Reflections on the life of our Patroness
She was tormented in boarding school. Her father died at age 8. Her uncle forced her to work as a servant in her own home. She purposely cut herself. She couldn’t walk for four years. It may sound like a soap opera plot or a Lifetime movie of the week, but this series of unfortunate events belonged to Margaret Alacoque, a young girl from the Burgundy region of France.
Margaret was born in 1647. The fifth of seven children born to Claude and Philberte Alacoque, Margaret would have been described as the “shy one”. As a young child she lived with her godmother, the Countess of Corcheval, where she learned at an early age the merits of living a virtuous life. Many hours were devoted to prayer and meditation, even at a very early age. Through the Countess’ influence, Margaret even dedicated herself to a life of virginity – at the age of four. Visits to churches, daily Mass and rosary, prayer and meditation – these became the foundation of Margaret’s daily routine. While most children played, Margaret prayed. No doubt this unique dedication to prayer and virtuous living led to a litany of verbal rebukes from siblings and friends who viewed young Margaret as, well, strange. One wonders how a four-year-old’s self-consecration to virginity was understood by those who knew Margaret and her family.
Her young life was turned upside-down by the deaths of her godmother and father when Margaret was eight. Unprepared to manage the family’s financial affairs, Margaret’s mother was forced to turn over the estate to her husband’s brother-in-law who ruthlessly treated the Alacoque family with contempt. Margaret and her mother were thrust into a life of domestic servitude in their own home.
Margaret was sent to boarding school under the supervision of the Poor Clare Sisters. She was drawn to the simple life of prayer exemplified by the nuns, and they, too, marveled at Margaret’s devotion to God and Church. Margaret was granted early First Communion at the age of 9 – and began a sacramental love affair between communicant and Lord which lasted the rest of her life. If only her schoolmates were just as loving. Margaret met abuse and humiliation by students who viewed her piety as unusual.
A rheumatic fever afflicted young Margaret for four years, where she was virtually unable to use arms or hands. The Sisters sent her back home. Margaret was forced to leave the peaceful discipline she grew to love through the care of the nuns, and returned to the dysfunctional setting of her home overtaken by uncaring family members.
Around the age of 10, Margaret’s bout with a rheumatic fever left the young girl without full use of arms or legs for nearly four years. She would spend many lonely days and nights confined to her bed, where prayer would be her constant companion. Since her ruthless uncle took over the family home following the death of her father, Margaret’s mother Philberte spent day and night as a servant in her own home, attending to the family’s needs. Without the ability to visit her church or receive the Eucharist, Margaret’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was fine tuned. Begging Mary to intercede so that she could be healed, Margaret promised in return that she would dedicate her life as a religious sister. Healed of her affliction, she set out to fulfill her promise.
However, Margaret found no one to support her desire to become a nun. Her uncle forbade the discussion and instead remanded Margaret to servitude in the care of his own young children. Her mother, fearful that she would be left alone, was unsupportive of her vocation. With the loss of her beloved father and godmother, Margaret struggled to find a friend or a compassionate ear. Instead, she did what became her custom when faced with adversity – she turned to prayer. This time, the prayer became more intense and profound. She coupled her prayer with occasions of severe self-discipline: binding and chaining herself, inflicting her body with self-imposed cuts, sleeping on a hard board, fasting from food and drink. These physical inflictions were cleverly hidden from the rest of the household, put certainly took their toll. Her suffering was intended to draw her closer to the Lords sufferings. When her mother was afflicted with a skin disease and was near death, and her uncle refused to provide her with medical assistance, Margaret’s prayer and suffering became more profound. Once again she turned to the Blessed Virgin for intercession, and her mother was instantly cured.
Life changed dramatically for Margaret and her family when her older brother reached adult age and their father’s estate was once again returned to the family. For Margaret, the normal life of a teenage girl meant an opportunity to become more social. However, Margaret resisted being with youth her own age because she believed it led to a denial of her destined vocation as a religious. Would the Suffering Jesus approve of Margaret having fun-filled social life? In her mind, the answer was no. Therefore, she withdrew from teenage normalcy and replaced it with a rededication to prayer and discipline.
When Margaret’s older brother married, her mother became concerned of who would take care of her in her old age. She therefore encouraged Margaret to marry and to abandon her wishes to enter religious life. But this was not God’s plan.
