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New direction for spiritual help

28 May 2021

How has the practice of guiding individuals been affected by the pandemic, asks Jemima Thackray


MORE than a year since the start of the first lockdown, most people have got used to the migration of church life on to online platforms. It has involved coming to terms with the mixed blessings of accessibility and flexibility versus the sense of disconnection and screen fatigue.

Among the practices that have been reinvented over Zoom is spiritual direction, including individually guided retreats (IGRs) — devoted periods of time away from normal life which involve daily meetings with a spiritual guide as well as individual prayer and reflection.

Both the practice of spiritual accompaniment and IGRs have been adapted successfully to the new constraints, the adviser in spirituality to Hereford diocese, Prebendary Nick Helm, says. He is a spiritual director, trainer, and author, of Seeking Spiritual Direction: How to find support for your spiritual life (Grove Books).

“There has been a big appetite for online sessions. One of the main benefits has been the ability to accompany people who would normally be inaccessible. For example, I recently supported someone from Denmark during an online IGR.

“Of course, some people have been doing it for years. The real trailblazers were those accompanying Christians in the Middle East. The rest of us have finally caught up, and learnt that it can work better than we thought. In fact, ten years ago I declined an opportunity to work with someone online. Now, I realise I missed a trick. A lot of that was simply fear of change.”

Most of Prebendary Helm’s current IGR work is through St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, in north Wales. Other retreat centres that adapted to the change in practice to offer IGRs online include the Loreto Centre, in Llandudno, Wales; the Carmelites at Boars Hill, Oxford; the House of Prayer, in East Molesey; and Holland House, in Cropthorne, Worcestershire, among others.

St Beuno’s deputy director, Deidre Rowe, says that they worked quickly to get an online retreat programme up and running. “Over the winter, we have held 15 IGR weeks using a team of 30 spiritual directors, bringing together retreatants from as far away as Japan. God has really been in it; it’s amazing to see what has happened.”

Such has been the success of the online programme that they will be running two a month even after the retreat centre has opened again.

“We have tried hard to be adaptable and make it work for each individual. One couple, for example, wanted to meet their spiritual director in the evening at 7 p.m., after their toddler was in bed. Spiritual directors can also be in contact with their retreatant throughout the day, usually via email, perhaps suggesting scripture or poetry to read.”

Nevertheless, there are challenges and drawbacks to the online format. “It’s much more difficult to read body language and to hold a silence. And, when people are deeply moved, the emotional distance is hard. The dynamic of the retreat house is also one of silence, and this cannot be as easily created at home.

“But many have said that it has also been a blessing to find God in their own environment; it has meant that the spiritual work they have done is integrated into their daily lives, rather than the experience of being on holiday and coming back to normality.”

The Bishop’s adviser on spirituality for the diocese of Peterborough, Sister Rachel Overton, who teaches a “Holy Listening Course” at Launde Abbey, for the formation of spiritual directors, agrees: “There has been a powerful learning in bringing the retreat into [the] home, where people are probably closer to their real selves, without any ‘social lipstick’ applied, as [they] are not interacting with others in a retreat centre.

“There can be a seductive, dualistic thinking which says that God is over there on retreat, and not here, but the online model deals with this.”

But she also observes how much more intentional spiritual directors have to be when working online, to create an environment of hospitality and welcome.

“You have to be more explicit about things that are natural in person. You can’t offer people a cup of tea, for example. And you have to be mindful of things like lighting, internet connection, camera view; all these things matter to the experience.”

There has been an increase at St Beuno’s in the number of young people accessing IGRs since they began offering them online (“they slip into the online mode so naturally,” Mrs Rowe says), and also in clergy, who have carried a significant burden throughout the pandemic.

The pandemic has led to a rise in people seeking spiritual accompaniment, Sister Rachel says. “Covid has taught us we are not in control of life, and that we have to live life abundantly in the present moment. Some people have come to spiritual direction who have gone into a steep decline and have been affected by isolation and fear, but others have come saying: ‘What do I not want to lose here,’ in reflecting on the time and space they have gained in lockdown.”

Prebendary Helm agrees that time afforded by the lockdowns has led to an increased interest in spiritual direction.

“When we have spare time, and when we are less busy and distracted, that’s when issues come to the surface. However, I usually say to people when we first meet that they should park the issue and spend the first part of the retreat simply relaxing and breathing in God, coming home to themselves and to God, and often that’s all that’s needed to find a natural resolution to what they are facing.

The chapel sanctuary at Brancepeth Castle, County Durham

“People often come on retreat to relax, but what comes whooshing into the space is all the stuff that’s unresolved, and, actually, the retreat can become quite a disturbed space. Every individual is going on their own journey; [a spiritual director’s] job is to give that additional perspective to what is going on in the person’s head, to help them get beyond their own thoughts and find their way.”

The Associate Minister at St Brandon’s, Durham, the Revd Alison Hobbs, has been offering spiritual direction online throughout the pandemic, and also offers IGRs at her family home, Brancepeth Castle, where bookings are being taken again now that Covid rules allow.

