We were on the move again today - heading off to the second spot that is directly related to the history of the SSJs - Annecy, in the Rhône-Alpes region of east central France on the shores of Lake Annecy, 22 miles south of Geneva. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annecy)
It is here that Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Jane Frances de Chantal founded the women's Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary in 1610. The SSJs connection comes in 1833, when Mother Fontbonne sent sisters here from Lyon after the French Revolution, and they bought this property in 1855 as the number of Visitation nuns were dwindling.
We had the great honor and privilege of being hosted by a group of Sisters of St. Joseph from Annecy, who live and work in the original convent founded by the two saints. Sr. Leonie, president of the congregation, remarked on how connected to each other the SSJs were, no matter where in the world. "We all had the same great great grandmother in Lyon, Mother Fontbonne," she said.
We were also delighted to meet Sr. Eleana from Dublin, Sr. Genevieve from France, who gave us a tour of the convent, and two other young nuns from India. We were able to see rooms with the original ceilings from the first convent, and the garden where Saint Francis counseled the novices, and the building's beautiful original cloister.
Sister Eleanor marveled at the beauty of the windows to the sister's rooms as seen from the cloister space, with their simple shutters. "I wouldn't mind having one of these rooms," she said with a laugh.
The Sisters told us that there are now 508 SSJs in the Annecy congregation, many of whom work at missions throughout the world, and 30 who now live here in this convent. They are clearly very proud of the heritage of their home base here in Annecy and the two saints who founded it, and shared the story with us.
Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was born in this region into a noble family, and after a crisis of religious faith as a young man, decided to become a priest against the wishes of his family. At that time, the way of holiness was only for monks and nuns — not for ordinary people. Francis changed all that by giving spiritual direction to lay people in letters that were compiled into his most famous book, "Introduction To The Devout Life," in 1608.
Jane Frances de Chantal (1572 - 1641), a young widow and mother of four children, was also from this area. After being widowed at the age of 28, she spent her time in prayer, and received a vision of the man who would become her spiritual director. She heard Francis de Sales preach in 1604, and recognized him as the man in her vision. She became a spiritual student and close friend of his, and the two carried on a correspondence for years.
In 1610, inspired by Francis' encouragement of holy service for laypeople, Jane founded the Order of the Visitation of Our Lady, designed for widows and laywomen who did not wish the full life of the religious orders. She oversaw the founding of 69 convents, and spent the rest of her days overseeing the Order, and acting as spiritual adviser to any who desired her wisdom. Visitationist nuns today live a contemplative life, work for women with poor health and widows, and sometimes run schools.
This is taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia, regarding the founding of the order:
Its aim was to receive, with a view to their spiritual advancement, young girls and even widows who had not the desire or strength to subject themselves to the austere ascetical practices in force in all the religious orders at that time. St. Francis de Sales was especially desirous of seeing the realization of his cherished method of attaining perfection, which consisted in always keeping one's will united to the Divine will, in taking so to speak one's soul, heart, and longings into one's hands and giving them into God's keeping, and in seeking always to do what is pleasing to Him. "I do always the things that please him" (John 8:29). The two holy founders saw their undertaking prosper. At the time of the death of St. Francis de Sales in 1622, the order already counted 13 houses; there were 86 when St. Jane Frances died; and 164 when she was canonized.
Our Sr. Eleanor pointed out that it is their legacy, this call "to be contemplative in action," that guides the SSJs. The charism of the Sisters has flourished in how we educate each of our students—"in an Ignatian-Salesian climate in which we strive for excellence tempered by gentleness, peace and joy."
Francis de Sales died in 1622 in Lyon, after giving a nun his last word of advice: "Humility." He was beatified in 1661 by Pope Alexander VII, who then canonized him in 1665.
Jane de Chantal died in 1641 at one of the convents she founded, the Visitation Convent in Moulins, and was buried in Annecy. She was beatified in 1751 and canonized in 1767.
In the center of town, we were able to visit the Basilique de la Visitation, built in the 20th century, which is home of the tomb of the two saints.
(Sr. Maureen Broughan and Sr. Eleanor told me that as a writer, I should know that Francis de Sales was patron saint of writers and journalists, because of the influential books he wrote, most notably "Introduction to the Devout Life," "Treatise on the Love of God," and many highly valued epistles of spiritual direction. I think I'll put a picture of him on my desk at work! For anyone who's interested, Jean de Chantal is patron saint of in-law problems…)
Treatise on the Love of God by Saint Francis de Sales
O love eternal, my soul needs and chooses you eternally!
Ah, come Holy Spirit, and inflame our hearts with your love!
To love — or to die!
To die — and to love!
To die to all other love in order to live in Jesus' love,
so that we may not die eternally;
but that we may live in your eternal love,
O Savior of our souls, we eternally sing, "Live, Jesus!
Jesus, I love!
Live, Jesus, whom I love!
Jesus, I love, Jesus who lives and reigns forever and ever.
