What is “spiritual direction”? Unlike the Sacrament of Penance, the study of systematic theology, or the corporal works of mercy, spiritual direction is a much less easily defined concept.

Perhaps an easier way to define it is by showing examples where good, solid, common sense spiritual direction actually worked and produced concrete results, like great saints and entirely new religious congregations. In this case, we will look at two saints, two friends, named after God’s Holy Fool, St. Francis of Assisi: St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal—with a guest appearance by another great French saint, St. Vincent de Paul.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), like another great doctor of the Church St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), was a legal savant. After taking the tonsure at an extremely young age, and then receiving degrees in law, he was eventually given the thoroughly unenviable task of being the Bishop of Geneva, which at that time was a stronghold of Calvinism and its staunchly entrenched belief in double predestination—the belief that you are either saved or damned, and there was nothing you could do about it. It was Francis’s job to re-evangelize the recusant Swiss.

But he was not alone. Since his birth his mother had appointed the Abbè Deage as his tutor, and Deage followed Francis everywhere he went. Once the Abbè had passed on, Francis found spiritual confidence in his cousin, the Canon Louis de Sales, who acted as spiritual advisor and director to the young bishop.

We often think of the saints as glorified “super-human” people—that their lives were ones of bliss, miracles and unstoppable acts of goodwill, sometimes cut short by a martyrdom that is recorded as almost a sweet blessing. However, St. Francis de Sales, during his relatively short life, met with brutal attacks, was waylaid by assassins, spent one night hiding out in a tree for fear of his life, and on at least one other occasion was physically attacked by an entire hostile crowd who insulted and physically beat him.

For all this misery, St. Francis de Sales never stopped writing small tracts on religion and a “Bishop’s Catechism.” But more importantly for our purposes he met, in 1604, Jane Frances de Chantal, who came under his spiritual direction.

Jane Frances, whose father was the president of the Burgundy parlement, married well. But this was short-lived: her husband died in a freak hunting accident, three children died in infancy, and she went to live with her 75-year-old father-in-law who, by all accounts, was cruel and appallingly mean to his daughter-in-law.

Into this life of dim despair came a ray of real light. St. Francis de Sales preached in Dijon and Jane, hearing him, “recognized him as the person she had once seen in a vision and knew him to be the spiritual director she had begged God to send her.”

Three years later, St. Francis de Sales shared with St. Jane Frances his concept for a new establishment of women religious called the Congregation of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was to be unique in that the women were not to be cloistered—but even the bishop of Geneva could not get such an innovative idea passed, so the Visitidines undertook the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine.

Since he had his own diocese to attend to back in Geneva, St. Francis de Sales put Jane Frances in touch with St. Vincent de Paul, the great Parisian saint of the poor, and he helped her govern her convent in the City of Light and became her new spiritual director, as he had done with St. Louise de Marillac, with whom he had founded the Daughters of Charity.

But then the darkness descended again on Jane Frances. St. Francis de Sales died in 1622, her son died in 1627 fighting the English, and a terrible plague broke out all over France. While the plague gave Jane the chance to practice works of mercy, in 1632 her son-in-law died, and her common friend—Michel Favre, the confessor of St. Francis de Sales—died too.

Hers was a hard life softened only by an unshakable faith in God and a good, great friend in her spiritual director St. Francis de Sales, and, somewhat briefly, St. Vincent de Paul. The latter of these saints spoke of Jane Frances this way:

She was full of faith, yet all her life had been tormented by thoughts against it. While apparently enjoying the peace and easiness of mind of souls who have reached a high state of virtue, she suffered such interior trials that she often told me her mind was so filled with all sorts of temptations and abominations that she had to strive not to look within herself. But for all that suffering her face never lost its serenity, nor did she once relax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth.

Jane Frances herself said to her beloved Visitidine Sisters:

Yield yourself fully to God, and you will find out what form your martyrdom will take! Divine love takes its sword to the hidden recesses of our inmost soul and divides us from ourselves. I know one person whom love cut off from all that was dearest to her, just as completely and effectively as if a tyrant’s blade had severed spirit from body.

The biographer then adds, “We realized that she was speaking of herself.”

Interior anguish, darkness of the soul, and spiritual dryness: if this is the lot of the life of one whose spiritual director was the great doctor St. Francis de Sales—and later St. Vincent de Paul—how on earth should we expect to escape a life of not only spiritual suffering, but one of physical privations and assaults as well?