Saint Jane Frances de Chantal – A Tercentenary, by R. H. J. Steuart, SJ

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Francis of Assisi; date unknown, artist unknown; Church of Sainte Marguerite, Le V├ęsinet, Yvelines, France; photographed on 21 August 2012 by Reinhardhauke; swiped from Wikimedia Commons; click for main article on Saint FrancisIt has been said of Saint Francis de Sales that he was a pioneer among “modern” saints. This means, one supposes, that the type of sanctity of which he was an outstanding example and exponent was one with which the modern mind, no longer torn between the early violent recoil from paganism and the later partial relapse into it which was brought about by the Renaissance, found itself specially in sympathy. For the distinctive characteristic of his school of holiness was balance – the fruit of breadth and strength and moderation and tranquillity. It was the sort of sanctity that excites admiration but does not frighten, and seems (contrary to the popular prepossession) to fit in with the average human life and experience instead of clashing with them. The average man or woman had been accustomed to think of the saints as persons so peculiarly privileged, so aided and protected, so unlike therriselves in almost every particular, that hardly by the wildest stretch of their imaginations could they fancy them as objects for their own practical imitation. It is not to be wondered at if for the majority that lofty spiritual level which we call sanctity or perfection seemed, despairingly, to be lodged in an inaccessible region far over their horizon, the only road to which must be terrifying, bleak, and desolate. For is it not true that the saint must never take pleasure in anything for its own sake: that the “world” must be to him a bitter and unrelenting enemy: that his so-called “natural” affections must be sterilised into complete impersonality, his native faculties denied the opportunity of exercise, his body treated as something inherently bad and corruptive? It is not true: and no saint has ever said that it is, though no doubt their biographers have often enough interpreted their words and actions in that sense. It is not true: and if it were, we should be faced with the quite intolerable paradox that God has so ordered our lives and natures and circumstances that the one thing that we are here to do with them is also the very hardest of all the things that we could do with them, so hard indeed that the overwhelming majority of us simply cannot do it.

But the life and teaching of Saint Francis de Sales came as a new ray of light upon the problem. He used to say that the saints are indeed the salt of the earth, but that for that very reason they must be in the earth – their lives must be such as are at any rate capable of being lived among the surroundings and happenings in which the lives of ordinary men and women are cast, or what will their savour profit the world?

It would, however, be a capital mistake to think of Saint Francis de Sales as a cheapener of holiness. Quite otherwise. It is true that he once said that sanctity is the greatest of all miracles, but one feels that his meaning is rather that the life of a saint, the establishment in a free creature of perfect oneness and harmony with God, is a far more expressive revelation of His power and goodness than any supersession of the mechanical order of nature – a thing of an immeasurably higher order of excellence. It is true, however, that just such a charge was brought against him even during his lifetime, and that many pious formalists were deeply scandalised when, a little more than forty years after his death, the Bishop of Geneva was canonised. Yet all that the saint has said was, in sum, that it is not strange to love God: that God has in fact not made it impossibly difficult to do so: and that He has not given us one kind of nature and then made demands upon us which could be met only if we had a totally different one. He had only said, and shewn, that God has made us for Himself so that we must be forever restless until we rest in Him, and that we can rest in Him now, if we will, and yet be ourselves.

It is of immense value to us that we possess not only a clear and unequivocal statement of the spiritual theory of the saint in his copious writings, and a perfect exposition of it in his own life, but also a presentation of it from another angle in the life of one who differed from him not only in sex but in almost every other natural particular – Jane Frances de Chantal, his sister soul, of whose death, nineteen years after his, we keep the Tercentenary today.

