Spirituality Online:
Following Ignatius into the Global Town Square

By Andy Alexander, S.J. & Maureen McCann Waldron

June, 2001

Five hundred years ago, Ignatius of Loyola was a rebel, willing to try unconventional means to “save souls.” For him, that meant leaving the traditional venue of the local church and preaching God’s word as he waded among crowds of people gathered in town squares. The people were amazed, and grateful. News spread quickly of Ignatius’ compassion and willingness to share the good news directly with people in their real, everyday lives.

Over the centuries, Jesuits have followed this tradition of breaking new ground to bring the message of the gospel and to “save souls.” Early Jesuit missionaries adapted their clothing and manners to the
local culture to gain acceptance for their message. For a 30-year period in the last century, Rev. Daniel Lord, S.J. preached his down-to-earth spirituality by distributing dozens of pamphlets on family life, children, and marriage directly to the people in parish churches.

Today, that pioneering spirit continues as Jesuits and their colleagues embrace technology as the next step in sharing Ignatian spirituality and “saving souls.” With the advent of the Internet, the message of the gospels and the Spiritual Exercises have found their way onto computers in every corner of the world.

Discovering the Power of the Internet

As partners in the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, we began our Online Ministries in 1998, initially just as an offering for our own university employees. We never dreamed of the global power of the Internet, or the hunger people from around the world would have for the Word of God.

Today, our Website offers:

  • Daily Scripture reflections;
  • A 34-week “Online Retreat in Everyday Life,” based on the movements of the Spiritual Exercises;
  • A special Social Justice resources site
  • Seasonal offerings for All Souls’, Advent, Lent, and Easter.
Since 1998, we have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have found our site. These people have become, for us, a global community. Together, we relish sharing the daily word and entering deeply into the desire for spiritual freedom with Christ.

The reach of this new medium and the unexpected response we have received have led us to reflect upon the power of the Internet, what this new technology means in the context of globalization, and the impact of our dominant culture on other ways of life.

How It All Began

The Collaborative Ministry Office supports Creighton University’s Catholic, Jesuit mission and identity, and serves the spiritual needs of the faculty and staff on campus. We began this ministry in a simple way in 1998, when we were organizing our annual Lenten retreat for Creighton faculty and staff. Rather than mailing out our usual list of Lenten scripture readings for spiritual directors to use during the retreat, we thought it would be easier to post them on the Web, making them available across our well-wired campus.

The next step was naively simple: We invited Jesuit and lay colleagues to offer personal reflections on each of the day’s Scripture readings during Lent. That way, even those employees who were unable to take part in the retreat would be able to read the reflections. As the six weeks of Lent progressed, news of our “Daily Reflection” Website spread across campus — and beyond. As Lent drew to a close, Internet users from across the country sent e-mails asking us not to end this service.

We were, and are, astonished by the response. Today, our Daily Reflection site is visited over 1,000 times a day. Each of the faculty and staff who write the reflections speak of being overwhelmed by e-mail messages from around the world, expressing gratitude for their faith sharing.

As we realized the power of the World Wide Web, our imagination was captured by a dramatic question: Since the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are at the heart of our Jesuit-Ignatian tradition, could we offer some experience of the Exercises online?

Ignatius himself adapted the Exercises to make them available to a variety of people: Those who were free to immerse themselves in the experience; those whose lives were very busy; and an even simpler version for those who were unprepared or unable to make the full Exercises. We began to wonder: Could an online adaptation of the Exercises touch the hearts of even more people today?

A Spirituality of Freedom for Service

The full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are individually directed over 30 days of separation from the world. This experience is at the heart of the Ignatian spiritual heritage that inspires the mission of all Jesuit-sponsored ministries. However, the Exercises are rarely given in their full form today. Most Jesuits who entered the Society before the early 1970s made a preached 30-day retreat, not an individually directed one. In fact, the concept of making the full Exercises is relatively recent, having been revived only within the last 35 years.

With Ignatius’ own encouragement, people have been offering the Exercises for individuals and groups in an amazing variety of adaptations. Whether in the form of 9-month “Retreats in Everyday Life,” directed 8-day retreats, or preached weekend retreats, the adaptations of Ignatius’ Exercises have several elements in common:

1) They all offer people experiences of prayer.
2) They all have growth in spiritual freedom as their goal.
3) They all follow a certain dynamic: 

An experience of God’s unconditional love, which leads to deep gratitude, and a growing desire for partnership with Jesus in His mission from God.

At the heart of the Exercises is Ignatius’ method of inviting people to explore and name their desires and to spend time in reflection (also called affective exercise). This in turn leads to an experience of “gifted intimacy” with God.

As we embarked upon our online version Exercises, we imagined that St. Ignatius would delight in our new annotation: “For those highly engaged in a busy life, hungry for growth in their relationship with God, eager to find God in the midst of the details of their daily lives — adapt the movements of these Exercises to be available to them, at their fingertips, 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world.”

