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Elected souls

The social force of friendship

04 September 2021

Joan of Chantal and Francis de Sales

She is “strong”, “energetic”, “with something male about her that is surprising for a woman”. He has a pronounced sensitivity, which is capable of great tenderness, but also “frankness” and a master at “guessing souls”. As impatient as she is, he can (and asks to) wait. “Be careful”, he warns her in a letter, “not to be impatient, otherwise you will get a thread full of knots and you will dress your spindle very badly”. Two contrasting characters, which is how Monsignor Emilio Bougad, Bishop of Laval, in his two volumes published at the end of the nineteenth century on the history of the Baroness of Chantal, describes Saint Joan Frances and Saint Francis de Sales, a famous couple in the spirituality of the seventeenth century, and not only in France. Even their styles are distinctly different, for he is rich in “images”, hers is “tight, without colors”. Within this natural diversity, the spark of an extraordinary friendship was ignited, and one that lasted a lifetime. This special relationship was not only because they were two saints, but because it became a collaboration between a man and a woman. In addition, it was linked to a relationship of paternity and kinship, and also fraternity, from which a new religious order. the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. was founded.

The history of this relationship is contained in the hundreds of letters that Francis and Joan exchanged throughout their lives, of which unfortunately only the first ones remain. The others, which represent the majority, were prudently destroyed by Joan after Francis’s death to avoid that evil tongues could have read their words and thoughts and taken them out of the context in which they were written. This epistolary is exceptional for numerous reasons; first for the depth of their exchange, which gathers all the nuances of the human experience, from pain to tenderness, from concern to joy. With a freedom, even audacity, that at first may appear surprising, until one realizes that it is the fruit of the main teaching to which the saint educated the souls who entrusted themselves to him, i.e. the “freedom of spirit”, a condition to be liked by God. “Let it be said once and for all”, he wrote to Joan in one of his first letters, “yes, God has given me to you, I mean that he has given me to you in a unique, whole, irrevocable way”. 

The Baroness of Chantal was born in Dijon January 23, 1572 into a family of Burgundian nobility. Her father was Benigno Frémyot, a member of the Dijon Parliament; her mother, Marguerite de Barbisey, died when Joan was very young.  Francis, born in 1567 in Savoy, also came from a noble family. When they met, Joan was 29 years old and had been a widow for four years. Her husband, Christopher II, Baron of Chantal, had died in a hunting accident, leaving her with four children, the oldest of which was five years old, while the youngest, an infant, just a few months. Joan longed for a spiritual guide, someone to whom she could entrust the torments she experienced. One day, while riding a horse, she had a vision in which she saw a man who looked like a bishop. Inside her, she heard a voice telling her that he was the guide she had asked God for. However, it was just a dream; but, the image glimpsed in the vision became a reality March 5, 1604. At that time, Joan was in Dijon, where her father had invited her because he knew that the much talked about Bishop of Geneva, Francis de Sales, was coming. Jeanne attended his homily for Lent, and was struck by it. Determined as she was, she tried to meet him again, and succeeded, but always while amongst others. Then she begged her brother, Andrew Fremyot, who was also a priest, to invite him to her home, where she could speak to him alone. When they met, Joan confided her anguish to him, and Francis sensed a great soul in her and henceforth decided to take care of her, stating “God, it seems to me, has assigned me to you, I am more certain of it every hour”. The exchange of letters that went onto last a lifetime so began. Francis guided her masterfully, dealing with the myriad psychological nuances of her complicated personality, but also dealing with the details of daily life (from raising her children to how to live with her grumpy father-in-law, to the “rule” of prayers). Francis’ pedagogy was exceptionally modern, in which the essentials mattered, and everything was to be done with a freedom of spirit. Away with “scruples”, “stay away from anxieties and restlessness”, do “everything out of love, nothing by force”, do not worry about “savouring” the things you do, because the exercise of freedom is precisely in the “things that happen without that savouring”. For each child, he gave his advice, dosing it according to their different personalities. He did not overlook the details, for example, he suggested that each one slept alone, in their own room and invited her to “act on the minds and souls” of her children, “with gentle movements, without violence”. Nevertheless, if there was something to reproach, he did it, both to her and her children, when they met each other.

As the months and the years, passed by, an awareness that their relationship was an instrument used by God for their holiness grew in both of them. Francis encouraged her, confidently, “God wants you to make use of me and not to doubt me”. The letters from the Bishop of Geneva are infused with an affection that was unafraid to express itself. “Know that, from the first time you manifested your soul to me, God gave me a great love for your spirit: and when you manifested yourself to me in a more particular way, a much closer bond of affection was created between my soul and yours (...).  But now, dearest Daughter, a new affection has been added to that one, of a kind that, it seems to me, cannot be defined, but which has the effect of a great interior sweetness that I feel when I wish you the perfection of God’s love”.

Life did not spare her other sorrows. The difficult cohabitation with her father-in-law, then the death of Joan, Francis’s sister, who had gone to live with her, and there were the worries for her children. In the meantime, the Baroness, who had taken vows of chastity, nurtured the idea of leaving the world and entering a convent. However, she had the children to educate, a father and a father-in-law to take care of, and so everything seemed contrary to this project. She confided in Francesco who did not dismantle these intentions. On the contrary, for some time he had had the idea of founding a new religious order, a female one, which would gather together women who were determined to consecrate themselves, but who were physically unsuited to the strict rules of the existing orders. He saw in Joan the perfect foundress, for her life itself was the demonstration of the inspiration that moved Francis: the idea that holiness can be experienced always, everywhere and in any state. That radicality is for everyone he told her, therefore, to be patient. Therefore, Joan waited, and seven years later, the situation seemed to settle down providentially. A daughter, Marie Aimée, was asked to marry Bernardo, a relative of Francesco. The son, Celso, was entrusted to his grandfather and to a tutor for his education. However, a new pain inflicted Joan when Charlotte, her 10 year old daughter, died of a sudden illness in 1610.

By now nothing prevented the project. The youngest daughter could follow her to the convent, while the other two were settled. In 1610, Joan stripped herself of all her possessions in favor of her children. She left for Annecy and on June 6, 1610, together with two companions, Marie-Jaqueline Favre and Charlotte of Bréchard (who were joined shortly afterwards by Anna Giacomina Costa), she entered the House of the Gallery, the origin of the Order of the Visitation. A few months later there were 11 members, and within a few years, the number of houses multiplied.

On December 10, 1622, Joan and Francis met for the last time. On December 28, he died in Lyon. She survived him for nineteen years, and died in Moulins on December 13, 1641.

“He made me all yours and made you all mine so that we might be more purely more perfectly and more uniquely his”, we read in one of his last letters. This is the perfect description of this friendship, which was both great and fruitful in one of the most difficult moments in the history of the Church. Francis, made a saint in 1665, is considered the father of modern spirituality, and one of the great figures of the Counter-Reformation. He is a Doctor of the Church and inspired the founders of many religious families, the most famous of which is the Salesian Family founded by Saint John Bosco. Joan, who was made a saint in 1767, was his determined, free and intelligent disciple, and during her lifetime founded 87 houses.

They rest in Annecy, in the church of the Visitation.

by Elisa Calessi

A famous granddaughter

Jeanne de Chantal is the paternal grandmother of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, known as Madame de Sévigné, a writer, and a famous dame of seventeenth-century France. She is famous for the letters she sent to her daughter. These correspondences, which are both meticulous and exhilarating, talk about the everyday and true events of the Versailles Court and aristocracy, and reveal vivaciously the life of a wealthy woman of the time.