Ten years had passed since Margaret made the promise to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would become a nun. Now in her early twenties, she once again asked her mother for permission. But Philberte Alacoque refused, afraid of being alone. Her two eldest sons had recently died and the role of head of the household belonged to her third-oldest son, Chrysostom.
He, likewise, insisted that Margaret marry immediately. Without hesitancy, Margaret responded to her brother by describing her true love: “He is the most beautiful, the richest, most powerful, most perfect and accomplished of all lovers and I am promised to Him.” Margaret’s tone, however sincere, did nothing to convince Chrysostom. Instead, thinking that city life would change her mind, he sent Margaret to live in the city of Macon with their maternal uncle. Talk about bad timing. It so happened that the uncle’s daughter, Margaret’s cousin, was about to enter the Ursuline convent in Macon and wished Margaret to join her. Could it be that Margaret’s dream of becoming a nun could possibly be unfolding before her? Not so. Upon the news, Chrysostom arrived to collect his younger sister and bring her home, with the news that their mother Philberte was dying of grief that Margaret would abandon her. Ever obedient, Margaret returned home.
Then one day a stranger came to the door. It was a Franciscan priest who was visiting the region. He was so overwhelmed by Margaret’s piety and fervor for the Lord that he stayed as a guest overnight at the Alacoque home. He taught Margaret prayers and listened to her desire to follow God as a religious, only to find objection from her family. He immediately set out to confront Chrysostom and rebuked him for being an obstacle in Margaret’s desire to fulfill her vocation. The friar’s stern message convinced Chrysostom.
The task of convincing Margaret’s mother fell upon the youngest Alacoque brother, James, himself a seminarian for the priesthood. The gentle yet persuasive tone of Philberte’s youngest child was enough to open her mind and heart to accept Margaret’s true vocation.
With family in support, Chrysostom set out to find a suitable convent for his sister. A return to the Ursuline convent in Macon where their cousin was a nun? Or perhaps to the Poor Clare convent near the Alacoque home where Margaret happily spent her early years in boarding school? Politely, Margaret refused both options, preferring instead to go far away and by herself so family ties would not serve as a hindrance to her vocation.
Margaret’s desire to enter a convent far from her home led her to the country village of Paray-le-Monial and the Sisters of the Visitation Order. She was welcomed by her first superior, Mother Hieronyme, on May 25, 1671 and spent the rest of her life within the walls of the convent. The Visitation Sisters, founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal sixty years earlier, was a contemplative Order whose main mission was prayer for the Church and the world.
The Visitation Convent at Paray was relatively new, having been opened by the foundress herself in 1643. Many of the older sisters personally knew their saintly founders and promised obedience to fervent prayer and self-sacrifice as a means to redeem souls throughout the world. Each year, many young women sought entrance to the community, and the spring of 1671 was no exception. Margaret and her class joyfully entered religious life. They were placed in the care of a deeply spiritual and elderly mistress of novices, Sr. de Thouvant, who instructed the young sisters to “go, and place yourselves before God, like canvas before a painter.”
From the beginning, there was something a bit unusual about Margaret’s behavior. Margaret cherished time in her small cell, furnished with only a bed, table and chair. She especially looked forward to opportunities to pray in the chapel. In fact, she found ways to spend as much chapel time possible in private prayer. Her visions of the Lord began almost immediately upon her entrance to the convent. Sisters would marvel at the hours Sr. Margaret would spend kneeling in absolute silence and stillness. Attempts to break her concentration proved fruitless. Only under obedience to her superior would she discontinue the private encounter with God.
The sisters grew concerned of Sr. Margaret’s strange behavior. Her extreme methods of self-discipline were unconventional, even for the life of a 17th century nun (more on this next month). She was assigned to the convent infirmary in the care of the elderly and sick members of the community. The head of the infirmary was to keep Sr. Margaret busy at all times. She proved not to be a very good nurse’s assistant and found ways to slip back to the chapel for personal prayer.
