Awesome wonder

During this summer, I had the opportunity to go to Niagara Falls. This is a place that I had visited with my family when I was about 7 years old, and it left a deep impression on me. I have always wanted to return.

When I first rounded a turn in the street and caught a glimpse of those Falls, my heart just filled up with wonder and the beauty of the Falls really brought tears to my eyes.

Here, this is why: This is what I saw….

I stayed in that area for about 3 ½ days, walking down paths where there are rapids, and, even venturing out to the surrounding area of Lake Ontario where there is charming town surrounded by lush vineyards which produce Canadian wines.

It was an incredibly relaxing time, and the change in scenery and climate gave me some much need time to think deeply and to ask “What is it that God is calling me to? What needs my attention–my focus and the best of myself at Sacred Heart?”

Something that being near the Falls gave me in terms of priorities for the year was an insight into abundance.

Looking at the Falls, it is impossible not to have a sense of the enormous BEAUTY of the world. Beauty has always been a portal into God’s nature for me—as it was for the Foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart, St. Madeleine Sophie Barat.

Being close to this water, it is simply impossible not to be overwhelmed with a sense of God’s abundant nature—the abundance of beauty in the water –and how this generous love of God can flow through us into the world.

I wonder…

• Am I looking at the world from perspective of scarcity or abundance?
• Am I ready to give out of a sense of my abundant blessings, as the Widow who gave her last coin?

Feeling blessed and so loved, it is natural to want to share this with others.  I realize through these kinds of experiences, I truly become what I receive.

 

 

My Journey on the Road Less Travelled

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. 7449c40e67ff2effb9fd3a644ed49db8

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.

bcdf4f9339d4b506dd90ee1f0cef8d10Well, 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.path

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.

Climate SmART: Honoring Our Children’s Future Through Faith, Art, and Action

heart flowersOn April 10, 2015 the Associated Alumnae and Alumni of the Sacred Heart hosted its Annual Conference in Boston, MA. A panel of artists and RSCJ educators explored the topic of climate change to discuss “Climate SmART: Honoring Our Children’s Future Through Faith, Art, and Action.” The 5 member panel was sponsored by Honoring the Future (www.honoringthefuture.org). It was moderated by Frances Dubrowski, Project Director, Honoring the Future and Alumna, Newton College of the Sacred Heart.

Members of the panel included:
• Peter Handler, award-winning craft artist and creator of “The Canaries in the Coal Mine” sculptural works about the impacts of climate change
• Joan Kirby, RSCJ, UN Representative from Temple of Understanding, the U.S.’s oldest interfaith organization
• Melanie Guste, RSCJ, Headmistress, Academy of the Sacred Heart (The Rosary) and Facilitator, New Orleans Healthy Waters and Coastal Restoration Interest Group
• Lillian Ball, internationally recognized environmental artist and designer of stormwater management projects, including WATERWASH, a thriving, artist-designed wetlands park in the South Bronx created, in large part, by impoverished teens and
• Eleanor MacLellan, RSCJ, Educator at Massachusetts Audubon Society, Drumlin Farm, reconnecting urban elementary school children to nature.

What follows is the PPT that I used in this presentation. We were limited to 5-6 minutes. The audience of several hundred alumna of Sacred Heart schools from 24 schools of the Sacred Heart in the United States and Canada were the participants.

What follows are a few opening comments from the presentation:

When I think of philanthropy, I think of abundance, of generosity and of gift—these elements all blending together and pouring out toward something that is good and precious. As a child, I experienced the world in this way, mediated to me by a Mother and a Father who showered me with an abundance of love, a large family of ten brothers and sisters, and with exposure to the world and to its many places of beauty all throughout my childhood and young adulthood. At a young age, my life was very full and purely abundant. It was then that I began to understand something about God–about God’s unconditional and abundant gift of self through the created world.

We traveled extensively as a family. I saw the shimmering of mountains in the Grand Canyon, the mist hanging over the Blue ridge Parkway, the snowy Alps from the Alps, and the ice canyons of the Canada’s Yukon territory from a glacier. Looking back, I remember a time at Lake Louise in Victoria, CA when, as a young adult, my love for nature consciously turned from that of a tourist to one of awareness and commitment. It was a quiet morning. While looking out at Lake Louise, I experienced a passion arise in my heart with a desire to be in this world in a simple and more radically abandoned way–not as a tourist looking out from a window at a resort or as one who just looks on (even lovingly), but as one who is deeply immersed in it.

Through that experience, I completely understand how some people leave everything to live in the Yukon. For me, it was more of a moment that lead me to religious life as an RSCJ and to set on a journey of understanding the fullness of God’s creation and incarnation.

My passion for the environment is driven by a deep sense and personal experience of God’s presence in the created world. In my way of seeing, I do not simply accept in an abstract way that God created the world and that we were given this “garden of life.” If that were the case, I may accept the notion that creation could be a utility—or an object for ones use or singularly for advancing one’s pleasure. No, rather, this experience of God’s gift of self in creation—living and moving and pulsating with Spirit, lays claim to my heart and, like the Society of the Sacred Heart’s Chapter Documents, proclaim “it IMPELS ME TO ACTION.” 

Visit our FB site committed to a sustainable environment: https://www.facebook.com/groups/284726744880613/

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My Vocation Story (as I reflect on it today)…

My vocation story was shared in this way with a small group of Seniors at the Rosary, our Sacred Heart school in New Orleans, LA and my Alma Mater. These are my reflections as shared with them this morning.

