The Sisters of the Visitation were the fruit of the spiritual relationship between two great saints – St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. In 1601, Jane was a twenty-eight year old widow and mother of four small children. She took a vow of chastity and began a search for a spiritual director. In 1604, she met St. Francis de Sales. They became lifelong spiritual friends. He shared with her his dream of beginning a religious order for women. It would be different from other orders in that poor health or advanced age would not be a reason to bar women from entrance. They would have no cloister and would instead work in the world, free to undertake both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. St. Francis wanted these women to embody the spirit of Mary at the Visitation (hence the name, the Sisters of the Visitation).
Unfortunately, there was great opposition to women ministering in the world. As a result, Francis and Jane decided to create a cloistered community based on the same ideals. They would have a spirit “of profound humility toward God and of great gentleness toward the neighbor.” In keeping with St. Francis’ instruction to seek God’s will in all things, they would seek only God and strive for union with Him. There would be far less emphasis on the ascetical practices common to religious orders of that day. Rather, they would focus on the inner spiritual life and an emphasis on simplicity and joy in a life lived in community.
In 1610, St. Jane and her two daughters became the first Sisters of the Visitation. The order spread very quickly. By the time of her death in 1641, there were 86 houses. Today, some Visitation communities continue to be cloistered, while others engage in more active ministry in the world. All continue to stay true to the dream of St. Francis and St. Jane.
Fidelity toward God consists in being perfectly resigned to his holy will, in enduring everything that his goodness allows in our lives, and in carrying out all our duties, especially that of prayer, with love and for love. In prayer we must converse very familiarly with our Lord, concerning our little needs, telling him what they are, and remaining submissive to anything he may wish to do with us… We should go to prayer with deep humility and an awareness of our nothingness. We must invoke the help of the Holy Spirit and that of our good angel, and then remain still in God’s presence, full of faith that he is more in us than we are in ourselves. There is no danger if our prayer is without words or reflection because the good success of prayer depends neither on words nor on study. It depends upon the simple raising of our minds to God, and the more simple and stripped of feeling it is, the surer it is. We must never dwell on our sins during prayer. Regarding our offenses, a simple humbling of our soul before God, without a thought of this offense or that, is enough…such thoughts act as distractions. – Saint Jeanne de Chantal, from “Wings to the Lord”