Grasping for signs of light: how sisters keep up their spiritual energy

A former refugee child touches a statue of Mary in the chapel of Villa Maria, the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. (Provided photo)

Silence. Community. Nature. Prayer. Scripture. Music. Journaling.

This month, the panelists share their own coping mechanisms for the stresses of their life and ministry. As religious deal with war and trauma globally, they have found ways to stay focused on their missions.

They addressed this question:

How do you keep your spiritual energy strong under the demands of ministry and the ongoing drumbeat of negativity around the world?

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Eilis McCulloh  c.jpgEilis McCulloh professed first vows with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in June 2017. She is a program assistant with Migration & Refugee Services, Catholic Charities-Diocese of Cleveland, after volunteer experiences in Haiti and Immokalee, Florida.

It is nearly impossible to turn on the news or open Facebook without hearing about violence in my city or elsewhere around the world: bigotry, racism, hatred, fear, immense grief, forced migration, natural disasters, or deportations that tear apart families. We can only "pray the news" so long before we feel like we are running on empty.

Given my ministry as a refugee resettlement case manager, on some days, I find myself grasping for any signs of light that remind me that hope is a way of life. I don't want to ignore the news or the people around me, but I know that for me to be truly present, I must take time away. I cannot be an effective case manager, an engaged member of my community, an advocate, sister, friend, daughter or niece if the ugliness and despair that so often permeate our world darken my own life.

I must take time to recharge and reconnect. This might be through a yearly retreat or daily time for prayer and quiet.

I begin each morning in quiet contemplation, bringing the needs of our world to prayer and focusing on the good — moments of hope, trust, support and healing. My own energy is then renewed. I also make time for adventures, friends, family and community gatherings — time for fun and laughter so I stay balanced and am reminded that there is light in our world.

The darkness of the world and demands of ministry are only overcome by the joining of all our voices and hearts as we, together, call for peace.

Finally, special reminders like the picture above (taken a few years ago at Villa Maria, our motherhouse of the Sisters of the Humility of Mary) also restore my hope and belief in love, peace, and the healing strength we receive from God and share with each other.


sister janet gildea (171x213).jpgJanet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she is liaison for women religious for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and directs women in initial formation for the Sisters of Charity.

Hummingbirds have long provided an image for me of returning to the source of life for nourishment, rest and replenishment. I have hung a variety of feeders around the yard and planted flowers that are favorites of the little creatures. From April to October, as soon as the sky lightens and until darkness falls, the air is filled with the squeaks and whirring sounds of hummingbirds finding the sugar water that keeps them in motion.

I also have to seek spiritual nectar from the rising of the sun to its setting. Sometimes I take it on the run, like the busiest of the birds, listening to podcasts or music as I drive to work or get my morning exercise. But I tend to miss a lot of what's given to nourish my spirit if I don't actually stop, sit, focus, listen and then digest what I've heard. If I can pause, like the hummingbirds that use the tiny perches on some of the feeders, I absorb more of what God has for me.

Working variety into my daily routine is an especially effective way to keep my spiritual energies topped off. Changing the path I walk, the order I choose to water the garden, the sequence of events in my day when I am able demands that I stay awake and aware. Then I am more open to the times God breaks through, the moments of encounter with the holy, just like the hummingbirds that have myriad flight plans to the feeders but veer off in an instant when a particular flower catches their attention.

Taking spiritual nourishment on-the-run like the busiest of birds (Janet Gildea)

Community life and friendship are essential for me to stay energized in this life. Hummingbirds are territorial and often chase each other away from the feeder. Still, there are times when a group gathers in peace, and others hover and wait their turn. For me, these are the delicious moments when we sit together in prayer, in silence, or at Eucharist.

We are fed from the source of our common life, our common charism, our common call. We try together to make meaning of the struggles of life and ministry, the tragedies and fractures of our world, and, in the end, we remind each other that all is God's, love wins and God is enough.


