Spiritual Mothers: Religious Community Leaders Care for and Guide Sisters to Christ
As spiritual mothers, they emulate the Blessed Mother’s maternal virtues and receive grace to lead their religious families.
Each evening when night prayer ends at St. Walburga Benedictine Abbey, Mother Abbess Maria-Michael Newe blesses her community’s 24 sisters before they enter Grand Silence.
Her blessing at the Virginia Dale, Colorado, abbey may differ from the blessings of parents putting their children to bed, but it’s no less motherly.
“As I bless them, I look at each sister and I say, ‘If she died tonight, would it be okay?’” said Mother Maria-Michael, the community’s abbess since 2003. “And if it isn’t, I will take the time to talk to that sister, if there’s something that would hinder peace. … Every night when you leave them their last blessing, you don’t know, and you need to be able to be at peace and leave them in the hands of God.”
For centuries, women religious superiors such as Mother Maria-Michael have been known as “Mother.” The most well-known mother superior in our time is Mother Teresa, now St. Teresa of Calcutta, foundress of the Missionaries of Charity.
As spiritual mothers, they emulate the Blessed Mother’s maternal virtues and receive grace to lead their religious families, while caring for and forming their sisters to also be spiritual mothers wherever they serve. Like mothers of children, mothers of religious communities inspire confidence through their example, even when the abbey may be under attack.
“So often in the world we think of mothers providing for children in material and even emotional ways, but at the monastery it’s taken on a very different level because it’s in the spiritual way where she sees herself as kind of a mediatrix of bringing these souls closer to Christ, our bridegroom,” said Sister Scholastica, prioress at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Gower, Missouri, speaking of Mother Cecilia, the community’s abbess.
With the goal of bringing Christ forth in the sisters, Mother Maria-Michael also holds the place of Christ as the community leader, said Sister Immaculata Bertolli, who entered Mother Maria-Michael’s community in 2004. “She also represents the dispositions Christ would have, and we see what God wants from us in where he’s leading us through her.”
Seeing her sisters become saints would be Dominican Mother Assumpta Long’s greatest desire, said Sister Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, vocation director at the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The community has more than 150 sisters at 24 missions and other apostolates.
“Mother” is more than a title, Sister Joseph Andrew said. “Motherhood is life-giving and expressive in the way that we do so in our community religious life, certainly very warm, very open, very inviting, challenging us to deeper holiness at all times and to living our life more completely and fervently for Christ for whom we’ve left all things to follow.”
One way mother superiors lead is through the example of their own prayer life.
Mother Assumpta “gives time to prayer and attention to prayer, and we all know that everything we are stems from our personal prayer life with Christ,” Sister Joseph Andrew said.
Being a good example is important, said Mother Assumpta, who, along with Sister Joseph Andrew and two other sisters, co-founded the community in 1997. “I’m not in it for a show, but I do think that they have to see us as a prayerful mother who’s very faithful to her vows, her constitution.”
Mother superiors are called to live a higher level, Mother Maria-Michael said. “You want to bring everybody to that higher level, but you have to give the example,” she said. “It’s always remembering why you’ve been elected, what you’ve been called to and remembering your place in the community.”
Religious life is family life in the Benedictine spiritual tradition, where the abbess represents Christ, as the head of the community, and also is still a mother, much like Our Lady, Sister Scholastica said. According to St. Benedict, the Lord leads the community to eternal life together, she said. “We’re bearing each other’s burdens, but mother abbess is bearing that burden because she has responsibility for our souls,” she said. “The idea is that we would arrive all together [in heaven] as a family.”
The community has born a burden in the form of violence and harassment during the decade they have been based in Gower, about 40 miles from Kansas City. On March 24, a shot fired through the wall of Mother Cecilia’s cell went through the cell to the shower in the next room, missing her by a few feet as she slept, Sister Scholastica said.
No one has been injured in the attacks, and they’ve brought the religious family closer together while increasing the 33 sisters’ appreciation for their abbess, she said. The community is raising funds for a privacy wall.
“We’re sleeping so well at night knowing, ‘Okay, something could happen tonight, but we’ve been in God’s hands up until now, and we know he’ll continue to take care of us,’” Sister Scholastica said. “If Mother Abbess, who suffered in all this, can bear it so cheerfully, then we can, too.”
As God gives mothers of children grace, mother superiors also receive grace enabling them to continue growing in their role and helping sisters discern what God asks of them, Mother Maria-Michael said, adding that “the Holy Spirit can sometimes tap on you and say, ‘That one needs you for a little while. Just go.’”
Mother superiors also care for sick sisters and sometimes just cry with them, she said.
It’s important to know, love and support each sister, Mother Assumpta said, “her health; what her needs are. It does work because they always have access to me.”
In leading her community, Mother Assumpta said she looks to the Blessed Mother as a model of the virtues of love and faith.
Our Lady persevered and is still helping us, Mother Maria-Michael said. Mercy, encouragement, a love for the Church and the patience to stop and give attention to a sister who needs it are other qualities of a mother superior.
Though Sister Immaculata is no longer in formation, she said of Mother Maria-Michael, “she guides me a lot through her own experience, telling me, ‘This is the way you need to walk’ or ‘This is not the way you need to walk,’” she said. “She admonishes; she reproves, if she needs to; she corrects.”
Sister Joseph Andrew also said of Mother Assumpta, who previously was her novice mistress, “From day one in the convent, she began directing me, teaching me, mothering me into what it means to be a spouse of Christ and a spiritual mother to the entire world,” she said. “And so, I learned a great deal, obviously, from watching her, as well as from her classes, from correction, from advice and from a very deep spiritual friendship that she certainly had with all of us who were her novices or postulants.”
Mother superiors are not always liked for their decisions, Mother Maria-Michael said. Sisters’ characters differ. “They’re all adults, so you have to really pray to help them see their soul and that you always strive to address them as a soul that you love.”
Through their prayer and efforts, mother superiors form their sisters to also be spiritual mothers.
“Like a mother would prepare her children to be, God willing, whatever their vocation is as they grow up, [Mother Assumpta] teaches them self-sacrifice and to care for others,” said Sister Joseph Andrew, who, as vocation director, consults with Mother Assumpta on caring for the women she works with.
Nursed through a serious illness by her abbess, Mother Cecilia, Sister Scholastica said of her spiritual mother:
“I think everyone has experienced that, a solicitude that’s not only material; it’s very much spiritual,” she said. “We can really feel it — that she’s praying for us, that she cares for us, and, most importantly, she cares for our souls and that we be the best brides of Christ that we can possibly be.”