Have you ever heard the phrase (though used less now with the rise of tablets and e-books): “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” I like this phrase very much because it reminds us of the difficulty we have with stereotypes – those conventional and often incorrect categorizations that many of us have and accept, at least initially, as true. In fact, if you looked at the holy card of St Jane de Chantal that prefaces this article, you may have thought “Oh, another article about a nun” – which is true enough as she along with St. Francis de Sales, founded the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in 1610 and she remained a Visitandine until her death in 1641. Jane de Chantal, however, was more than just a nun as, before entering religious life, she was also a baroness, wife, and mother. In these multiple vocations that she lived, Jane de Chantal transcended the stereotypes of her day.
Jane de Chantal was born in Dijon, France, in 1572. She was the second child of Bénigne Frémyot and Marguerite de Berbisey. Jane’s mother died shortly after giving birth to Jane’s younger brother, Andre, and Jane was raised by her father. A practical man, Bénigne Frémyot instilled in his daughter a lively Catholic faith as well as basic knowledge of practical, financial, and legal affairs necessary for running and managing an estate. In 1592, her father arranged a marriage between Jane and Christophe de Rabutin, the young Baron de Chantal. The couple had a happy marriage and six children, four of whom survived infancy. Since Baron de Chantal was a military officer and often away at the royal court, Jane was entrusted with the management of their estate at Bourbilly. Her management skills and fiscal abilities pulled the estate out of debt and restored order and stability to the family estate. Jane also worked to pass these skills on to her children, advising them during her entire life, such as when, later in life as a Visitandine she wrote to her daughter Françoise, now the Countess of Toulongeon: “Be sure to apply yourself to managing your household the very best way you know how. If I hadn’t the courage to do that myself, we never would have been able to go on living there.”
Jane’s happy life as Baroness de Chantal was short lived as Christopher was killed in a hunting accident in the autumn of 1601. Following his death, Jane resisted all suggestions of remarriage and instead sought solace in her faith and devoted herself to educating her children. In 1604, Jane and her children went to Dijon to visit her father and congratulate her younger brother Andre who was to be made Archbishop of Bourges. During this time, Jane went to a series of Lenten sermons preached by St. Francis de Sales. She was immediately attracted to his spiritual teachings and, after a few meetings, Francis became her spiritual director and future collaborator in the founding of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in 1610.
Like Jane de Chantal, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary also transcended stereotypes. From his ministry as bishop, Francis de Sales wished to establish a group of women who lived a balanced life of prayer and service both within their group and also with the poor and sick in the wider community. As Francis shared his ideas with Jane they together envisioned a new type of women’s religious community that would balance both the love of God, found within deep contemplative prayer, with love of neighbor, expressed within the community through virtuous living and outside the community through visits to the poor and sick. Membership in the community would be open to all women including widows, such as Jane, who occasionally needed to travel in order to settle the occasional family concern, as well as those whose health did not permit then to enter more austere religious orders.
Unfortunately for both Francis and Jane, this original plan for the Visitation lasted only while the community remained in Francis’s own diocese of Geneva. When they wished to expand the community to another diocese, the Visitation was restructured into a more formal religious community with the sisters formally cloistered and unable to leave the monastery to care for the poor and the sick. What was not changed, however, was Francis and Jane’s primary intent: to create a space for women to come together and live to Two Great Commandments by loving God through prayer and their neighbor, now understood as those in the monastic community, through the practice of charity and virtuous living.
Finally, it is safe to say that Salesian Spirituality draws from the the life and teachings of St. Jane de Chantal just as much as it draws from St. Francis de Sales. Their life long friendship was mutually enriching as it led them into deeper intimacy with God. From Francis, Jane de Chantal learned the path of spiritual freedom within her own life and that of the religious community she governed until her death. From Jane, Francis learned of her deep mystical experiences of God, which he later wrote of in the Treatise on the Love of God, and her own understanding of the devout life as expressed through her lived experiences as a Visitandine. To speak of Salesian Spirituality, then, is not to speak of St. Francis de Sales and his greatest “creation” in St. Jane de Chantal. Rather, it is to see two friends and spiritual companions who together lived and learned what it was to do God’s will promptly, frequently, and actively in their lives and the lives of those they directed and served.
Truly, one ought not to fall into stereotypes and judge a book (nor a holy card) by its cover! In and throughout her life as Baroness, wife, mother, nun, and co-founder Jane de Chantal transcends stereotypes as she, throughout her live, strove to “Live Jesus”!
~ Fr. Michael E. Newman, OSFS