Today we have the optional memorial of Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, a wife, mother, nun and founder of a religious community. I decided to celebrate this memorial because I think her story is one that is deeply encouraging.
Jane’s mother died when she was 18 years old, and her father became the influence on her life and education. At 21, she married Christophe, the Baron of Chantal, by whom she had six children, three of whom died in infancy. At her castle, she restored the custom of daily Mass, and was seriously engaged in various charitable works. She would offer a meal to the needy at her door. Often people who had just received food from her would pretend to leave, go around the house and get back in line for more. When asked why she let these people get away with this, Jane said, “What if God turned me away when I came back to him again and again with the same request?”
Jane’s husband was killed in a hunting accident after seven years of marriage, and she sank into a deep depression that lasted for four. She continued to struggle with depression for the rest of her life. She had been recovering at her family home, but eventually her father-in-law threatened to disinherit her children if she did not return to his home. Jane Frances managed to remain cheerful in spite of him and his insolent housekeeper.
When she was 32, Jane met Saint Francis de Sales who became her spiritual director, softening some of the severities imposed by her former director. She wanted to become a nun but he persuaded her to defer this decision. She took a vow to remain unmarried and to obey her director.
After three years, Francis told Jane of his plan to found an institute of women that would be a haven for those whose health, age, or other considerations barred them from entering the already established communities. There would be no cloister, and they would be free to undertake spiritual and corporal works of mercy. They were primarily intended to exemplify the virtues of Mary at the Visitation: humility and meekness, and became known as the Daughters of the Visitation, or Visitation nuns.
Many sought Jane Frances out for spiritual direction, and she would always counsel them, “Should you fall even fifty times a day, never on any account should that surprise or worry you. Instead, ever so gently set your heart back in the right direction and practice the opposite virtue, all the time speaking words of love and trust to our Lord after you have committed a thousand faults, as much as if you had committed only one. Once we have humbled ourselves for the faults God allows us to become aware of in ourselves, we must forget them and go forward.”
She died in 1641, at sixty-nine years of age.
Saint Jane Frances suffered from depression for most of her life. In writing about this experience, she mentioned a variety of distressing temptations and that she was no longer like herself. Her spirituality, along with the direction of Saint Francis de Sales, provided a way of holiness that meant confronting her depression with virtue. While this path never completely cured her depression, it did at times alleviate symptoms. Her struggles enabled her to extend empathy and gentleness to those around her. Saint Jane Frances is the patron saint of those with depression, mothers, widows, and wives.
Saint Jane Frances de Chantal, pray for us.