In the great garden of monastic Orders and the spiritualities that animate them, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary appears as a garden of little violets. It may not immediately catch one’s eye since it has, at its heart, simplicity, cordiality and the hidden life. Above all it is centred on the face of Christ, the Christ who is gentle and humble of heart. This is the perfume of the Gospel that Francis de Sales wanted to send forth in founding a new institute of consecrated life.
From 1602, when he was a young bishop, Francis de Sales sought to revitalize Christian life in his diocese and beyond. All those who were baptized he called to holiness. He journeyed with them through difficult and joyful times to an expansive love for God and for one’s neighbour.
He deeply felt this Gospel urgency and especially with regard to religious life which was often decadent at that time. Later in 1604 he met Jane de Chantal, a young widow and mother of four children. God showed them that the moment had come to respond to the desire of many women attracted to a religious life more adapted to their situation, especially widows and those prevented from joining the other Orders because of poor health.
On Trinity Sunday June 6th 1610, the little institute came to birth at Annecy (at that time in Savoy) and after a short time it was given the name of the Order of the Visitation of the Holy Mary. Why the name “Visitation” for a contemplative Institute ? Francis de Sales purpose was to reveal to Christians this little developed but central Gospel mystery : “God has visited His people”. And He keeps on visiting them in order to communicate His Peace and His Salvation. Jane de Chantal became the cornerstone of the young Order, which very quickly grew and expanded.
The Order of the Visitation profoundly answered a spiritual need at the time of the two founders. This breeze of the Spirit continues to blow through the heart of the Church today in the call to gentleness and humility as we contemplate Jesus, gentle and humble of heart. In fidelity to the founding vision the Order of the Visitation has guarded its particular tradition : in place of long prayers, the Visitandine is called to prefer interiority, in place of austerities availability of heart, in place of strict material poverty seeking freedom from all things… All of this together marks a life that tends to an intimate and surrendered union with God. Daily silent, personal prayer (one hour and a half) is both the source and fruit of our contemplative life :
“To give to God daughters of prayer,
and souls so interior that they may be found worthy to worship Him in spirit and in truth”
declares saint Francis de Sales.
“Really our little congregation
is the work of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.
The dying Savior gave birth to us through the opening of his Sacred Heart”,
wrote Saint Francis de Sales in a letter to Saint Jane de Chantal, almost seventy years before Christ’s revelation to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque at Paray-le-Monial…
For four centuries the Order of the Visitation has spread throughout the world. It has not been spared storms : civil wars, plagues, famine, revolutions, world wars, border moves, genocides, religious persecutions, exiles, etc. There have many closures, transfers, new beginnings, uncertainties of the tomorrows of this life. However, delicate and strong, modest and bold, Visitandines have stood in their place of prayer, with and in the heart of Our Lady’s Magnificat. This Magnificat has spread to thirty three countries throughout the world and prayed in twelve languages. God’s Love is the first and last word.
The Visitation is a garden of a little more than 2 500 violets that continues to grow and blossom ? Like simple bouquets bound by cordiality and friendship in our common life, does not it release the unique perfume of our God who is the “God of the human heart” (Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God).