I used to have a problem with St Jane de Chantal. I couldn’t understand how a mother could leave her children and join a convent.
Then, I read more of her life. I read of her spiritual director, St Francis de Sales. I read of her life of holiness; of how her children came to appreciate and try to emulate her holiness; of her great love of God and of her children; of her children’s love for their mother and, inspired by her her example, their love for God and for the Church.
And, yesterday, I read some of the Saint’s letters to the nuns in her convent. I saw her strength of character, as a wife, as a mother, as a nun, as a Mother Superior.
I was inspired once again by her faith.
Who was this saint?
Jeanne Francoise Fremyot was born into a non-noble but leading family of Dijon. Before she was two years old, her mother died; a year later, her father remarried. At 20, Jeanne was married to Baron Christophe de Rabutin-Chantal; he was eight years older than she and in serious debt. Jeanne administered his estates, cared for his dependents, and gave birth to six children, four of whom survived infancy. Two weeks after the birth of her last child in 1601, her husband was killed in a hunting accident. To protect her children’s inheritance Chantal agreed to live with her father-in-law, where she continued her work at the estates and among the poor. On a 1604 visit to her father, she met Francis de Sales, five years older than she and bishop of Geneva — urbane and experienced in providing spiritual guidance to laywomen. They corresponded regularly and met occasionally. In 1607 Chantal went to visit Francis at Annecy. There Francis proposed the establishment of a new religious community for women whose health and age made them unsuitable for the more rigorous traditional orders. They would take simple rather than solemn vows, focus on internal prayer rather than on the canonical office, eat and dress as the poor did rather than fast and wear a habit as traditional religious did. They would perhaps also go out to visit and help the poor and the ill — hence the group’s name of Visitation of Holy Mary. Chantal herself would have preferred a more austere life, but her years of administrative experience at the estates of her husband and her father-in-law, together with her enthusiam for his vision, made Francis see her as the ideal foundress. Chantal convinced most of her family to approve her decision. In 1610, she and four other women moved into a house in Annecy; in the following year over a dozen professed their simple vows. By the time papal approval was granted in 1619, the several Visitation houses had become a traditional order of enclosed nuns. By the time of Francis’ death in 1622, there were 13 foundations. Five years later, there were 28; when Chantal died in 1641, there were 86. In 1616 Francis turned over almost all of the affairs of the Visitation to Chantal, while he continued his writing and preaching. She showed herself fully capable of establishing and supervising the foundations, but she also suffered from the loss of his companionship and his personal guidance.
And excerpts from her exhortations?
– “Oh, all those who are on their knees are not praying!” [From an informal discussion, on the desired simplicity of their devotion:]
Oh, all those who are on their knees are not praying!… The setting of the mind on God is the most useful occupation that the Daughters of the Visitation can have. They are not to trouble themselves about the considerations, conceptions, imaginations, and speculations of others, although they should honor them as the things of God and which lead to God Himself: it is enough for them to be with God in the simplicity of their hearts. [p.257]
“I… tormented him so, that at last I used to… make him get out of bed.” [Chantal occasionally used stories of her own married life to make her point. In 1629, on how God reaches out to the soul:]
There occurs to me on this subject a similitude, which is somewhat amusing, my dear Daughters. I remember that Monsieur de Chantal was very fond of lying in bed of a morning; I, having to look after the affairs of the house, was obliged to rise early to give all my orders. When it began to be late, and I had gone back to the bedroom, making noise enough to awaken him, so that Mass might be said in the chapel, and afterwards the remaining affairs might be seen to, I became impatient. I went and drew the bed curtains and called to him that it was late, that he must get up, that the chaplain was vested and was going to begin Mass; at last, I used to take a lighted taper and held it before his eyes, and tormented him so, that at last I used to awaken him and make him get out of bed. What I mean to tell you, by this little story, is that our Lord does the same with us. [p.276]
“…answer them boldly.” [In 1631, one monastery’s confessor had ordered the nuns not to say a prayer that was in their Book of Customs. Chantal was not about to let that occur again. In 1632:]
What, Sisters, are you weathercocks, that you thus let yourselves be turned about at the wish of others, and because of what they come and say to you?… Whatever they come and say to you, look at your Rules, your Directories, and your Customs, and keep to that…. If someone comes to the parlor and says: “Do not this or that, in this way, or that such a thing must not be done,” answer them boldly: “Our Rules and our Book of Customs order us to do so;” or else say nothing, but go on as usual, without yielding in anything of your Customs. [pp.322-23]