As Catholics, we are fortunate to have the saints. We can look to them as models of virtue and ask for their intercessory prayer.
We know that they, too, were human and lived their own vocations while on this earth.
On August 12th we celebrate the feast of St. Jane de Chantal (1572 – 1641) who is a wonderful advocate for all who wish to live their lives with purpose and Christ-like devotion.
St. Jane de Chantal was a mother, a sister, a foundress, and a nun after she was widowed.
In all of these roles, not just in her religious one, she exhibited many virtues. Yet two virtues stand out: reason and charity.
These two virtues are especially important in today's world. St. Thomas Aquinas said that we need our reason in order to act prudently: “Prudence above all requires that man be an apt reasoner.”
Reason is the part of our intellect that takes universal truths and applies them to particular circumstances. We do this every day when we take a set of facts and put them together to form a decision about the specific action we need to take. To reason from a premise to a conclusion drives all of our actions, taking the basic form of “This, therefore that."
With so much confusion in the world today, we must pray for the virtue of reason and seek to foster it in our vocations.
Charity, too, is an essential virtue. While much has been written about charity, it is often overlooked as a virtue that must be lived in practical ways each day. It is also a misunderstood virtue. Some people think that is it charitable to avoid hurting someone's feelings at all costs.
But that is not the definition of charity. Instead, Charity is
the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own "to the end," he makes manifest the Father's love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church
We see these two virtues of reason and charity manifested in the life of St. Jane de Chantal.
Before we look at how she displayed them, let's look at a sketch of her life so we can better understand who she was.
The Life of St. Jane de Chantal
St. Jane de Chantal was born in Dijon, France, to the noble class. Her father was the president of the Parliament of Burgundy, and therefore she was raised in the aristocracy. A pious and devout child, Jane eagerly learned her catechism and spoke as child about devoting her life to God. Uncommon for women in her day, she demonstrated a mind that was “strong, firm, and full of force", which according to her biographer was probably due to being raised by her father. When Jane was only eighteen months old her mother died. Her father gave her the best of educations suited to her intelligence and capabilities, and Jane grew into an attractive woman of fine character: mature, confident, and cheerful. Yet it was how well she used her intelligence that stood out.
Her father arranged her marriage to the young Baron de Chantal. He was a good man—the couple was well matched—and Jane moved into their ancestral castle in Bourbilly, France. While their marriage was a happy one, they immediately had considerable debt due to Jane's father-in-law who allowed his estates to fall into decline after the death of his wife. To make matters worse, just three months into their marriage Jane’s husband was called away to serve in the court of King Henry IV. Jane was placed in complete charge of all her husband's affairs in his absence.
Jane rose admirably to the challenge. While she had much work to do to put Château de Bourbilly in good order, she not only managed the material affairs well, she also strove to inspire faith and virtue in the lives of those who worked with her and many took notice. She strove to assist those under her charge in not only physical but spiritual ways as well. For example, she had daily Mass restored in the castle’s chapel, and moved the time to early morning so that the farmers and servants could attend. She sewed alongside her female servants and taught them their catechism as they worked. At the end of each day she had everyone in her household give an account of their day’s work. Afterwards they would recite evening prayers. She made sure she met with each of her servants on a monthly basis to examine their work, receive their feedback, and give them her orders. She also wrote down her orders to ensure they were clear and carefully followed.
Not surprisingly, life at Bourbilly began to flourish. Jane exhibited the virtue of reason and it seemed she brought harmony and peaceful order wherever she went . In fact, she managed her affairs so well that the happiness at Château de Bourbilly was increased, and her good reputation spread.
Whenever Jane arranged events at Bourbilly she always took special care to have Mass said in the chapel so that her guests would be reminded of their obligation to God. Said one of her biographers, "She made the cause of religion pleasant and acceptable to those whom worldliness and a careless life had caused to stray from her paths.”
Jane also managed her household provisions so that she could meet the needs of the poor and infirm of her neighborhood. After taking her dinner in the castle, she would serve food to the poor in the castle courtyard. When her neighbors became sick, she would visit them with food and medicine, so that “It became a common saying with the poor at Bourbilly that it was a good thing to be sick, that the baroness might come and see them.” All of this activity was training Jane for the future that God had prepared for her.
Unfortunately, Jane’s happy life changed to one of great sorrow when it seemed that one by one God removed all the people in her life to whom she was dearly attached. Already being deprived of her mother and mother-in-law, her first two children died soon after childbirth, and her only sister, to whom she was very close, also died.
Death of Her Husband
She was blessed with four more children, dedicating each of them to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But soon after she gave birth to her fourth child, Jane’s entire life was turned upside down when the tragedy of death struck again. A friend, M. d’Anlezy, had come to visit her husband, and the two went out for a hunt. As they were walking M. d’Anlezy accidentally fired his gun, mortally wounding the Baron de Chantal. Jane, who had been reasonable, calm, and in complete possession of herself all her life, was crushed under the weight of this unbearable blow.
“Madame de Chantal lost all her self-control, burst into hysterical sobs and cries, violently approaching M. d’Anlezy for his carelessness and folly.”
