For some years, Laura MacNewman had been deepening her faith life by reading the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian abbot. His sermons and theological reflections give readers an insight into the monastic life and his spirituality through a variety of topics.
Ms. MacNewman, an Episcopalian who lives in Michigan, enjoyed reading and reflecting on the sermons, but then felt the need to go further. “I thought it would be good to let go of them for a while and live it out,” she recalls.
Her spiritual advisor suggested a program offered by the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD), an Anglican religious order that has its convent in Toronto. The Companions program gives women an opportunity to live at the convent for 11 months, living and working alongside the Sisters to develop a rhythm of life that includes private and public prayer and service to others.
Ms. MacNewman was interested in the program, but with two children at home and the COVID-19 pandemic raging, going to Canada wasn’t possible.
Fortunately, there was another option. The Companions program was being offered online.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the program suspended its in-person component and started an online version, continuing to provide a spiritual lifeline to women anywhere in the world. (The SSJD hopes to start up the in-person component again this year.)
“We wanted to provide an online space for women to come and join together,” explains Shannon Frank-Epp, the program’s coordinator. “With the online program, the idea is to help women live a Benedictine balance within everyday life – their work life, family life, school life, whatever life looks like for them.”
The online program is 11 months long and requires a minimum commitment of 10 hours a week. Participants need their own computer and a good Internet connection.
The program involves community gatherings, private and communal prayer time and course reading. On Sunday evenings, the companions are invited to join the Sisters’ livestreamed service of Evening Prayer. Once a week, the companions are paired up to pray at a deeper level for needs in their lives and in the world. They also gather with a mentor to talk about self-knowledge, different prayers, the history of the monastic life and how to take the rule of Benedict into the modern world.
There are currently seven women in the online program, from Canada, the United States and Panama. They come from different denominations and walks of life.
For Elizabeth Chan of Toronto, the program was a chance to deepen her spiritual life. “Last year I retired, and I thought, `Okay, now there’s no excuse not to read the Bible.’ I wanted to deepen my walk with God and deepen my faith.”
A member of the evangelical Alliance Church in Toronto, she had visited St. John’s Convent before for spiritual retreats and had enjoyed the experience. One day she saw a notice for the Companions program in the SSJD’s newsletter and decided to apply.
“I thought it might be a great opportunity to learn more and be in the community, where we can encourage each other and walk alongside each other and seek God more,” she says.
Although she would have preferred to attend the program in-person, she is happy to have done it online, and has found that her prayer life has deepened as a result.
“When we pray the psalms, we go through the different seasons and different experiences in life,” she says. “The words really help me and enrich my prayer life.”
She recommends the program to others. “Give yourself a chance to put down everything and make seeking God the main thing in your life.”
Ms. MacNewman is also glad she took the program. “It’s been wonderful to learn from the Sisters but also from the other participants in the group. It’s a big time commitment, which is often difficult to manage with the kids, but I am enjoying it. I’ve learned new things but also the same things in a different way – coming back to something and finding something new in it.”
The Companions program – both in-person and online – will be offered this year, starting in September. The cost is $100 per month for the in-person component and $50 per month for the online version. Financial assistance is available. The application deadline is May 15. To apply, visit the SSJD website, www.ssjd.ca.