Unforgiveness, bitterness, resentment, and anger are like the four walls of a prison cell. Forgiveness is the key that opens the door and lets you out.”
This statement is from Robert Enright, a Catholic psychology professor and trailblazer in the scientific study of forgiveness. However, it wouldn’t be a bit surprising to find these words in the writings of St. Jane de Chantal, who founded the Visitation Order with St. Francis de Sales in 1610.
Jane is one of those saints who shows us how powerfully God can work when we break out of the narrow cell of our grudges and self-pity. She knew from experience how crucial it is to forgive—and how difficult.
Like all of us, Jane faced the ordinary challenges to forgiveness in everyday life. She was also tested by the slander, conflict, and opposition she encountered as she launched a new kind of religious community. But on at least three occasions even before she entered religious life, Jane suffered a hurt or injustice that called for a heroic response. Each time—and not without a struggle—she found and used the “key” of forgiveness and stepped into greater freedom.
Forgiving Christopher. For almost nine years, Jane was a wife and mother who never dreamed of becoming a nun. Her marriage—to Baron Christopher de Rabutin-Chantal, a soldier and courtier in the service of Henry IV, the king of France—was arranged by her father. He chose wisely, thought Jane’s first biographer, who knew her well: the two were “perfectly suited” and had “every quality considered admirable and necessary among the nobility.” Well, maybe not every quality. Although the spouses came to love one another dearly, Christopher had rough edges.
Descriptions of the young couple’s life at the castle of Bourbilly, the large estate that Christopher inherited, often come across as a fairy-tale mix of domestic joys, glittering social events, and exemplary practice of the faith. What usually goes unmentioned is that Christopher, who was known as a ladies’ man in his bachelor days, had an illegitimate child. And according to Sr. Marie-Patricia Burns, a Visitandine nun who thoroughly researched the civil records, the little girl, known only as Claudine, was most likely conceived after his marriage.
Jane loved her husband “madly” and was surely not consoled by knowing that many noblemen had affairs. How much she suffered over his unfaithfulness we will never know. Her response to this affair, however, can tell us a lot.
Like many a spouse who is cheated on, Jane could have withdrawn and given Christopher the cold shoulder. She could have retaliated by taking a lover. An attractive woman, she had no lack of suitors. She could have vented her anger indirectly, by reproaching Christopher for all she had to do when he was away at court or in battle: raise their children, manage the estate’s farmlands and workers, and repay the debts Christopher had incurred before marrying. But Jane chose a different path. Strengthened by her prayer life and daily Mass attendance, she chose to forgive.
Christopher, for his part, chose not to be a deadbeat dad. Rather than abandoning his illegitimate daughter, as many would have done, he assumed responsibility for Claudine’s welfare. So did Jane. She took the girl into her home, raised her with her own children, and gave her a mother’s love. In later years, she arranged a good marriage for Claudine and took a lasting interest in her two daughters.
Instead of making life miserable for her husband, Jane won his heart. Her forgiveness and kindness, in fact, laid the foundation for a home so happy that Christopher took an early retirement from active service. He wanted to be with Jane, he explained in a parting sonnet to the king’s court. Worldly splendors paled beside the virtues of his beloved wife.
Forgiving the Neighbor. The neighbor was Baron Louis d’Anlezy, and he was also Christopher’s cousin and close friend. He stopped in at Bourbilly one fall day in 1601 to suggest a hunting expedition.
Christopher, retired for less than a year, had just recovered from a serious illness. In the peace and quiet of home, his thoughts were turning more seriously to God and to the purpose of life. As Jane nursed him back to health, they had long conversations about putting God first in their lives.
They were helping one another to holiness, as married couples should, and growing to be “one heart and one soul.” Even so, Christopher couldn’t get his wife to discuss how he or she might best serve the Lord once they were widowed. He suggested that they make a mutual promise not to remarry in order to focus totally on God. But Jane always changed the subject. She just didn’t want to consider a future without her husband.
With d’Anlezy’s invitation, however, the prospect Jane dreaded became reality. As the two men crept through the woods, the neighbor’s gun went off accidentally. Mortally wounded, Christopher offered forgiveness immediately: “I’m dying, my dear cousin, my friend. I forgive you with all my heart. You didn’t mean it. . . . Don’t commit the sin of hating yourself when you haven’t done anything wrong.”