From the beginning of her life in the convent, the Lord regularly appeared to Sr. Margaret. She wrote, “He honored me with His conversations, sometimes as a Friend, sometimes as ardently loving Spouse, or as a tender Father full of love for his only child.” Her superiors were bewildered by her unusual reference to God as a Spouse or Lover. She was ordered to write down all her conversations with the Lord, a task she did with great sadness for she felt it a violation of her special relationship with Christ. She wrote “My Diving Master let me see that this was the time of our Betrothal, and like the most ardent of Lovers, He let me taste what was sweetest in the sweetness of His love.”
Sr. Margaret’s visions of our Lord intensified following the profession of her vows as a nun on November 6, 1672. So did her odd behavior. She believed it was only through suffering and self-sacrifice that she would be found a worthy vessel of God’s love. To achieve this, she would add ashes to her food. She abstained from liquids for days at a time. She slept on wooden planks. In the infirmary where she was assigned, she would kiss the open wounds of the sick. Alone in her cell, he would practice self-flogging. If she suffered like Christ suffered, then she would draw closer to Him.
The sisters tried to curb her private chapel time by keeping her busy with duties in the convent infirmary. She wrote a song which she sang to the sick sisters which best described her longing to be with her Lord:
“The more they contradict my love, the more that love inflames.
By day they torture me, but cannot break my chains.
My Lover’s love’s of such a kind, the more I suffer pain,
The closer does He, my poor heart unto His own enchain.”
On the night of her profession, the Lord appeared to her again and expressed to her words of love she longed to hear, as Christ told her,
That very night she consecrated herself to the Lord, writing (in her own blood): “All in God and nothing in self.”
Of the many intimate conversations between Jesus and Sr. Margaret Mary, three events stand out for their significance to the nun’s mission and its implications for the Church and the entire world. It was in these three visions, known as the Great Revelations, that Jesus presented Himself through His Sacred Heart. These Revelations occurred from 1673-1675, hardly more than two years after Sr. Margaret Mary had entered the convent. Each Revelation drew from the previous encounter, like a drama in three acts. Under order from her superior, Mother Saumaise, Sr. Margaret wrote everything down she experienced.
The First Revelation occurred on December 27, 1673, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. While St. Margaret Mary was praying in chapel, Jesus showed His Sacred Heart to her for the first time. He said, “My divine heart is passionately in love with men that it can no longer contain within itself the flames of ardent charity. It must pour them out by your means and manifest itself to enrich all with its precious treasures, which contains all the graces needed to save all from perdition.” Then Jesus directed Sr. Margaret Mary, “I have chosen you as an abyss of unworthiness and ignorance to accomplish so great a design so that all may be done by Me.”
With these words, Jesus had instructed the saintly nun to begin a devotion to His Sacred Heart, unlike any other devotion the Church had to that moment in history experienced. But how? When? How is it that the Lord chose a simple cloistered nun in a small country convent to revolutionize the Church’s perception of the Savior of the World?
Following this First Revelation, and continuing the rest of her life, Sr. Margaret Mary retained an invisible pain in her side, aligning herself with the sufferings of her loving Spouse. Each First Friday of the month she experienced profound pain from this invisible wound. She wrote, “The pain of this wound is so precious to me, I feel myself inflamed with such a fire that it seems about to reduce me to ashes.”
The second Great Revelation by Jesus to Sr. Margaret Mary occurred on the first Friday of June in 1674, while the nun was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. Who she encountered that day was a very different manifestation of Jesus, not the loving Spouse or Friend to whom she had grown accustomed.
This Jesus was angry, outraged from the lack of love shown to Him by the world. In short, Jesus’ heart was broken and He wanted things to change. Sr. Margaret Mary was ordered to make things better. She later wrote down everything that the Lord said: “This is much more painful to Me than all I suffered in My passion. If men rendered Me some return of love, I should esteem little all I have done for them, and should wish, if such could be, to suffer it over again, but they meet My eager love with coldness and rebuffs.” Jesus’ five wounds “shone like five wounds. Flames darted forth from all parts of His sacred Humanity.” The poor nun was terrified.
Jesus directed Sister Margaret Mary to pay him the respect and homage that others, through their ingratitude, did not. She felt frightened that she could live up to the task. “Fear not,” Jesus said to her, “I will be your strength.” He then asked two things of her: two receive Communion each First Friday for the atonement of ungrateful hearts throughout the world, and one hour in private prayer each week for the reparation of sin.
