CONCORDIA, Kansas — The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions for a spiritual crisis, but a traditional retreat at a house run by women religious isn’t necessarily COVID-19 friendly.
Though the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas, have long offered one-on-one spiritual direction — with the sisters and staff of Manna House of Prayer also offering directed retreats on a variety of topics — the threat of COVID-19 has made most in-person meetings impossible or impractical.
The sisters at Manna House quickly assessed the situation and began offering both spiritual direction and many of their retreats virtually.
Virtual spiritual direction is not new to Manna House.
Several of the spiritual directors had previously used video calls or messaging platforms to reach out across long distances to offer their services.
They used that experience — and the addition of other technology tools like Zoom — to increase their reach in 2020 as the pandemic swept across the country.
“In these times of COVID-19 and all of the uncertainty and suffering it has caused, the heartbreak of losing loved ones, jobs, markets, businesses and the future that we’d dreamed of or banked on, it is sometimes helpful to have a ‘spiritual companion’ or ‘soul friend’ to visit with about the deepest concerns and questions that haunt us,” said Sister Marcia Allen, a spiritual director at Manna House.
“The sisters who staff Manna House have experience and training in journeying with others in difficult times,” Allen said. “If you are wondering where God is in all of this chaos and (experienced a) loss of meaning, you might welcome a companion or friend for deeper conversations from time to time.”
Sister Janet Lander, a spiritual director at Manna House, said she had been using technology to companion with people who seek out spiritual retreats — she refers to as directees — for years, particularly those who live in other countries.
However, with the rise in COVID-19 infections, the use of technology has become even more important.
“In this day and age, even before COVID, it was important to be able to connect with people who couldn’t take time off from work to travel to Concordia,” Lander said. “Thanks to advances in technology, we’re able to connect — not just by voice — but visually. This is so important because it allows you to read your directee’s body language and connect.”
“It is amazing how talking with one of the sisters and getting their ideas can help,” said Agrégée Denise Schmitz, a staff member at Manna House and a member of the Western Kansas Women committee. “A phone call, Zoom, Facetime — all of it can work, whatever makes you feel most comfortable. What a blessing that we can offer this to people especially during this year of COVID.”
In addition to virtual spiritual direction, Manna House has found success taking many of their retreats online. The retreat center is offering a full calendar of retreats for 2021 ranging from book studies, music therapy, dealing with memory loss, Lenten week studies to day retreats.
“The day retreats on Zoom are a wonderful opportunity for people to schedule a day to add some self-care time to boost your spiritual life,” Schmitz said. “You can meet new folks via Zoom and come out with ways to help keep positive in day-to-day living in this time of COVID, flu or yucky weather. Self-care and your spirituality are important. The benefits help you and those with whom you live and work.”
Response from those who have participated in the online retreats has been positive, said Sister Betty Suther, director of Manna House.
“Comments I heard from participants in the online retreat included: “Almost as good as being there,’ ‘A bright spot in my day,’ ‘I was able to concentrate better on what was being said,’ and ‘So glad there’s another way to continue my spiritual direction … thank you for being available,'” Suther said.
To view the schedule of upcoming retreats, visit mannahouse.org and click on the retreats and workshops link. Upcoming retreats can also be found on the Manna House of Prayer Facebook page at facebook.com/MannaHouseOfPrayer.
Doud is a contributing writer for The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina.