idea that stands out for me from all those Sthokal talks over all those years — one gift among many I specially appreciate — it’s that reminder to take note of what you love, revealed in where you invest time and attention.
Sthokal was characteristically tough-minded about love. “Love,” he would intone. “Luuuuv.” He would linger over the word in a low tone, somewhere between a groan and a grumble. “We hear a lot about love today,” he’d add. “All you need is luuuv.” (Sthokal, I gathered, never quite got over the 1960s. But who did?)
The important thing, he’d then explain, was “to love wisely and well.” To love each gift of existence in its proper way and proportion. It was fine to love golf and fishing and football as well as wife and child and fellow human being — but always wisely and well, in keeping with their varied significances. “You don’t know what the person sitting next to you might be dealing with,” he’d remind us.
And needless to say, being prodded to reflect on the less worthy thoughts and deeds on which one sometimes lavishes time and attention can be … instructive.
Among other things, Sthokal himself gave time and attention to horses and dogs, and his interests in science (astronomy especially) and literature were always on display.
Some years ago, after one in a succession of Irish setters had died, I had a chance to ask cheerfully whether Sthokal planned to adopt a new puppy. He said no. He was too old, he’d decided. He couldn’t be confident of outliving the animal. And there was a little hurt and softness in the crusty old disciplinarian’s face as he said it.
OK, it’s becoming a sentimental send-off to an unforgettable character, isn’t it? But here’s the thing: The great question is: What is all this for? For what purpose do we exist? If God creates all this, to what blooming end?
God is luuuv, we’re told. And what I learned from Sthokal — what I took from his teaching, anyway — is that loving wisely and well is exactly what “It” is all about — the whole crazy business. All the forms of love. Love for dogs and horses, gardening and bowling, one’s work and one’s play, one’s sacred causes and one’s carefree loafing — above all for family, friends and “the person sitting next to you” — all loved as wisely and well as one can.
Because that is the reason everything exists. God just never tires of giving the “gift” of that kind of love — even if, sometimes, we do.
Anyway, I hope I’ve succeeded in conveying that I loved hearing the Rev. Ed Sthokal’s message all these years. And if, even after all that instruction, I’ve clumsily described it — well, there’s the modern news media for you.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.