Religious life is not for everyone. In fact, it is a very special way of life that has always been something for only a relatively select group of people. Never in history has religious life been a popular thing—something that attracted the crowd, or that crowd-pleasers have chosen to do. Usually, people in religious life do not care much for what the crowd, group, or gang is doing. They tend to follow their hearts on “the road less travelled” and to walk on a path that is less defined by what they want to do, and more defined by what God calls them to do. This path of religious life begins with God and ends with God. This relationship between God and the person defines the life, gives it its meaning, and completes its purpose.
To be honest, no one would spend their life in this way unless they were sincere and serious about this end purpose. Especially now and at this moment in history for women: there are so many ways to live one’s life now–pathways that are open and accessible to women, and utterly possible and plausible.
This way of life a women religious is a vocation. It is a calling with very unique demands, challenges and, also, many joys. Perhaps, because most people live the call to marriage within the church and build up the kingdom of God through the gift of fidelity to one other and to the gift of children, religious life remains a mystery to many people. And, unfortunately, what some people do not personally understand, they can judge, generalize, stereotype, even mock and cast aside in disparaging ways. All of those kinds of responses are, to me, understandable, especially in the very consumer oriented world in which we live, but such responses are unfortunate and, sadly, uninformed stereotypes of what is a beautiful commitment and a beautiful offering of oneself to others in the way of service and love.
In John, Chapter 15, verse 16, we hear Jesus as saying these words to His apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” First and foremost, my message to each of you is that religious life is God’s choice for those who accept, not vice versa. No one would chose this life—wake up one morning and say, “Oh, that is a life that I am going to live.” No, it works in the opposite way. In some way this call is revealed to us who receive it in our hearts, and that calling takes a shape in our desires for our life.
In my own situation, I begin to sense in a gentle nudging sort of way that God was calling me to religious life sometime during my senior year in high school. I didn’t make any kind of decision about it until many years later, but when I look back, I did notice little signs or gentle hints.
I think that most of you now know that I attended school here at the Rosary for 14 years—a true “lifer.” During that time, I was educated by several RSCJ sisters. By the time I was a senior in high school, I began to really see what they were giving of themselves and how they were saying “Yes” with their whole lives. I recall a shift in my consciousness at that time toward the sisters and I believe that it was around that time that I stopped uncomfortably giggling about nuns, but began to see them as people to respect and appreciate, although from a safe distance!
After I graduated from Sacred Heart and went on to college, I received a Master’s degree in Education, then gained certification as a Principal for “a lifetime of service” in Louisiana. That was a good choice because I am now working at ASH under the certification that I received so many years ago.
From the earliest age, I always wanted to serve in education. Only once, I entertained the idea of becoming an attorney like my Father, but when I thought about the legal profession, I only thought about it in terms of doing it in school law! I was always passionate about education—curriculum and instruction, special education, outdoor education, religious education—just all aspects of it.
As a student at the Rosary, I was always involved in student government and service. I was president of the Student Council, and I was always doing service-related things in the community. My Father became a State Senator when I was in the 8th grade and then he became the Louisiana State Attorney General for about 20-25 years. As a result, I spent most of my high school years growing up within a very public family and very aware of the way things worked at the state level. As a result, my analysis of social issues, and my educational consulting practice has been focused at the state level of analysis.
But, I digress a bit… and I am getting ahead of my story. I remember two important moments in my vocation story that were pivotal: my decision not to make my début, even though it was definitely a thing that my other friends were doing, and two, the decision to both enter a PhD program in Curriculum and Instruction and to, shortly afterwards, withdraw from the program in the same semester.
Not making my début was probably a clue early on that my life’s calling was unfolding and that I was walking to the sound of a different drummer. Leaving the PhD program so precipitously was signal that I needed to stop, listen and not charge forward in life. At this fork in my path, I realized that I needed to give God a chance. I needed to turn my life over to God, and to surrender to this instinct that I was feeling, in spite of how strange that was for me and for others.
You might think that I after so many years as a religious that I was just naturally mild-mannered, or a wall flower or something in high school or college. Nothing is further than this from the truth! I was not born a nun and particularly those in my class will tell you something quite different. In school, I was always considered a fun, outgoing leader-type of person. I always had a steady boyfriends in high school and in college. I spent way too much time in Fat Harry’s and, in general, I had way too much fun. Sometimes, I walk around this school and I remember the support of my teachers and the RSCJ sisters as I worked out all of my choices—probably the same kinds of decisions that you make as high school students. Maybe, it surprises you to hear me say this, but, these are all things that every person has to figure out how to do well or right. I was no different from anyone else in this regard.
After a few years after graduation, a very close friend of mine at Sacred Heart became pregnant and she was not married. Through the months of her pregnancy, she stayed with one of our RSCJ religious communities and I visited with her often to support her. That time, was important in my vocation story because I had never really interacted with sisters outside of the classroom or school environment in any significant way—again, my connection was always “at a safe distance.” Seeing the way that they lived in community together many of my serotypes dropped away. I began to see that I could live this sort of life and that I did not have to be afraid of living it. A lot of my questions began to fade way.
After my friend had her baby, I began to think more seriously about joining the community but I still held out for a few more years until that time in my PhD program. It was then that it really became clear that I would be short-circuiting God and, ultimately my life story, if I did not give religious life a try.
Well, I have lived religious life now for about 30+ years now–never turning back. My call has led me to ministry in several schools of the Sacred Heart and to serving on our Provincial Team of the Order and to designing a course for our future through strategic planning, mergers, and reorganization. Now, I am serving here at my old alma mater. Life is so rich and the journey is so marvelous!
