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Virtual Spiritual?: Young Adults Respond to the Pandemic with Livestreamed Spiritual Exercises


By Inga Pierson 

Perhaps it is easy to forget that the Socratic maxim “know thyself” is also a Christian imperative. According to Richard Hauser, S.J., “at the heart of an understanding of Christian spirituality is an adequate understanding of the self. Spirituality is our effort with grace to become what we have been created by the Lord to be; we must grasp who we truly are in order to know what we are to become.”  

How, you might ask, do we get to know ourselves? And if grace and God’s plan are at the heart of the matter, how can we gain intimacy with God in the midst of the busyness of modern life? Moreover, how do we approach spirituality when churches are closed, fellowship gatherings are cancelled, confession is limited, and Adoration is nearly impossible? Klarissa Chichioco found answers to these fundamental questions in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola when she organized a special weekend retreat for young adults in the Diocese of San José from May 15 – 17, 2020.  

Klarissa, Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Queen of Apostles Parish in San José, is a young adult herself as well as a wife and new mother who “was attracted to the mystery and the beauty” of Ignatius’s approach to discernment. She imagined the conference as “a program of life,” and she appealed to Father Simon Devereux, of the Legionaries of Christ Community at Our Lady of Santa Clara Retreat Center in Cupertino, to help her facilitate.  

Since the Shelter at Home order closed churches and banned spiritual gatherings in March, Klarissa and Father Simon moved their retreat online over the course of 48 hours, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.  Participants ranged from 22-35 years of age.  

The results were nothing short of miraculous. Conferences, from 20 to 60 minutes in length, were held at intervals via livestream. In the opening talk, Father Simon suggested  Vincent van Gogh’s 1890 painting, Undergrowth with Two Figures, an image of a couple walking in the woods, as a leitmotif for the weekend. In this way, retreatants visualized the spiritual journey as a conversation with God in an intimate setting.  

In an interview last week, Klarissa shared her gratitude for the visual contemplative experience. In her words, “as in painting, every meditation was adding another layer or color” to her spiritual awareness until, as a culminating experience, she saw God’s heart as “bright white-lit heart…full of texture and movement.” She insisted that “there are so many facets of God’s inner life that he wants to reveal to us!”  In between conferences, participants prayed the rosary, did household chores, took walks, painted, and played music. Klarissa wrote poetry for the first time in her life.  

Perhaps even more miraculous was Adoration via livestream. Klarissa was kneeling in the middle of her bedroom in front of the computer, her daughter’s toys scattered about. “A stranger looking on might have thought that I was part of some cult, idolizing my computer,” she laughed.  But on her screen was the unmistakable presence of the monstrance, and with no one watching her, she felt that she could just be herself and really lean into the communion with Jesus.

When asked what she thought of the virtual experience, versus an onsite retreat, Klarissa reflected that she thought it actually facilitated the opportunity in her case. With a family to care for, as well as a full time job, getting away is difficult.  

Likewise, other participants discovered the radical re-orienting power of the Spiritual Exercises—in spite of, or thanks to, the virtual experience. While our secular culture encourages us to ask what we ought to do for ourselves or how we’re going to change and disrupt the world, Saint Ignatius asks us to consider what we ought to do for Christ. This kind of reorientation of one’s life, toward God, is a liberating experience. For Klarissa, it meant finding herself in motherhood rather than losing herself in it as she had feared.  

Another attendee said that the retreat inspired a change in her attitude toward a demanding job. Instead of waking up dreading the day and lamenting her responsibilities, she now awakens feeling confident and grateful for her talents and gifts. Participants also reported that God was calling them to be a better friend or to be less selfish with their time; all seemed to feel that the intimate conversation with Jesus had left them feeling more peaceful, more joyful, and more hopeful about the future.   

A grant for pastoral formation from The Catholic Community Foundation of Santa Clara provided the funding, and Fathers Athanasius Kikoba,  Jeff Fernandez, and Ritche S. Bueza assisted with spiritual direction. 

The Legionaries of Christ at Our Lady of Santa Clara Retreat Center host retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises throughout the year. See www.olscretreat.org for more information.  


Inga Pierson writes about culture and teaches English at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, CA.