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Retreat center offers contemplative formation program

By Gina Ciliberto

Dutch-born theologian Henri Nouwen said that we are all called to be mystics. A team of retreat coordinators at the Mariandale Retreat and Conference Center in Ossining are helping people to discover that call.

The Contemplative Formation Program is an interfaith, 12-month program that combines five residency weekends with seven monthly small group meetings (all at Mariandale) to help participants live from a more centered place amidst their full lives and daily busyness.

“We’re not about teaching people techniques, we’re about changing their mindset,” said Janet Corso, director of Mariandale, and also the team leader. “When contemplation becomes part of the plan of who you are, then it’s a whole different way of being. You’re still going to the crazy meetings back to back to back, but you’re doing it in a contemplative way.”

The team of spiritual advisors includes scripture expert Fr. Jack Ratschmidt, OFM Cap, authors and presenters Gaynell Cronin and Renate Craine-Sutterlin, presenter Christian –Jungian, Brother Don Bisson, retreat guide Annemarie O’Connor, and Janet Corso, who leads the team and directs Mariandale. Together, the six advisors created the program as a response to the need for quietude and spiritual connection that they saw rampant in the world around them, and in their own lives.

Corso said qualms like “My life is out of control,” “I’ve tried to be more spiritual and it’s not working,” and “My calendar’s not going to change” come up consistently in spiritual direction; many people express a desire to lead a more spiritual, connected life, but don’t know how to make it happen.

With presentations on the psycho-dynamics of spirituality, the study of various mystics and scripture, and ample silence and solitude, the Contemplative Formation Program is designed to help people become more spiritual not just for the year it runs, but for life.

Because the program continues for 12 months, it allows for deeper relationships than retreatants might foster over a single weekend. As a results, past participants have continued to meet after the retreat on their own time, of their own volition. Retreatants have brought the contemplative meetings into communities, parishes and, in one case, a school.

“What we’ve found is when the program ends, they want to continue the small group meetings,” Corso said. “We wanted to be able to take them so far and for them to be able to carry themselves. Now they don’t need us anymore, and that’s a really good thing.”

There are lots of ways to live intentionally and spiritually in a busy world, but this program has a few facets that make it unique. The first is perhaps the most obvious: it’s Christian-based. Programs focusing on contemplation and “mindfulness” have seen a rise recently, but they often focus on the Eastern tradition. This program, which is interfaith but incorporates the study of Western mystics, is one of the only contemplative programs based in Christianity.

“People are looking for this kind of thing all over, but we’re one of the few doing it in the Christian tradition,” Ms. Corso said. “People don’t know that there’s a long tradition of contemplatives in Christianity. We want to change that.”

The Contemplative Formation Program has already had two runs and will begin its third iteration this December. Thus far, more than 50 participants, ranging in age from 29 to 82, from various faith traditions (Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian) and backgrounds (teachers, ministers, therapists, retired grandparents, etc.) have attended.

According to Corso, the experience has been “transformative for everyone involved,” including the team.

“We talk about how much more conscious we are of who we are and what we’re doing, how we’re doing it,” she said. “It’s deepened our prayer lives, deepened our presence with our own directees, especially. We didn’t know we would benefit from it as much as we have.”

Mariandale’s Contemplative Formation Program will be offered again in December 2014. The application deadline is Oct. 17. For more information, email Janet Corso: jcorso@ophope.org