VILLA MARIA, Pa. – Sister Ardath Blake has spent years helping others discover how God is working in their lives. The experience spurs her on to keep improving the programs she facilitates.
Sister Ardath, who holds several titles in the Humility of Mary congregation, is a retreat facilitator at Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center (VMESC) here.
Between every annual retreat she leads, Sister Ardath said she gains an additional 365 days of experience. This helps her to identify new points of emphasis and personalize programs to meet each audience’s needs.
“I’m much more comfortable now at leading,” said Sister Ardath, whose office overlooks the wooded grounds of the Villa Maria Community Center, home to her religious community.
Sister Ardath will be the facilitator during the annual Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) Retreat Day on April 8 at VMESC. The five-hour program is open to catechumens, candidates, sponsors and RCIA team members. It will feature presentations, music, personal reflection, sharing between candidates and their sponsors, and a closing prayer service.
The annual retreat has drawn from 20 to 70 persons from the dioceses of Youngstown, Pittsburgh and Erie. It “helps people to broaden their experience of Church” by bringing together a larger community on the same faith journey, Sister Ardath said.
The RCIA retreat was born out of necessity, Sister Ardath explained. During her first year on staff at Villa Maria, an RCIA director who was pressed for time asked her if VMESC could coordinate a retreat program for the people in her parish’s RCIA program. Sister Ardath agreed, relying on her background as a parish pastoral minister. While she has refined the program over time, the theme of “We Are Companions on the Journey” has remained constant, she said.
RCIA candidates discover that their conversion to Catholicism has taken place over many years, Sister Ardath said. During the retreat, they are encouraged to remember the people and events – both joyful and sorrowful – that shaped their journeys.The “unexpected bumps and turns along the way … were a different kind of gift than the joyous events,” she said.
Retreat participants also will reflect on the meaning of the Easter Vigil, at which candidates will be received into the Church. The discussion will take them beyond their need to practice for the ritual.
“Sometimes we get too hung up on how we do something instead of why we do something,” Sister Ardath said.
In addition to the RCIA retreat, VMESC offers Lent, eco-spirituality and caregiver-themed retreats on one-day and partial-week schedules. An annual directed retreat, featuring a variety of presenters, lasts for up to one week. Personal and corporate retreats also can be scheduled at Villa Maria.
“Reflection” and “sharing” are frequently-used words in the descriptions of VMESC retreats. The idea of discussing one’s innermost thoughts with another person can be uncomfortable for some participants.
“You are going to get vulnerable if you are going to be honest,” Sister Ardath said. “To tend to just one thing, and to allow God to embrace them, can be hard.”
One way to transition to retreat mode is to attend a program in VMESC’s ongoing series, she said. Options include guided labyrinth walks; Taize prayer, a Christian interdenominational form of prayer that incorporates music, Scripture and silence; and a series called Coffee and Contemplation, a two-hour program consisting of a presentation, personal prayer and group interaction.
Beyond facilitating retreats, Sister Ardath is a spiritual director. She meets one-to-one with persons who want to prayerfully reflect on God’s presence in all aspects of their lives. The spiritual director’s role is not to tell people how to live but to guide and encourage them to deepen their relationship with God.
Sister Ardath also coordinates a three-year formation program for individuals who feel called to the ministry of spiritual direction. She received her training at St. Bueno Spiritual Exercise Center in St. Asaph, Wales, U.K.; the Center for Spirituality and Lay Ministry of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.; and Loyola House in Guelph, Ontario. She earned master’s degrees in theology and education.