By Mark Piper
May 28, 2020 — Sustenance for the soul, examining one's conscience, prayer and interior growth did not cease with social distancing or shelter-in-place mandates. However, many sacred locations of prayer and spiritual direction, such as parishes and retreat centers, have had to close their doors and suspend in-person accompaniment, direction and dialogue. How have these months of necessary public health closures affected spiritual direction? Spiritual direction — confidential, guided discernment of God — has not stopped. Rather, just like the persons who employ the Exercises, spiritual direction has pivoted online.
As the director of the Chicago Cenacle Retreat & Conference Center, I work at one of those temporarily closed places of prayer. On the few days I’ve been in the building, I was struck as I walked by the parlors: the half-dozen simple rooms, now darkened, where the Cenacle Sisters had provided their in-person spiritual direction.
Seeing this, I had presumed spiritual direction had ceased. But I soon learned from two “in-house” spiritual directors, Sister Evelyn Jegen and Sister Mary Jane Laffan, that thanks to technology the hunger for spiritual direction, even during a pandemic, could be satiated. “Our charism, to awaken and deepen faith, finds expression in our service of spiritual direction, and I hope in all our interactions with others. In my own role as director, I am strongly influenced by the example of John the Baptist in the Gospels, which I would sum up as get them to Jesus and get out of the way,” said Sr. Evelyn. She has continued spiritual direction via technology with seven of her 11 directees (aka retreatants). Sr. Evelyn reiterated that point, saying, “I find this also in the Annotations of Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises # 5 and #15, when he encourages the director to let God deal directly with the retreatant.” Whether by email, phone call, or video chat, the director utilizes the technology to get the directee to God and then gets out of the way.
While not a brick and mortar sacred space, video chats have proven versatile and valuable. Fr. Chris Manahan, SJ, director of the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, shared, “More than 450 retreatants had their (on campus) retreats cancelled. As we look ahead to the summer, we are having to plan to offer individually directed retreats virtually.”
Many spiritual directors noted how retreatants most value reflection, silence and the natural beauty that surrounds them during their in-person prayer and direction. Whether by video conference, email, or phone, directees attempt to engage in those values even while sheltering-in-place. This has proven difficult. As a result, some spiritual directors begin the call with silence; some inform the directee of their surroundings or that they are lighting a candle. One spiritual director was very clear that she’s become more aware of how much sacred space is important to her directees, how difficult it can be to have an hour of quiet at home. She reminds them it’s ok that it is harder to focus. If God can be found in all things, he can certainly be found in interruptions.
One directee who utilizes Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, Illinois, shared, “I have a heightened hunger for physical, in-person connection across the board. I've had an exceptionally heightened awareness of the importance of physical presence, physical contact and even body heat. Seriously. Because as great as Zoom is, you cannot convey body heat through a screen.”
Mercy Sister Mary Ruth Broz, trained at the Jesuit Renewal Center in Milford, Ohio, noted that one uninterrupted spiritual practice for herself and her directees is that of journaling. “We felt like the time needed to be chronicled: What is God saying in the midst of it all, to me, to all of us as a human community?” For many in this pandemic, days seem to blur together. Continuing to journal not only expresses some movements of the Spirit but can also provide a small taste of continuity.
It’s taken a little ingenuity and imagination, but the continued use of the Spiritual Exercises shows how one can still set the world on fire while keeping six feet of social distance. After all, St. Ignatius believed that imagination was a part of the discernment process and he trusted the Holy Spirit to work through one's imagination. In placing oneself within a Gospel story, we are forced to imagine everything: sounds, smells, sights, tastes, facial expressions. Perhaps this is one reason why digital spiritual direction has proven workable. We hear the voice on the other line and imagine the room, the person’s posture, their facial expression, and have a heightened desire to be together. “Having realized during this time of pandemic a sense of personal vulnerability and helplessness to change circumstances, the invitation to trust and surrender to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is very necessary,” Cenacle Sister Mary Jane Laffan surmised. Since the onset of social distancing, Sr. Mary Jane, one of our “in-house” Sisters, has found that many of her directees have been mentioning various new online programs to her for spiritual nourishment. Many of these programs focus on surrender, detachment and gratitude. “From St. Therese Couderc, [the foundress of the Cenacle Sisters] we inherit her Letter on Self Surrender and her mystical experience of goodness. Both are the fruit of the Spiritual Exercises which she prayed and lived for decades.”
For many, Zoom and technology have proven conducive, if less than ideal, for God’s purposes, for spiritual direction at this time. The prayers go on and the value of the Spiritual Exercises endures. For now, the parlor seats in well-kept retreat centers have been temporarily replaced with recliner chairs in well-lived family rooms.
Until we can share the fruits of this time in person, may your journal have ample pages, may your spouse or children provide you an hour of quiet, and may your internet connection have a strong signal. AMDG.
Mark Piper, a Packers fan in an unholy land, resides in Chicago with his wife and two children. He is the director of the Cenacle Retreat & Conference Center. He has a master’s in public policy and mingles his professional and personal interests of leadership, communication and spirituality. He is an alumnus of Amate House.