A Journey of the Heart: My Story
BY MELANIE GUSTE
When I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade at the Rosary, a Catholic priest asked me to teach a class in religious education to a group of “20 or so” first-graders on Saturday mornings. There were no desks, no classroom, no instructional materials, and no supplies: Just me, and them — and a few church pews and a concrete yard. Total chaos in the beginning led me to an immediate self-revelation: I did not know what or how to teach! I turned for guidance to Tootsie Torian, RSCJ, who had an incredible Christ-like way with children that I had experienced firsthand at the Rosary. Once a week after school, Sr. Torian mentored me until I had my feet on the ground with kinesthetic approaches for “active” learners in a school without walls.
This early formative experience of teaching lasted several years. Committing to it on a regular basis took me out of my culture and comfort zone to discover the simple joy of being an educator. With my roots at the Rosary and through this early experience at St John the Baptist Catholic Church, I began to comprehend how St. Madeleine Sophie Barat understood education -- as the means of transforming society -- and why she stated that “for the sake of one child,” she would have founded the Society.
Being a student at the Rosary during the tumultuous 60’s brought with it many shifts in religious habits—from long black veils to simple garb, from cloister to neighborhood houses, from classroom teaching to work on behalf of justice. As the Church responded to the calls of Vatican II, we lived through its transformation to the “Church in the Modern World.” It was a bit chaotic, but so was the world: Vietnam War, rock concerts and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In spite of all of this change within the world, I was quietly inspired by the religious witness of the RSCJ at that time: Betsy Hartson, Jane Schaberg, Mary Burns, Claude Demoustier, to name a few. While they were the source of many “a tease,” deep down, they witnessed to a life centered in prayer, focused on community life and to a passion for education. Their gift of self to others each day had a marked influence on me and, though I would not have admitted it at the time, I saw this life lived as quite beautiful.
My thirst for formal education led me to pursue a doctoral degree in Educational Administration at the University of New Orleans. I entered the program of studies, but during the first semester, I recognized a powerful urge to attend to another dimension of my experience—a deep religious faith. This awareness came not from any mental process, but from an experience of my heart and from deep within my sense of self. I could not resist exploring its meaning for me, so I turned onto a path of inquiry into God, self, faith, and religious practice. This journey led me to enter the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1978. From this point on, my educational practice became a way of “being,” as distinct from something I was “doing.” I had discovered my vocation—a way of living in the world with meaning and purpose.
As a new member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, I was immersed for two years in a formal rigorous program of initial formation, which included study of theology at Boston College. I was greatly influenced by the work of Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., a theologian introduced to me at the Rosary through a seminar taught by Sharon Karam, RSCJ. Teilhard wrote extensively about an ecological view of God, which he described as “the Divine Milieu.” In this mystical treatment, he described all things as having “consciousness”—from the alpha to the omega, and how our encounter with God takes place “in action,” the framework of another favorite systematic theologian, Karl Rahner.
Throughout those early years in the Society, another important turn of my consciousness transpired, and it occurred because of my new lifestyle. As a Religious of the Sacred Heart, I accepted a shared life, a communal life. This was not a mental exercise, but a commitment to alter radically my way of living and, by doing so, to challenge some of the most basic norms and values of North American culture. Living in a community means sharing all goods, holding all things in common, and renouncing all individual possessions. It requires a willingness to listen with a discerning heart to the action of God’s spirit within the group/world (not only within oneself), and to love inclusively. More traditionally, these agreements are recognized as vows and generally known in a language of another time as poverty, obedience, and chastity. Language aside, they remain quite counter-cultural, particularly in the United States.
Over time, living in community with other RSCJ has shifted my understanding in radical ways: from “who” I was or “what” I was doing to “how” I was as a human being—to how I acted every day, and how I lived in the world. My praxis became to create communion, to build community in a divided and unjust world, to engage in respectful dialogue, to welcome differences, to enter into diverse relationships, to reconcile with others, to share in the life of all people of cultures rich and varied throughout the world, to work through tension and conflict, to live a radical simplicity, to create space, to take time for silence, prayer and reflection, to be compassionate and to love (Society of the Sacred Heart-Constitutions, Revised 1987). Not a small challenge. With the help of St. Philippine Duchesne, I have learned patience in this daily practice of what is now more than 34 years of religious life!
Some people have asked about my study of applied spirituality and my Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems. In these programs of study, I was not studying theology, or attempting to learn “about” God, or faith, in a scientific way. Nor was I attempting to engage in the study of concepts or doctrine within a particular religious tradition. As Rahner noted, “spirituality is a cross-sectional science of faith AND personal life, faith AND service, faith AND action, faith AND history, faith AND knowledge.” (Rahner, 1975) I wanted to investigate the way in which spirit, faith, and religious experience manifested themselves in an individual’s life, in relationships, in groups, in organizations, in communities and in the world. My questions were with how spirituality is manifested in work, business, organizations, and communities-- in families, and in larger social systems. These inquiries have an “inner” and “outer” dimension, so my work in this field not only introduced me to related studies in human and organizational systems but, eventually, to a new direction in ministry.
