The Word Among Us

October 2019 Issue

A Heart United with God

St. Jane de Chantal’s quest for spiritual freedom.

By: Jill A. Boughton

A Heart United with God: St. Jane de Chantal’s quest for spiritual freedom. by Jill A. Boughton

Jane de Chantal was at the lowest point in her life. Widowed at age twenty-nine, she faced caring for four small children alone. The hunting accident that had claimed the life of her husband, Christopher, left her with a large estate to administer and the future of her family to worry about. There were other burdens: a controlling father-in-law, social pressure to remarry, and her own paralyzing grief. Jane desperately wanted to flee France altogether to join a convent, but with so many dependents, this was out of the question.

Yet it is remarkable that during this low point in Jane’s life, she began to discover greater spiritual freedom. Despite how negative her circumstances and emotions were, Jane tried to keep loving God and other people to the fullest of her ability. No matter how intense her unmet desires or how consistently they were thwarted, she prayerfully turned to the Lord, seeking his help to serve and to obey him without sinning. Amidst all of the constraints, she became “free” in her heart: free to flourish, free to love, and free to serve God each new day.

Misery at Monthelon. In the year 1601, Jane was still nursing her youngest daughter, born around the time her husband was shot. She struggled through several months of deep depression and rejected marriage proposals from hopeful suitors, firmly believing that God wanted her to remain single.

Meanwhile, her life as a widow became much more challenging. Her tyrannical father-in-law threatened to disinherit his grandchildren unless the family moved to his estate, Monthelon, forty miles to the south. Under pressure, Jane agreed. But Baron Guy was irascible and hard to please. His mistress resented the newcomer, but soon Jane was caring for this woman’s five children and other young relatives. Although her father-in-law gave her only an attic room, she gathered medical supplies and began nursing sick servants and neighbors. It was an unhappy time, but Jane chose to respond with patience and kindness. In order to keep herself from being absorbed with her own frustrations, she looked for opportunities to meet other people’s needs. This helped to quell any resentment that might have surfaced.

Seeking Good Advice. In her heart, though, Jane was restless. She longed to discover the will of God for her future. It seemed unlikely that the mess at Monthelon was her “true calling.” Feeling perplexed, she asked a priest at a nearby Catholic shrine to be her spiritual director. He made her solemnly promise to obey his every command and to consult no one else. Then he gave her a heavy dose of daily prayers and penances. The regimen interfered with Jane’s household duties at Monthelon, but she obeyed the priest scrupulously. Yet she wasn’t any closer to discovering God’s will.

In March 1604, Jane’s father, Benigne, invited her to spend time with him in Dijon. They went to hear a Lenten sermon by Francis de Sales, the young bishop of Geneva, Switzerland. Jane sat close to the pulpit and listened attentively while Francis preached. Almost immediately, she wanted to seek spiritual direction from Francis, but she was concerned about keeping her promise to the other priest.

During Holy Week they met briefly. Francis told her that a director’s role was not to make someone dependent on him but to help her freely discover what God was saying to her. For the first time in months, Jane felt like she could breathe again. Soon there was more happy news. After taking time to pray about it, Francis agreed to be her spiritual director. The future St. Francis de Sales, author of the spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life, remained Jane’s friend and spiritual coworker for the next twenty years, mostly by way of written correspondence.

“O Lord, how happy that day was for me!” Jane wrote. “I could feel my soul turn completely around and step right out of its inward imprisonment.” No longer burdened by excessive devotions, she was free to bring the movements of her heart before God and her new spiritual director.

“Do Everything with Love.” It didn’t take long for Jane to reveal her most burning desire to Francis: she wished to consecrate herself to God as a religious sister. Like many serious Christians of that time, Jane regarded family life as an inferior vocation, but since her children still needed her, Jane felt it would be years before she could begin living out her “true” vocation.

Francis listened sympathetically, then smiled and told Jane that her role as mother and daughter-in-law wasn’t something she had to endure until she could really do God’s will. She could embrace it as God’s present will for her. When Jane asked him for a “rule of life” in her widowhood, he replied, “Do everything with love, nothing because you feel forced to do it. . . . I want to let your spirit have its freedom. I leave the choices up to you.”

