By CAROLE BRESLIN
There was a child, comely in appearance, sweet of disposition, and a joy for the parents to behold. The father was a carpenter, the head of this small but devout family. They observed the religious practices of their time, bringing up their small child to know and appreciate the centuries-old traditions. This holy family was pleasing to God and edifying for the faith community. Similar to the Holy Family, the child brought many closer to God by her example and her work.
In northwestern France near the English Channel there is an abbey, the Corbie abbey, that still stands today. The carpenter at this abbey, Robert Boellet, and his wife, Marguerite Moyon, had longed for many years for a child of their own. After praying a novena to St. Nicholas, they conceived and on January 13, 1381, they named their little girl after the beloved saint, Nicolette.
Colette, as they called her, was quite small. Her father was worried about her tiny stature. Even Colette wanted to be taller so she prayed to grow and her prayers were answered. From an early age she lived a rather reclusive life, avoiding much socializing.
Her mother realized that Colette was led by God and so she left her alone to pursue her prayer and meditation. However, her beauty brought her much attention, from which she shrank. The attention became so distracting that she prayed that her looks would be changed, which did happen. Nevertheless, her sweet personality continued to draw admirers to her side.
Before she attained the age of 18, Colette lost both her parents to death. The abbot of the Corbie abbey took her under his care. She lived in a convent, giving away her few possessions in imitation of St. Francis, the founder of the third order she joined. Perhaps she recognized that the more possessions we have in our lives, the less room we have for Christ.
The abbot gave a small hermitage to Colette that was adjoined to the church in Corbie. She took our Lord’s words to heart to follow Him: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Dispossessed of material goods, she fasted, abstained, and spent much time in prayer.
As her fame for sanctity spread, her visitors increased. Although she charitably received them and gave advice, they became such a distraction to her prayer life that she stopped receiving visitors. For three years, she lived a solitary life in complete silence.
During this time she prayed much over the condition of the Third Order of St. Francis. Her confessor, Friar Henri de la Beaume, dreamt that he witnessed her tending some grapevines which had many leaves but were fruitless. After she pruned them, the vines bore much fruit. This dream was confirmed by the visions that Colette herself evidently had during her seclusion. In fact, she received a vision of St. Francis of Assisi, who enjoined her to reform the order of his sister in Christ, St. Clare.
Like the Carmelites in the time of St. Teresa of Avila, the Poor Clares had drifted away from the original rules and practices of their founder. St. Colette, in her humility, shrank from such a monumental undertaking. But when she was struck blind for three days and then for three days more lost all power of speech, she accepted the responsibility St. Francis urged her to take.
As always, she discussed the events with her spiritual director. Beaume agreed that she was not being deceived by the Devil and advised her to carry on with the reform. In 1406 she left her cell by the church to begin her work. Knowing that she would need authority to begin, she set out to get permission.
This was the time of the antipope in France who called himself Pope Benedict XIII. So Colette, at the relatively young age of 25, set out for her journey to Nice in her habit patched together from scraps of material, in her bare feet, to meet with the “pope,” Peter de Luna. De Luna was at that time recognized by France as the rightful pope. This journey, which would take Colette from northwestern France to southeastern France, covered over 600 miles.
Peter de Luna received St. Colette and granted her bulls to carry out the reform in 1406, 1407, 1408, and 1412. He also appointed Friar Henri de Beaume to be her assistant in opening new convents and reforming the existing ones.
Needless to say, like most reformers, she met with strong opposition to any changes. As she traveled from city to city, she was not only treated as an extremist, but was even accused of being a witch. Little Colette did not shrink from such abuse. She had denied herself; now she had to take up her cross and she did so with joy as she persevered in her mission.
As she traveled through France, Savoy, and Flanders, she eventually realized success. As she gathered recruits, especially in Savoy, she continued her travels to Burgundy and again throughout France and Savoy as well as Spain.
In Besançon, the house of Poor Clares was the first to accept her vision of reform for the order. Her sanctity and holiness spread rapidly as she also worked many miracles. As the duchess of Bourbon, whose family was so profoundly affected by their contact with St. Collette, said, “I am dying to see that wonderful Colette who raises people from the dead!”
The duchess was not the only personage of influence to be affected by Colette. Many others, dukes, duchesses, and princesses, numbered among her supporters. It is very possible that she even met St. Joan of Arc in 1429 when she was on her way to La Charité-sur-Loire to besiege the enemy.
All told, St. Colette founded 17 new convents. There is one convent in Le Puy-en-Velay that is still following her rule. She also reformed numerous other convents. Finally, in Flanders, she was seized with her final illness. Predicting her death, she received Extreme Unction and died on March 6, 1447, in the convent at Ghent. She was 76 years old.
Colette was canonized in 1807. Her feast day is March 6, the day she entered eternity.
Dear St. Colette, help us to imitate Christ as you so faithfully did by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following His way. May we realize that worldly possessions may bring pleasure, but they certainly will not bring us the joy that comes only when we unite ourselves with God in the sufferings of His beloved son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)