Baron de Chantal suffered from his wound for nine agonizing days. During that time he persuaded Jane to see God’s hand in the accident, and to forgive M. d’Anlezy. He heroically offered his sufferings to God, and, in the prime of his life, passed into eternity.
Jane was inconsolable. She who had always attended to her husband with the greatest possible care lost him due to someone’s careless error. A dark shadow was cast over her mind and she struggled to forgive M. d’Anlezy. She descended into a suffocating depression.
She remained in this state for four months, which she described as “a sinking of the soul into the lowest depths of depression and grief.” Only the thought of her children, and her faith in God, roused her to take possession of herself once again. But her grief never left.
“And the next portion of her history, as she says herself, was divided between inward peace and intense suffering. She had gone down into the deep waters, and they had flowed over her soul; but during the passage of the floods she had anchored her soul for ever upon the strong rock which lay beneath, and thenceforward it was never moved.”
Jane heroically put her reason back in charge of her emotions. Resolving never to marry again, she made a vow of perpetual chastity to devote her life to God. She then set about preparing herself for widowhood. She reordered her household and gave herself entirely to prayer, to the raising of her children, and service to the poor. Her grief was so intense, however, and her interior life felt so disordered, that she began to ask God to send her a spiritual director to help her.
One day, while walking the grounds of her castle, she had a waking vision of a man, dressed in bishop’s clothing, whom she understood that God would send to be her spiritual director.
Jane’s life was rocked further when her father-in-law demanded that she abandon Château de Bourbilly and come to live with him at his castle. He threatened to remarry and disinherit her children if she did not comply. Jane was distraught at this command, not only because Bourbilly was her beloved home of happy memory with her husband, but because her father-in-law lived a dissolute life. He was an ill-tempered man, he lived with a mistress, and his estates were badly managed. This was far from an ideal environment for Jane to raise her children. However, reason told her it was her duty to assist her aging father-in-law and to preserve her children’s inheritance, despite how much he repulsed her. She commended herself to God and hoped for the best, perhaps imagining that she would put his estate in order as she had done at Bourbilly.
Her Friendship with St. Francis de Sales
A year into this new and unpleasant life, Jane’s father invited her to visit him in Dijon to hear the Lenten sermons of a famous visiting preacher, the Bishop of Geneva. Jane arrived at the church on the first Sunday of Lent just in time to hear his first sermon. When she saw the visiting bishop, St. Francis de Sales, she immediately recognized the man whom she had once seen in a vision.
The holy bishop became Jane’s spiritual director, and for the first time she found rest for her tormented mind. Jane found in St. Francis the guidance and understanding that she needed. St. Francis was astonished by Jane’s uncommon virtue; he recognized that God had great designs for her soul, and that he was the one called to help her advance in holiness. He gave Jane a simple rule of life to follow which brought her interior peace and lead her to greater perfection. He also took care to point out the faults she was susceptible to when her acute reason went too far, to the detriment of others.
Francis also gently noted the signs of Jane’s depression that still lingered five years after the loss of her husband, encouraging her to abandon herself more completely to God’s will for her in the losses that she suffered. For his part, St. Francis took delight in finding Jane’s soul to be the rarest of jewels.
"I cannot speak but with respect of this most holy soul which combines profound humility with a very broad and very capable mind. She is simple and sincere as a child, of a lofty and solid judgement. A great soul with a courage for holy undertakings ..."
—St. Francis de Sales
After years of guiding Jane to greater virtue and holiness, Francis shared with her his idea of founding a new religious order, the Congregation of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He intended it to be an active religious order dedicated to good works after the example of the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth. The order was unique in that they would accept women who were turned down by other convents due to age or infirmity. Francis wanted Jane to assist him in this foundation not only because it was innovative for the time, but also because he needed her strength and prudence to manage it while he attended to his duties in Geneva. “God has given her to me,” he said. “She has come to be my daughter in order that I may teach her to die to the world and to live to Jesus Christ."
However, Jane first had to discharge her domestic duties, and give an account for each of them to her father before she could obtain his permission to enter the religious life. Her father questioned her carefully about her plans, in the presence of St. Francis de Sales, to see if she had thought through every detail.
She answered her father’s questions categorically, going fully into [...] a minute statement of her stewardship of the property, her husband’s debts owed and discharged, the different rentals and the value of the land, and the whole sources and prospects of her children’s inheritance.. And all this she did with such clearness and such precision, such sagacity and firmness, and at the same time such genuine modesty in regard to any lauding of herself, that her father, who really knew her well, was amazed.
Jane became the Mother Superior of the Visitation sisters, employing everything she had learned from her previous experience in her domestic life. Due to her good management, Jane found no shortage of donors to support their efforts, and the foundation grew rapidly. Her special virtue of reason shone so brightly that the nobility flocked to her reception room to seek her counsel for their private affairs.
Death still continued to haunt Jane in religious life, however. She suffered the tragic deaths of three of her four children, her father and father-in-law, many close friends, and some of her spiritual daughters. Jane’s sorrow threatened her ability to perform her duties, but she did not allow her grief to conquer her mind. She prayed this fiat every day:
O my Lord Jesus Christ, I desire never again to choose for myself! Touch that chord in my lute that is pleasing to Thyself, and it shall ever and for ever give back this single sound: “Yes, Lord Jesus, may Thy will be done, with no ifs, with no buts, with no exceptions, whether it be for fathers, for children, for myself, and for all other things whatsoever.”
