Sister Eileen Derrick (right) helps a Ponies for Peace student harness one of the project’s ponies.
“In my liturgical ministry, I have felt that whatever came out of the piano, the organ, the flute – whatever instrument – has a message,” she says. “Music has a way of transcending, taking us out of wherever we’re at and bringing us closer to God.”
When a spiritual retreat director told her to find an activity that would help her relax, Sister Eileen took up horseback riding. She found that the rhythm of riding “has the relaxing effect of a mantra.
“Sometimes the inside of us is all mixed up and when you’re riding, it all evens out. You forget who you are and you focus on the animal. The horse lifts you out of yourself,” she says.
If she found peace with the horses it was likely that others would as well, Sister Eileen reasoned, so she initiated the “Ponies for Peace Project” for children and young adults. At the sisters’ nature center at Alverna Heights near Syracuse, New York, Sister Eileen and volunteers teach children to ride or drive a pony cart and to interact with the gentle, nonjudgmental ponies.
“Ponies take you as you are. They don’t care if you’re hurting inside. They don’t care if you don’t know what’s wrong. They just have an inner sense; if you’re hurting, they know it,” she says.
Six months ago, Sister Eileen embarked on a new venture. She began taking harp lessons in preparation to become certified for a ministry in music healing.
“It’s been proven scientifically that the harp is the closest reverberation to the human heart. And there’s also scientific evidence that music can lower blood pressure, positively impact basal metabolism. When music is played in hospitals, people need less medication,” she says.
Sister Eileen sees the ministry in three areas — playing for wakes and funerals; playing for people who are suffering; and playing for people transitioning to death.
“I wanted to know how else I can use music to help people come to God” Sister Eileen says. “This is something I definitely want to do. It’s time.”
In addition to her studies and private lessons, Sister Eileen is currently music minister at her community’s Franciscan Villa.