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Why lockdown is like an Ignatian retreat

BRENDAN McMANUS SJ :: A time of lockdown is often experienced as an involuntary ‘retreat’. That means you spend a lot of time with yourself.

Some insights from spiritual retreats about the dynamics you can expect are helpful here.

Initially there is a honeymoon period, possibly with some euphoria about having a lot of time, reduced commitments, and time to unwind.

Then comes the disillusionment: with so much time and being isolated with others, you have to face yourself. In some ways our normal life of activity, busyness and distractions allows us to coast along on the surface and avoid any deeper issues. In isolation there is no choice but to be with yourself, and this can often be tough, as a lot of unpleasant feelings, memories and issues surface.

At this point you have a choice. Many react against the process and strive to distract and entertain themselves. That’s one strategy. Another is to find a way through, to befriend oneself and be reconciled. This can sound odd: surely we know ourselves and have nothing to learn here?

The crunch is that you need some sense of the divine – of the transcendent or of God – to be able to make this crucial transition. All spiritual paths speak of this experience of dark night, ‘purgatory’ (purifying), the Cross or passion. Essentially a sense of being carried or held by compassionate love is needed in order to understand our identity (as creatures), our need of healing, and a path towards reintegration.

The story of the prodigal son or daughter is helpful here as it maps out the return journey home. We come empty-handed to our loving parent, and we are amazed at the warmth of the embrace. It is liberating to realise how much we are loved, where our true home is (in God) and how love can heal and restore.

Some blocks that people often hit at this stage are: persistent traumatic memories, negative thoughts, a negative image of God, strong emotions that threaten to overwhelm, and a lack of self esteem. Again, it is understandable that these would arise in this lockdown context. They can, however, be dealt with well, though this might require the help of a spiritual director, counsellor, or other professional.

If we approach our ‘involuntary retreat’ in this way we can come to love ourselves, heal memories and wounds, accept all our broken parts, and be at peace with the past. Often a meditation on acceptance and healing is needed to explicitly acknowledge our relationship to the divine and our desperate need for love. It is liberating.