I did not set out to become an advocate for online retreats and virtual prayer gatherings. As I reflect on how I entered the world of virtual retreats and spiritual direction, long before COVID-19 was part of our world, I guess I could say, it is a lived moment of the Suscipe.
Years ago, we moved to a very small rural town in Georgia while my husband was in graduate school. Prior to our move, I met in person with my spiritual director monthly for several years. I desired to continue to walk with a spiritual director, but the closest one was one and a half hours away. As a mom of a two-year-old and a newborn, it was not realistic for me to make a three-hour drive round trip each month (not to mention the actual meeting time with the spiritual director).
I felt frustrated that I had no options. God must have known my heart, because God brought two answers to my prayer for someone to accompany me.
First, a visiting professor who was a trained Ignatian spiritual director moved to my small town on a grant. He began walking me through the Spiritual Exercises. About halfway through my journey, the grant ended unexpectedly, and my spiritual director had to move back across the country. What did we do? We finished my journey by phone. (Video conferencing was not yet a well-used tool at the time.) Second, when my journey through the Spiritual Exercises finished, God brought another spiritual director into my life who lived hundreds of miles away from me but was willing to accompany me both by phone and by video, as video conferencing became easier to access.
A few years later, I completed my training to become a spiritual director, and I carried with me the experience of not having a spiritual director within reasonable driving distance. As my ministry continued to expand, I heard from others how they struggled to find not only spiritual directors near them but also retreats they could attend. I took all of this into prayer and discernment. I turned to the Suscipe time and time again, offering God all of my understanding and life experience.
God took my offers in prayer and planted seeds of accompanying people through virtual means. People who did not live near me began to reach out, asking me to meet with them for spiritual direction online. Ponderings in prayer of offering virtual retreats came to fruition through the Online Busy Person’s Retreat and a six-week online retreat called Overwhelmed No More. By the time quarantine began, I had several years of virtual ministry experience. These experiences helped me pivot to all-online ministry this spring. These last few months, I picked up a few best practices I want to offer about creating meaningful connections online.
Cultivating Space for the Encounter
The gift of technology allows us to gather people who may not always be able to be together. It allows us to offer space to people who cannot typically attend offerings at parishes, retreat houses, or spirituality centers.
When we gather people virtually, it is important to remember why we are gathering in the first place. We are gathering to offer a space to encounter God. We can hold space for others that creates meaningful connection with God and a community of faith.
Offering a Holy Pause
We are in a season of life where screen fatigue is real. Why even offer another virtual gathering? Because we can offer something that meetings and webinars often do not include: a chance to pause and to be still. Psalm 46:10 reminds us to “be still, and know that I am God.”
Gathering people together for prayer matters more than any specific content we can offer right now. Allowing small groups of people of faith to be together for faith sharing and prayer is a gift we can offer to all we accompany. We can do this by simply inviting people to gather weekly for 30 minutes of prayer. A simple format is:
- Offer a brief welcome.
- Lead participants through a guided prayer experience.
- Encourage faith sharing.
- Invite people to pray for each other’s intentions.
As we continue to explore virtual possibilities, we will learn more best practices about how to use the gift of technology to help people create meaningful connections online. I look forward to seeing how the Holy Spirit continues to inspire each one of us!