After the Revelations, the sisters found her unconscious, and then unable to walk. She was remanded to the infirmary. Mother Saumaise feared Sr. Margaret Mary might die, as she endured a series of high fevers that left her immobile. The doctor was called who offered little hope. In a moment of panic, Mother approached the dying nun and ordered her to ask God to heal her. In return, she would be permitted to receive Communion each First Friday. No sooner had Sr. Margaret Mary uttered a short prayer that her fever left her and she was cured.
It was at this point in the story of our patroness that Mother Saumaise recognized that something was happening which surpassed the confines of the convent walls. She called for “learned people” to investigate the matter of Sr. Margaret Mary’s visions. Unanimously, they concluded that these supernatural occurrences were figments of the nun’s vivid imagination.
Mother Saumaise decision to consult with learned people outside the convent regarding Sr. Margaret Mary’s unusual visions concluded with no one believing the nun’s story. It was most likely her active imagination, or perhaps it was an evil spirit inside her cleverly deceiving the sisters who believed the visions to be true (not all did). Depressed and confused, Sr. Margaret Mary turned to prayer to seek guidance. She could hear the voice of the Lord tell her, “be patient and wait for my servant.”
There lived in Paray a community of Jesuit priests not far from the Visitation convent. For years, these priests were of service to the sisters, celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. Around the time of the Lord’s second Great Revelation to St. Margaret Mary, the community was sent a new superior, Fr. Claude de la Colombiere. At only 32 years of age, Fr. Claude had already made a name for himself as a distinguished and charming cleric and outstanding preacher, catching the attention of French nobility and Church hierarchy alike. One wonders how, if not for the will of God, he was assigned to the small country village of Paray.
Upon Father Claude’s arrival, he led a retreat for the sisters in the convent. Sr. Margaret Mary participated. Upon hearing his voice, she distinctly heard the Lord saying to her, “behold him who I send to you.” She asked permission to go to confession to Fr. Claude. He spoke to her as if he knew what was passing in her soul. Mother Saumaise granted permission for subsequent visits between the future saints. The nun confided in him the secrets of her heart. Above all, Fr. Claude believed her. He recognized in this humble sister that God was truly working through her.
Sr. Margaret Mary didn’t know what was to come when the Lord appeared to her again in the Third Revelation (more on this next month). She accepted what was asked of her in the knowledge that Fr. Claude was to assist her in the mission God had planned.
Fr. Claude left Paray after two short years, but as a fervent disciple of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. He was sent to England, as preacher to the Duchess of York in the Court of St. James who happened to be Catholic. He continued to counsel St. Margaret Mary by way of letters. He was eventually imprisoned in England, charged as a conspirator against the King. He returned to France, and eventually back to Paray where he lived out the rest of his life.
Renewed in physical and spiritual health, Sr. Margaret Mary received the third, and final, Great Revelation from the Lord on June 16, 1675. This encounter was the last chapter of instructions the Lord imparted on the saintly nun, instructions which seemed impossible for the sister to achieve.
The Lord picked up where He left off the last time, lamenting the lack of gratitude shown to Him by the world and, as accounted by the nun, “by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this sacrament of love.” Jesus continued, “And what is most painful to Me is that they are hearts consecrated to Me.” To Sister Margaret Mary, this was a profound statement.
Jesus then instructed her to establish a feast in honor of His Sacred Heart: “The first Friday after the octave of the Blessed Sacrament be appropriated to a special feast to honor My Heart by communicating on that day and making reparation for the indignity that it has received. And I promise that My Heart shall dilate to pour out abundantly the influences of its love on all that will render it this honor.”
At the conclusion of this Revelation, there was no trace of the violent emotion or sickness that the first two had brought upon Sr. Margaret Mary. She uttered one simple question to her loving Spouse, “Lord, how can I?” Without finishing the question, Jesus answered her, “Address yourself to the servant of God who has been sent to you expressly for the accomplishment of this design.” Sr. Margaret Mary knew her mission was to be achieved in collaboration with Fr. Claude de la Colombiere.
She confided in Fr. Claude all that she experienced in this last Revelation. He knew it to be authentically from God and promised her that one day the feast day would be established. Upon hearing Fr. Claude’s commitment, she re-consecrated herself to the Sacred Heart, and the priest knelt by her and professed his own consecration to the mission at hand.
