Loyola House in Guelph, Ont., has been offering retreats since 1964. The 600-acre property includes the Ignatius Old-Growth Forest, a 220-acre farm and the retreat house and training centre. Michael Swan

Retreats offer a helping hand in crisis

By 
  • April 4, 2020

The sign on the door may read “Closed until further notice” at Loyola House Ignatius Jesuit Centre and other retreat centres around the country, but that doesn’t mean spiritual life needs to take a break.

Retreats have been cancelled in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and most people are in some form of isolation and practising social distancing to help prevent the virus’ spread. This isolation, however, provides an opportunity for us to “really centre ourselves in our personal relationship with God,” said Jesuit Br. Daniel Leckman, a spiritual director at Loyola House, the Jesuit spirituality centre in Guelph, Ont.

“This is a good time for us to come back to how is God personally supporting me as I struggle with what is going on in the world,” said Leckman.

He looks at our current situation quite simply: the whole world might be on virtual lockdown, but “you’re not doing anything else so you might as well focus on your prayer life and your personal relationship with God.”

And spiritual directors can lend a hand. The doors are closed, but their ears are wide open. Leckman is advising people to find themselves a spiritual director on their own, or access the resources at Loyola or similar centres.

“People can come to us if they have questions. We’d be glad to answer,” he said.

No one finds themselves in an ideal situation right now, and retreat centres are no different. Providence Spirituality Centre in Kingston, Ont., has closed its doors for the time being. As part of the Providence Motherhouse complex which houses a significant elderly population, it’s understandable. Sr. Lucy Bethel finds herself in a holding pattern of sorts.

“You might say, like the rest of the world, I am doing my best to live one day at a time and provide support to my congregation, our staff and all those who reach out to me,” said Bethel, Providence Spirituality Centre’s director, in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

That said, retreat staff remain available to connect with those in need of direction, she said.

“Some of our clientele will choose to remain connected with their spiritual directors through Skype or phone calls,” she said. “Those are individual choices.”

Skype and other online mechanisms have been a great resource for retreat centres blindsided by this crisis. It’s allowed them to stay connected to retreatants and be a listening ear for those who need one.

What Providence, Loyola and many others don’t offer at this time is online programs for those seeking spiritual direction. Leckman said it’s not an option he’s familiar with, but it’s something he foresees in the future, at least at Loyola, as this unprecedented situation has shown the need. As has been said many times before, don’t waste a good crisis. So the past few weeks has kickstarted the thought process for Leckman on how Loyola can make this happen.

“It’s the big thing I’ve been pondering these days and I would like to create a website that at least gives some points or reflections or digital wisdom for people to ponder and offer the possibility of personal direction online as well,” said Leckman.

“What I really want is to create a space where in-the-dark people with needs, we can address them somehow.”

For as many people who know of Loyola, Providence and other centres, there are so many more that don’t. So developing an online presence will make these centres and the spiritual direction they can offer more widely available. For Leckman, he sees this developing at first more as a blog.

“I’m inspired by what we have in Guelph and all the wisdom that’s not being shared with the world right now,” said Leckman. “To have a space where we bring our wisdom online is actually going to last beyond the COVID-19 crisis.”

Coming up with the right formula will be a challenge. After all, Leckman said, “Part of the beautiful thing about retreat is you come to a separate space where you can be in silence and not think about your everyday life for a week, eight days.”

But what will come out of this, he said, is “a presence” giving people “the capacity to pray and making sure they are able to spend their days with that.”

So far in this crisis, Leckman said he’s been pleased to see the efforts being made to feed that spiritual hunger.

“There’s a lot being done in individual parishes to address the spiritual needs of people. It’s not the same as retreat but it’s the next best thing, that’s for sure.”

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