This is our fourth year to come up with an online retreat. Because of the work it entails, each year I swear to myself that it’s going to be the last. But every year each time I read the deeply personal and profound sharing posted by our online retreatants, I always end up changing my mind.
Actually, I always give a retreat or at the very least a talk every Lent anyway, but putting the content online requires reshaping the content to fit the online genre. Things are just done differently online, compared to a straightforward talk.
It’s actually hard enough to concoct a concept even if it’s just for the usual talks. Each year before Lent, I rack my brain to find a fresher take on the topic. We already all know the “ending” anyway, so if we’re not careful, our default tends to be something trite and cliched. I, for one, would get bored, not to mention my audience. The story of our salvation is so rich and you can never exhaust its meaning, but it’s always a temptation to use the cliche’d formulas and make the usual tired pronouncements about what happened and what it means. The challenge is look for new ways of looking at these eternal truths.
Our first online Lenten retreat was back in 2008. Every year a number of priests and religious conduct the three-day retreat during the Easter Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Black Saturday). A lot of people head for the beaches, but many also stay home to pray over the mysteries of Holy Week, so there’s a lot of demand for retreats this time of the year.
But then we thought, a lot of Filipinos are working in countries where these retreats are not offered, so the idea came up: Why not use the Internet? At the time I was religiously posting bible reflections every Sunday on my Multiply site (this was during the days before Facebook). The bible blogs were being followed by a virtual community, who would post their questions or insights after every blog. So we thought an online recollection might just work. Anyway, I had to prepare to work on putting a retreat together anyway.
So Fr. Francis Alvarez, the administrator of the Philippine Jesuit webpage, and I put our heads together, and came up with that first three-day online retreat called “Meeting Places.” The idea was that God meets us in a special way during Lent in the garden (Gethsemane), the hill (Calvary), and the tomb.
We were quite overwhelmed by the response we got. The website crashed on the first day. Once we managed to fix that, we got thousands of hits, many of them, the stats showed, actually going through all three days. Some of the sharing and prayers posted by the online retreatants really touched me.
Since then we’ve been coming up with these twice-a-year online recollections: once for Advent and another for Lent.
This year, just to be different and maybe a little bit more provocative, I thought I’d call our retreat “Fugitives of Lent,” and for a change, not just talk about Jesus and all the usual good guys, but the so-called “bad guys” — namely, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and Simon Peter. It’s perfect too because these three characters would be suitable for each day of the Triduum: Judas for Holy Thursday, Pilate for Good Friday, and finally, Peter for Black Saturday in anticipation of Easter.
For the pre-retreat preparation, we came up with a Rogues’ Gallery, a police line-up of sorts featuring the most notorious comic book villains, such as Frankenstein, the Penguin, Dracula, and Lex Luthor. The readers were asked to choose their “most evil villain.” But the idea we wanted to communicate was: “Even with villains, there is nothing black and white. Only grays.”
I was told that for this retreat we got over 10,000 hits, and about 2,000 finished all three days. That’s about the same number we got last year for “God in the Dungeons.” The online Lenten retreats are really more popular than the ones for Advent. Maybe people look for these things more during Holy Week compared to the weeks before Christmas.
What’s different this year is we decided to use Facebook a little bit more. We wanted to figure out how social networking sites like that can be used to make our online retreats more effective and reach more people. We didn’t know how it’ll turn out, but experiments like this are fun and we always learn something new, especially from our mistakes.
Aside from providing the links to the online retreat pages, the Fugitives of Lent page held a poll like: “Do you think Judas Iscariot is in hell?” It also gave us a way to communicate with the online retreatants in terms of reminding them about certain features of the retreat and responding to some of the technical issues that they encountered. For example, on Good Friday this year, some people complained that they couldn’t get past the opening prayer. We finally figured out that it was a browser-related issue: Once you switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox or Chrome, the problem was resolved.