He asked for a priest and sent for Jane, who had given birth to their last child only two weeks before. She came running, distraught and furious with d’Anlezy. “Please,” Christopher told her, ”let us respect heaven’s providence.” Jane couldn’t imitate his resignation. Wild with grief, she prayed, “Lord, take everything I have, my family, my goods, my children, but spare this dear husband whom you have given me.”
Christopher died nine agonizing days later, after doing all he could to help Jane forgive d’Anlezy. (He even had his pardon noted in the parish records so that no one would prosecute his cousin.) Afterwards, Jane was assaulted by depressive feelings and began experiencing “distressing temptations” and doubts about faith—attacks that would recur for the rest of her life. Despite Christopher’s urging and example, she could not forgive his accidental killer.
To anyone who feels stuck in grief and resentment, Jane would probably say, Don’t let it fester. Get help from a wise, trustworthy friend. That’s what finally happened some time after Lent 1604, when Francis de Sales became her spiritual advisor. Knowing Jane’s limitations, the wise bishop of Geneva didn’t insist that she go out of her way to see d’Anlezy. But he urged her not to avoid “the poor man” if someone else arranged a meeting. And when that occasion arose, Francis wrote Jane: “I want your heart to be gentle, gracious, and compassionate, even though I know without any doubt that it will be distressed, that your blood will boil.”
After more than four years of refusing to see Baron d’Anlezy, Jane finally gave him the forgiveness he had sought for so long. And to show she meant it, she even became godmother to his child.
Forgiving the In-Laws. Jane’s third great test began in 1602, while she was still shunning d’Anlezy. It arose when Christopher’s elderly father, Baron Guy, threatened to disinherit her children unless she moved into his castle of Montheleon to take care of him. What choice did Jane have? She was twenty-eight, with four children under six (five children, counting Claudine) and no other way to provide for their future. She complied, but her almost eight-year stay was “a purgatory,” she later admitted.
Guy was irascible and demanding, but Jane’s main challenge was his mistress, a jealous and domineering servant who had borne him five children. She ran everything, squandering and mismanaging as she oversaw the grand lifestyle that the baron liked. Overnight, Jane went from revered queen of her own home to a Cinderella in someone else’s.
She suffered, but in her grief and darkness, Jane felt the Lord’s presence. Sensing that he was calling her to greater intimacy with him, she looked for someone to guide her. There was an alarming false start—a pushy monk who imposed harsh practices and demanded absolute secrecy and loyalty. But when Francis de Sales took over, he advised Jane to be patient, wait for God’s timing, and serve him wholeheartedly in the difficult circumstances of her life. “Try to make yourself more agreeable and humble every day . . . and work gently toward their salvation,” he wrote her.
Jane had already accepted her difficult living situation, but encouraged by Francis, she renewed her efforts to do all the good that was within her reach. She raised her children well and taught and dressed the mistress’ neglected brood, too. She looked after Guy with patience and sensitivity. She took care of people in the neighborhood who were sick.
Won over by Jane’s goodness, Guy eventually softened; he had a peaceful end and died in communion with the Church. Jane, who was charged with putting his affairs in order, offered his mistress one last, concrete gesture of forgiveness. Even as she saw to her own children’s inheritance, she made sure that the woman was not cheated out of anything that Guy had left her in his will. “We must render good for evil and provide for her necessities,” said Jane.
Glorious Freedom. Jane had plenty more opportunities to practice forgiveness in the thirty-one years of religious life that followed. But these three experiences were formative. Each one was like a jailbreak, releasing mercy into her relationships and freeing her from crippling anger and bitterness. Each one helped her to move ahead into areas where she could be fruitful and creative.
Each act of forgiveness led Jane deeper into “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Over time, she became a living, breathing expression of gentleness, mercy, and compassion toward others. Jane de Chantal had become like Jesus.
Word Among Us editor Louise Perrotta is grateful for the information she found in Friendship, Forgiveness, and the Founders of the Salesian Tradition, by Marie-Patricia Burns, VHM (De Sales Resource Center).