Early in my religious life, I served in two Sacred Heart schools. For a Sacred Heart graduate with a passion for education and service, this was a natural fit. My years at Sacred Heart schools in Grand Coteau and San Francisco were nothing short of exceptional. In both schools, I served as a theology teacher/campus minister and coordinator for social awareness programs. Of course, this included “other assignments as needed!”
After my final vows, Provincial Nance O’Neill, RSCJ, asked me to serve at the Center for Educational Design and Communication (CEDC) under the leadership of Kit Collins, RSCJ. As a consultant/designer, my ministry was with peace and justice groups, community development organizations, and faith-based organizations. At the CEDC, my ministry shifted from work with youth to work primarily with adults. In working with community development organizations, advocacy, and faith-based groups in D.C. during those six years, I began to see the deep connection between the education, economic and social systems. I was increasingly and painfully aware of the economic hardships faced by many in the State of Louisiana, with the related collapse of the educational systems. It “got personal” for me.
Together with my religious community, I discerned a return to Louisiana and began work with the Department of Education--working for change from within the system. Within six months, I was asked by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor to design and administer the Serve America program, a federal program which would incorporate service-learning into Louisiana’s K-12 public/private schools and community-based organizations. I was invited to design and implement this statewide program as a direct result of the knowledge and experience I had gained through my work in Sacred Heart schools and through the implementation of Goal 3 of the Goals and Criteria: “A social awareness that impels to action.”
After launching this statewide program (which is still in operation today), the Department of Labor invited me to design a statewide career development program targeted to at-risk youth. It was my involvement with the start-up and implementation of these two statewide initiatives that effectively solidified my ministry as an educational and organizational consultant in human and organizational systems. I continue to occasionally practice in this field today—working for political, economic, and social change at the state level and with a variety of nonprofit organizations. This dimension of my ministry remains focused on several key issues that are directly related to the priorities of the Society: (1) Education of youth (2Justice, Peace and the integrity of Creation (3) Violence/peace and (4) Quality of life issues for women and children.
Concomitant with this service, I served for 3 years on the Provincial Team of the Society of the Sacred Heart followed by 3 years of service on staff as the Director of Province Planning. This leadership role allowed me to live in Baton Rouge but it required a good deal of travel outside of the state. My specific responsibilities were leading the effort to develop a strategic plan for the U.S. Province, strengthening our collaborative partnerships with the Network of Sacred Heart Schools and with all those institutions and projects that bear our names and working with the Sacred Heart Commission on Goals (SHCOG), the Society’s formative evaluation process for accountability to mission within schools of the Sacred Heart. This engagement with colleagues and Sacred Heart educators reunited me in a special and privileged way with my earliest experiences of education as a student at the Rosary, a Board of Trustees member, and as an educator at two schools of the Sacred Heart. It has been a true joy of my service to once again be directly involved with “friends and family” of the Sacred Heart.
Thankfully, God has not finished with me yet! In January 2014, I was asked by the Board of Trustees at the Academy of the Sacred Heart (New Orleans) to serve as the Headmistress. Hearing this call in a personal way, my response was a “YES!” Ending one ministry, saying “goodbye,” moving to a new place, and beginning in a new ministry is never without its challenges, but it is always blessed by the consciousness of God’s loving presence and accompaniment. Having made these “moves” for many years, they “become” me now—acts of openness and obedience to God’s call and expressions of my personal identity: my call to live the consecrated life and witness to it.
As the Headmistress of my old alma-mater, the Rosary, I minister with a deep simplicity of faith, a deep trust and a deep joy. Ministry in this special place brings me full circle: reconnecting me once again with family and friends as well as the powerful action of God in life—always bringing me home in new and deeper ways to His Heart. Each day, I discover rich ways of sharing with others, of witnessing to my vocation as a Religious of the Sacred Heart and of continuing the call to mission that I received through other RSCJ that have ministered here before me. It is easy to recognize God in the faces of the students, the unfolding of their person through the process of education, and, most importantly, the awakening of their faith.
Perhaps some reading this article may wonder why I have not mentioned my large and deep family roots in New Orleans. Well, I have saved a precious treasure until last. Anyone who knows me knows of my love for family and all things New Orleans. I see it as a source of grit and grace, of creativity, of call and commitment. Not surprisingly, one of the most relaxing parts of my day is the preparation of the evening meal which is typically some twist on French/Creole/Cajun cuisine. It is deep grace to know oneself in a culture--to understand the mystery of that gift and to give it voice through one’s ministry. Through the grace of God, these deep roots have held me through many a storm.
My vocational journey is reflected in book called, “The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education” edited by Steven Glazer. This collection of essays takes a thoughtful look at our practice as educators: the grace, the hope, the healing, the caring, the bearing witness, and its heart. The life-long journey of being an RSCJ educator, engaged in the practice of education has faithfully looped me into a deeper consciousness and synthesis of thought. I believe and experience that the irresistible urge of God’s spirit has led me in all ways home.
(Adapted from The Bridge, the publication of the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans - The Rosary. Reprinted with the generous permission of the Academy.)