—St. Jane de Chantal
When St. Francis de Sales died, she was given even greater challenges. Not only was she deprived of the consolation and guidance that he uniquely gave her, but the government of her religious order was laid entirely on her shoulders.
Upon her it now depended to carry on his work; to defend it against attacks from without and dangers within; to expound the rules, and provide for their observance; [...] and, what was most difficult of all, to sustain the vigour of the institute while multiplying its foundations. But for all these arduous tasks Mother de Chantal showed herself prepared, and she promptly took her measures accordingly.
She traveled throughout France establishing more than eighty new religious houses, and she managed every detail, along with the spiritual direction of her sisters, with the greatest possible care just as she had done all her life.
Like other saints, Jane de Chantal dealt with interior darkness. “In the last nine years of her life, she was brought fresh interior trials and temptations so filled her mind that she compared her mind to a field swarming with frightful reptiles, which she could neither drive out nor destroy. [...] Thus was the force and power of this grand soul seemingly beaten down for a time by the same fatherly hand which had built it up to such vast and noble proportions. She seemed unable to see anything clearly for herself, after having been so full of light and wisdom for others.”
Jane fought valiantly through her darkness, and remained cheerful with her sisters. She used the example of her own life to prepare them for the sacrifices they must be prepared to make for the love of God.
"Yield yourself fully to God, and you will find out what form your martyrdom will take! Divine love takes its sword to the hidden recesses of our inmost soul and divides us from ourselves."
—St. Jane de Chantal
St. Jane holding the Sacred Heart
The Virtue of Reason
Reason is employed when we put aside our emotions in order to do those tasks which God puts in front of us. To use our reason well doesn't mean we can’t express our emotions; it simply means that our emotions must be properly ordered.
When our emotion is put in its proper place, we will be much more available to the emotional life of others.
As a young mother, Jane realized that she showed her sorrow far too much, which was negatively affecting the happiness of her children. Young children cannot usually process the deep sorrow of adults for any extended period of time.
Jane resolved that she would change her behavior and her countenance—and she succeeded. She obliged herself, as it were, to practice cheerfulness, to smile at her children and her friends, to speak in a brighter tone, and to use encouraging and hopeful words, instead of saying sad and depressing things. She could keep her sorrow for God, sharing everything with Him, while offering others the gift of joy.
This was not easy at first, but Jane found that when she made it a habit, it eventually became more natural and was of great service to her own mind and spiritual progress.
The Virtue of Charity
In the life of St. Jane de Chantal we clearly see a true witness of charity. One example helps us to see how even in small ways she showed a charitable spirit. Since Jane liked to rise early to recite her prayers, she at first would ask her maid to awake her before 5 AM, light a fire, and help her prepare for the day. However, in order to not oversleep for these duties, her maid would lie awake for hours.
In spiritual direction, St. Francis de Sales told Jane that if she wished to be up so early, she should light her own fire and do all she needed herself, and that the great living law of charity must even come before her meditation and morning reading. After speaking to St. Francis about the matter, St. Jane de Chantal allowed her maid sleep in peace. Each morning Jane awoke and lit the fire, made her bed, and swept her room like a nun in her cell, and then devoted the next hours to prayer and reading. Only then, after her prayers and morning routine was complete, did she call on her maid for help with the many household chores.
We Must Rise to the Occasion
God had a unique mission for St. Jane in founding one of the earliest examples of an active religious order, and He prepared her well for it in the circumstances that He sent to her. He does the same for us. He knows the future He has marked out for us, the greatness of which we can scarcely imagine. It is up to us to rise to the occasion.
All of us are called to live our vocations virtuously. Like St. Jane de Chantal, we must let good reasoning be our guide in choosing the best way to execute our duties and love our neighbor. This is not always easy to do. Every time we give in to our emotions, we choose against reason. We say the sharp word when we know it would be better to hold our tongue; we cut corners when we know it will make things worse; we choose comfort when we know it would be better to make the sacrifice; and on and on. Instead, we should recognize our own weaknesses and tendencies to certain strong emotions—such as anger, fear, or resentment—and when we feel them rising up within us, we can ask ourselves the following questions: “What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this? Is this emotion appropriate to the circumstances? What is the best way to respond?”
With this simple practice we can prevent our emotions from controlling us.
Charity, too, is a necessary virtue that must be fostered and practiced even when it does not necessarily come naturally to us. In St. Jane de Chantal we have a wonderful example of charity and we can pray to her for help in all of the occurrences of life which demand both reason and charity.
A Prayer to St. Jane de Chantal
St. Jane de Chantal, God blessed you with a wonderful mind, and you used your reason to arrange all your circumstances harmoniously, especially the care of your household and your religious order, even when your mind was wracked with depression and torments. Please pray for us to practice the virtue of reason as you did, so that we can serve God and our neighbor with greater charity, and join you in heaven for all eternity. Amen.