"Mother, I will not let you do this! You're still too young to throw your life away!"
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"Celse-Bénigne," said the widow, a woman of gentle countenance but firm in stature, "do you want to keep me from the call of the good God?"
The boy was dressed as befitted a courtier of the king of France. He was a favorite at court, as he was gallant and brave, and he never would leave a friend in the lurch. That meant that when he grew up he would be embroiled in many affaires d'honneur, or what we would call duels. He was generous, impetuous, all made of fire. His mother loved him to distraction.
"I've settled our worldly matters, Celse-Bénigne. You haven't been spending too much, have you?"
"No," said the son. "But this is madness! I won't let you go!" And he threw himself to the floor, lying across the threshold of what would become the first House of the Visitation. He wept.
The widow was deeply moved. "I am still a mother, after all," she said. But she stepped across him and entered the house. It was in Annecy, twenty miles south of Geneva.
The vision of a saint
Jane Frances, Baroness de Chantal, had made a vow of chastity to God after her husband died in a shooting accident, leaving her with four young children. That was in 1601. She longed for a spiritual director, and God granted her a vision of the man with whom she was to work until his death. She recognized him in the flesh in 1604: Saint Francis de Sales.
Recall that the followers of John Calvin had won over Switzerland and much of France, and in the gray city of Geneva there sounded no longer the bells of joy. Calvin had been a lawyer, and his theology followed the severity of his mind. It was manly, in a grim way; and neither the Swiss nor the French Huguenots could be won over by riches, laxity, and outward shows of religion. Francis de Sales had been made Bishop of Geneva, with his seat in Annecy. When he was a student he had almost lost his faith in despair at the thought that God might have predestined him to hell. But God brought him through that trial the more determined to delve deeply into mercy, to win the Calvinists back to the fold.
He and Jane Frances became close friends and collaborators. Her idea was to establish an order inspired by Mary's going to assist her elderly cousin Elizabeth when she was with child. They would not only visit the sick. They would take the infirm and the elderly into their ranks. Other orders of nuns followed rules that many women would find too taxing, physically; and some women simply did not feel moved to accept the severities. It was Mother de Chantal's inspiration to find a place for these women, and Francis de Sales' inspiration to found the new order upon a mild rule, establishing them as contemplatives rather than active in the world. He called them his "doves," from whose dovecote would come unceasing prayer for the Church.
When Mother de Chantal died in 1641, there were eighty-six of those homes for doves, spread throughout France.
Bringing the heart into discipline
If the Sisters of the Visitation did not have to pray the full divine office every day, and did not subject themselves to great periods of fasting, that did not mean there was no discipline. Both Jane Frances and Francis de Sales believed that if these sisters were less able to endure trials of the flesh, so much the more determinedly should they mortify the spirit.
In her letters we find her always recommending virtues that we often neglect. "May God give us genuine humility, sweetness, and submission," she writes to another superior, "for with these virtues there is truth, but without them usually deception." To a mistress of novices she says that we do well not to dwell on our feelings. "What does it matter if you are dense or stolid or over-sensitive? Anyone can see that this is all self-love seeking its satisfaction. For the love of God let me hear no more of it: love your own insignificance and the most holy will of God which has allotted it to you."
When we are humble we can more easily open ourselves up to the love of our neighbor. Jane Frances returns to that charity again and again, recalling how Francis de Sales won men to the truth as much by humility as by learning. "If our Sisters really love their holy Founder," she says, "they will prove it not only by the attention and pleasure with which they read his writings, for all the world delights in them, but also by faithfully carrying out his teachings. [They should practice above all] that incomparable love and sweetness towards their neighbor, that profound humility and lowliness of which he was so great a lover, and which put him at enmity with all ostentation."
But she was also a woman of passionate charity, and she never hesitated to express her admiration for the love she found in others. To an angelic girl of eighteen years, Sister Claire-Marie-Françoise de Cusance, now known as Saint Stanislaw Kostka of the Visitation, who at the time of the letter was dying of the plague, Jane Frances writes: "My dearest daughter: Your letter fills me with tender compassion, but it also gives me very real comfort, seeing how joyfully God is enabling you to make your passage through this life to him. You will love and adore him in an eternity of glory, for this is the only good that is worth setting our hearts upon." And she begs her to do her the great kindness of speaking of her to God when she sees him.
It was surely no coincidence that another sister of the Visitation, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, would bequeath to the Church her visions and her devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Family of souls
Jane Frances was always solicitous for the spiritual well-being of her children in the flesh, and that included her favorite, the scapegrace Celse-Bénigne. So she writes to the young baron, who must live in a world of temptation: "I beseech you, my own beloved son, since your condition obliges you to row on the tempestuous sea of this world, try never to swallow its waters, but drink rather of those of divine grace, turning in all your needs with a loving, filial trust to that source of mercy." One year later the baron died the death of a patriot and a Christian. On the morning of battle against the English in the Thirty Years' War, Celse-Bénigne prepared his soul by confession and the Blessed Sacrament. He led a troop of courtiers defending the fortress of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, on the west coast of France. This he did for six bitter hours, his body punched full of holes — twenty-six pike wounds. He "breathed his last," wrote a contemporary, "in sentiments of the most sincere piety."
It was no small skirmish. The English were trying to foment rebellion among the Protestant Huguenots in nearby La Rochelle against the royal government of France. Their failure led them to withdraw from the more general war, and that ensured that France would remain Catholic.
Meanwhile, after the death of Francis de Sales, Jane Frances found another guardian in his younger friend, Saint Vincent de Paul. From the Apostle of Gentleness she thus went to the Apostle of Charity, and so near to one another were the hearts of those two men that Jane Frances found no loss and no difference in spiritual direction. It was a remarkable conjunction of three most fervent and blessed souls. Here Jane Frances writes to Vincent, on the arrival at Annecy of five of his priests: "Praised be our divine Savior who for his great glory and the salvation of many souls has brought your dear children happily here…. We look upon them as our true brothers, with whom, in simple openheartedness and confidence we are as one, and they too feel this…. Truly they speak as if they were daughters of the Visitation."
One of the last letters she wrote before her death in 1641 was to another holy woman, Sister Louise-Angélique de la Fayette, at the Visitation convent in Paris. She was to become the spiritual advisor to Catholic royalty across Europe, from the hapless Charles II and James II of England, to Louis XIII and Louis XIV of France. To her the saint writes that she must restrain her desire to be confirmed in her growth in perfection, but rather wait upon God, performing her duties even "without sensible feeling," so that she will find the peace that comes from submitting wholly to God's designs, instead of insisting upon her own inclinations.
That was typical of both her motherly good sense and her deep humility. May we learn from her, and come to raise spiritual families in turn, to our own joy and the great glory of God.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2020 Magnificat
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