AS CHURCHES report a boom in people joining online services, and search engines record a huge increase in the numbers searching for prayer support online, many retreat houses have been adapting to the lockdown by going online.
But, although there are early signs that new audiences are engaging with meditations and retreats, such as the Zoom meditation offered by the Jesuits in Britain, retreat houses and leaders believe that the lockdown experience will also encourage renewed interest in traditional retreats when they become possible again.
As helpful as online prayer resources are, what cannot be easily replicated online is the experience of being on retreat together, the Warden of Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire, the Revd David Newman, says.
Even on a silent retreat there is great companionship and spiritual fellowship, he says. “I went on a 30-day Ignatian retreat myself, a lot of [which] was in silence. What became very clear was that the group grew closer together in the silence. There is a strong corporate dimension to being together on retreat.”
The director of the Retreat Association, Alison MacTier, agrees: “Times of communal, silent prayer are really important; other people are a really important part of the experience. Online retreats are not likely to replace physical retreats because of this.”
The physical space offered by retreat houses also plays a significant part in the retreat experience, she says. “When you go on retreat, you are clearing the space from the distractions and clutter of everyday life. And the reason you are clearing that space is so that it can be filled by something else: God.
“Retreat centres make that easier, as the spaces are designed to help people do that, offering labyrinths, chapels, prayer spaces, and large grounds, which all help to create a positive environment for reflection. The retreat tradition comes from the monastic tradition: it aims to draw us towards God and away from distraction.”
Although the lockdown experience will have varied significantly for people — depending on household finances, the physical space available, and whether it has been spent alone or with others — for many of us, issues and tensions may have bubbled to the surface which will need to be addressed. Going on retreat, if finances allow, could be one way to address some of those.
“This sustained period of lockdown is bound to bring issues up for people, if they are lucky enough not to be frantic with worry about family or earning money,” Mrs MacTier says. “Time under lockdown can bring a lot to the surface . . . and there may be greater demand for retreats, and contact with spiritual directors after this.
“Retreats are the answer to a huge number of problems and challenges we face; it’s a space where people can potentially discover healing and wholeness, and purpose in life. It can help to restore you.”
Karen WilliamsKaren Williams
The director of St Beuno’s, Fr Roger Dawson, says: “People may find it helpful to reflect on this period of crisis and traumatic events, in their own lives and the lives of the country, and to discern where God is, and has been, through this; for if, as Ignatians believe, God is in all things, then we need to find God in Covid-19.”
Retreat houses offer an invaluable resource to do that, he believes. “Here, at St Beuno’s, we can offer people a place where people have prayed every day for over 170 years, and everything we do here helps to clear the decks for people to pray, and listen, and sense the Holy Spirit at work.
“For some people, this [time] will have been very difficult indeed. What we are facing is a psychological rupture in our culture, and we are not going to go back to where we were before. There may be an opportunity in it for a better world.”
Early evidence is showing that lockdown has encouraged many to look deeper into themselves and embrace some new ways of living. The Revd Barry Preece, who chairs the Association for Promoting Retreats, says: “People have been discovering space and silence and stillness in a way that perhaps they couldn’t before, because these things were crowded out.
“Some are also discovering nature more: making the most of going out on their exercise each day and [enjoying] nature. When all you can do is experience a walk, then the walk itself becomes the focus, not the destination, and that, in itself, is a kind of pilgrimage, a discipline.
“I think people will realise that life has, for many of us, become a merry-go-round of responsibilities, of work, and families; this time has given some space to reflect, and that is precious, and they will seek it again. Of course, you don’t have to go away to have time for reflection, but it is a lot easier to climb off the roundabout and create some space for reflection on retreat.”
One of the challenges for retreat houses will be adapting what they offer to allow more time for people to interact again, after so much enforced isolation.