This is a quote from a biography of Saint Jane de Chantal, describing her pious life after her husband died, and her vision of her future spiritual director, Francis de Sales:
Being now deprived of her husband, the Baroness de Chantal proposed to herself a new system of life, according to the rules laid down by Saint Paul and the Fathers for the sanctification of widows. The Saint gave all her costly dresses to be disposed of for the benefit of the poor; and she made a vow never in future to wear any but of the coarsest quality. She dismissed nearly all her servants, after having remunerated them amply for their services. Her fastings now became frequent and rigorous. A portion of her nights was consecrated to prayer. Totally secluded from the world, she divided her time between prayer, labor, the education of her children, and visiting the poor and sick.
She no longer paid any visits, nor received any, save such as charity and politeness would not allow her to decline. This love of solitude, far from being the result of excessive melancholy, sprang from a desire to be alone with God, to hold converse with him in prayer, to hear his voice in the perusal of holy books, and to be united to him in silence. Such, indeed, was her desire to be altogether with God that she would gladly have buried herself in a desert to escape the world. She avowed that she once entertained the notion of going to end her days in the Holy Land, and that she was withheld only by the fear of failing in an essential duty - the educating of her children, who were as yet very young.
Exalted by perfection, and desirous to live with God alone, our Saint now only needed a director to guide her in the way which she ought to pursue, and she never ceased imploring God to send her such a director. One day, as she was walking in the country, and praying, according to her custom, she saw, on the declivity of a neighboring hill, a man very much resembling Saint Francis de Sales, and dressed like him; in a word, just as she saw him subsequently at Dijon. At the same moment, she heard a voice saying: "There is the man beloved of Heaven, whom God destines to lead thee." The vision disappeared; but her heart, now filled with ineffable joy, no longer doubted that God had heard her.
This is taken from a brochure put out by the de Sales Spirituality Center. It points out the
as practiced first by the Sisters of the Visitation, the community of contemplative women established by de Sales. This vision continues today, lived by the SSJs:
What is Salesian Spirituality?
It is a way of living the Gospel as learned, lived and shared by St. Francis de Sales (1567 – 1622) and St. Jane de Chantal (1572 – 1641). Its first disciples were the Sisters of the Visitation of Holy Mary, a community of contemplative women established by these two saints in 1610. Their vision continues today, lived by people of all walks, states and stages of life.
One cannot hope to adequately plumb the depths of this spirituality in a brief pamphlet. What follows are some of the more salient features of Salesian spirituality.
- God is love, and all creation is an outpouring of that love.
- All creation has been made for Christ, with Christ and through Christ.
- All creation should be treated with respect and care.
- Jesus is the model for all fully human living.
- You possess divine dignity and are thus worthy of profound respect.
- God has testified that you are good, worthy of divine love and mercy.
- Despite your weakness and sinfulness, God loves you so much that God sent his only son to become human.
- You are called to be holy, that is, to grow in union with God.
- Pursuing a holy life is called “devotion,” that is, doing what is both commanded and counseled by God promptly, actively and diligently.
- The pursuit of holiness must be practical. It must transform your attitudes, attributes and actions.
- Acknowledge your sins and failing, learn from them, but do not dwell on them.
- God gives you talents and abilities, gifts that should be discovered, developed and used for the good of others.
- Relationships are essential to living a fully human, that is, a holy life.
- Each moment of each day comes from the hand of a loving God and is graced for your salvation. The only time you have is each present moment. Don’t live in the past; don’t dwell on the future.
- Living each moment to the fullest with an eye to loving God must lead you to show compassion for others.
- The challenge of each moment is discerning God’s will, that is, the particular, unique way that God may be calling you to love God, yourself, and others. God’s will is frequently communicated through the events, circumstances and relationships in which you find yourself.
- God seldom requires you to perform great or extraordinary feats, but God always challenges you to perform everyday actions with extraordinary attention and enthusiasm.
- The “little virtues” of patience, humility, gentleness, simplicity, honesty and hospitality are powerful means for growing holy.
- All prayer and meditation must lead to action.
- The motivation with which you perform some action may be far more important and powerful than the action itself.
- Freedom is one of the most precious and powerful gifts that God gives you. You are to use that freedom to grow in conformity to God’s will.
- Intellectual learning, prayerful reflection, social interaction, work, play and all things creative should be valued as graced by God and viewed as means for growing into a fully human person
- Each new day is a new beginning, a new opportunity for growing in holiness.
- Let your passion be disciplined. Let your discipline be passionate.
- Keep things in perspective.
- Develop a sense of humor.
Welcome to Salesian spirituality! May it help you to become a holy, whole, human person. May it enable you to “Live Jesus,” to allow Jesus to live in you and to love through you.
Late in the afternoon, we left the convent and with great gratitude said good-bye to the Sisters of Annecy. Sr. Eleanor, who was clearly moved by their gracious welcome and touched by their spirit, said, "Good-bye - pray for us, and you'll be in our prayers. We'll never ever forget you. And who knows? Maybe I'll pop up here again someday."
None of us would be the least bit surprised if she does.
Before we got back on the bus to head back to Lyon, some of us took a one-hour boat cruise around the lake late in the afternoon. The scenery was magnificent, and it felt really good to sit down for a while!