Sister lived long enough

Today, within the Mass of the Ages, we commemorate Jane Francis Fremiot de Chantal (Saint, 1572–1641), whose husband died on her when she was twenty-eight. It was a hunting accident: the Baron of Chantal failed to duck when some clutz aimed an arquebus in his general direction. This left Jane, who had already lost a mother, stepmother, a couple of kids, and sundry other close family and friends, all “out of season” — and was rather attached to her late husband — to cope with a large but vexing estate, and four kids half-orphaned as she had been. Over the next decade she acquired a big reputation for her management skills, and as a home educator.

She also met Father (later Saint) Francis de Sales, visiting Dijon from Geneva, in the course of his remarkably successful campaign to retrieve (innumerable) Calvinist schismatics for Holy Church. In fact, as readers of the spiritual classic, Introduction to the Devout Life, already know perfectly well, he became her spiritual director.

Jane just wanted to become a nun, but Francis persuaded her to put off that decision. The vow of chastity she had already made; it is clear from everything about her that she was an extraordinary character. Also, incidentally, extremely beautiful, and given the wealth, I can imagine one of her vexations was importunate men.

“Whatever,” as the post-modern saying goes. Jane used the decade well, to raise and settle her children, and put all her worldly affairs in good order. And then her Separation from that world finally came through: she took religious orders. Under Saint Francis’ “gentle but firm” direction, she founded, indeed, what would become a new Order, at Annecy in the Rhône Alps — the first house of what by her death had blossomed into many convents for her Visitation Sisters.

God, I am sometimes given to observe, gives not only spiritual but rather worldly talents to his children for a purpose. Saint Jane Chantal had a very practical genius for organizing things, that she applied to a kind of “human gardening.” A “green thumb” for that, if the simile is not too coarse. This necessarily requires a more than natural humility — “poor in spirit” in the phrase of Our Lord — and a capacity to listen to the inward beat of the human, thinking heart, for the rhythms of the Sacred Heart. While forgetting not one detail of the schedule and accounts.

Jane is buried at Annecy, near her spiritual director. The two of them were a pair such as the Catholic Church has discovered on other occasions, to do her work through both sexes. One thinks of John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila; of Francis, but also Clare of Assisi. Too, one thinks of Jesus of Nazareth, and also of his Mother, Mary. “Male and female, created He them.”

Saint Jane Chantal lived long enough to accomplish amazing things: to found those Visitation Sisters on the hard rock of Faith. To this day they are performing favours which the world can never appreciate, not least those of intercession, between errant man and his Maker, both this and the other side of the boundary between our country, and the Far Countrie.

There is for instance their monastery of Mont Deux Coeurs, in Tyringham, Massachusetts — one of a couple dozen convents of these cloistered, contemplative nuns, hidden beneath the life of North America, and a couple hundred scattered around the world, “to give to God daughters of prayer, and souls so interior that they may be found worthy to serve His infinite Majesty and to adore Him in spirit and in truth.”

Sister Anne-Marguerite was — verily, is — one of these nuns; the former Sally Anne Potchen, of Philadelphia. I never met her or knew anything about her, until a reader of this website drew my attention, yesterday, to her recent death from cancer, at age only fifty. She was quite widely known, however, and very much admired, in a world that flourishes “under the skin” of what we have mistaken for the real one. Many, many souls indebted to her, for act and example; many saved through her.

And many would think that she died too young; that the world needed her more than it needs some others; so why would God take her away?

My correspondent has forwarded the letter of thanks that went out on behalf of the Sisters at Tyringham, and of Sister Anne-Marguerite’s own parents and family, in response to many gifts and inquiries. It assures all that, “She loved us in this world; she will not forget us now that she is in Eternity.”

It also replies to those who, like most of us, glibly and without thinking, regret that so fine a lady died so young, and painfully. Who imply, without thinking, that perhaps God made some mistake.

Let me excerpt from this letter, below:


“Sister was here just long enough for all of us to ‘get used to the idea’ and come to terms with illness, and then just long enough for most of us to come to the greater understanding that she would be leaving us soon.

“Sister lived through her health crisis exactly long enough to provide a Godly example of what it means to suffer in the truest meaning of the word.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to reach and touch the hearts of a number of folks who might have never known her, had she not been ill and her story not shared with countless others.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to release numerous souls from the pains of Purgatory each time she ‘offered up’ her suffering for their intentions.

“Sister lived exactly long enough to enkindle even greater compassion among caregivers, long enough to enkindle deeper relationships with the Lord in prayer, long enough for an increase in Faith among those who might have felt crestfallen, long enough to nurture a belief in a merciful and loving God, long enough to bear witness to the Truth, and long enough for many more to hear or recall Sister’s beautiful voice, see her beautiful smile, or admire her great beauty that radiated from the inside, out.

“Sister lived long enough for her parents and loved ones to fondly and indelibly remember tender and other memorable moments of Sister’s short but very full life, including her positive response to God’s call for her religious vocation.

“Sister lived exactly long enough according to God’s will but admittedly, the timing of her death may have fallen short of our own private expectations. Any measurable sense of loss may have more to do with the dashing of personal hopes or the erroneous belief that if anyone is ‘entitled’ to live a good and healthy, long life — surely if anyone has the ‘right’ to live — it must be someone like Sister who has so much potential to do even greater good here on earth.

“Sister lived exactly long enough for some to embrace the profound realization that God’s schedule/timetable doesn’t always align with ours; that life is a precious gift; that God is still the ultimate decision maker when it comes to matters of life and death; that God always knows what is in our best interests, even when we try to persuade Him to see things ‘our way’.

“Sister lived exactly long enough for some to realize that when we try to hold on too tightly out of our own selfish desires, we risk even greater hurt or greater pain.  God Our Father, knows that, of course, and gives us comfort and encouragement through the words of Jesus who said, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light’.”