Mary Lan 1 (3) c.jpgMary Nguyen Thi Phuong Lan is a Dominican Sister of Our Lady of the Rosary in Vietnam. She studied in universities in Vietnam and the Philippines and has worked in formation in Vietnam.

We religious women live in a world where we can feel the attraction of material values, where the emphasis is on earning money in order to have comfortable lives. We can even be so busy with our assigned ministries that we take no time for God and neglect our spiritual life.

New technologies have given us the internet, telephones, social media, online games and films. All of these can lead to addiction and steal time and energy from God and our mission.

The decision to be a religious and to sacrifice everything for Christ is not a matter of despising everything, but of placing God as the top priority.

I work hard the whole day, sometimes facing difficulties and stresses in my ministry, but I always remember to spend silent time in the early morning to reflect and pray. I read the Bible or spiritual books before going to bed, and adoration of the Eucharist is a special priority for me. I consider prayer a spiritual duty required if I am to serve others and to overcome the challenges in ministry and the temptations of the times.

Sr. Mary Lan prays with street children each evening. (Provided photo)

My present ministry is to work with two other sisters to take care of 3- to 16-year-old street children. We are busy with them day and night, taking them to school, bringing them home and cooking their meals. Occasionally, we host benefactors and groups from other countries.

The ministry is hard and keeps us busy; sometimes, we feel bored and tired of the noisy children. We faithfully try to schedule regular times to be together to pray and enjoy community, as well as moments of solitude — all are essential. This is how we gain spiritual energy to give to our street children, who are affected by the addictions and corruption of the times and are not easy to educate.

We pray for them, entrust them to God, and guide them by spending 10 minutes reading the daily Gospel to them and saying prayers with them before they go to sleep. With God's help, they will avoid bad things, bad companions and the addictions of modern times. Knowing that, we feel less tired of caring for them and feel God's presence with us.

For this, we must be attentive to nurturing our own spiritual energies.


Maria de Lourdes Lopez Munguia 2 (2) c.jpgMaría de Lourdes López Munguía is a Franciscan Missionary of Mary from Mexico who now lives in Chile. She is a psychologist and entered religious life in 2001. 

Spiritual strength is re-created in life and sharing.

Throughout my journey of discipleship, it has been a struggle to give myself times to rebuild my strength. I find myself in a lot of activities and have to discover ways to take care of myself and reconnect with the God of life.

Here are some ways I have found to re-create my spiritual strength.

In my ministry with women at a prison in Chile, my service is just listening, trying to accompany some of them spiritually. For me, it is a profound experience of God's presence in their lives. But I spend a lot of energy in this demanding and exhausting ministry because of the stories I hear.

Every time I return home, I feel the strong need of a community to hold me tight, a safe space where I can just rest. I know my sisters are with me, even if they don't know the women's stories.

I also have a beautiful group of friends and sisters with whom I studied theology in Mexico. We call ourselves Aliento de Vida ("Breath of Life"), and we are this for each other. We can be broken and still embraced in this profound womb of sisterhood. They give me the love and hope to continue where there is no hope.

Aliento de Vida, group of friends and sisters with whom Sr. María de Lourdes studied theology in Mexico (Provided photo)

At night, I bring to God the women at the prison and their families. This is a powerful moment where I can just cry or let myself be embraced by God. I feel that God takes the lives that have been given to me, each one a beautiful daughter of God.

Music is also important. Sometimes I just take my guitar or my violin and begin to play, not thinking about what to play, just following my heart. The music breaks my rational barriers and gives me freedom with no shame. When I touch a special chord, I just create music, so intimate, so me.

At the moment I am writing these lines, my people in Mexico have suffered an earthquake. My heart is broken because I am far away; at the same time, my heart is grateful for the solidarity of people near and far. This is the Mexico we truly are. Watching the images and videos on social media, my broken heart feels the strength of my people, a spiritual strength, God's love.


