By MegAnne Liebsch
In one of the darkest moments of her life, Christina Pinnavaria turned to prayer. “I laid down on the ground and was just looking up at the sky, and I said: God, if there’s one thing that you can tell me right now, just one thing, what would that be?” When the response came, she burst into laughter.
“The thought that came into my head,” Pinnavaria recalls, “was ‘Christina, do your taxes.’”
Tax advice was far from the answer she had expected, but she recognized its profound wisdom. As a young adult struggling with mental health and alcohol dependence, Pinnavaria felt overwhelmed by the monumental effort required to change her situation.
One Step at a Time
“I think the message to me was, you don’t need to get it all done in a day,” Pinnavaria says. “You don’t need to climb to the top of the hill. You just chip away at these little things, and things will start to flow more easily.”
The world seemed overwhelming, and trust was a luxury she felt she couldn’t afford, especially after growing up with a mother who struggled with mental illness. Everywhere she turned, she was met with stories of addiction, trauma, and pain similar to hers. But amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope began to shine.
This spark ignited a spiritual journey that helped Pinnavaria get sober. During this time, she was invited to attend a retreat run by Spiritual Transformation in Recovery (STIR), a spirituality program designed for people recovering from addiction and homelessness.
“I was much more of a shell of myself,” Pinnavaria says. Though she was sober and in counseling at the time, Pinnavaria still struggled to trust people, attributing her fear of connection to her challenging relationship with her mother. But in her journey, Pinnavaria met women who shared stories of addiction and trauma similar to hers. With their encouragement, Pinnavaria slowly opened up.
“Being part of a supportive community gave me the confidence to talk about God and my story,” says Pinnavaria. “That’s healing in and of itself—just to be able to speak freely and not have any fear.”
But in her journey, Pinnavaria met women who shared stories of addiction and trauma similar to hers. With their encouragement, Pinnavaria slowly opened up.
Addressing the Unseen Crisis
More than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness each year, according to a 2021 Stat Canada report. People under 40 account for a growing proportion of Canada’s unhoused, a fact researchers attribute to unaffordable housing, job instability, mental illness, and addiction. Intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, these rising needs have overwhelmed social service organizations struggling to meet the immediate needs of people on the streets. Mental health and spiritual accompaniment services, therefore, slip between the cracks.
“In our society, we don’t even want the homeless on our streets, in our parks,” says STIR Toronto coordinator Sr. Maureen Baldwin. “So, the questions become: Where do they go and how do they reclaim their lives? How do they get back on track?”
STIR endeavors to close this gap in recovery services, providing not only a space for healing and reflection but also a space where people feel important.
Shared Stories, Shared Healing
“The ministry is about the recovery of the person,” says Sr. Baldwin. “It’s not just the recovery from addiction. It’s recovery of the person back into community, back into an active and viable life.”
Retreats are central to recovery as they foster a space of deep encounter and accompaniment. STIR retreats run with the assistance of volunteers, including professionally trained ministers, along with vowed religious and former STIR alumni, but Sr. Baldwin stresses that on a retreat there should be no experts, and there are no observers. All volunteers are expected to participate in reflections, too.
“There’s not one person who hasn’t experienced trauma,” Sr. Baldwin explains. “So, all our stories come together regardless of what our story is. It’s the stirring together of the common story of suffering, of recovery, of coming back to life, of regaining ourselves in many different ways and forms. It’s a stirring of life.”
“A lot of what my mental health issues stemmed from was bottling up everything inside and feeling like I don’t have a voice,” says Pinnavaria. “I had an opportunity to have a voice and be able to stand strong.”
Pinnavaria also found deep comradery in women. Though initially wary of forming close relationships with women due to her challenged relationship with her mother, now Pinnavaria cherishes the friendships she’s made at women’s STIR retreats. “[It’s] filled that gap for me,” she says. “These women, they’re not my mom, but they act as mother figures for me and give me guidance.”
Women-focused spaces are vital for healing, Pinnavaria adds, especially as many have suffered sexual or domestic violence in addition to addiction.
Retreatants often tell Sr. Baldwin that, due to the stigma attached to addiction and domestic violence, they’ve never shared their stories. It becomes essential to offer an opportunity for communal storytelling, in which people not only tell their stories but listen to those of others, forging profound connections in the process. “It’s a very powerful thing to witness,” says Sr. Baldwin. “It frees their spirits.”
After several years participating in STIR retreats, Pinnavaria has just completed her volunteer facilitator training. Now, she plans to use her voice and her story to support others in their healing process.
“If I share a little bit of vulnerability, then I find that it just kind of trickles down,” she says. During training, she was surprised by how retreatants responded when she shared her story. In the days after retreats, she would receive emails thanking her for sharing.
“We all have this idea that we need to have some big story for it to impact people, and it really moved me to see that sharing my experiences could bring people closer to their spirituality,” Pinnavaria says. “It’s helped me get closer to my own spirituality because it means that I’m enough and that my story is enough.”
The central programs of Spiritual Transformation in Recovery (STIR) include monthly reflection circles and three-day retreats. Blending 12-step programming with Ignatian spiritual reflection, STIR provides people with spiritual tools to heal past trauma, nourish their interior life, and reshape their future. The project is an affiliate of the U.S.-based Ignatian Spirituality Project and co-sponsored by the Jesuits of Canada, the Congregation of Notre Dame, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), the Redemptorists of Canada, and the Sisters of Social Service of Canada.