Consider the fact that this saint, a passionate woman with strong desires, had to keep revising her understanding of Gods plan for her. Determined to glorify God with her life, she willingly set aside one objective after another until she discovered that only in Gods time and way could her deepest desires be fulfilled.
Would she be a wife and mother? A cloistered nun? A pioneering foundress? Every time she thought she had grasped Gods plan, Jane Frances de Chantal encountered another invitation to surrender.
First Desire: Ordinary Family Life. Born in 1572, Jane grew up in a strong Catholic family at a time when France was torn by Protestant-Catholic warfare. She lost her mother when she was eighteen months old. Over the course of her life, she would also lose her stepmother, her only sister, and her own first two babies. Only one of her four other children outlived her. And yet, grievous as these untimely deaths were, it was another one that turned Janes life upside down.
Jane deeply loved her husband, Christopher de Rabutin-Chantal, an animated man with a tender, reflective side. After nine years of marriage, he was mortally wounded in a hunting accident. As doctors labored to save him, Jane pleaded with the Lord: Take everything I have in this world, but leave me this precious husband. Christopher died nine days later.
Jane was inconsolable. Friends tried to distract her with parties, but she didnt even want to eat, let alone socialize. After four months of deep depression, she pulled herself together for her childrens sake. Privately, she vowed never to remarry.
After Christophers death, Janes father-in-law threatened to disinherit her children unless the family moved to his estate. It was hardly the ideal situation. Baron de Chantal was irascible, and his mistress-housekeeper wasnt eager to be supplanted. Without complaint, Jane set to work and gradually won the hearts of everyone at the Barons. She managed his estate and nurtured and taught his five illegitimate children alongside her own four. Given only an attic room, she turned it into a medical clinic serving the poor.
Puzzled by strong religious feelings and an attraction to religious life, Jane asked a local priest for spiritual guidance. He made her solemnly promise to obey his every command and reveal her inner life to no one else. Jane scrupulously recited the prayers he prescribed; still, she was restless.
Then, in March 1604, Janes father invited her to hear Francis de Sales preach. This young Catholic bishop governed his see from Annecy in Savoy (now in eastern France), because Calvinists controlled Geneva, Switzer-land, the dioceses official center. Jane was deeply touched by his Lenten sermon and recognized Bishop Francis from a vision she had received previously. It had come with the inner certainty, This is the man to whom you must entrust yourself.
Francis noticed Janes attentiveness, but not until August did the two have a long conversation in which Jane opened her heart. Francis left the room without responding. Then, after a night of prayer, he agreed to become her spiritual director.
Jane later recalled: O Lord, how happy that day was for me! I could feel my soul step right out of its inward imprisonment, where the orders of my previous director had kept me shut up. Janes servants agreed. Madames first director only made her pray three times a day and we were all annoyed by it, but the bishop of Geneva makes her pray all the time, and no one is inconvenienced in the least by that.
Awaiting Gods Timing. Even though they spent relatively little time together, Francis and Jane formed a strong bond of friendship that endured for almost twenty years. Their friendship was mutually beneficial. Francis shaped the order, but Jane influenced his thought and supported him in prayer. Several of his booksincluding the classic Introduction to the Devout Lifedrew upon their correspondence.
Francis helped Jane to see that her family responsibilities werent just something to put up with until she could enter religious life. They were Gods present will for her. This ideathat doing Gods will doesnt require taking vows but can be wholeheartedly embraced by laypeople in everyday lifewas quite radical then. Jane saw its wisdom and found freedom in seeking Gods will in the present moment.
Francis also advised Jane to be deliberately cheerfulfor example, by speaking not of my poor dead husband but of my husband who is resting in the arms of Gods mercy. When the death of Francis younger sister threatened Janes equanimity, Francis commented: Your vigorous heart loves and wills so powerfully, and I wouldnt want it any other way, for what good are the hearts of the half-dead? But we have to work particularly hard at loving Gods will not only on bearable occasions but on those which are unbearable.
Jane got the message. Lord Jesus, I dont want options any more! Pluck whatever string of my lute you wish it will play this one harmony alone for ever and ever. Yes, Lord Jesus! Without ifs or buts or exceptions, may your will be done to fathers, children, everything, even myself.