Jane took his direction to heart. “I remained as he had taught me, resting in God’s hands. . . . I refused to be concerned with idle promises of the tranquility, attractiveness, and obvious merit of the religious life. Instead, I tried to offer my heart empty of any other affection except that of . . . love.” In deliberately turning her attention from unfulfilled desires to her present reality, Jane was empowered to see the people directly before her as those God was calling her to love. She was freed from the distraction of worrying about her future. This allowed her to serve God peacefully and joyfully in the present.

Entering Religious Life. Gradually, Jane found a good school, marriage, or a convent for each of her children. This freed her to explore joining a religious order herself. In June 1607, she and Francis met to discuss her future. Jane was prepared to enter whatever order her director might recommend. But Francis surprised her by proposing something unforeseen: that they cofound a new religious congregation.

Nearly all religious orders of that time were cloistered and followed a strict rule of prescribed prayer, fasting, and hard work. The new congregation that Francis envisioned would send sisters into the town to serve those who were sick and poor. Of course they would pray together in a formal way, but they would also try to remain in God’s presence as they did chores or works of mercy. The congregation would eventually be named the Visitation, since Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth was both active and contemplative in nature. Jane welcomed the idea and the two began making arrangements.

On Trinity Sunday 1610, the first four sisters moved into a house in Annecy, Savoy, not far from Bishop Francis’ see of Geneva, Switzerland. Jane was careful to make the convent a pleasant place where each woman’s temperament and abilities were taken into account.

She wrote, “One must expect from each personality only what can be obtained with gentleness. . . . In this way we can keep our sisters in that holy and desirable liberty of spirit which is necessary for their growth.” Jane tried to be an example of charity by working alongside the sisters in whatever chores she assigned them. And she taught them to remain unattached to particular circumstances by having them exchange their few personal possessions, even their patron saints, every year. The congregation thrived. By the end of the first year, they numbered a dozen.

Welcoming a New Vision. In 1617, Cardinal de Marquemont invited the Visitation Sisters to open a convent in Lyons. But he stipulated that they be recognized as an official religious order. And instead of going out to serve the poor, he insisted that they remain cloistered.

Jane couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning her original vision for the congregation. She begged Francis “to write a word to the archbishop in strong ink.” Francis prayed long and hard before doing anything. By the time he had discerned that this change of direction was God’s will for the Visitation order, Jane too was at peace. Separately, they had come to the same conclusion. “Suddenly we found ourselves differently inclined and with a great desire for cloister,” Jane wrote.

Confident in Christ and faithful to prayer, Jane accepted the cardinal’s decision not with resignation but with actual unity of heart. She was able to see that her initial reaction had flowed from her own self-will, not prayerful submission to God.

Each Visitation convent was under its local bishop. But they remained in close contact, treating the original Annecy house as a respected “elder sister.” Although there was no superior over the whole order, Jane too acted as “elder sister,” tirelessly visiting various convents to give gentle direction and to participate in community life. Her favorite role was “caller,” waking the others for morning prayer.

Freedom First and Last. In 1641, Jane finally stepped down from all her responsibilities. At first the other sisters tried to heap on honors and privileges, but she insisted on a humbler role. She had felt far from the Lord for several years, but in the last year of her life, Christ’s presence again became tangible. She savored the simple freedom of being his beloved daughter.

So how did Jane grow into the full freedom of a daughter of God?

Mostly it took place in the quiet of her heart. Jane did not let other people’s difficult temperaments or unwelcome decisions chip away at her own relationship with God. Without downplaying her emotions or ignoring her desires, she examined the sources of her discontent and brought them honestly to God in prayer. Often she discovered that she could fulfill her deepest desires—to love God and to serve the people around her—even when things weren’t going her way. In all circumstances she remained free to be joyful, kind, and grateful; this was Jane’s hidden quest and her ultimate victory.

Jill A. Boughton writes from South Bend, Indiana.