“My family bought this place 40 years ago, and I believe God gives these gifts to share. I have felt called to open the house up and offer spiritual accompaniment, as well as build a small community [the Community of the Well] around a daily eucharist in the castle’s chapel. There is a play on the word ‘well’, as in ‘to be well’, because we want to offer the castle as a place of healing.”

Besides having the run of the castle and its grounds, guests can use a creative space and craft materials throughout their IGR. Mrs Hobbs also tries to bring in an element of creativity to her spiritual direction online: “I will often say to people: ‘Can you draw that thought process?’ And, if they feel comfortable, they can share it with me and hold it up to the camera.

“The pandemic has meant people have been obliged to change how they worship and are thinking about new ways of meeting with God. What’s important in spiritual direction is that people feel free of inhibition, or the need to be ‘theologically right’; there should be no straining, but, rather, freedom to have an authentic experience of God.”

Despite the hope that all legal restrictions on meeting will soon be a thing of the past, like other spiritual directors she will continue offering spiritual accompaniment online in the future. “It’s useful to offer it as an option. I imagine that some people, particularly clergy who are pressed for time, will say: ‘Can I decide the day before?’ And that’s fine. God will meet us anywhere.”


New national forum for spiritual direction

A NEW national initiative for spiritual directors, the National Forum for Spiritual Direction UK, has been set up during lockdown.

A pre-Covid meeting with spiritual accompaniment at St Beuno’s

The forum was established by the Retreat Association, the Spiritual Exercises Network, the London Centre for Spiritual Direction, and the Jesuits, “with a view to supporting and resourcing spiritual directors, and promote and protect good practice and creative development”, the director of the Retreat Association, Alison McTier, said.

More than 120 people attended the forum’s first meeting in January, and there are plans for a future meeting on 30 June. “Such initiatives are now reaching much wider networks than were previously possible, due to the move to online events,” Ms McTier said.

“The ministry of spiritual direction has shifted significantly over the last year, as people have moved over to an online format. This has accelerated something that was practised by a few to something practised by the majority.

“There is also a general feeling across the ministry that the pandemic will most likely encourage more people to think about going on retreats or seeking spiritual direction, and to that end there could certainly be more interest in IGRs.”

The Retreat Association also hosts a biennial national conference for those involved in spiritual direction training. This year, the event attracted double the usual numbers, with 60 attending online.

“The remit of this group is currently to look at guidelines for spiritual direction courses, following the publication by the Retreat Association of Spiritual Direction Guidelines in 2016, after three years of consultation with practitioners across denominations.

“We will now be holding an extra conference early next year, to continue these discussions due to popular demand.”



The Rector of St Paul’s, St Marylebone, London, the Revd Clare Dowding, went on a three-day online retreat

The Revd Clare Dowding

“It was incredible what they were able to offer in lockdown: there were people in my introductory session from Scotland to South Africa, people with disabilities and other reasons why they couldn’t have physically got there.

“The pandemic had taken a large toll on my community, one of the most densely populated wards in Westminster; so I’d done a lot of funerals, plus Covid has uncovered all sorts of cracks in society, exposing food poverty and isolation. Going on retreat was part of finding refreshment in this daily ministry.

“It was a challenge on the first day, but I was helped by a fantastic spiritual director. I had to be realistic about what I could manage with my teenage kids at home; so I had small goals.

“I actually found myself reflecting on just one particular psalm, digging more and more deeply into it and having some good, deep conversations about what it was saying to me. I found it helpful for the weeks ahead, too: it helped me see how I could find space in daily life; how I can pay attention and be present at a time when everything else is up in the air.”


The Chaplain of King’s College, London, the Revd Dr Jenny Morgans, undertook an online IGR

The Revd Dr Jenny Morgans  

I WENT on an online IGR in Lent, for six days. I had been waiting to go on retreat for the whole of lockdown, and, in the end, decided I couldn’t wait any more. I wasn’t convinced by the online format, but a friend had said it was surprisingly effective.

I had some things I needed to work through. I had finished my Ph.D. in the summer, and I wanted to reconnect to the more contemplative part of me, now that I wasn’t spending all my spare time writing. My husband had also been unwell, and I had been looking after him; so it was important to have some time alone and get some distance from my household for a change of perspective.

I was very fortunate, as I was offered an empty vicarage by a clergy friend; so I was able to create a retreat space for myself. I set up a prayer corner with candles, pictures, a Bible, flowers, and an icon, and I was sat by a window with a lovely view over the garden. I would also go on lots of walks in the park and along the river. My spiritual director was amazing: she made me feel so comfortable over Zoom.

If I couldn’t have gone away, I think I would have put a tent up in the garden. But, even if you are in your own home for an online retreat, I think it is important to at least be in a separate room, and be able to shut the door, because you want to be able to talk honestly without people overhearing.

I would definitely do an online retreat again. I think we have all got so used to this way of interacting and working, and now it feels natural.

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