Foundress of a New Order. Once Janes children were more settled, Francis outlined his vision for a new type of religious community. Requiring only a simple vow of celibacy, it would accommodate women who wanted to join together in loving God and neighbor, but who couldnt meet the demanding requirements of existing religious orders. The sisters would offer short-term hospitality to other women. They would share a common life centered on prayer but also go out to care for the poor and sicka combination of active and contemplative that was unheard of at the time.
Francis and Jane debated whether to name the community after Martha or after Mary of Bethany (Luke 10:38- 42). Finally, they chose the Congregation of the Visitation, after the gospel account in which Mary combined charity toward her neighbor by serving Elizabeth with prayerfulness in composing the Magnificat, the most spiritual and contemplative canticle ever written (Luke 1:39-56).
On June 6, 1610, the first three sisters moved into a house in Annecy. By the time they renewed their vows a year later, they were more than a dozen.
Soon cities all over France were requesting Visitation convents, and Janes experience as a mother and teacher proved invaluable. She carefully chose for each Annecy sister the proper balance between work and prayer. One must expect from each personality only what can be obtained with gentleness, she explained. In this way we can keep our sisters in that holy and desirable liberty of spirit which is necessary for their growth.
To one superior she wrote, Our chief responsibility is to guide those the Son of God has redeemed by his precious blood, not like a mistress of a household or a governess but like a mother. She sagely counseled another to grow in the incomparable virtue of putting up with people you find offensive and tiresome.
It is ironic that these years of intense activity and growth were also years of spiritual darkness for Jane. Gods presence, which used to give me unspeakable content, now makes me tremble and shudder with fear, she once admitted. She found it difficult to counsel others. I am attacked by each and every one of the temptations my spiritual daughters tell me about; God tells me what to say to them to console them, and then there I am, stuck with all those temptations and unable to help myself.
Yet Janes determination held firm. Ive had these temptations for forty-one years now. Do you think Im going to give up after all this time? Absolutely not!
Companion to a Visionary. When the archbishop of Lyons invited the Visitation sisters into his diocese in 1615, he stipulated that they change their way of life. Instead of visiting the sick, he wanted them cloisteredout of contact with the outside world. Jane objected to Francis. I beg of you to write a word to the archbishop in strong ink. After lengthy negotiations, however, Francis agreed to the change.
Jane acquiesced gracefully but never lost sight of the original vision. During an outbreak of the bubonic plague, she distributed food and medicine to the poor who flocked to her convent. Years later, when St. Vincent de Paul began the Sisters of Charity to serve the poor directly, he said his inspiration had come from Jane.
As Janes travels and responsibilities increased, she saw Francis less frequently than ever. But she was not unprepared for this sacrifice. Four years earlier, she had felt that God wanted her to become more detached from Francis. Francis had confirmed this sense in words that Jane carried in her pocket until the day she died: Our Lord loves you, my dear mother; he wants you to be all his. Let no other arm carry you now; his providence alone shall be your rest. Do not look elsewhere.
In December 1622, they had a rare four-hour meeting at which Jane hoped to receive guidance for her own spiritual life. But when Francis said they should postpone that discussion and talk about the order instead, she quietly folded the paper on which she had written notes about herself and gave her attention to business.
The postponed conversation never took place. Francis sent Jane from that meeting to visit several convents. He caught a chill on Christmas Eve and died three days later. Jane was devastated.
Francis coffin lay on the altar at the Annecy chapel for several months. One day, Jane took her burdens into the chapel and knelt before her friends body, pouring out her heart. This comforted her greatly and helped her move forward with the work she and Francis had begun.
From Darkness to Peace. Jane never enjoyed being in charge. I have a strong temperamental dislike of action, she once told Vincent de Paul. Forcing myself to act out of duty wears me down more and more. She never called herself foundress or Mother General, preferring to be thought of as an elder sister in your family blessed with more chances than others to speak and work with our father [Francis].
Still, she worked on for nineteen years after Francis death. At the end of that fruitful period, there were eighty-seven Visitation convents.
Not until the spring of 1641after refusing special privileges and the role of superior for lifewas Jane able to step down from leadership into the role of an ordinary sister. After years of spiritual aridity, she found renewed peace. She died of bronchitis on December 13, 1641, saying, Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! What fitting last words for someone who succeeded in orienting her whole life to seeking God alone!
Jill Boughton writes frequently for The Word Among Us.