Surprised by Gentleness
There is a little monastery in Mobile, Alabama, nestled in one of those historic Old South neighborhoods where moss-draped oaks and magnolias frame antebellum mansions. Even in winter, white and pink camellias bloom outside the convent’s 160-year-old brick walls. Inside are other wonders: the Gothic grandeur of the Sacred Heart Chapel, where the cloistered Visitation nuns pray six times daily; the storied beauty of the convent’s lush green courtyard; and the sinful delectability of the sisters’ chief export, a gooey chocolate-marshmallow confection known as Heavenly Hash.
In December 2008, struggling with a mix of writer’s block, winter blues, and grief over my four-year battle with infertility, I decamped to the Visitation Monastery of Mobile for a private retreat. I had found the place on the internet, inviting myself by fax after explaining that I was a Catholic author looking for some peace and inspiration. Visitation’s then-superior, Mother Rose-Marie, cheerfully welcomed me and said I could stay as long as I wanted.
I spent two weeks at Visitation, praying and angsting over the book I couldn’t figure out how to write, breaking only for meals, walks, and Mass with the nuns. Somewhere near the end of my monastic sojourn, I wrote the first chapter of the spiritual memoir I would publish a few years later, My Sisters the Saints.
Introduced to Jane
As I was packing up to return home to St. Louis for Christmas, my Toyota stuffed with enough Heavenly Hash to cover everyone on my shopping list, Mother Rose slipped me a slim biography of the order’s foundress, Saint Jane de Chantal. She knew I was writing about my favorite saints, and she wanted to introduce me to hers.
I knew little about Jane—only that she was French, that she had been a wife and mother before becoming a nun, and that she was a friend of Saint Francis de Sales, a seventeenth-century bishop and Doctor of the Church who was the patron saint of spiritual writers.
I was curious, so I asked Mother Rose: What are Visitation nuns known for? Mystical prayer, like the Carmelites? Evangelical poverty, like the Franciscans? Eloquent preaching, like the Dominicans?
“Our charism is gentleness,” Mother Rose said, smiling. “And hospitality.”
Oh, I thought. Too bad they couldn’t come up with something better.
I didn’t say that, of course. I just nodded along as Mother Rose explained that Visitation was founded as a refuge for older or sicker women who wanted to be nuns but couldn’t practice the harsh penances required of nuns in Jane’s day. Mother Rose was sweet, and I appreciated her hospitality. But a saint focused on gentleness didn’t exactly intrigue me. Wasn’t gentleness the perfect-attendance prize of the virtues, the one for souls too milquetoast to aim higher? How could a congenital overachiever like me get excited about that?
A Refined Striver
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist, and former presidential speechwriter whose newest book is The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God's (Simon & Schuster, 2019).
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