I grew up in a large Catholic family of 10 children. We lived in New Orleans, not far from Audubon Park and in the middle of the university section. My parents were not necessarily pious in a devotional sense, but they were definitely fervent. Our family went to Mass every weekday morning at 7:30 AM before school at Holy Name of Jesus Parish, a Jesuit Church. We prayed the Rosary on Monday evenings after family dinner. We prayed in the car before we went on car trips, and while on car trips, we prayed the Rosary. My Father made the sign of the cross on our foreheads before bed and Grace before Meals was a certainty. My Mother prayed the litanies to the Saints, especially St. Lucy and St. Jude. In all things, we were a Catholic family, even to regularly entertaining a steady stream of Catholic priests, bishops and nuns at home. Being Catholic was culture to me, a way of breathing and of living in New Orleans.

As a student at the Academy of the Sacred Heart for 14 years (Pre-K through 12th grade), I had the opportunity to get to know the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) in a wide variety of settings—as teachers, administrators, and as friends of my family. Over the tumultuous years of my youth, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the habits and various lifestyle expressions of the religious sisters changed in concert with the changes in the larger Catholic Church community—the sisters moving, for example, out of the cloistered community in the school convent and into local neighborhood houses.

Along with these outward changes, individual members of the community came to Sacred Heart and others left the school as a result of reassignment, according to the vows of obedience they had accepted. I grew in my understanding of the lifestyle as I experienced the presence of these sisters, engaged with them through life as a student, and observed their practice of daily spirituality in clear evidence to all. Throughout all of these years, the witness of the sisters to me was to a life of simplicity in lifestyle, dedication to the mission of education, of grounded joy, and of love for God.

In high school, a priest asked me to teach a CCD class at a local parish on the outskirts of a low income housing area in downtown New Orleans. Each Saturday, I went down to the parish church to teach this class of 1st graders. With students scurrying under the pews and definitely not paying attention, I quickly learned that I did not know how to teach religion! I asked one of the RSCJ at school for some immediate help. Each week, she mentored me in how to teach for the coming session. That experience of teaching at a young and formative age anchored in me the joy of teaching, and of accompanying young children on the path of religious growth and educational development. It also spoke to me about the presence, accessibility and availability of that sister to her students in so many different ways.

I was in my senior year in high school when I began to think more seriously about religious life. From the sisters, I saw it as a viable and positive way of life. It seemed like a good way of life to me—a peaceful, prayerful and happy life in simple service to God, a public witness. During my years at school, and, perhaps related to fine RSCJ teachers and a regular routine of daily Mass, I had started to pray and had felt a personal relationship with God from a young age. In some precognitive way, I knew that I wanted to continue to grow in this way. Nonetheless, I pushed the thought of religious life out of my mind in favor of more pressing desires of going to college in New York, pursuing a career, travelling with friends and dating my boyfriend.

Throughout college, I stayed in touch with several Religious of the Sacred Heart, although not frequently. These friendships become an important vehicle for my coming to a more adult appreciation of these women and their commitment. I grew to see them as deeply passionate and committed people—committed to community, to radical vows, to a counter-cultural lifestyle and to a personal relationship with God.

After completing a Master’s degree in Educational Administration and Supervision at Loyola University in New Orleans and beginning a Doctoral Program in Curriculum and Instruction, my heart told me to stop and to listen to what God was inviting me to in my life. I had arrived at a critical turning point—a threshold of decision, the edge of uncertainty. Even though I had been offered a marvelous position as a Dean of Students at a local university, I knew that there was something more in life that I was being called to and searching for than a successful career. Somewhere in my heart, I knew that I needed to follow this call in spite of not being completely clear about what it meant for me or where it would lead.
Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I had marvelous boyfriends and, at this point in my life, I was involved with a special person. My life was in every way pointed towards a successful career, a likely marriage and fabulous life in New Orleans with many friends. Deep down, though, I knew that these things would never going to truly fill my heart and deeply satisfy. I just had that deep sense of truth and certainty that that path was not going to be my life; and I was certain of this intuition in spite of not knowing the exact path to which I was called. This was a moment of faith, of letting go into an abyss with trust and in a posture of surrender.

There were some indications of my call in my early years: I told my parents that I did not wish to make my debut even though it was something that others in my class and my other sisters chose to do when it was offered to them. I didn’t have a judgment about it for others. I just did not feel that it was something for me. On the other hand, I felt strongly drawn in a mysterious way in volunteer service people with special needs, the elderly, homeless, and others who struggle. I felt incredibly (and consistently) happy teaching religion to small children on Saturdays and at summer camp.

Not long after this insight about stopping my doctoral program came to me, I was teaching Religion at a parochial school—7 sections of 7th and 8th grade religion. On my way to a conference, I ran into a RSCJ head of school who asked me “Why aren’t you teaching at a Sacred Heat school?” That somewhat stopped me, and was faced with an important realization–perhaps for the first time seeing the utter congruence between my affectivity and my choices in both career and personal life choices. It was at that time, I really began to let down my defenses about religious life and began to open myself to God and to the invitation of the lifestyle.

At about this time, an unusual event prompted an even closer connection between me and the RSCJ community. A friend of mine became pregnant though she was not married. The RSCJ community opened their house community to her during the last months caring for her and providing her with assistance. Over the course of that period through my visits, I became aware of the close community lived by the sisters and the compassionate response given to my friend. Their living jarred my sensibilities to a new place, and broke open any residual stereotypes about the lifestyle that were still holding me back from a commitment.

After about a year of initial exploration and spending more formal time with the community, I discerned to enter the community of the Religious of the Sacred Heart and to explore the lifestyle more deeply as a novice. God is faithful and abundant in blessing: I have been in the community for over 30 years now—never turning back!
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