The general outlines of her life are well-known to most Catholics. Brought up in the best Christian traditions in a noble Burgundian family, happily married at the age of twenty but tragically widowed after only nine years, she settled down early to a retired life with her son and two daughters, working for the poor, praying perhaps rather more than most of her acquaintances and taking less part than they in the social life of her circle, while in private life she practised much self-denial and recollection, but with no other guide than her own generous impulses. During the Lent of the year 1604 she heard Saint Francis de Sales preach at Dijon, and afterwards was introduced to him when he came to dine at her father’s house in the same city. They had never met before, but each immediately recognised the other: she, as she tells us, from having seen him in an inward vision when she was earnestly praying that God would send her a truly holy guide who would instruct her how perfectly to fulfil His will: he, because of that supernatural sympathy with which those who are wholly given to God are interiorly linked one with another more closely than by any bonds of human contact or relationship. From that moment until the death of Francis their lives ran parallel. He, as became their respective stations, was her instructor and leader, she was his most docile pupil and follower: yet to those who are acquainted with their histories it must seem as if at times the roles were reversed and that the wise guide thought it no derogation of his character and position to seek and take counsel of his disciple. The truth is that at many points their personalities were complementary, he bringing to their work of mutual sanctification the great authority of his learning, experience, and tried holiness, she adding to this the delicacy of feminine perception and that indefinable quality of humanity which is the special product of pure love and parenthood.

The founding of the Visitation was almost an accident and actually a compromise. Madame de Chantal longed for the profound retirement and rigorous discipline of Carmel, but Saint Francis thought otherwise. He had long been maturing in his mind the scheme of a new religious Institute adapted to the needs of those persons who for various reasons of age or constitution were debarred from entering the already established enclosed Orders – and there were then no other Orders for women than these. It was his design (hence the name which he chose for it) that the absence of enclosure should be compensated by active works of charity outside the cloister. But this idea, soon to be carried into effect by Saint Vincent de Paul, was just too modern for his own day, and he had to surrender to ecclesiastical opposition.

Looking backward now we see how the Providence of God made use of this narrow intransigence, at first sight so disheartening, to enrich the Church with a new and unique concept of the religious life in which the spirit of the two saints is actually better expressed than it might have been had it taken the original form which they had intended. For in the Visitation there is preserved that atmosphere of “sweetness and light,” that gracious and tranquil austerity, that breadth and moderation of government which was so specially distinctive of them both. The famous treatise On the Love of God which Saint Francis de Sales wrote specifically for his spiritual daughter and her early companions, might well be called The Book of the Visitation as a second title, for it embodies all the elements of the plan upon which the spirituality of that Institute is built – the love of God, reasoned and generous, finding its expression in a characteristic manner of prayer by simple committal of oneself to Him.

It would, however, be quite a mistake to think of Saint Jane Frances de Chantal as one whose path to sanctity was somehow smoothed of all the asperity, the labour and pain and anxiety, which the history of the saints at all times in the Church has taught us to regard as an integral factor of their development. Indeed, she stands out as a specially striking example of what those souls who give themselves wholeheartedly to God must pay in the implementing of their sacrifice. It is known, as well from her own letters as from the testimony of Mere de Chaugy, her intimate associate and first biographer, that not just now and then but actually for the greater part of her religious life she suffered constant torments of darkness and aridity, and a kind of formless interior terror which agonised her soul and body. Thus does God sift and search and dredge the souls of those who put themselves unreservedly into His hands, for only thus can they be brought to that condition of purgation from all self-seeking which they much reach if He is to possess them. Yet, true to the spirit of Saint Francis, so akin to her own, so little did she let her inward anguish disturb the peace and the humble dignity of her outward demeanour and of her dealings with others, that no one but those who were in her confidence could have so much as guessed at what she had to endure. Let Saint Vincent de Paul speak, who at the request of Saint Francis de Sales became her director during the three years in which she governed the Paris Foundation. “She was full of faith,” he wrote, “and yet all her life long she had been tormented by temptations against it. While apparently enjoying that peace and ease of mind which comes to souls who have reached a high state of virtue, she suffered such interior trials that she often told me how she dreaded to look within herself, for the sight of her own soul horrified her as if it were an image of Hell. But for all that suffering her face never lost its serenity, nor did she once relax in the fidelity that God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls that I have ever met on this earth.”

– article from The Tablet, 13 December 1941