Praying with Catherine Spalding: From the Known to the Unknown

Posted by Addie Woods

October 9, 2021

Praying with Catherine Spalding: From the Known to the Unknown

By Nancy Gerth, SCN

Part of the Toolbox for Prayer series

Download in PDF format
What seems like a lifetime ago, during a third grade social studies activity about daily life for the Kentucky pioneers, I vividly remember taking turns churning butter and pouring melted tallow into iron candle molds. I was fascinated by all they embarked upon on their journey. From an eight-year-old’s perspective, their lives seemed unbelievably difficult – fraught with obstacles to daily survival, uncertainties about the future, and risk. I could not understand why someone would choose this path; however, I admired the passion, grit, ingenuity and faith in God required to cross from the known into the unknown. All that I learned back then took on its own shape in my active 8-year-old imagination and I believe those early images of the pioneers awakened in me a curiosity and awe about acting on a dream. What was it like to be so strongly drawn to move into the unknown – willing to risk it all in the name of hope? I was captured by this pioneer spirit. As I grew older, my understanding became more informed, less imaginary and more inclusive of the various impacts of this westward movement. Today, it continues to be expanded as we search to recognize the full story of that era and our place in it – good or bad. We still have so much to learn. However, for this reflection, I will focus on the part that captured my interest as a child – spirit, passion and resilience.

Perhaps my early notions about the pioneers created a stepping stone to my attraction to Catherine Spalding’s life and spirit. I have always felt intimately connected with her -this pioneer, risk-taker, innovator, first-
responder, roll-up-your-sleeves practical woman and definitely, resilient faith-walker. This is who Catherine is to me – how I see her and know her. She is never far away. In my everyday life, I experience her in my thoughts, my mind’s eye and her presence during prayer. She has become friend, confidant, advisor and motivator.

Sketch of Catherine Spalding by Nancy Gerth, SCN
“…I admired the passion, grit, ingenuity, and faith in God required to cross from the known into the unknown.”
Reflecting on Catherine’s life challenges me to further my resolve and efforts to be a person of peace, justice, compassion, integrity, generosity, hospitality and to read and respond to the signs of the times. These values come from a strong foundation beginning with Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac and have continued to be lived out through the lives and service of more than two centuries of courageous and faith-filled SCNs. This rich legacy of which I am so privileged to be a part is rooted in the love of an all-embracing and ever-incarnational Christ. This love requires of me a faith-filled response to the Spirit and full participation with our Creator – even when it is fraught with obstacles, uncertainties and risk. It requires of me to be attentive to the signs of the times today in our global and very connected world.

Whether creating a new response to today’s challenges, navigating obstacles or reflecting on God’s invitation and promptings in my life, I often feel Catherine’s spirit flowing though me and others. I feel her presence in ordinary moments of my everyday life and prayer. And, just as it happened in that third grade classroom, I still experience curiosity and awe. I still do not understand why someone is drawn to act on a dream that requires living into the unknown, yet I continue to be inspired by the pioneers of the past and present who do this by risking it all for the sake of the reign of God. I do know that the unknown will continue to emerge and we will be called repeatedly to respond. I pray that Catherine continues to walk with me and others who are striving to move into the future with faith and meet the needs of our times with passion, grit, ingenuity, resilience and a pioneer spirit of hope.

For reflection:

How have I been a pioneer in my own life? What risks did I take?

What part of the pioneer spirit challenges me in my life, work, relationships,
spirituality, etc.?

To what unknown am I called at this time in my life? Who or what inspires me to step into this unknown?

Nancy Gerth, SCN has been a member of the Sisters of
Charity of Nazareth for 35 years. She is from Louisville, KY and currently resides in Chicago, IL. She is the Co- Director of the Intercongregational Collaborative Novitiate, and involved in the ministry of Initial Formation for the SCNs and the Sisters of Charity Federation.
Want to read more from the Toolbox for Prayer series? Click the links below.

