Thursday, 21 August 2008

Excellent Women: St Jane Frances de Chantal

How would you react if someone shot your husband? And no, the answer is not, ‘it depends on the husband'.

Though possibly, it depends on the wife. When one of the Baron de Chantal’s friends mistook him for a wild boar during a hunting party, his widow Jane Frances publically showed forgiveness to her husband’s killer by insisting that he act as sponsor for her son. But, Jane Frances ran a fairly remarkable household. When first married, she had found her husband’s home in disorder and near ruin due to his frequent absences at court and so, she decided to lead by example: morning and evening prayer, daily mass and taking all her servants to mass at the parish church every Sunday. The Baron was rather perturbed by his wife’s new regime, but she encouraged him to attend as much as possible, saying “"Nothing influences so much as example; and how can these poor people know their duties to God, if they do not see us fulfilling ours? How could they love religion, if they did not see us practising it ourselves?". Although, typically for the time, it had been an arranged marriage, they grew very fond of each other. On the rare occasions he was at home, she would relax her daily rule to arrange diversions and amusements. When he was away, she behaved and dressed so soberly that she was often criticized, but replied , "The eyes which I must please are a hundred miles from here".

A rich young widow might have been expected to marry again, but she would not and, in fact, took a vow of chastity. She became drawn to the religious life and decided to found her own order. The convent of the Order of the Visitation at Annecy was inaugurated, with Jane Frances as superior, by her spiritual director St Francis de Sales on Trinity Sunday 1610. This order, inspired by Francis de Sales’s insistence on humility and meekness rather than the austerity and ascetic practices of the time, made the religious life a possibility for a much wider number of women, especially widows, like Jane Frances herself, and those in poor health. Within thirty years, eighty six houses had been established. Originally the women had been intended to work in the outside world but the church authorities unfortunately forbade this on the grounds that unenclosed nuns were not respectable. Attitudes began to change quite soon after this as other founders had more success in establishing unenclosed orders.

But Jane Frances had to sacrifice her family life. When she decided to enter a convent, her two daughters had married, but her son was still only fifteen years old. When the time came for her to leave the family home, he threw himself across the threshold sobbing. This nearly broke her resolve, but she stepped over him. He grew up to be a trial, fighting so many duels that she used to pray that, if he were to die, it might be an honourable death in battle. Unfortunately, this was granted as he died fighting the English at l’Isle de Ré, leaving behind a young daughter, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, who was to become known as the Marquise de Sévigné.

St Jane Frances de Chantal is an inspiration to me because, rather than gaining a reputation for extreme acts of piety, or asceticism or even, one could say, fierceness, she drew others to faith by providing a moderate and humble example of a life devoted to God. This is perhaps reflected in St Francis de Sales’s advice to the sisters of the Visitation:

"If there be any sister so generous and courageous as to wish to attain perfection in a quarter of an hour by doing more than the Community does, I would advise her to humble herself and be content to become perfect in three days, following the same course as the rest. For a great simplicity must always be kept in all things: to walk simply, that is the true way for the daughters of the Visitation.”

She died on 13 December 1641 at the age of sixty nine and she is buried at Annecy. She was beatified in 1751 and canonized in 1767. This post comes a little late for her feast on the 12th of August, but just in time for its original date of the 21st.

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