Adapting the Movements of the Exercises to an Online Experience

As we set out to translate the Exercises into a 34-week, online retreat, we had several clear objectives in mind. We wanted the retreat to be a resource for people with little or no previous retreat experience. We wanted the language to be simple, without jargon or technical terms, and accessible to most people’s lived experience — i.e., prayer, the dynamics of desire, and intimacy with God all are explained in the common language of relationship.

We also tried to offer enough guidance to give people the confidence to make each week’s exercises and thereby discover the unique graces being offered to them. Finally, we wanted to take advantage of the hypertext nature of the Web, by providing links to various resources, in several directions. Our goal was to create a site that is easily navigable and helpful in a wide variety of ways. At the same time, we have kept the site simple, without needless graphics or other features that might make it less usable for people with slower connections.

We designed the entire retreat as an exercise in “finding intimacy with God in all things,” that is, in the midst of everyday life. Rather than offering a 45- minute prayer period each day, we shaped the weekly guides and additional resources to help retreatants be more reflective throughout the day. Each morning, retreatants pause to reflect upon and name the desire for that day. Throughout the day, they use the “background” moments of their busy day to reflect upon the material for that week, in relation to what is currently going on. Each day ends with a moment of reflective gratitude for graces received.

Promoting a Faith that Does Justice:
From a Global Perspective, to My Own Heart

As we began to design the retreat, we spent several hours each week praying over and discussing the Exercises themselves, as well as Ignatius’ wonderful guidance for the person who is adapting and giving the retreat. Ignatius had a profound sense of the relationship between the big picture and the human heart, as it relates to all of creation. It followed this vision:

God has a creative design for us as individuals, as well as for the whole world.

What keeps us from living out that design is a lack of harmony with it, a genuine rebellion or disorder. Personal conversion happens when we realize that the disorder of the world exists in me. In that place of personal shame, Ignatius reminds us that we are nonetheless loved sinners. This experience of gratitude opens the heart to God’s invitation, to be with the One who loves us so unconditionally. Ignatius understood that grateful people are generous people. Ignatius saw the mission of Jesus in a global perspective: Christ is called by God to liberate the whole world from the mess it is in. The grateful sinner is invited to a “gifted intimacy” with Jesus in His mission for others. The central movements of the Exercises draw the retreatant into deeper spiritual freedom, with growing desires to be with Jesus and like Jesus, on mission.

The journey reveals two ways of desiring: The desire to have more and more, which leads to arrogance and pride, and the desire to be with Jesus in having less, which leads to the humble courage of self-giving love. One grace after another leads to a life-transforming religious experience. This is the grace of spiritual freedom — a solidarity with Jesus’ own compassionate solidarity with others. The Spiritual Exercises are a profound resource for fostering a relationship with Jesus that engenders a passionate commitment to social justice.

The Online Retreat Format

The Online Retreat is organized around a homepage which links to 34 weekly guides. There are also several introductory pages: how to use this Website to make an Online Retreat; helps for making this retreat on one’s own; and guidelines for making this retreat with a group.

Each of the 34 weekly guides offers the material for that week’s reflection, accompanied by a compelling image by renowned photographer Rev. Don Doll, S.J., professor of Fine Arts at Creighton University and holder of the Charles and Mary Heider Jesuit Chair. To the right of the guide, there are links to supportive materials for that week:

  • A larger image of Fr. Doll’s photograph of the week, accompanied by a Scripture passage for prayer. Those making the retreat are encouraged to set the weekly photo as the wallpaper on their computer desktop to serve as a reminder of the graces of that week.
  • A “Getting Started” page, with supplementary material which provides more detail on the prayer for the week.
  • “Guidepost” reflections, written by Rev. Larry Gillick, S.J., director of Creighton University’s Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality. Although Fr. Gillick simply calls these “helps for the journey,” they actually allow the retreatant to enter more deeply into the prayer for that week.
  • “In These or Similar Words,” a weekly sharing of one person’s experience of affective prayer over the 34 weeks. These words exemplify speaking to the Lord as Ignatius recommended, “in these or similar words.”
  • Supportive links to readings, Scripture passages, and written prayers from a variety of sources.
  • An invitation to share the graces people are experiencing, and a page on which that Sharing is posted.
An Interactive Spiritual Growth

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Web is its interactive nature. The Sharing we have received from people all over the world has been truly inspiring. It provides a sense of how people are experiencing the retreat, and what powerful graces they are receiving. We provide a Feedback form during the last weeks of the retreat, asking people about how they used the retreat and what impact it had on them. The feedback we have received gives powerful testimony to the depth of this experience. People tell us that they have formed their own groups to make the retreat. Several parishes have organized the retreat for the whole parish. A number of people have adapted the retreat as a formation tool for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) process in their parish.

In the year 2000, we formed “e-sharing groups” of five or six people from around the world. A number of the groups had people from several different continents. We soon realized that we had formed small faith communities, made up of people who may never have gone to a retreat center or spiritual director.