Creating a Toolbox for Prayer

Prayer is communication with the divine (Creator, Redeemer, Spirit), a
relationship, like our human relationships, that needs to be nurtured regularly. Just as in a human relationship we find different ways to build our relationships, so it is with the divine.

Creating a Toolbox for Prayer

As an Indian Christian Religious, the two wings of my prayer life are Biblical and Indian Spirituality. At home, we had everyday family prayer which included Rosary and reading from the Bible. I was responsible to conduct it. It was a vocal prayer that did not touch my heart though there was devotion to do it. After coming to the Congregation too, prayer was mostly a recitation of psalms and singing of songs. Though I was faithful to it there was not much impact on my life. Prayer was like an activity I had to do but I did not enjoy it or experience anything in my heart.

The Rhythm of Contemplation

Rhythm is known as the repeated patterns of movement or sound while contemplation is known as deep reflective thoughts that form who we are as a person. We each have a rhythm of life and how we contemplate. The rhythm of who we are flows out of us every day. As I stop to contemplate, I have come to realize that my way of contemplation is a rhythm of loving.

Feast day of St Louise De Marillac

Sisters in Pittsburgh, along with Caritas Support Services staff and a few VCS employees who work at St Louise Convent, gathered for a festive meal after the 11 AM mass held at the Sacred Heart Chapel on the May 9th feast day of St Louise De Marillac.

Using Prose as a Stepping Stone into my Prayer Time with God

I often use my prose that I produce as a creative writer, as a stepping-stone into my prayer time with God.

See No Stranger

This Toolbox for Prayer post is a video from Sister Chris Kunze. Sister Chris encourages us all to let our light shine and “see no stranger”. We must look beyond ones outward appearance, and instead see them as a sister or brother that we do not yet know. This allows us to open ourselves up to the possibility of connection, let go of the impulse to view others as different, and enables us to pay attention to others stories.

Using Inclusive Language and Feminine Images of God in Prayer

We all know that God is spirit and as such has no sex or gender. Unfortunately, language is too limited to describe an infinite, transcendent, non-human God with whom we desire to have a“personal” relationship. We can only talk about God in metaphors, knowing that we will never fully be able to describe God.

While male metaphors for God abound in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), there are female metaphors to help offset an overly male God view.

Creating a Toolbox for Prayer

Window Gazing on Travel’ emerged as a free form of prayer for me ever since I was introduced to contemplative Spirituality within the SCN Congregation.

Letting Scripture Speak

Lectio Divina is a special kind of Scripture prayer. The term means a “holy reading” or “a prayerful reading” of Scripture. It is a process of praying with Scripture in a way that invites us to be more open to hear a personal and meaningful message from within the passage. This kind of prayer also leads us to a contemplative stance in our prayer with Scripture.

In this article you will find the four basic steps of Lectio Divina: READ, MEDITATE, PRAY, CONTEMPLATE. I will attempt to explain these steps in a practical way. My hope is that this process will help us to pray with the Scriptures in a richer way. This reflection is meant to aid us in understanding and following the spirit of each step and also to help us to become more open to God’s word within the Scripture passage you select.

Latest issue of ‘The Journey’

The second volume of The Journey Magazine for 2022 will be hitting mailboxes soon and is available to read online.


  1. Stella

    Thank you for sharing your insight and inspiring me by your reflection on Mother Catherine’s life and spirituality. I too continue to search and ask”To what unknown am I called at this time of my life?” I am challenged.

  2. Liz

    Gratitude is overflowing for your sharing of an unfolding vocation story! Thank you Pioneer Woman! ….I am in solidarity with you!

  3. Basanti Lakra

    Thank you Nancy for sharing your personal experience of Mother Catherine and pioneers which has shaped your life and continue to motivate you to be a true SCN. It is very inspiring. Good to know that you are an artist too!

  4. Name *Joel

    “To what unknown am I called at this time”77+?? I have been asking this question very often these days. To faith? To a resilient hope? To love unconditional?
    Whatever the call may be I am trying to accept wholeheartedly.
    Thank you for such inspiring piece, challenging and hope filled life of our pioneers.


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