At first, Sr. Margaret Mary tried to conceal from others the visions she experienced, other than reporting all what happened to her superior Mother de Saumaise and Father Claude. However, if she was to fulfill the command of Jesus to consecrate the world to his Sacred Heart, these activities would prove impossible to keep private. News spread throughout the convent and soon throughout the village of Paray-le-Monial (and beyond) of what was occurring to the young nun (the Great Revelations all occurred in the first four years of Margaret entering the convent). She was incapable of carrying out the daily routine of convent life. Her lack of concentration and physical limitations rendered her helpless in her duties in the infirmary, so she was transferred to the kitchen. Unable to perform the smallest of tasks, she was sent to serve in the boarding school. However, once her “celebrity” status was recognized, the children would attempt to cut pieces of her habit as mementos of being close to the saintly nun who had conversations with Jesus. Even sisters within the convent believed she was simply delusional. The arrival of a new Mother Superior made it even more difficult
Mother du Sumaise was succeeded by Mother Greyfie, who was known for her austerity and rigidness. She was particularly intolerant of Sr. Margaret Mary’s strange behavior and began to treat her harshly. Sr. Margaret’s time spent in the chapel in prayer was greatly reduced. When Sr. Margaret fell ill, Mother Greyfie would not believe her and ordered her out of bed. Such harsh treatment continued for a number of years. Once, Sr. Margaret Mary was critically ill in the infirmary. Mother Greyfie commanded the nun to ask God to heal her from all sickness for a period of five consecutive months. Upon whispering her prayer, Sr. Margaret Mary was immediately and fully healed from her illnesses and continued perfect health for exactly five months. Mother Greyfie heart began to melt and ultimately recognized the truth of Sr. Margaret Mary’s mission (she would write later in her life how remorseful she had become over the cruel treatment she gave to the nun).
When Mother Greyfie’s six year term as Superior had ended, the sisters of the Visitation Convent received the great news that one of their own community, Sr. Marie-Christine Melin, was to become their new Mother Superior. Greatly loved by all the sisters, Mother Melin was known for her kindness. The new Mother Superior was particularly fond of Sr. Margaret Mary and fully believed in her mission to consecrate the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Kindly Mother Melin, upon her election as Mother Superior of the Convent in Paray-le-Monial, immediately appointed Sr. Margaret Mary as Mistress of Novices. In her new role, Sr. Margaret Mary was charged with the spiritual formation of the young girls entering the Visitation Convent, a role in which she excelled. Through her assignment, Sr. Margaret Mary imparted the treasures of devoting one’s life to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a spirituality quickly embraced by the young sisters and soon thereafter by all the sisters in the convent.
At first, Sr. Margaret Mary set out to fulfill one of the Lord’s commands that a picture of the Sacred Heart adorn the wall of convents, homes and churches. However, she lamented that she was unable to draw a fitting rendering of the Heart of Jesus. She wrote to her former superior, Mother de Saumaise, who knew of a relative of one of the sisters who was an artist. Soon the picture was completed and found its way hung on the walls of every Visitation Convent in France and Italy. Through her persistence, images and altars dedicated to the Sacred Heart were installed in the convent chapels and soon in parish churches.
Official prayers were composed referencing Jesus in the image of his Sacred Heart. But Sr. Margaret Mary knew one more task was to be completed: the designation of a feast day in the universal Church Calendar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Permission was granted for the chapel in Paray-le-Monial to celebrate a Mass of the Sacred Heart on the First Friday of each month. Slowly other convents and eventually dioceses adopted the practice. Public devotion was swelled throughout France and Italy. This devotion caught the eye of Vatican officials which led to final Church designation in 1689.
Sr. Margaret Mary knew that all that the Lord commanded her some twenty years earlier had now been completed. The Church fully embraced the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and families were consecrating themselves to the love and care of Jesus. Recognizing her mission was accomplished, she informed her sisters that soon she would die. She spent her remaining time greeting pilgrims who made their way to the convent in Paray-le-Monial, declaring “we have come to see the saint.” The sisters discouraged her from speaking as if her life was ending (she was only 42 years old). However, she knew the Lord was calling her Home. On the evening of October 17, 1690, Mother Melin called for a priest to administer the Last Rites. As she was being anointed, she called upon the Holy Name of Jesus, and passed away.