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Abstract painting with vibrant colors, shapes, and patterns titled

Abstract painting with vibrant colors, shapes, and patterns titled "Renewal".

New Wine, New Wineskins: Renewing the JST Renewal Program

by Carrie Rehak, Ph.D., Director

Imagine you are running a marathon and, down to your last reserves, you glimpse through the tears from your sweat, a somewhat nebulous but sure sight of the finish line. This vision propels you. In near exhaustion, you reach deep inside yourself to access a source of energy you did not know existed. Then, as you approach that last stretch, running on mere fumes, the finish line vanishes: a global pandemic has wiped out your plans for a long-awaited and much-deserved sabbatical.

Or, perhaps, you were not running but strolling the reliable route you had walked for years. And, one day, in the corner of your eye, you see something like a gate. You open it to a place you have never before explored. Stepping onto an unfamiliar path, your eyes open, as if for the first time, to a world that amazes you and to a new way of being.

In response to Covid-19, JST’s Renewal Program quickly reshaped its traditional, tried-and-true program into an online, self-paced, dynamic, and interactive multimedia offering: high-touch without touch. Since it was new territory, we were uncertain of how smoothly it would go. At the start, we admitted to participants that, as a pilot program, it may at times “be clunky,” and asked, in advance, for anticipated patience (we were told at the end of last semester that it was “not clunky at all”). Although we assumed that the pilot would be imperfect, we were at the same time convinced that, even during a devastating pandemic, we had a wonderful gift to offer and that it would meet needs. As it turns out, in so many ways, it exceeded our expectations. Or, more accurately, God showered us with surprise after surprise. It would be no exaggeration to describe what took place as a peek into Paradise.

This fall semester, the program served ten participants (four priests, four sisters, and two lay people), from seven countries and four continents, with time zones spanning sixteen hours. Some were depleted. Others in transition. Others simply seeking something new, something deeper, something more. In our journey together, we found that “social distancing” was a misnomer. Our sharing was deep, vulnerable, open, close, and deeply supportive. We prayed together, wept, laughed, sang, learned about each other and ourselves. In so doing, we also discovered that “virtual” is an inaccurate name for what can happen digitally: nothing could have been more personal, more authentic, more holistic, more embodied, or more real than what we experienced together.

In participants’ own words:

"It is definitely the richest spiritual experience that I've had in my life, both in terms of growth and connections and my relationship with God and my perceptions of my future vocation and ministry….The sabbatical Renewal Program itself, the classes, and the spiritual direction, and you have put together a transformative spiritual experience. I can't recommend it highly enough."

“I feel as though I have been involved with JST for ages now...even though it’s been just over a week! It is very special and I am trying to eke out every bit of it!! It has been a very rich 10 days, and already I feel that life is different. I have just been along to ‘Meet the Tutors.’ It was lovely - great dialogue and so nice to be part of the whole.”

“I must say - the quality of the participants and the program is such that - thus far - even on my computer screen - it’s been a great experience!!! SCU, JST and GTU are a huge gift to so many!!!!”

“I am happy to share with you that today I got time to reflect on your reflection on breath, gratitude and love. I feel God is calling me to be aware of my emotions both positive and negative ones. This isolation [this participant spent the first two weeks in quarantine] is becoming a blessing! With the reading on the baptism of Jesus I am asking to be open to His healing touch as his beloved daughter. Ignatian Yoga with Bobby Karle is another source of grace.”

The Renewal Program is a "high-quality and enriching programme, which is tailored skilfully to meet individual needs. A wide range of highly experienced staff, spiritual directors, and invited presenters lead and support the programme. I cannot speak highly enough of my experience over the Fall semester. At a time of great global challenge, the Renewal Programme refreshed, enabled, motivated, and challenged appropriately. It also facilitated connection and friendship between people from a range of continents who ‘walked’ together, prayed together, and supported one another. An excellent experience all in!"

Based on the fruits of this pilot, we are considering offering this online option, alongside our traditional model, after we can gather again in person. We have found that an online Renewal Program not only responds to unexpected limitations imposed by the pandemic, but is especially fitting for those who are seeking theological updating and spiritual renewal but who cannot attend JST in person, whether because of a lack of financial resources, inability to find a replacement, different abilities, health challenges, or commitments that do not make a semester or two of in-person renewal possible. In brief, such an experience has been and will continue to be a radical sabbatical: new wine in fresh wineskins.

Learn more about our Renewal program here.

Image: Where Two or Three Are Gathered in Virtual Reality, by Galen Cortes, Renewal Program, SP ’20