Susan Kidd (429x500).jpgSusan Kidd is a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame and is currently the campus minister of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. She has worked in education and parish ministry in Toronto and in Cameroon, West Africa.

In my family home, as we moved from one room to the next, the sound from one radio faded as the other became clear. Room to room meant radio to radio. Some called us news junkies. And while there is only one radio in this house (in my bedroom), the news-junkie gene is in me. It may be the car radio, television or computer. It might be Facebook or Twitter. I am up to speed on the news and, some days, overwhelmingly so.

I am a civic-minded, socially aware, informed, faith-filled voter who gets weighed down by the very things I choose to read or hear. And I can feel guilty for walking away or turning off. And that is before the car even pulls out of the driveway each day.

I love campus ministry; the variety of each day, the gift of each person feed my spirit. I am available. Even when I am not physically in my office or on campus, I'm "on." So how do I keep my spiritual energy strong?

Some days, it is more "do as I say and not as I do" living. I am a lifelong learner and maybe even a slow learner. But then someone asks me a question that causes me to pause, or I am offered a topic for a presentation or an article that requires a Presence that is beyond me. And I give myself permission to say, "Wow, great insight. Let me pray about that and get back to you." Sometimes, the permission is to "turn off" and even say no.

Sue Kidd's prayer table in her living room, with a candle, a journal and her blue coffee mug (Sue Kidd)

My life is about being present to others. I know if I do not have time each day to be present to the One who is Real Presence, I cannot be attentive. I cannot hear. I am good at taking the time and creating the space each morning for God. My prayer routines have shifted over the years (just ask my spiritual director!), but the routine remains. A candle, a journal and a cup of coffee are the standards. God's Presence is the gift.


Eden Panganiban (2) (500x468).jpgEden Panganiban is a member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. The former president of the College of the Holy Spirit in Manila, the Philippines, she has served in leadership positions since 1989.

Why do people ask me so often, "Where do you get your energy?" Do I project myself as always in high gear, even as I near 70? So I reviewed the way I spend a typical day.

Being a morning person, I start my day with a full hour of meditation or contemplation. "Each morning he wakes me to hear, to listen" (Isaiah 50:4), "and I find wisdom sitting at the door" (Wisdom 6:14).

For me, the word of God is the anchor for each day, and dawn always finds me watchful for it. Immersed deeply in ministry, the word of God becomes part of my daily bread and breath.

What nourishes me at dawn becomes the lens by which I view reality until nightfall. It is the yardstick for checking my inner stirrings and the way I respond to events. It is an inner compass that guides me. It helps me identify my limits and my shadows and confront them for healing in the light of the Word and the energies of the Spirit. I have no control over what happens out there, but I can choose how to live and how to respond.

During the day's ministry, I take mini-breaks, breathing in refreshing energies, breathing out negativities. This rhythm has become a way of being, of sustained connectedness to the Indwelling God — so central to our Trinitarian spirituality. I can't imagine a day without this rhythm.

A century-old tree on Sr. Eden Panganiban's Manila campus. It has weathered all seasons in the school's history and has been "a significant part of students' years," she writes. "Alumnae will always visit it at homecoming time. What is unique is that it has merged with another local tree in symbiotic union." (Courtesy of Sr. Eden Panganiban)

There are moments when tasks seem insurmountable. There are heartbreaking relationships. There are questions with no clear answers. There is an endless search for fuller life. There are periods when I seem stuck in darkness that no light can penetrate. But the image from the prophet Isaiah puts me back on my feet: "My arms are not too short to save, nor my ear too dull to hear" (Isaiah 59:1).

Thus, things fall into perspective. It is no big deal to wrestle with the dragon of daily living and serving. How true, "tears may flow in the night but joy comes with dawn" (Psalm 30:5).

Forty years a professed religious-missionary, I feel I have struck the well that never runs dry, that makes the tree that I am yield its fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. Indeed, "the wild flowers continue to grow" (Luke 12:27).

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.