Beyond the Retreat Experience

When we came to the end of the first year of the retreat, we knew from the feedback forms that the retreatants wanted to continue with some spiritual support. The week after the retreat ended that first year, we added our Preparing for Sunday site. Each week, Fr. Gillick writes a reflection on the upcoming Sunday’s readings and how we might “live” them in the week leading up to Sunday.

We also have added special seasonal sites. In November, for All Souls’, we offer an “Online Book of the Dead.” This has created a place for hundreds of people to submit the names of their loved ones. We pray for everyone listed on the Website. We also offer online services during Advent and Lent, with special prayers, meditations, and liturgical background pieces for the holy days.

A site that began in November, 1999 as a way for the Creighton University community to remember the 10th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs in El Salvador has become a site linked to by a number of social justice-related Websites around the world. The site received 3,500 “hits” in just 12 months. During that same campus remembrance of the Salvadoran martyrs, Rev. Dean Brackley, S.J., from the University of Central America in San Salvador, came to visit Creighton. He spoke to 200 members of the campus community about the Christian University and Solidarity. We asked if we could add the text of his talk to our 10th anniversary Website. He later e-mailed it to us from El Salvador. In the year 2000, Fr. Brackley’s speech had nearly 600 “hits,” and it continues to be visited regularly.

A Prayer in Your Palm

At the request of a number of people, we also have made our Daily Reflections available for hand-held computer devices. After installing the proper software, all one has to do is to sync their Palm Pilot, or other PDA, with their Internet-connected computer — and two weeks of Daily Reflections, and the daily readings that accompany them, are automatically downloaded. We hear from people all over the world who are reading these reflections from their hand-held devices on trains, standing in line, or during a quiet time at work.

In this and other ways, those of us involved in online ministries are providing support for Christians who may be feeling isolated and are seeking connections with other believers. An isolated rancher in western Nebraska wrote that the nearest town is 60 miles away, but by logging onto his computer he feels a community of support for his faith and his prayer life.

In Kuwait, a woman wrote about how important this Website is to her, since she lives in a country with very few Christians. She also asked for advice in finding a retreat center in her native India. Another woman in Haiti e-mailed us that the electricity powering her computer is irregular, but whenever she has it she logs onto our Daily Reflections for perspective, consolation, and support.

One of the most moving stories came from a woman we’ll call Martha, who wrote about her sister-in-law’s struggle with the final stages of cancer. Each week, Martha printed out the Online Retreat in Daily Life and mailed them to her sister- in-law. She then followed up with a phone call a few days later. Together, the two women shared their prayers and retreat experiences. By the time the two reached the Third Week of the Exercises, their conversations had become the only place her sister-in-law felt comfortable sharing her struggles and fears of her upcoming death. She died in Week 34 — the last week of the Online Retreat.

The Global Reach of Spirituality

From 2000 to 2001, the opening page of our Online Retreat was visited more than 81,400 times. There were over 6,600 visits to this page in May of 2001, during which time the Weekly Guide pages were opened over 8,300 times. While this does not tell us exactly how many people are visiting these sites (since one person might visit the same pages several times), it is an indication that many people are spending time moving through these online exercises.

The Internet has developed so rapidly, few of us have had time to fully reflect upon this powerful phenomenon — which has made our world suddenly so much smaller and more intimately connected. We are only now beginning to explore the Web’s potential for education, communication, and advocacy. Almost overnight, e-commerce is driving a nearly unbelievable rate of expansion. Predictions indicate that another one billion users will join the Internet in the next few years.

Yet despite (or because of) this rapid expansion, we must face the social implications of the gap between those for whom technology is an increasing source of entertainment, education, commerce, dialogue, and spirituality, and those who have no opportunity for Internet access. It will take much time and sophisticated analysis to adequately evaluate the blessings and curses of this tremendous transformation of our world.

We have learned how to use the Web for reflecting on the Word of God and sharing the rich spirituality of Ignatius. In doing so, we feel humbled by what we have discovered, and consoled that what we are offering is important. A cursory reading of entries in our Online Guestbook will confirm how grateful people are.

Following Ignatius into the Global Town Square

Today, Creighton University’s Online Ministries Website is one of a growing number of such sites, which are responding to a tremendous hunger for spirituality around the world. For people who have access to the Internet, it is a free service we can offer in the spirit of Ignatius. Five hundred years later, we find ourselves like Ignatius, standing in the town square of a new global community, as servants of Christ’s own mission.

NOTE: For more information about online spiritual retreats, see:
Rev. Andy Alexander, S.J. is Vice President of University Ministry and Director
of the Collaborative Ministry Office (CMO) at Creighton University, where
Maureen McCann Waldron serves as Associate Director. The Collaborative
Ministry Office promotes the Catholic, Jesuit mission and identity of Creighton
University and offers faith support to its faculty, staff, and administrators.