By Renae Kranz
Many of us have suffered a deep loss in our lives. All loss is difficult, but some hit us harder than others. Losing a parent, a child or a spouse can change our lives in ways we don’t expect and can send us down paths we never saw coming. Some of those paths are good, some are not so good.
That was the case for Saint Jane Frances de Chantal. Her life was impacted by the loss of the people closest to her, to the point of leading her to sainthood. And from what I can gather from her biography, she didn’t know at the time that those painful experiences would lead her to holiness.
Born in Dijon, France, January 28, 1572, Jane Frances de Chantal was the daughter of the royalist president of the Parliament of Burgundy. She was only 18 months old when her mother died, leaving her father as the biggest influence on her and her education.
Jane was a beautiful and refined woman. She was known for her cheerful attitude, for telling jokes and for being easy to talk to. As you can imagine, these traits made her an attractive mate for suitors.
At 21, Jane married the Baron de Chantal and moved into his feudal castle of Bourbilly. The finances of her new husband’s estate were near ruin, but she took control of the household and brought them back to good standing. She also restored daily Mass at the castle and fed the lines of poor people who came to her door.
In 1601, Jane’s husband, Christophe, was accidentally killed in a hunting accident. He forgave the man who shot him before he died, but Jane struggled for many years to forgive. She and her husband were deeply devoted to each other through their seven years of marriage. She spent four months at her home mourning his loss. She had already lost two of their six children at this point, along with her stepmother and her sister. The suffering was piling up for Jane.
Can you imagine how alone she must have felt? She probably experienced extreme grief and became discouraged with life. Discouragement is one of the most effective tools of the devil. He uses it to pull us away from our God.
Jane resisted the pull of discouragement and grief. And when we face it, we must resist as well.
About five years ago, I lost my baby at 10 and a half weeks. My husband and I were completely devastated. It was the only time I was able to conceive. It was a miracle for us.
After the loss, I was angry at God for a long time. I didn’t want to be, but I couldn’t help it. I went to Him at our church and had many words about the situation. When I think about how much I struggled, I can only imagine the sorrow and anger Jane struggled with as well. She must have felt abandoned at times.
For me, I had to fight through it and stop being angry at God. I came out the other side, or at least I think I have. I still have bad days, but I can’t let the devil pull me away. I can picture him standing nearby, rubbing his hands together, just waiting for me to give in to discouragement. But I won’t, and Jane didn’t either. She would turn her sorrow into something much bigger than herself.
Jane took a vow of chastity after her husband’s death and worked on forgiving the man who killed him. It took time and effort. She finally was able to forgive him after hearing a Lenten sermon by the bishop of Geneva, Saint Francis de Sales. His sermon focused on the love of God and moved Jane’s heart to a spirit of forgiveness. She moved on from her hard-heartedness so completely that she became the godmother of the man’s child.
That experience of hearing Francis de Sales for the first time was a turning point in her life and her sorrowing. He became her spiritual director and her close friend. Her longing for God grew, and she heard the call to become a nun. Francis suggested she defer for a while, and she relented to the future saint.
Three years later and after providing for her remaining three children, Jane founded the Congregation of the Visitation with the support of Francis on Trinity Sunday, June 6, 1610. Her new order accepted women of poor health or old age who had already been rejected by other orders. Her heart always reached out to those who were overlooked and pushed aside.
The order initially had more of a public outreach mission at a time when women’s religious orders were almost always cloistered. Unfortunately, Bishop Francis de Sales was eventually forced to make the Congregation of the Visitation a cloistered community because of opposition to their active ministry.
Before Jane died, 86 houses of the Congregation of the Visitation had been established. By the time she was canonized, it had grown to 164. Many people were attracted to her reputation for sanctity and sought her out for spiritual direction.
Jane worked tirelessly for her order and her God, but her sorrows continued as well. Francis de Sales died in 1622. Fortunately, another future saint, Vincent de Paul, stepped in as her new spiritual director to help her through her remaining years. He said of her:
“She was full of faith and yet all her life long, she had been tormented by thoughts against it. Nor did she once relax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.”
She outlived all but one of her children, causing her great grief. Her spirit was tested, especially during the last nine years of her life, with interior anguish, darkness and spiritual dryness. Jane never allowed these things to discourage her or pull her away from her calling. She held tightly to the path the Lord had set her on. Her own words say it all:
“In prayer one must hold fast and never let go, because the one who gives up loses all. If it seems that no one is listening to you, then cry out even louder. If you are driven out of one door, go back in by the other.”
Jane never gave up in the face of grief and loss. Neither have I, and neither should you. Even when it’s hard, we must stay close to God. If you need to yell at Him or be angry, it’s OK. He gets it. He will carry you through. And someday, I believe we will understand the path of our life and the purpose of our pain.
Jane Frances de Chantal died in the company of her cloister on December 13, 1641, at the age of 69. She was beatified by Pope Benedict XIV on November 21, 1751, and canonized by Pope Clement XIII on July 16, 1767. She is the patron saint of forgotten people, in-law problems, loss of parents, parents separated from children and widows.