Spiritual Connections with Nature

The Werklund School’s Janet Groen explores how spiritual retreats can ignite environmental citizenship

Often located in picturesque settings, spiritual retreat centres are found across Canada. These sites offer visitors a chance to be still and to reconnect with themselves, their faith, and the world around them – to slow down, to pay attention, and to take time that they might not otherwise be able to in their day-to-day lives.

In more recent years, several centres have expanded on the connection between spirituality and the environment. As part of the growing eco-spirituality movement, learning opportunities to help people see themselves deeply intertwined with nature have become more common in some centres – whether encouraging people to explore their existing bonds with nature, or to discover it for the first time.

Dr. Janet Groen began investigating the role and potential of these retreat sites in teaching people about the environment in a SSHRC-funded project. Dr. Groen was particularly interested in the potential of religiously- and spiritually-based retreats as a motivator for personal and societal change towards environmental citizenship. Working with 6 sites across Canada, Dr. Groen spent part of her time engaging in the activities – self-directed and/or led – of the various retreat centres, as well as interviewing staff and other guests.


Many of these centres approached environmentalism from a place of moral imperative and sacred awe, a position of caring for each other and the planet. By incorporating learning activities and dialogue that emphasized our connection to nature, the sites sought to change the hearts and minds of participants about our relationship with the earth.

While the experience of each visitor to the centres was unique, there were some notable similarities. Some guests had profound connections to nature in their childhood that were re-awakened during these retreats, while others were able to confirm a growing interest in nature. For some, these retreats could prompt a sudden realization about their love of nature – recognizing that they had not been paying attention to the natural world, and seeing their interconnectedness with it as a result of the retreat’s programming.

Many retreatants had attended spiritual retreats previously, but not necessarily with an environmental focus. Some participated for their own well-being or personal growth – using the retreats as an opportunity to focus and find peace away from the distractions of their day-to-day lives. One participant had been attending spiritual retreats for many years, but had chosen to visit a new site with a specific environmental focus. The explicit and direct teaching about nature and the environment helped her to find her connection, and change her thinking about the environment.

Going green

For these retreat sites, religion and/or spirituality helped inform their participants’ understanding and need for environmental citizenship. By having specific and direct teaching and guidance about the natural world, the sites could inspire a profound change in how retreatants relate to the natural world.

While attending such a retreat is not a guarantee for promoting environmentalism, it did strengthen the resolve of some, and started others down a path towards environmental citizenship. Participants noted changing their habits and their level of awareness once they left the retreat – looking to reduce their environmental impact, or make a positive difference through joining initiatives. It is therefore important for site leaders need to discern when and how to best connect visitors to nature.

*This project was funded by the Social Studies and Humanities Council of Canada (SSHRC)*

Connected Citations

Groen, J. (2017). The St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat and Training Centre:  Cultivating ecological awareness and connection with the earth.  New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 153, Spring, 31-39. Available Online.

Groen, J. & Lapierre, C. (2017). Spiritual connections with nature: The potential to ignite environmental citizenship. Proceedings of the 36th National Conference of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education. Toronto, ON.

Groen, J. (2016).  Rediscover, reawaken, renew: The potential role of spiritual retreat centres in environmental adult education. The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 28(1), 34-47. Available Online.

Groen, J. & Cohen, M. (2016). No distractions! The possibility of transformative learning when we engage nature in dialogue. Proceedings of The European Society for Research into the Education of Adults – Interrogating Transformative Processes in Learning and Education. Athens, Greece.