online retreat merges tradition, technology
By Nancy Hartnagel
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Creighton University’s online retreat adapts the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in a “merger of a very old tradition and a very new technology,” said one of its creators.
Maureen McCann Waldron, associate director of the Collaborative Ministry Office at the Jesuit-run university in Omaha, Neb., said the retreat – now in its third year of cyberlife – is for busy people in their everyday lives.
“It is designed for people who don’t have access to a spiritual director, who want to make the exercises, want to do something to draw closer to God, but they don’t have two hours a day to spend in prayer,” Waldron said.
So Waldron and Father Andy Alexander (WIS), vice president for university ministry and director of the Collaborative Ministry Office, tried to create a convenient 34-week retreat. They spoke with Catholic News Service by phone Oct. 6.
“It’s available 24 hours a day,” said Waldron. “It’s on your computer, so you can get it from the office, you can get if from home.” The Web address is www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/online.html
According to Fr. Alexander, St. Ignatius of Loyola, “had a sense that physical exercise was good for the body, and so he said, ‘If I’m out of shape spiritually, spiritual exercises are appropriate to help me.’”
The purpose of the exercises is spiritual freedom, he said, “so that the choices I make might be free.”
Fr. Alexander said he and Waldron got the idea for the retreat after Lenten readings and reflections they had posted online drew a thousand hits a day from all over the world. This coincided with increasing interest on campus in the Ignatian tradition and how to do the spiritual exercises, he said.
Working week by week, the twosome basically designed 34 different sites, Waldron said. The “put together a way of going through the exercises that was self-guided, user-friendly and had recourses (people) needed,” said Father Alexander. “We stayed three weeks ahead of the people making it.”
The site for each week has guideposts written by Father Larry Gillick (WIS) and includes photographs by Father Don Doll (WIS).
There also are helps for making the retreat individually or with a group, possible prayers and readings, and links to scripture readings. Also, as a meditation tool and constant reminder, retreatants can download the photos for their computer wallpaper.
But the retreat’s designers said one of its most powerful features is online sharing.
Fr. Alexander was touched by an e-mail Haitian woman. “I want you to know,” the priest recounted her message, “that I’m sitting here, full of anxiety for my country, for my children, for my parents, and I realize I’ve lost all perspective. You’ve helped me in this journey to realize the reason we were created and to put my faith back into perspective.”
There are many such stories, they said.
Waldron said the one that means the most to her involved two sisters-in-law, one terminally ill with cancer, who were making the retreat together.
After her sister-in-law died in the 33-rd week, the other woman sent an e-mail. “When (the retreat) got into the place about the passion and death of Jesus,” Waldron recalled, “she said it was the only place her sister-in-law had to talk about her own upcoming death.”
“The woman said, ‘I just want to tell you how much this meant to both of us,’” Waldron added.
Fr. Alexander said Creighton’s online retreat is the only one he knows of “that adapts the exercises to this format.”
But, he noted with excitement, their adaptation has been adapted further: an Australian RCIA director is using the retreat for his RCIA program and parishes in Cincinnati and on Long Island are making the retreat en masse.
And in the recent weeks, following requests from far-flung retreatants, the team set up seven virtual groups to “e-share.”
Fr. Alexander said it is difficult to tell how many of the thousands who have visited retreat sites have completed all 34 weeks. “It’s our guess that there’s probably 50 to 75 people in each of those weeks almost all the time,” he said calling it “just phenomenal.”
With so much commercialism and so many bad things on the Internet, he said, “that we took something 400 years old and put it online and people are eating it up is a very exciting thing, and says to me that we may have only begun to discover ways in which this technology can serve the faith and promote justice.”
Said Fr. Alexander: “Ignatius wrote the spiritual exercises….as a lay person for lay people, and what better means to help people grow in a very powerful spirituality – which is very apostolic, which is not being a contemplative in action – and what a better place to do that than at a Jesuit Catholic university.”