This year we were also featured in a news article. Paterno Esmaquel, an Ateneo graduate working for GMA news, messaged me requesting for an email interview, which I happily granted. The article helped publicize the online retreat. Some of those who shared about their experience mentioned that they had learned about the retreat through the article.
Virtual retreats can never replace a real-world retreat, but they can reinforce the insights and add to the values learned from the usual type of retreats. Having said that, however, I’d like to add that what makes online retreats different isn’t so much the technicalities of it–like knowing how to blog or create flash animation and posting all that on the Internet. The genre of online retreats (and in fact, online learning) is different and is most effective when the experience involves multiple media to make the experience more holistic. Images speak to us, at times more powerfully than words. Going online allows us to use a whole repertoire of devices to achieve this and to go beyond simply using words. I think we came up with some great videos using the most popular and secular songs of the year. For example, we used Boyce Avenue’s acoustic versions of Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade.” In “Grenade,” for example, we edited in clips from “Jesus of Nazareth” to add a new layer of meaning to what could have been just another love song (although a great one). The result is some kind of religious mash-up, I guess.
The design of the online retreat is best when it’s interactive–i.e., participants don’t just read the text, or watch a video clip, but they get to reflect and actively do something. For example, we’ve had virtual Visita Iglesias and Stations of the Cross in past recollections. For this year’s “Fugitives of Lent” retreat we designed several “prayer exercises” to recap each day.
I just came back from an Apple Distinguished Educator Institute, and educators all over the world are using technology to reinvent how they teach because students have changed and learning has morphed beyond the lecture approach. Students no longer want to learn just by being told. They learn best when they are guided in seeking knowledge for themselves and figuring things out on their own. Why not the same for the faith? I think it’s the same with people who want to find God. Telling them about God remains valuable and still works, but giving them the actual opportunity to look for Him in their own lives and and in the world, to my mind, can be so much more effective and powerful.
Faith has always been a process of search, a personal journey that no priest or retreat master can do for us. It’s just that before people might have been happy simply to be told what to look for and how to do that, and then they just do the seeking on their own–that is, they get around to it. In other words, the process used to be largely one-way: from the preacher to the preached.
It’s different today. Today it has to be two-way: The best the preacher can do, more than anything else, is to provoke the desire in the person to look for God himself or herself. Many people these days don’t like just being told what and how anymore; they prefer being able to go through their process actively. And all the technology available to us today enables us to do that, to make this very personal and spiritual process even more personal and spiritual.
The great Fr. Jim Reuter used to say about television and film: “To spread the Good News, the first Christians didn’t hesitate to use the roads built by Rome.” What he meant was that we shouldn’t hesitate to use “secular” media like TV and film to bring people to God. Today’s Roman roads are the Internet Highway–but it’s a two-way street.
I was really happy about the results of this year’s online retreat, especially when I learned that some went through it with members of their family. A participant, a mother of two teenagers, reported that she and her two sons sat huddled over a laptop and took turns reading the text out loud and doing the prescribed activities. This was something totally unexpected because I always had the impression that the online retreat would be a solitary activity. Another participant thanked us for helping bring his family closer together, as illustrated by the stronger bonding he felt as they hugged each other during the kiss of peace at the Easter Vigil celebration.
My favorite video this year has got to be the one put together by Karol Yee using Bruno Mars’ surprisingly religious song, “Move On.” The video recaps the entire retreat and sets the tone for Easter.
Some retreatants mentioned that they’ve been doing our online retreat since we started four years ago. That’s amazing. What started out as a “What if?” and “Maybe this is a new frontier we can explore” has grown to some kind of minor tradition for some people. I suspect we’ll end up offering another one next year, but the big dream remains: That we don’t just “preach to the choir,” to those already converted, but that people who don’t believe in God or those who have fallen away from the Church will stumble upon our site and in spite of themselves begin thinking about God again and – who knows? – maybe find their way back to Him.