All Things New: Online Retreats Too
By Christine Hall
IT WAS A HOLY EXPERIMENT. In May we asked, ‘How might a full, five-day retreat happen ONLINE for the Way of the Spirit program I direct?’ It’s thrilling and deeply gratifying to report that the May retreat conveyed and enfolded us with the same Life and Power as being “in person.” The medium came alive and did God’s work.
For eight years under the umbrella of Good News Associates, I’ve offered dozens of four to five-day, face-to-face retreats. Small groups of Way of the Spirit participants journeyed through 18-months of learning and growth in faithfulness through the wisdom of Quaker spirituality. For me, that’s meant 30 days per year of up close, transformative soul work with two different cohorts. Global pandemic, and necessary closure of residential retreat centers, hasn’t changed my sense of calling.
Somehow, stepping faithfully into the months at home has not felt isolated at all. I’m thankful that my family and I have continued in good health. With gratitude and much energy, I’ve been fully engaged, and following the Spirit’s leadings big and small. I’ve been surprised how busy things have been. In March, I gave up my home office so my 82-year old mother could quarantine for months with us. My computer and books shifted to a cozy travel trailer in the driveway, then to our guest house when our AirBnB closed too. I’ve been well sheltered and had everything I’ve needed, including capable internet, from my rural haven north of Seattle.
Friends and I marveled at how well I’ve been prepared for “a time such as this.” I’d been using Zoom video conferencing since fall of 2018 for monthly meetings with Way of the Spirit participants and inquirers. It was a stretch at the time, at the insistence of a forward-looking program alumni. Last summer, I co-hosted an online Way of the Spirit book group to experiment a bit more. Through summer and fall 2019, I felt compelled to reorganize Way of the Spirit for distance participation. For 2020, the program had already shifted to eight online sessions, complemented by two residential retreats. Who knew where it all might lead? Not me, but I trust the Eternal Mystery that transcends time was weaving it all forward for Good.
This spring, others began calling on me to set up online worship and facilitate shorter online retreats for Alaskans (pictured) and East Coast Quakers. I even wrote up and shared a guide to facilitating online small group spiritual reflection. Creating a contemplative atmosphere and fostering authentic sharing and mutual encouragement… those are the tricky pieces that I care about most in the online puzzle.
Three residential Way of the Spirit retreats have been cancelled so far in 2020. Participants were deeply disappointed. I told them, “Yet our connections with each other in the Spirit are vibrant; our mutual accompaniment is profoundly Life-giving. Prepare to see how the endless creativity of the Divine will work among us this time!” We can still gather; we can still sense each other’s presence. Something mysterious and Good still flows between us. Quaker spirituality encourages us to have confidence in the Spirit of God in relationships and community. The “magic” doesn’t come from any particular place, or passively watching someone else do or say something “holy”. It’s within us and active between us. In pandemic lockdown, we are leaning into the less tangible, less visible possibilities of togetherness.
For that late May Way of the Spirit retreat, my best prayerful intentions, and many sweet Divine nudges, aimed us toward the growing edge of possibilities. With guest presenters, Marge Abbott (OR) and Cathy Walling (AK), we explored Living Leadings or Spirit-led Ministry. We shared 10 online sessions, two-hours each. Between sessions, participants had time for integration and rest. Like residential retreats, there were presentations, prayer exercises, pairs and small group sharing times, worship, music, laughter, and tears. The Holy Spirit flowed in our tenderness toward each other, in high-octane prophetic prayers, in genuine stories of faithfulness, and in Grace-filled openings into who we are each meant to be with God. All were affirmed, blessed, and sent forth with joy. It was extraordinary.
What was different about the May retreat online through the eyes of this minister? The “outside world” was thoroughly woven into our experience. Without a physical retreat house “bubble,” we were simultaneously present to both the Root of the Holy, and demonstrations gathering after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. As we learned how the Hebrew prophets lamented in ancient times, we lamented and prayed our hearts’ cries for justice for African-Americans, police violence, climate change, and Native American concerns.
So far, online retreats have required extremely high energy output on my part. As a leader, I’ve upped my game with pacing, variety of activities, and speaking more concisely. Plus, I’m managing the tech on my own—breakout rooms, chat feature, audio, and shared slides or music. Mostly I can do all that, for which I’m grateful. We’ve needed to ask for grace and patience with our devices, connectivity, and fumbles with the new aspects of gathering. I’m also managing the physicality of sitting, staring at a screen, and missing many non-verbal cues (aka “Zoom fatigue”). We’ve lost the casual interchanges over a snack table, or shared meals. So, it’s much harder to gauge the condition of the group in response to retreat material. Reactions often inform how to offer the next bit of content. It’s a lot to juggle.
My head has been in the day to day, not looking too far ahead, but the implications of pandemic, with related economic and social upheaval, for Way of the Spirit are really massive. So much about the future is uncertain. Three summer in-person events where I was scheduled to facilitate or speak have been cancelled so far. Those retreats and conferences normally offer visibility and invite potential participants into Way of the Spirit for the next year. Some of them included monetary contributions to my monthly wage draw. Additional donations will be needed to continue my efforts. I do expect to facilitate two (shorter) online retreats and an interest group during June and July. What rings True to my soul is that listening to God in the small daily promptings puts me where and how I’m meant to serve in the unknowable future, a few months from now, or next year.
One surprise this spring is that I’ve taken up knitting. It’s has become a small metaphor—a tangible, hands-on representation—and a kind of peaceful prayer. I’m literally weaving/knitting what could be a long tangle of nothing into a useful and beautiful something. That’s my sense of what God can do with today’s chaos and suffering. One of my favorite and most dependable experiences of Eternal Mystery is the relentless weaving something Good through the worst of it all, like Paul wrote in Romans 8:28. I seek to join that with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.