Peter Callander is a professional counselor and therapist from Australia. He helped run Tasmania’s first Rachel’s Vineyard retreat in 2005 and was also the therapist at Singapore’s inaugural retreat in March 2010. He has been involved in the work here ever since.
Callander has had extensive training in various forms of therapy and has worked in the field for over 20 years as a consultant, university lecturer and public speaker.
Besides the work he does for Rachel’s Vineyard in Australia and Singapore, he consults for a number of clinics, hospitals and organizations around Australia and has his own private practice in Hobart and Sydney.
When Anne Sherston, the national coordinator of Rachel’s Vineyard in Australia, first went through the outline and essence of the retreats with me, I was immediately taken by the potential for enormous healing that these retreats could provide.
Having been a group therapist for many years I was aware of the power of group healing. I could see the sound psychological expertise that had gone into the design and format of the retreats and how the use of rituals and scriptures and role-play fitted together so well in the potential for a meaningful healing experience for participants.
The retreats are both similar and different to the other work I do. We do a lot of group therapy at retreats whereas I tend to do much more one-to-one counseling elsewhere. Also, a lot of my work is done in one or two-hour sessions in the middle of a person’s busy life.
On the Catholic Ministry Rachel’s Vineyard retreats, the religious aspect and essence of the retreat is very obvious and a very important part of the retreat and healing experience. I believe the presence of a priest – one who is willing to show his humanity – the use of carefully chosen scriptures and the bringing to life of these scriptures through rituals and meditation, as well as prayer, all contribute enormously to the healing potential of the retreats, even for those who don’t identify themselves as Catholics or Christians.
Also, something I don’t always do in the course of my other work that we do at retreats when appropriate is the use of experiential therapy. This involves inviting participants to re-experience themselves in their story or a particularly significant part or moment in their story.
The use of experiential therapy on retreats in the form of a role-play can often provide participants with a deep shift in perspective and this can give them an ability to reframe their experience, release emotions never before released, have a voice they never had, or bring further closure to an event or events which have been deeply troubling to them.
Whilst on retreat, my main role as I see it is to observe and ensure the wellbeing of all participants and the team members over the course of the weekend. The work done on retreats is often very emotional and sometimes de-stabilizing for a short period, so supporting people through the weekend and making sure they are OK to return home at the end of the weekend and have adequate follow-up care is very important.
I help to piece together the events in their lives that may have contributed to the events that have followed on their journey and help them put those pieces together and have a heightened awareness or deeper understanding of how and why certain things may have occurred as a result of earlier events.
This can help them to possibly start to have more compassion for themselves and to start or take another step on the road to self forgiveness, or letting go of deep pain and hurt or resentment toward others or whatever else it is that is troubling them which led them to Rachel’s Vineyard in the first place. In many ways one of the primary aims is to bring about reconciliation with themselves, others if appropriate, and with their God if this bond has also been broken.
Everything is contextual and for each participant, their experience will or may be quite unique or different from someone else’s. For many however, the experience is one of moving from isolation back to communion, from shame and/or guilt back to self-acceptance and feeling the love of God again.
It is a movement from darkness back to the light, from mistrust of others to the realization that they are still just as lovable and worthy as the day they were born. It is a movement from self-loathing, whether conscious or unconscious, to self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.
Many participants may have a profound shift in these areas over the course of a retreat while others may have a subtler shift along the path of healing. Others may gain more awareness of what the next step toward wholeness is again. Many will also gain a lot of psychological insight into why their lives have gone the way they have and why they have made the choices they have. This can give a real sense of hope and change.
What is most challenging or difficult on a retreat is when I bear witness to the most terrible stories of suffering, stories where the pain and self-punishment has just gotten worse and worse over the years. Reconciling that suffering with the unique beauty and innate innocence of the person I am with and sitting in their dark and lonely pain with them is the most challenging thing.
The most amazing and personally rewarding experience on retreat is watching participants arrive, often very anxious and bound in shame, guilt and isolation, and watching each participant start to open up over the course of a retreat. They start to smile; they cry, laugh, dance, sing and hug each other and they gradually allow themselves to embrace each other’s love and open themselves up to the love of God and let themselves feel the joy of healing. Nothing matches that. It cannot be explained or taken credit for. I am always awestruck and just full of gratitude for the amazing courage of the human spirit. I just feel humbled and honored to be part of something so special.
When grief is no longer forbidden