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Christians are in the midst of Lent; a season of sacrifice, fasting, repentance, prayer and meditation on the sufferings of Christ. Right now, there is a spike in the number of people attending retreats. During a retreat, one gets away from the hustle 'n' bustle of everyday life for approximately three days or more to connect with God. It is a withdrawal from ordinary activities for a period of time to commune with God in prayer and reflection.


Reaching out to many: Fr. Errol Fernandes SJ, the brain behind the online retreat. Pics/Suresh KK

Time
In today’s fast paced life, with frenetic work schedules many find it extremely difficult to take the time off for retreats. Fr Errol Fernandes, a Jesuit priest and the Parish priest of St. Peter’s Church, Bandra (W) has introduced a relatively new concept of an Internet retreat, so that people can get onto the super highway to God. With the Internet retreat people do not need to go away to another destination as in the case with a traditional retreat. Here, one can connect with God at home or during office lunch break or even while commuting.


Prayer amidst work: Sharon Fernandes at St Peter’s Church, Bandra

Experience
Areka D’Souza (41) an accountant from Mahim working at St Pauls Institute of Communication Education said, “I have attended many retreats at Tabor (in Kalyan) and at the Divine Retreat Centre at Potta (in Kerala) but I have never attended an online one. Since I work in a religious institute, I get time off to attend retreats at retreat centres but I am keen to try out an online one for the experience. Work and prayer are a part of daily life and need not be separated. This is a good option that working people have. It’s better than not going for a retreat at all because of other obligations.”


Striking a balance: Areka D’Souza at St. Theresa’s Church in Bandra. Pic/Suresh KK

Skype
On registering for the Internet retreat, Fr. Errol daily emails the participants three formats of material for prayer; a YouTube link where they can see and hear him, an audio file and a Word document. Besides the daily inputs that the participants receive, Fr. Errol is also available on email and Skype for any additional guidance. While those who have attended retreats at a retreat centre may miss the personal presence and connection with the retreat guide, there is still an interaction.


From fear to faith: Lareina Fernandes. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Idea
Fr. Errol says his idea of starting online retreats, “is in keeping with the core idea of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the patron saint of the Jesuits. St. Ignatius, through what he called the ‘19th annotation retreat or the retreat in daily life’ intended that individuals who had full time jobs and who could not take time off work could also make contact with God in the midst of their activities with guidance from a priest. I had two reasons for taking up this initiative to start Internet retreats; the first is my priority in spirituality to reach out to lay persons. I also try to look for ways to reach out to those who cannot meet me and one way I thought of was through the internet. What began with a simple email correspondence has now grown to YouTube, audio and personal direction through Skype.”  


Enriched: Ligia and Jaime Da Fonseca. Pic/Avril-Ann Braganza

The garrulous Fr. added, “My second reason was to show people that they could find God in the midst of activity and in the midst of daily life. In a book (The Spiritual Exercises), which St. Ignatius wrote in the 16th century, he speaks about the possibility of finding God everywhere, which was also spoken of by Jesus Christ before him. So there is no need to seek God only in spiritual places. This idea of finding God in all things and all things in God is typically ‘Ignatian’ (stems from St. Ignatius)”.

Spiritual
While the main idea when going for a retreat is to withdraw and be away from the stress of daily life, the experience is just as enriching. “Withdrawal is not necessarily physical. As a matter of fact, it is more spiritual than physical. One can be in the market place and yet experience quietness. Silence is not so much the absence of sound as the absence of self and the ego. The withdrawal in a retreat is into the inner self which can be achieved even in the midst of activity,” said Fr. Errol. With an Internet retreat, people have the option of going back to the YouTube and audio clips to listen to them time and again and the Word document that is provided allows the participant to go over it at his own pace.

Connection
“I would definitely like to try an Internet retreat as it is a great way to incorporate prayer into daily life,” said Sharon Fernandes (24) a part time lecturer from Bandra. Lareina Fernandes (25) a teacher from Naigaon said, “As a young person, I have managed to go to retreat centres as mostly the youth retreats happen during vacations or on weekends. But now that I have started working it has become difficult to get leave at a time when the retreats are held. I have not been able to attend a retreat as often as I would like. Now I can continue to deepen my connection with God through online retreats.”

Season
At present there is only one retreat that Fr. Errol conducts around this time of the year in keeping with the season of Lent and Easter. The main themes of the retreat as Fr Errol says, are connected with life and include the human condition — sin, repentance, suffering and pain and how to rise above them. They are connected with dying and rising to new life like Jesus did. The retreat is not restricted to any age group nor only to Roman Catholics but is open to all and people of other faiths are welcome.

Couple
Santacruz couple Ligia and Jaime Da Fonseca who have been attending and conducting retreats for couples have known retreats to be an opening up to new possibilities in dealing with challenges that married couples face. They said, “At a retreat centre, the sessions are conducted in a disciplined manner and you have to comply with the rules which stress on withdrawal from daily life and the experience you get is truly enriching. An Internet retreat is a great way to use a new medium to build your connection with God. It will be deep and meaningful if the person gives his all and can establish that connection with God. The fact that one registers for an Internet retreat means that the person is searching and wants to establish that bond with God and it is up to that person to create a prayerful environment for himself.”

Inclusive
Fr. Errol signs off or when talking about Internet, perhaps it would be more apt to say, clicks off, “While I look at St. Peter’s parish, Bandra as the parish where I am physically located, I look at the whole world as my real parish. This is why my parish includes not only Catholics and Christians but also people of all faiths and all orientations. Anyone is welcome to make the retreat and can profit from it. God makes no distinction and neither must we.”

Signing Up
There are two ways to register for the online retreat. Those who are in Mumbai must fill up an application form at St. Peter’s Church. Those outside Mumbai/India, email Fr. Errol Fernandes at errolsj@hotmail.com for details and registration.

What is a Retreat?
During a retreat, Christians get away from everyday life for a few days (Can vary between one, three and six days) to connect with oneself and with God. It is a withdrawal from ordinary activities to get in touch with the core of one’s being and connecting with the Creator. There are retreats of different types and themes and for different age groups; for students just finishing school, youth, married couples, single people, widows or widowers. There are also different levels beginning with initiation retreats for beginners to growth retreats, which are deeper and more advanced. At the initiation level, the sessions deal with simple topics like God’s love for mankind, the depth of His love and His plan.  

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