“A lot of people are isolating on their own, and retreat leaders will need to think about how they make space available for people to build relationships on retreat,” Fr Preece says. “Lockdown has also taught us the value of people. Before, perhaps, we took other people for granted. The future will be more diverse for retreats, as for lots of things, but the value of choosing to take a retreat and step aside from daily life, as opposed to the enforced lockdown we’ve all been through, will only grow.”
LOCKDOWN will be a very different experience for each of us, depending on our work, housing, and family situations. But it has awakened a strong desire in many people to use this enforced period of isolation to grow spiritually.
In addition to online reflections and meditations, there is also plenty of guidance online on how to use lockdown to deepen your faith. Creating a routine for prayer and reflection is, perhaps, the most central staple of any at-home retreat, the Retreat Association director, Alison MacTier, says.
Karen WilliamsKaren Williams
“For many people, being at home won’t be the best environment. But, if you can try and create some kind of corner, a tiny space, that can become your retreat space, it will be a physical aid to reflection; things like lighting a candle in this space also mark it out as different.”
“Putting a structure around the day is absolutely key,” Mr Newman advises. He suggests perhaps signing up for a one-to-one online retreat that can offer regular contact with a spiritual adviser and a ready-made rhythm of prayer and worship, to help create this routine.
Those with a garden could create a prayer walk around it, or daily exercise could be undertaken with the mindset of a mini-pilgrimage, he suggests.
Stephen Hoyland is employed by the Jesuits in Britain to offer spiritual outreach. He has taken his regular series “Retreats in Daily Life”, which he runs in UK universities, online. He is also involved in setting up a Zoom meditation, which will be offered on Sundays at 7 p.m.; all those who sign in will pray and meditate silently, in the company of others. “Praying in a group helps people to focus. Even if you can’t hear each other, you can see each other,” he says.
For those with young children who find it hard to create a regular prayer time or space, he suggests trying to get up before the children to get some prayer time and space, however short it may be. “A very simple rule of life creates a prayer space that is both physical and temporal. Try to have a daily discipline of just being present to God, even if it is just for ten minutes each day: it will really help.”
Children need not be a hindrance to an at-home retreat, however, and there are many resources online for praying with children. Using some of the reflections and video prayers available can help establish a routine for your family, as could using permitted exercise time to observe nature and pray with young children.
Karen WilliamsKaren Williams
The Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, Fr Christopher Jamison, has set up a website, alonetogether.org.uk, which provides people with tips and reflections from those who have had significant experience of isolation, including the former hostage Terry Waite. A series of videos, with titles such as: “How to use time” and “How to find silence”, may be helpful for those with little experience of retreats.
Fr Jamison advises that it is important to “work with your hands” in lockdown: “We need to get out of our heads, and into our hands.” For those who have no garden, he suggests chopping vegetables as a “very manual, very bodily, and very consoling thing to do that other members of the family can share in, as well”.
However challenging the discipline, as lockdown continues, Mr Newman urges people not to give up on making time for their spiritual life. “People have welcomed the space, but it has got harder. I’d say to people to keep on with it, because you’ll go deeper if you do.”
HAVING moved house a few months ago, Karen and Andrew Williams had just decorated a small attic space with the idea of keeping it as a prayer room, when the lockdown was announced.
Both work as teachers, and in lockdown their working lives have changed entirely, from being based outside the home to preparing and running online classes and courses from home.
The small prayer space has become invaluable at this time. Bible verses and images on the walls, and a prayer journal, all help with prayer and reflection. And, although Mrs Williams now has to work in part of the space, too, as they have limited office space, they have kept the prayer space as clear as possible.
“When I pause for a moment from work and look around at the Bible verses, I’m reminded that God is there with me,” she says.
Mr Williams tends to visit the prayer space at the end of his working day. The couple are also, however, trying to develop a routine of prayer at regular times throughout the day.
“It really helps to have this intentional space. We are trying to keep it digital-free, as we’re online at work all the time. But I am using Nicky Gumbel’s Bible In One Year app, which is brilliant,” Mrs Williams says.