By Eric Clayton
Saint Ignatius invites us to find God’s Holy Spirit at work in all things. COVID-19 has challenged us to do exactly that. Rather than at church, we find God in our homes, on our screens, and amidst our families.
But have you ever thought to encounter God as you walk the streets of your city?
“Cities are big and busy,” says Stephen Noon, SJ, a Jesuit in formation from the United Kingdom who studies theology at Regis College in Toronto. “We can think that there are places where God is not present, but of course, God is present in all places and in all things and meets us where we are.”
This simple truth – God will meet us where we are – is at the heart of urban pilgrimages, more commonly known as retreats on the streets.
“It is an experience of finding God in your day-to-day life,” reflects Consuelo Vasquez, who has both led and participated in retreats on the streets of Montreal, Quebec. “God is on the streets where you usually walk, but you don’t often take the time to see or experience God there.”
The idea began in Berlin, Germany in the mid-1990s. Father Christian Herwartz, SJ, was living in the Jesuit community when a guest arrived, looking to make a retreat. There was little space for silence or solitude in the Jesuits’ small flat. How could his guest manage a retreat under such constraints?
That guest surprised the Jesuits – he went into the streets of Berlin and had a profound experience. Father Herwartz realized that his community could provide retreats – just not in the way most people expected.
Thus, the retreats-on-the-streets initiative was born, changing lives all around the world – including in Canadian cities.
The retreat itself is simple. Retreatants are given a specific Scripture verse to ponder throughout their day.
In Toronto, for example, retreatants have reflected on Matthew 10: 5–15. Jesus sends forth his disciples with no money, sack, or walking stick. This passage invites retreatants to ask important questions of themselves.
“What do I have that protects me? My wallet? My mobile phone?” Noon asks. “Before you leave, you work out what it is that is burdening you, and you make the conscious choice to leave it behind. You enter the street without a safety net, without barriers between you and the world. In that mindset, you are open to finding God’s presence.”
In Montreal, a Scripture passage from Exodus Chapter 3 has been central: Moses encounters God in the burning bush.
For Élizabeth Lecavalier, a chaplain who works with students through Pouvoir de Changer (P2C Étudiants) in Montreal, this passage never gets old.
“I had just moved to Montreal because I wanted to live closer to campus,” she remembers. “That day, I was thinking, ‘I’ll go to campus. This is a meaningful place for me.’” The campus is on a big hill in the middle of Montreal, and there’s a huge tower that’s visible from miles away.
“And so, when I went and stood in front of that tower, I read the same text again. And this time, I imagined myself on that mountain with Moses in front of the burning bush. And I said to God, ‘You called me here to Montreal. Here I am. What now? What is the next step? I’m not quite sure.’ During that retreat, I was able to bring my heart to God.”
“I realized through this experience that I had a lot of fear,” reflects Father Gabriel Côté, SJ, director of Jesuit novices in Montréal, Québec. “I was tempted to stop in churches to meet God. This was very comfortable for me. But I was challenged to go in another direction, towards the poor. For me, it started just by hearing the cry of the poor that Moses heard.”
Allowing the Spirit to guide your retreat through the city is key. There is no predetermined route.
“Which places in the city attract me?” Noon asks. “Some people might go to the railway station where there’s lots of movement and lots of opportunity for encounter.”
“The attitude that’s required is to set aside any anxiety, to shake off any burdens and just come as you are,” says Ashley Tran, a third-year master of divinity student at Regis College in Toronto. “Nothing is expected; there’s no right or wrong. Be like a cup of water just poured out. Wait to be refilled, open to anything.”
At the day’s conclusion, retreatants are invited to share their experiences.
“I am always surprised to see how God is so personal, how God touches everyone in his or her uniqueness, in his or her needs,” Vasquez reflects.
Retreats on the streets reach a variety of people.
“I’ve wanted to adapt our spiritual program for people who are not churchgoers but who are spiritual seekers,” says Father Côté. “This experience opens the door for retreatants, and they’re fascinated by it, they want to do more.’”
“People have lost the language of God,” says Noon. “They are not comfortable with traditional religious spaces. But there’s something really accessible, particularly for young people, in this idea that you can encounter God in your own reality. A street retreat has fewer barriers, and people are comfortable with it. We can bring God to people in a way that they can understand and can engage with.”