Surprised by Gentleness by Colleen Carroll Campbell

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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

That was the last I thought of Jane until seven years and four children later, when I once again found myself taking refuge from winter and writing a new book in the shadow of a Visitation convent. This time it was the centuries-old Georgetown Visitation Monastery in Washington, D.C., which sits on the eastern end of Georgetown University, where I was researching saints who overcame their spiritual perfectionism in hopes of overcoming my own. It was in the stacks of Georgetown’s library that I rediscovered Jane. And this time she held my attention.

For starters, I learned that Jane wasn’t the natural-born gentle type. She was a spiritual sprinter, someone “born under the star of heroism,” as one biographer put it. She liked big ideas and bold moves, so she was hardly the obvious choice to launch an order focused on what Francis de Sales called the “little virtues”: gentleness, humility, cheerfulness, patience, and hospitality.

That was exactly the point. It was through Jane’s struggle against perfectionism—that toxic mix of control, comparison, and unrealistic expectations that plagued so many in her day and still plague so many in ours—that God refined this striver into a patron saint of gentleness. And Jane’s conversion to gentleness happened not primarily in a convent but while she was living, working, and parenting in the world.

That conversion began when Jane lost her beloved husband in a freak accident a few days after she’d given birth to their fourth child. Widowed at age 29, with four children under age six, this beautiful and feisty noblewoman was forced to move in with her abusive father-in-law, who was carrying on an affair with his housekeeper that had resulted in the birth of five children. The housekeeper saw Jane as a rival for the old man’s money, so she did her best to make Jane’s life miserable. A local priest inadvertently contributed, by counseling Jane to double down on harsh penances and exhausting prayer routines that were leaving her too weak to stumble through her long days as a single mom. 

Francis’s Advice

By the time Jane met Francis de Sales a few years after her husband’s death, she was wrestling with doubts about the faith and teetering on the brink of a breakdown. Francis, who had battled his own perfectionist demons in college, quickly sized up her situation. After seeing Jane discipline her children severely for small faults, grow frustrated with relatives and employees who fell short of her standards, and prioritize rule-following and adherence to her devotional schedule over charity to others, he concluded that her hardness and impatience with herself were driving her hardness and impatience with others. And both were linked to the flawlessness Jane thought God expected of her. 

“You’re too much of a perfectionist about the purity of your faith,” Francis told her shortly after they met. “Just let the slightest doubt creep in, and you think it spoils everything.”

Francis urged Jane to abandon that all-or-nothing thinking and the spiritual heroics that were wearing her out. Focus instead on prayer from the heart, he said. Correct your children’s faults, but “like the angels,” with tender encouragement, respect for their freedom, and no harshness or hectoring. Practice self-denial not by starving yourself and losing sleep, Francis said, but by passing up a favorite food or answering cheerfully when interrupted. 

It was challenging advice for a woman who rode nine miles each way to daily Mass and once branded the name of Jesus on her chest to scare off suitors. Jane was intense. 

Little by little, though, she put Francis’s ideas into action. Jane stopped dreaming up ever-harsher penances and focused instead on treating her family with gentleness. When friends bad-mouthed her in-laws, she shushed them. When tempted to self-pity, she sang psalms to lift her spirits. Even neighbors who gossiped that Jane was exposing her children to risk by caring for lepers would get a patient explanation of what she was doing and why.

A Simple Truth

With each new sacrifice, Jane found new freedom. As the years passed, she gradually grew into a paragon of holy gentleness, a woman who was greeted by cheering crowds when she entered cities to found new convents. People from all walks of life sought her spiritual advice. Jane would remind them that progress comes not through white-knuckled striving after flawlessness but by surrendering to grace, and showing grace to ourselves in the process. “The best practice of the virtue of patience in the spiritual life,” she’d say, “is bearing with oneself in failure and feebleness of will.” 

It’s a simple truth, but for this perfectionist, a life-changing one. Jane’s story taught me that gentleness is a crucial building block of holiness and a powerful antidote to the harshness of our perfectionist, me-first culture. We can’t cultivate holy gentleness without grace. But with grace, Christ’s call to “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29) is possible for any personality, in any circumstance—even Jane’s. And mine.  

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).