Yes: An Online Retreat Can Be Holy Ground

Yes: An Online Retreat Can Be Holy Ground

While the idea of a congregation hosting a retreat for women or a women’s group is not new and while the concept of being online for meetings, planning sessions and education is not new, perhaps the idea of a women’s retreat online is!  On Saturday, March 28th, 16 women from the Spring Glen Church in Hamden, CT,  gathered for retreat online and by all evidence, there they found sacred space.

If we consider the meaning and value of retreat, we’d surely not consider that a virtual gathering of this type, with its potential technological challenges and barriers, as retreat. Our perception may be that it isn’t possible to find sacred space virtually. We may believe that retreat is a physical space where participants are able to find solitude, far from their everyday lives and from their screens.  And that is true. Virtual spaces have their application, but sacred space? Is it possible?  That was the question Associate Minister, the Rev. Clare Robert posed to Rev. Donna Manocchio, retreat facilitator and to me.  With the Incarnation Center closing to the public, and our mandate to (social) physical distancing, was this an option?

Consider this from Wikipedia: The Christian retreat can be defined most simply as a definite time (from a few hours in length to a month) spent away from one's normal life for the purpose of reconnecting, usually in prayer, with God. Although the practice of leaving one's everyday life to connect on a deeper level with God, be that in the desert (as with the Desert Fathers), or in a monastery, is as old as Christianity itself, the practice of spending a specific time away with God is a more modern phenomenon…

While this was not an opportunity to join their sisters in faith at a retreat center or a quiet gathering place such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers knew, this was retreat.  Let’s look at the first sentence in the definition again. ...Most simply a definite time spent away from one’s normal life for the purpose of reconnecting, usually in prayer with God.

This is a story of finding holy ground in a virtual retreat space. I can affirm that this type of engagement can be valuable in an online setting despite our hesitancy or pre-conceived notions to the contrary. Is it the same? No; I would not attempt to convince you it is or it can be.

My role was technical host and I was prepared not to find a place for myself. I easily could have. While my participation was behind the scenes, the sacred nature of the space being created was apparent and appealing. These women share history and a care for one another.  That relational grounding translated beautifully.  They were present to and for one another online.  It was evident in the way they opened themselves. Donna had created a framework and in sacred moments in this space prepared, as these women began sharing their lives and their fears in this time, the winds of the Spirit blew.  

She affirmed them for making time. She reminded them of the many ways they are meant as God’s people, as sisters in faith, to be together. They practiced deep listening in response to the question of one woman in the gathering, which momentarily, changed their course. As any gifted facilitator would, Donna responded. She shifted focus and created a pathway.

Throughout the retreat (3 hours instead of three days) they took time to consider new ways of praying, they held their prayers together in the safety of the space created, they named their fears, they sang and prayed.  And laughter. There was a lot of that too!  They experienced retreat. These words of testimony excerpted from a flurry of e-mails among and between the group following their retreat are a testimony to its power.

“I have been to many retreats, but Saturday was the first time I did a retreat online. It was a lovely experience.” – Marilyn T.

“I awoke this morning being reminded of our time together yesterday and the quelling of my spirit you all afforded me for those few hours together…” – Carolyn C.

"Just looking at all your faces together at the same time was so healing!” – Margaret M.

“Today I have been filled with gratitude to Donna, Clare and Karen for giving us the Women's Retreat yesterday.  It blessed me in so many ways especially the opportunity to connect with all of you, to share openly our feelings, and to do the painting prayer.  Thank you and blessings” – Anne B.

One by one, they reached out to their sisters and their leaders to affirm their experience of the sacred.  They shared resources with one another and affirmed each one. Indeed, they had their retreat!

Want to know more?  We have resources to assist you.  Contact Karen Ziel, Minister of Faith Formation and Leadership at for resources and or to connect with others creating sacred spaces online.


Karen E. Ziel

Karen Ziel supports Christian Educators and faith formation leaders with consultation, training, resources and programs. She has guided the development of the Leadership Studio at United Church Center, a communications and workshop facility for ...

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