I have seen many changes in religious life, and I have changed and grown so much. My life has been a real one—full of many joys and it has had some sadness along the way as well. I have a very large family—one that has always been supportive of my choice, and they are real brothers and sisters in the truest sense of the word. We are a Catholic family, and I believe they are glad that one of us has chosen this way of life.
I have formed deep friendships with many people and that gives my life a degree of intimacy that has enabled me to become whole and loving, unselfish…Most of all, my relationship with the Lord has grown, and I have drawn closer to God over the years, I could never imagined how my life would unfold, but, as it has in this life, I could never imagine doing more or becoming more that what has happened to me in religious life. As it is said, “God will give you more that you can ever ask for or imagine.” This is certainly been true in my life.
I do not know if you have studied about the vows we take in religious life. These are poverty, chastity and obedience. Since these are greatly misunderstood as constitutive dimensions of my life, I would like to speak about these commitments.
In terms of poverty, sisters are called to live evangelical poverty as a VALUE—not something avoided, but something to grow towards and to embrace. This means, that we try to live with less, to live with simplicity and to live joyfully through the gift of our assets (whatever these are) to others. As St. Ignatius says in one of his many prayers, “You have given all to me and now I return it.”
I felt this way in my life way back when I was your age. I knew that God had given be so much through my parents, through the way that we lived so abundantly, and through the many trips I had taken all over the world, and through the sheer generosity of my loving parents, that I could let it go and I wanted to live in a deeper simplicity of life. That would be my challenge—not the acquisition of more money or things, but the challenge of letting go and to living in greater solidarity and deeper abandonment. Author Henri Nouwen calls this the path of “downward mobility,” rather than the path of “upward mobility” which is the path of most people.
Chastity is an expression of purity in love and through living in this way we say “no” to one thing to open up a pathway for something else. Saying NO is a freedom—not an abdication! In my vow of chastity, I say “YES” to living in community and to sharing my life with others in the service of education of youth. By saying this “NO” and this “YES,” I draw closer to God through this choice. My life is full of the love of many people!
Truth be told: many people live lives of celibacy (which is not the same thing as chastity) and they are not nuns. They are healthy people and they are living full happy lives. You probably know some of these people because they are a growing demographic in our society. I have some things in common with this group of people because not everyone gets married and not everyone has children. That is a special gift, too.
A big difference between my life and the life of a single celibate person is that I live this life with the support of my religious sisters and I make a lifelong commitment to live it with them. In this way, my life is more similar to the married life because I make a vow for life. I am not living alone or walking along the path of life as an individual. My sisters and I are on the journey together.
I do want you to know that this was a choice for me. Marriage was an open door for me. I had wonderful relationships with men all through my life, but I discerned another call and, indeed, it was the right path for me.
Choosing this pathway has not been always easy. Parts of the life have required some sacrifice, but every authentic life has sacrifice as a dimension. Married life means saying “NO” to some things, too. The decision to have children means saying “YES” to somethings and saying “NO” to something else. So, for people of faith and in all lives of vocation and commitment there are choices one makes in the larger context of God’s call and one’s vocation. I know that I have continued to receive the graces that I have need for my call every step of the way, and I believe the same is true for others who are called to other ways of life in the kingdom of God.
Now, I will offer just a few last words about the vow of obedience. Some people misinterpret this word to mean passive acceptance of the will of another. In many old movies, you see images of Mother Superior ordering sisters about in a very top-heavy and authoritarian manner. This is far away from the truth of this vow.
As sisters, our vow to obedience is a commitment to listening to one another and to searching together for God’s truth, God’s will and Gods direction! Our agreement is a promise to listen to each other and to discern our lives with one another–not to act on only our own wills or desires, but to submit them to one another for common discernment of God’s call, God’s hopes for the world, and God’s desires.
We cannot always do that alone (we all have blind spots), so obedience means listening together in community for these calls and directions. It means going “ALL IN” with the group, and holding nothing back. Yes, it means you throw your all of your money into a common pot, you are willing to share it all, and that you are willing to go where the group says it is good for US (the common—the Society of the Sacred Heart) to go.
For example, if I say I want to go live in the Caribbean on an island and bask in the sun for the rest of my life. Well, that might be a perfectly fine thing for me as an individual, but I would likely be asked by my sisters, “Well, Melanie, how is doing that advancing our mission on that island? Are you planning to open a school there? Work with the poor? Offer retreats?” You see, all the latter are things that we do as sisters in mission. These are things that we do together as community as people in a mission to build up the reign of God in the world. Living on an island and listening to the beat of island music may be a by-product of our being somewhere in mission, but it is not why we go, why we are sent and why we are there. I hope that is clear. If not, you can ask me questions. I do wish to say before I conclude that another question that my sisters in the community might ask me if I posed to them the question about the Caribbean might be, “Melanie, do you need a little break, perhaps? A time to rest?” And, being a loving group of people, they might be encouraging me to take a good break and to find some time on a beach somewhere.
In conclusion, I have tried to share a bit with you about source of this life as God’s call, about my story and how it led me to accepting God’s call and to living this life for so many years, and finally, about the way I and others live this life through the evangelical commitments, or vows. I hope that my sharing has unveiled some of the mystery which shrouds this beautiful life, and I hope that it has somehow touched your hearts to listen openly if you feel touched by God to consider this life. I can promise you that it is a magnificent life and a life, should you be called, that will never disappoint, but only enrich your joy!
Note: I shared these reflections with seniors at the Academy of the Sacred Heart as a part of their study of “Vocations” in a Theology class.