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Learning from the saints: Jane de Chantal revisited

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 16, 2020

St. Jane de Chantal was a seventeenth-century noble woman, in a region variously shared by France, Italy and Switzerland, who, with remarkable amiability and impressive administrative skills, was successively a wife who managed a huge estate, a mother, a widow, and the foundress of the rapidly-expanding Congregation of the Visitation of Holy Mary (Visitandines), under the direction of St. Francis de Sales.

The last time I mentioned St. Jane Frances de Chantal was in a discussion of unusual situations in which those who were later canonized had separated from their spouses or children on the road to sanctity (Ecclesiastical judgment: Saints who left spouse or children for consecrated life?). As I have noted before, the common hagiographical tactic of explaining that questionable behavior in the early lives of the saints is always justified by God’s will misses the point of what it means to become holy. This is demonstrated quite clearly by St. Augustine in his own autobiography, The Confessions. Here is a Church Father who disabuses us of any notions of instant holiness.

Whichever way we jump, however, our judgments fail if tinged by presumption. In that earlier essay, I mentioned that, in departing to enter religious life, “St. Jane Frances de Chantal had to step over the tearful body of her fourteen year-old son to cross the threshold on her way out of the house.” But in the excellent biography of this saint written around 1980, André Ravier, SJ insists that this event has been over-dramatized. Ravier presents evidence, from Jeanne’s own recollection of the scene, that the young man (whom Ravier estimates at age 15) had deliberately staged a histrionic scene, beginning with a speech, at the moment of his mother’s departure, and that Jane, while moved, did not take it completely seriously, probably because the attendant problems had already been worked out without excessive concern.

The vagaries of human culture

Whatever the case, we must also consider the vagaries of “normal” human culture in each situation. Jane was a baroness in an era when lifelong arrangements for the children of the nobility were often made while they were very young. At the recommendation of relatives, Jane had already delayed her entry into religious life by two years so that she could put off settling the arranged match for her youngest daughter, at which point the girl would take up a role in the household of her future husband. From the fact that this meant postponing the matchmaking from when the girl was nine years old to the age of eleven, we can see that in the seventeenth century children were expected to grow up far more quickly than they do today, and among the nobility at least, they were seldom raised to adulthood by their own parents.

I am not arguing in favor of such arrangements; I only point out that many significant questions are approached differently in accordance with cultural expectations that can vary quite widely without great personal awareness, or even personal sin. In addition, historical judgments based on the conventions of our own time are always subject to reasonable doubt. Of course, we can still argue rationally about situations that are “better” or “worse”, given the imperfection of all human arrangements. But a certain level of personal and cultural humility is absolutely essential to the evaluation of the historical record.

Nonetheless, there is more to learn from history, and from the saints, than the myriad changes in our cultural experiences. Even Jane de Chantal’s spiritual director (St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva) was not well pleased when she literally carved the name of Jesus on her chest to avoid a too-persistent suitor while she was still a widow living in the world. There were many extremities of spiritual distress, some of them clearly temptations, which Jane had to learn to control and conquer in order to continue her spiritual growth. For example, she had to learn, under the superior spiritual direction which she finally received from Francis de Sales, that she suffered from scrupulosity.

Lessons from history

Moreover, we can sometimes be surprised by the remarkable similarity between problems faced in previous times and places and problems we are facing today. For example, the Bubonic Plague fiercely returned to Jane’s region of the world in 1629, and though men and women of that time would think it foolish to compare even this diminished version of the Plague with our own relatively feeble pandemic, it is interesting that people knew enough about contagion even then to make special provisions for the reception of the sacraments. I have many doubts about how the Church has responded to the Coronavirus, but the broad brush seldom stands up well against history, as when some have asserted that “never before, even under the most dire circumstances, have the bishops failed to uphold the normal administration of the sacraments”.

To the contrary, despite what may well be an exaggerated response in our own time, most problems have arisen more than once in the long history of the Church. Thus Fr. Ravier—quoting liberally from the Memoires of Saint Jane recorded by one of her spiritual daughters, Mother Françoise-Madeleine de Chaugy—wrote the following about the two years of the plague in and around the Visitandine motherhouse in Annecy:

“Our parlor was closed to everybody but the Bishop and his men, and yet they were the very ones most likely to put us at risk because they were always going in and out of the poor people’s wretched, plague-infested shanties”, but Mother de Chantal would never have permitted anyone to say a word about it. However, she did keep the almoner away. If one of the sisters needed to make her confession, he would have heard it but from a distance; and if one or another of them was to receive the Holy Viaticum, two pieces of the bread were provided so that he might place the consecrated Host between them, to be left in a place that had been prepared beforehand, where the Sister Infirmarian could get it and take it to the sick, “because in this country that was the way the Sacrament was given to those who had the plague.” [p. 165]

There are a hundred ways in which we may benefit from the lives of the saints, and I will not insist on my own method. I will say only this: It is generally more valuable to learn something of the cultures by which they were formed, to understand the challenges they faced along with their habitual faults, and to study the struggles through which they overcame them, than it is to assume they were granted a perfection from infancy that has so obviously not been granted to us.

My source: André Ravier, S.J., Saint Jeanne de Chantal (Ignatius Press, 1983, 231pp.) Out of print.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pamb9976 - Jul. 18, 2020 10:14 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this insight into the times in which St Jane lived. I knew that boys were sent to to homes of other knights to learn to be knights - away from their families - but I had never know girls were sent to the homes of their betrothed from the age of 9. What an eye opener! I was also surprised to hear that teen-aged boys haven't changed much over the centuries.