Cyberspace Congregation Long Island church offers members an online retreat

By Victor Chen. 
February 13, 2000

IN THE INTIMATE silences of her home, staring into the illuminated face of her computer monitor, Ingrid Miller has written out the deepest, sometimes most painful, of her heart's meditations.

 She has shared the story of her alienation from the Catholic Church shortly after emigrating from Germany more than three decades ago. She has confessed her feelings of guilt and agony following her nephew's sudden death in 1986, and the grace that finally brought her back to the church and her faith.

 For many weeks, she typed through her grief over her mother's unexpected illness and death, after a fall in September from which the elderly woman never recovered. Her mother died on Thanksgiving Day.

 With the passage of each of her missives into cyberspace, Miller was nourished by words of encouragement, love and prayer from 40 fellow members of her parish, St. Raphael's Roman Catholic Church in East Meadow. Many she first met over the Internet. Some, she still has not met in person. All are participating with her in the church's virtual retreat, now more than halfway through its 34 weeks.

 "It became such a family," says Miller, 56, a North Bellmore retiree who worked for Lufthansa airlines. "It was like Christ being there . . . And we hadn't seen each other." St. Raphael's retreat is the first of its kind on Long Island, local religious leaders say, and one of only a few such "e-treats" happening in the United States. Organizers praise it for its convenience, free of the time, space and monetary constraints of conventional church retreats held in quiet spaces over a few days. And some participants say it offers a more comfortable and productive way of sharing their intimate thoughts about God and life, with the opportunity to carefully craft words, to review past remarks and to share at any time. "People would say, 'I can't afford the time, I can't afford the money to go away.' This \[retreat\] made it accessible to them," says the Rev. Thomas Haggerty, pastor of St. Raphael's, a large parish of more than 6,000 families.

 Held within a private bulletin board on the Web site of U.S. Catholic magazine,, St. Raphael's virtual retreat permits individuals to post messages at their convenience. There's a set theme for each week, but participants are free to speak to any spiritual moment that arises in their lives. The postings - as many as a few dozen, depending on the week - range widely in topic and tone: from lighthearted anecdotes of God's everyday grace to literate ponderings of religiously inspired poetry to candid avowals of experiences of suffering.

 But, there was a tightrope . . . and Jesus walked in front of me. As always, I had a choice. I could stay there and die . . . or clutch His hand and walk the rope . . . - Posting, Oct. 9, 1999, 8:59 p.m.

 Virtual retreats may seem a curious way to spirituality. Think of "retreat," and images of silent prayers within a tree-ringed glen - not at-home musings over the modem - come to mind. But retreats have taken diverse forms, said Sister Peggy Tully, program director for the Siena Spirituality Center in Water Mill: They range from directed retreats, focused on reflection in silence, to guided retreats, centered on preaching and sharing. "It's a way to step away from the ordinary routine," Tully said. The e-treat's organizers say their virtual community not only complements other retreat offerings, but also provides opportunities for spiritual growth to those who can't attend the parish's events because of work or family commitments.

 One of those who could never make the retreats was John Blakeney. Working long hours and having two kids at home, there would undoubtedly be a session that he would always have to miss, says Blakeney, 42, a tax accountant from East Meadow. But then he stumbled upon a Web page run by Creighton University, a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb. On the site ( was a virtual retreat, a 34-week program adapted from the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits. It offered hyperlinked readings, photos and postings on an open bulletin board.

 Blakeney brought the idea back to others at St. Raphael's. With space provided for free on the U.S. Catholic Web site, the parish set up its own electronic bulletin board in September.

 I can almost see you guys being lifted up by our God who loves beyond words.

 Please know your reflections and honest sharings do help those of us who are reading . . . It's funny, but your words are so alive, I can HEAR the words and SEE your smiles - Posting, Dec. 11, 1999, 3:46 a.m.

 At the beginning, retreat participants said, they had to overcome their wariness about linking to God through a 10BaseT cable. "The first thought is, the computer is so impersonal - it's just you and the screen," Blakeney says.

 And yet the members of the retreat found that there were benefits to the relay of words not attached to faces. Because they didn't have to speak their private thoughts in person, the sharing came easier, participants say. "I feel uncomfortable to express my thoughts in front of a group," says Chris DiGiovanni, 22, a Nassau Community College student who lives in East Meadow.

 One of the youngest participants, DiGiovanni says the retreat has "deepened" his faith and allowed him to feel comfortable among people of all ages.

 Rather than presenting any difficulties in creating a spiritual community, the online medium helped create a hunger for one, participants say. After only a few weeks, members of the virtual retreat were clamoring for a chance to meet in person and put faces to the cyberspace signatures. Some attended a special retreat mass in November, where many were surprised to find out they had seen each other in church numerous times before. "There are six masses every week, and a couple of hundred people attend every one," Blakeney says. "You see faces, but you don't get to know them." I see God's creation in the horizon at the sea from the bow of a boat. The boat is heading westerly into the sunset. The constant wind is whipping strands of my hair into my face and I can hear the waves slapping against the hull . . .

 The land on the starboard side gives me a feeling of comfort and security; I am not lost in the vastness of the ocean. - Posting, Oct. 13, 1999, 7:40 p.m.

 Like the ever-shifting landscape where it resides, the virtual retreat is fluid and open to possibilities.

 Parishioner Rose Merola, 73, says she was skeptical about the e-treat at first, admittedly not being computer savvy. Then the East Meadow resident checked the bulletin board as she visited her sick brother-in-law in New Hampshire. The outpouring of support and concern that awaited her online won her over. "I can tap into this virtual retreat when I'm ready. It's like God is waiting for me," Merola says.

 Louis Robert has jumped into the retreat while on vacation from cyberlinked terminals in Florida and Spain. The retired LIRR conductor praises the ability to review past postings, which he says allows him to benefit from the insights provided. A traditional retreat is more intense and condensed, says Robert, 65, of North Bellmore; an e-treat, on the other hand, must be woven into one's everyday living: "It becomes part of your life, more or less." And that is perhaps one of the experience's greatest virtues, according to its creators at Creighton University. They speak of using the virtual retreat to fill the "background moments." "It's about finding God . . . in the chaos of your everyday life," says Maureen McCann Waldron, associate director of the Collaborative Ministry Office of Creighton University. "You're not retreating away from something. You're becoming more a part of the world and just seeing it differently - seeing the world as God's work." The members of St. Raphael's retreat agree. The experience is filtering down into their daily routine and transforming them as individuals, they say. In the end, computers have little to do with any of it; what matters is the fellowship.

 Reviewing her experience in the e-treat last month, one woman wrote of her feelings of helplessness over recent events, with the death of her father and the intense re-evaluation of her family and career life.

 This has been a time of terrible loss, but after this week of retrospect I realize that I have also gained so much faith and that I have actually never been alone. He is inside, guiding and helping me to deal with this puzzle that we call life . . . But more than that, He has given me the gift of friendship and fellowship with all of you . . .

 What a gift! What an experience! I have been blessed.