How Jane de Chantal Impacted Me as a Mother

colleen carroll campbell

There’s a story about St. Jane de Chantal’s transformation that has always intrigued me. It’s included in each of the dozen or so biographies of her that I’ve read, even the ones that typically sugarcoat her shortcomings. I think that’s because it has an important lesson to teach us.

Jane had a longstanding habit of rising at 5 a.m. to pray. In those days, a lady of Jane’s standing didn’t rise by herself. She needed a maid to light her fire, help her dress, and tidy her room. Alarm clocks weren’t invented yet, so the poor servant lay awake half the night, every night, worrying she might oversleep Jane’s early summons.

Her spiritual director, St. Francis de Sales, found out and put a stop to it. “Your devotion must be so loving to God and so considerate for your neighbor that no one is inconvenienced by it,” he told Jane, who apparently had never considered how her pious routine affected her maid. Jane started letting the woman sleep and took to lighting her own fire, making her own bed, and sweeping her own floor.

It was a small change but others noticed. “Madame’s old confessor made her say her prayers three times a day and we were all tired of it,” Jane’s servants joked, “but the new one makes her pray all day long and no one is put out.”

If I Had the Perfect Setting…

My first reaction on reading that story was to scoff at the whole setup. Jane had a maid to help her dress every morning? Well, no wonder she was so disciplined and pious. If I had personal servants fussing over my children and me, I could find more time to pray, too. And how is it that this holy woman renowned for her selflessness needed a Doctor of the Church to point out that her sacrifice of sleep wasn’t much of a sacrifice if it required someone else to sacrifice even more sleep so she could pray in comfort? Seems glaringly obvious to me.

That’s the thing about perfectionism, though. It rivets your attention on yourself—what you need to do, what you’re doing wrong, how you’re progressing or not—and blinds you to everyone and everything else. Jane was so busy meeting this arbitrary spiritual goal she’d set for herself that she didn’t realize she was stepping on someone else to do it, that her gotta-do-this-the- right-way-right-now piety was robbing others of what they needed and maybe even souring them on God.

It’s easy for me to see this in Jane’s life, just as it was easy to see it in Grandma’s. What’s not so easy is to see it in my own.

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My Influence as Mother

Motherhood has helped—especially homeschooling, which has been an education for me as much as for my children. I see every day how my mood affects theirs, how the way I approach a task dictates, to a large degree, how they will approach it, too. If I’m tense and hurried and annoyed, they’ll respond with anxiety and petulance and discouragement. If I’m calm and peaceful and gentle, they’ll push through and persevere.

“Perseverant, not perfect,” I tell one of my daughters, whose hair-trigger frustration with mistakes reminds me a little too much of my own. “We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to keep trying.”

That’s me on a good day. On a bad day, when I haven’t had enough sleep and I haven’t had a break from the kids all week and my son is flopping out of his desk and can’t remember the poetry line I spoon-fed him three times in the last five minutes because he’s too busy eavesdropping on the sibling squabble he hears in the next room, I lapse into bad habits.

“We’re not going to take a break until you get this right,” I snapped one morning last spring, bolting out of my chair and fanning myself with the lesson plan. “It has to be perfect.”

“Perfect?” he repeated, his voice suddenly high and plaintive. He looked up at me from his little desk, tears now welling in his eyes. “Perfect? I can’t be perfect.”

Boom, there it was. Now I was actually telling my children to be perfect.

I tried to backpedal, but the words were out there. And in the moment I said them, I meant them. I was tired of patience, tired of incremental progress and good enough and try again tomorrow. I wanted perfect. Now.

Don’t Demand Perfection, Ask for Grace

Times like those leave me no room to doubt that my harshness and haste affect my children. They also remind me that cultivating gentleness and patience is more than a matter of knowing better or trying harder. I know better than to demand perfection of myself or my children or my life. Yet I do it anyway sometimes. And I can’t stop without God’s grace.

Grace is always there for the asking. Opening my heart to receive it isn’t easy, though, especially on the heels of a dispiriting fall. What I’d rather do in that moment is evade, rationalize, or brood—anything but face my fault squarely, ask for forgiveness, and move on.

Showing God’s Mercy

Yet that’s exactly what I need to do, both for my sake and for the sake of the children who are watching me to learn how they should respond to their own falls and slips. If I refuse to show gentleness to myself and accept God’s mercy for my failures, what does that tell them about the reality of that mercy? How does that prepare them for the day that will someday come when their own sin seems huge and God’s mercy seems impossibly distant and the devil whispers that it’s not worth even trying to recover from their fall? Will they remember my platitudes about perseverance? Or only how they saw me responding to my own sins?

Probably the latter. And what I want them to remember is not a mother who beat herself up every time she fell but one who humbly acknowledged her mistakes, reached out for God’s helping hand, and scrambled back to her feet, ready to try again—and again, and again.

Excerpted and adapted from The Heart of Perfection by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Copyright © 2019 by Colleen Carroll Campbell. Published by Howard Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster. Used by permission.

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Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist, and former presidential speechwriter. Her books include her critically acclaimed journalistic study, The New Faithful, and spiritual memoir and My Sisters the Saints, which won two national awards and has been published in five languages. Find out more about here here.

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