“Unworthy” … “Ignorant” These are the traits God noted in the seer He chose to reveal to the world, in 1675, the devotion to His Sacred Heart. In the first of the recorded revelations, Our Lord Jesus Christ—before He even identified what St. Margaret Mary’s mission was to be—told her: “I have chosen you as an abyss of unworthiness and ignorance, so that everything might be accomplished by me alone.” If Our Lord had this view of His seer, what must He have thought of the order to which she belonged, the Visitation? Could it be that He judged it, as well, to be the least of the orders in the Church, and that if He could have found a congregation more unfit to be the channel of His message, He would have preferred it?
What indeed did the Visitation have to commend it? It was founded relatively recently (it had existed a mere six decades since before the revelations), and therefore had no storied history of great saints on which it could pride itself, such as, for example, the Carmelites or the Benedictines. The Visitation refrained from commanding the great austerities which had characterized so many of the traditional orders; its founders, St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, envisioned it primarily as a refuge for widows, such as St. Jane herself, or infirm women whose age or health did not permit them to undertake the penances common to religious life. It drew its aspirants mainly from the poorer and uneducated families, meaning that it did not have the same prestige as most other congregations. Indeed, St. Francis, in a conference addressed to the sisters, remarked:
“The daughters of the Visitation will always speak humbly of their little congregation, and, as regards honor and esteem, will prefer all others to it; but, as regards love, they will prefer it to all others… Let us frankly own that other Congregations are better, richer, and more excellent, but not more lovable or desirable for us.”
It would certainly seem that, humanly speaking, there was nothing to recommend such a congregation to be the one chosen by Our Lord to be permanently associated with the revelation of His Sacred Heart. Of course, this would certainly accomplish the aim indicated by Our Lord by highlighting that the spread of this devotion was most certainly the work of Jesus Christ Himself, and not the human organization to which it was commended.
Perhaps, though, there is another reason why Our Lord chose the Visitation as the nursery of the devotion to the Sacred Heart in these latter days. In addition to the lack of human resources, might we not also consider the spirit of the congregation? Was there anything in the character of this religious order which made it fitting background for the revelation of the Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary?
To answer this, we should consider what St. Francis de Sales considered to be the essential characteristics which set the Visitation apart from other orders. He explains this most fully in a conference given precisely to answer the question of at least some of its members as to what exactly was the spirit of their religious life: “You propose a most difficult question to me when you ask what is the spirit of your Rules, and how you ought to understand it.”
Our saint first explains what the “spirit” of a rule can be through several examples taken both from the New Testament and from other orders. At this point, he notes that a spirit is the particular manner in which religious strive to practice the virtue of charity, in which the perfection of all religious rules consists. St. Francis then turns his attention to the Visitation itself, and confidently declares: “I have always considered that it is a spirit of profound humility towards God, and of a great gentleness with our neighbor… The spirit of gentleness is so absolutely the spirit of the Visitation that any one who should wish to introduce into it any more austerities than there at present, would instantly destroy the Visitation.” In other words, the Visitation was designed to forego the physical austerities and penances which were more common in other orders so as to cultivate in its members two particular virtues: humility and gentleness or meekness.
At this point, we should notice that these two virtues have been combined already by another person. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself unites them: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take My yoke and learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” In other words, the Visitation is founded on the two virtues which Our Lord explicitly linked with His Sacred Heart during His apostolic labors in this life. Thus, we are not surprised to hear St. Francis say: “since [the sisters of the Visitation] treat the body with less severity, [they] must all the more foster kindliness of heart.” The sisters were meant especially to practice kindness of heart and sweetness to their neighbor; precisely the virtues which most characterized the public life of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Indeed, St. Francis points out that this was the “spirit” of Our Lord, which He himself contrasted with the “spirit and power of Elias,” the same spirit in which St. John the Baptist had come. St. Francis notes that “spirit of Elias was one of severity” and that his power “was a strength which went forth from his spirit to punish and destroy sinners.” An example of this can be seen in 1 Kings, where Elias convinces the people of Israel that the prophets of Baal are charlatans and commands the people to put them to the sword (cf. I Kings 18, 10ff).
Our Lord neatly distinguished his own spirit from this attitude—proper for the Old Law and for His own precursor—during His final journey to Jerusalem, during the course of which He had to pass through Samaria. After Jesus was refused lodging by one of the towns of the countryside, two of the apostles, James and John, asked leave to call down fire from heaven to destroy its inhabitants on account of their impiety. Their request, it should be noted, was remarkably similar to Elias’s prayer that if he were a prophet of God, fire would descend from heaven and consume the messengers of King Ahab (2 Kings, 1, 10ff). As St. Francis relates, Our Lord refuses the apostles’ request and tells them “you know not what spirit you are.”
St. Francis explains that Our Lord’s response can be explained as follows: “Do you know that we are no longer in the time of Elias, who had a spirit of severity? You do not act right in imitating him. On the other hand, Christ is not come to punish and confound sinners, but to draw them gently to penance and to follow Him.” In other words, Our Lord’s spirit was precisely a humble and gentle call to sinners to abandon their follies in order to follow Him. Our frailties and weakness no longer call forth the judgment and punishment of God, but the gentleness of His Sacred Heart.
Thus, in calling on the sisters of the Visitation to cultivate gentleness of heart and sweetness toward their neighbors, St. Francis was already encouraging them to imitate in its deepest way the spirit of the Sacred Heart. In this way, we can understand that there was already a deep sympathy between the spirit of the Visitation and the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Furthermore, by emphasizing the goodness and sweetness of Our Lord, St. Francis was encouraging an immense confidence in His mercy and forgiveness.
Thus, St. Francis boldly says in another of his conferences to the sisters: “Not only can the soul which knows her misery have great confidence in God but, unless she has such knowledge, she cannot have true confidence in Him; for it is this true knowledge and confession of our misery which brings us to God.” Thus, the knowledge of one’s own nothingness before God—which knowledge is precisely what St. Francis meant by the virtue of humility—ceases to be any kind of obstacle to approaching Him. Indeed, it is even a claim to His mercy. One might say that the soul who is most unworthy has the greatest claim to God’s kindness and gentleness. Thus, we might better understand why Our Lord chose St. Margaret Mary and her order of the Visitation to be the instrument of the revelation of the kindness, goodness, and gentleness of His Sacred Heart.