Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Annecy, France (Part II)






I had the sense while in Annecy that the attractions previously mentioned are more of a draw for tourists than are St. Francis de Sales and his good friend, St. Frances de Chantal. That is unfortunate, since the two have so much to say to people of our times. Still, I think the two would enjoy a good gelato on the town. Who wouldn't?

While he is a respected doctor of the Church, Francis is not as well-known as St. Francis of Assisi (for whom he was named). I identify strongly with him (Francis is the professed name I had desired long before I got to Saint Meinrad) not only because he is the patron saint of writers and the Catholic press. I also share many of his spiritual perspectives, and aspire toward many of the virtues and personal traits he exhibited. For example, 350 years before Vatican II, he was a rare proponent of the so-called universal call to holiness. That is, everyone is called to a life of prayer and faith and service in whatever state they may be in. Francis was a renowned spiritual director, and he famously encouraged many of his directees by stressing that a relationship with God is not the exclusive property of clergy, monks, and nuns.

Gentle in disposition, he also emphasized God’s enduring love for all his people (rather than a watchful, vengeful God seeking to condemn or destroy). The adage that honey brings about more good than vinegar comes from Francis de Sales. The image of a honeybee was a favorite of his, and he used it often to illustrate his teachings.

An extremely bright, well-educated man from a noble family, he renounced a potentially lucrative career as a lawyer to become a priest at a time when the Catholic Church was responding to the Protestant Reformation. His priestly life was one of hardship and self-sacrifice. He was assigned to an area that had converted to the Calvinists, and could not get anyone to listen to him. Doors were literally slammed in his face. So, he began writing small pamphlets defending the faith and slipping them under the closed doors. Within a short time, most of the region had come back to the Catholic Church. He was persistent, but never forceful. He appreciated and respected the gift of free will God gave to each person. In fact, he pleaded with the duke of Savoie not to impose exile on those who did not convert to Catholicism.

In 1602, he was named bishop of Geneva, but lived in Annecy since Geneva remained a Calvinist stronghold. He was a true pastor, traveling on a mule hundreds of miles over rough terrain through severe weather to visit the 600 parishes in his diocese.

He may be most well-known for authoring the Introduction to the Devout Life in 1608, a work that originated from a spiritual guide he had written for Madame de Charmoisy of Annecy (her house can still be seen in the town). His life’s masterpiece is the more complex but very rich Treatise on the Love of God. Many of his sermons, conferences, and tracts are also still available in print. However, the real treasure he left behind were the letters he wrote to many spiritual directees – religious and lay men and (especially) women. His simple but profound insights are conveyed in ways that are still accessible and valuable to this day. I encourage anyone to read them; they contain some famous maxims. My favorite: “Be who you are, and be that perfectly well.”

Among his directees was Jane Frances de Chantal, a widowed mother who became a close spiritual friend. They exchanged many letters. Eventually, with the help of Francis, she founded the monastic Order of the Visitation in Annecy for women such as herself who wanted to lead a contemplative life. She began 87 monasteries as foundress of the order, which operates in many countries today.

Enough history; I could go on and on, but you get the picture. As you can see, going to Annecy was a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts for me personally. It was such a joy to see where Francis de Sales lived and worked in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was able to see—and attend Mass in—the old churches where he was ordained and where he preached and taught. And I was able to pray in the presence of his remains (and those of St. Jane Frances de Chantal) at the Basilica of the Visitation on the hill above the town. Since this year is the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Visitation Order, there are numerous exhibitions in the Annecy area. I was able to see a few.

It was also a privilege to visit and pray (in French, of course) with Annecy’s current sisters of the Visitation at the basilica. I attended Vespers a couple times during my stay, and visited some with the sister who ran the gift shop. Somehow, despite the language barrier, I was able to convey to the sisters that I am a monk from the United States whose holy patron is Francis de Sales. They promised to pray for me. (They can also benefit from our prayers, especially for more vocations to their order).

So many wonderful elements of my monastic vocation have come together during this trip in ways that I had not anticipated. For example, here at Einsiedeln each evening just before compline, the community meets in the chapter room for a few minutes to listen to a short spiritual reading. Since my arrival, they have been listening to St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God.

The photographs, from top to bottom:

1. Statue of Francis de Sales erected in Annecy (near the lake) in 1924.
2. The Basilica of the Visitation, constructed on a rock above Annecy. This is where the remains of Francis and Jane now rest. The neo-Byzantine church is relatively new. It was finished in 1930.

3. The golden reliquary, in the form of a recumbent effigy, containing the remains of Francis de Sales. It is located to the left of the sanctuary. To the right is another containing the remains of Jane Frances de Chantal.

4. Saint Peter’s Cathedral, built in 1535. This is where Francis was ordained priest and where he presided as bishop for 20 years. (Photographing the many old churches in Annecy was difficult. Most of them are quite dark inside, and getting the entire exterior within a camera frame is a challenge because of the narrow streets. To take this shot, my back was pressed up against the wall along the sidewalk opposite the cathedral.)

5. The Church of Notre Dame de Liesse (Our Lady of Joy), probably the most impressive church in the city from an architectural standpoint. Its origins are in the 16th century. However, only the bell tower remains from the church that was destroyed during the French Revolution. The rest of the current building was constructed in 1851. In 1566, Francis’ mother prayed in the original church, asking God to give her a son to be consecrated to Him.

There are many other such sites in Annecy, but I cannot show photos of them all. Among them are: 1) the Church of St. Francis, built in 1614, the first site of Annecy’s Visitation Order (until the French Revolution, the remains of Francis and Jane rested here); and 2) the oldest church in Annecy, St. Maurice, built in 1442, in which Francis made his First Communion and was confirmed, and where he later preached and taught quite frequently.

Perhaps later I will post a few photos of the spectacular scenery from the long train ride back to Einsiedeln through the mountains.

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