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Living Through COVID as a Retreat

Victorian Waterworks Park - image courtesy of Brendan McManus, SJ

Editor’s note: Throughout July, we’re celebrating 31 Days with St. Ignatius, a month-long celebration of Ignatian spirituality. In addition to the calendar of Ignatian articles found here, posts on dotMagis this month will explore ways of Experiencing God in the Ordinary. The inspiration for our theme is the new book by William A. Barry, SJ.

There’s no denying the extent of the crisis that we are living through. The COVID-19 lockdown has restricted movement, reduced work opportunities, and given us a lot of time at home. In our small Jesuit community in Belfast, everyone was feeling the pressure. Not being able to get out in nature was especially tough (We were restricted to limited exercise “from the front door.”), though the nearby Victorian Waterworks Park provided me with some of my best early morning moments, which sustained me during the day. Just to see the explosion of color and new life as spring unfolded in exceptionally good weather counteracted much of the gloom.

I managed to transfer a lot of my work, spiritual direction and other meetings, onto electronic media with teleconference tools. However, managing my emotions and keeping focused on the positive was crucial for me. I relied heavily on my Jesuit training to be able to read my feelings, respond well, and act in a compassionate way. In many ways it felt like an extended retreat! In Ignatian terms, the main process was finding spiritual freedom or detachment: the ability to roll with difficult situations and find a way through without getting caught in expectations or wanting to be in control. It reminded me of the Jesuit 30-day retreat (the Spiritual Exercises) in its intensity, restricted movement, and lack of social contact, and also its spiritual insights.

After the second month, I noticed that a lot of my initial energy and enthusiasm had gone, and it became more of a long haul, a quiet acceptance of the reality and trying to move at a slower pace. I was very conscious of the suffering that others were enduring and trying to pray in solidarity with them. We were fortunate to be able to celebrate daily Eucharist in our community, and the prayers of intercession for others were heartfelt.

Sunday nights were my time to reflect on the week (a practice from my Tertianship year). This reflection exercise, an extended Examen, brought out unexpected little gems of encouragement and slivers of light in the darkness. I marveled at how I managed to keep working despite everything, especially how I was still able to write and communicate. In fact, some of my best writing happened during this crisis. Having the time and the invitation to express myself allowed the words to flow, and I produced more articles than normal.

Overall, I will remember the COVID-19 crisis as a time of review, memories, allowing things to surface, and looking back over the past. God was walking close by me in those days, especially when I needed help. This time was a mix of different experiences, some very testing, and prayer was about trying to process them. On my best days I would try to see them as God sees them, using the Examen format to find gratitude. With the help of visits to my local park, I ultimately found peace.

Today’s featured article in 31 Days with St. Ignatius is Five Gifts of Ignatian Spirituality for the Aging by Barbara Lee. #31DayswithIgnatius

Brendan McManus, SJ
Brendan McManus, SJ
Brendan McManus, SJ, is an avid hiker whose love of pilgrimage emerged during his Jesuit training when he and a companion begged their way across northern Spain. In 2011 he walked the Camino de Santiago in memory of his brother who died by suicide. He currently works in spirituality in Belfast and is the author of several books, including Redemption Road and The Way to Manresa.


  1. Thanks be to you all people of God for your great comments and encouraging chats with each other. I hope we will meet some day in heaven thanks

  2. Further into COVID-19 lockdown, I seem to have become laconic and I can let that bother me but I try to use my guilt as a bell reminding me I have God to turn to. So with many opportunities to pray, I recall my desire for leisure so that I could spend it in awareness of God’s loving presence. He gives us the desires of our hearts!

  3. As always God invites us to walk through this time with an awareness of God’s presence. One thing that really resonated with me as I was reading about our situation worldwide a few months ago is that we may all be in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat. The pandemic has affected people differently depending on their life situation and many lives have become fragile in many different ways – physically, mentally, emotionally, physically to name a few. Out of love, let us continue to follow the stringent health guidelines to keep others safe. Thank you for this post.

  4. The impact of COVID – 19 reminds us that God is in charge, not man for what he allows cannot be stoped unless by him. I have learnt a lot from coronavirus which has drowned me nearer to God than before.

  5. Thank you Brendan. The COVID-19 is a testing time. It invites us to remain fit, daring, and ready to take the big leap. From now on, nothing can be taken for granted. God remains the Master of the Planet and all that loves to move on it.

  6. Brendan,
    Thank you for your post. It resonates for many of the reasons you cite. The “richness” of this time is not easy to discern but it is there with even greater clarity than before. The illusion of lost “freedom” – our work to consume – seemingly “lost,” serves to remind us as People of a Loving God that our real mission is to to help and heal ourselves, those whom we love, those whom we are encouraged to treat as “less human”, and most of all – the impoverished and neglected among us. The many gifts of Ignatius are so very special as you point out. The pilgrimage continues…. Blessings.


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