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Monsieur de Bernières (1602-1659)


In view of  his leading role, we will return to the environment and friends inspired by Jean de Bernières in Volume IV, since as directed by Chrysostome de Saint-Lô,[1] he built the Hermitage, a retreat house for use by mystics which formed the origin of the school of quietude. The history of that school, which is so important that we will devote a whole volume to it, shows a transmission of spiritual directors in which clergy and laity alternate, a current born in the medieval Franciscan world which extended to the fringes of the nineteenth century. Starting with the Sire de la Forest, it passed to Fr. Chrysostome, Monsieur de Bernières (a layman), Monsieur Bertot (a priest), Madame Guyon and Fénelon; finally, it extended into Europe.

Here we want to touch on Jean de Bernières' personal life. Strangely, his humble self-effacement makes him difficult to perceive as an individual.[2] Nevertheless, he was unable to vanish completely, as his abundant correspondence served as the basis of publications which made him famous post-mortem.[3]  Jean de Bernières only dictated letters and drafted notes taken during retreats. These (unfortunately lost) sources were put together with all the liberty permitted in those days to form the basis for 'constructing' LIntérieur Chrétien, and the following year Le Chrétien Intérieur. This latter title was to have a glorious career; it reached a wide public, as it is smooth and easy to read. The book could be found even in small libraries.

Jean de Bernières was born into an upper-middle class Norman family; in the spirit of a good Franciscan he would have liked to get rid of his fortune, but as his family would not allow this he used it generously. In addition to his donations, he gave of himself: he loved the poor so much that he carried them on his back to the hospital in the good city of Caen, arousing hilarity.

He inherited a post as receiver-general of taxes, which he performed to general satisfaction from 1631 to 1653. In 1639-1640, as a leading citizen concerned with taxes, he was caught up in the 'revolt of the bare-footed' who, threatened with an increase in the salt-tax, attacked the receivers' houses. This revolt was suppressed horribly by Chancellor Séguier, who is known to have recorded day after day in his notebook the number of those hanged by way of example Bernières is said to have gone on horseback to warn the peasants of an imminent attack.

Some stories about him are edifying, or comic, for example when Bernières contracted a marriage of convenience with an entirely holy aim. Madame de la Peltrie (-1671), a widow as generous as she was eccentric, wished to give her money to a foundation in Nouvelle-France and planned to undertake an expedition to convert the Indians of America, but her family objected. A clergyman suggested an expedient; a pretended marriage would free the lady. The proposal was presented to M. de Bernières, and that "most honest man who lived in an odour of sanctity" asked his director's advice:[4] 

Fr. Jean-Chrysostome de Saint-Lô made up his mind for him[] Finally Bernières decided, if not to contract a marriage [] at least to enter into the spirit of the game [] by asking for her hand. [] The negotiations succeeded better than he would have wished. Instead of giving him time to reflect, M. de Chauvigny [her father], delighted with the affair, "had the house painted and decorated to receive him and prompted his daughter in the words she should say to him on the advantages of the marriage."[5]

This shows how, notwithstanding his austerity, Fr. Chrysostome could be broad-minded, and the freedom of all in this affair, which was to take a rather comic direction. With a view to the great voyage to Canada, they went to find two nuns at Tours, including the great Marie de lIncarnation (1599-1672),[6] and then endured presentation at Court and a stay in Paris:

The group consisted of seven persons, madame de la Peltrie and Charlotte Barré, M. de Bernières with his manservant and his lackey, and the two Ursulines, including Marie de lIncarnation, who wrote: "M. de Bernières organised our time and devotions in the carriage, and we kept to them as precisely as in the convent. [] At every halt it was he who provided for all our needs with particular charity [] During the last day of the journey M. de Bernières felt unwell: on arriving in Paris he took to his bed." Madame de la Peltrie played the marriage comedy to the full: "she remained all day in his bedchamber, and the doctors reported to her on the state of his illness and gave her the prescriptions for remedies.". Madame de la Peltrie and Sister de Savonnières were much amused by this comedy, M. de Bernières rather less so.[7]

 Finally Mme de la Peltrie, lay foundress of the Ursuline community of Quebec, and Marie de lIncarnation, who would be the community's spiritual leader, sailed with the fleet that left Dieppe in spring 1639:

Marie de lIncarnation was still under the influence of the ecstasy she had just experienced in the chapel of the Hôtel-Dieu. M. de Bernières boarded the launch with those who were leaving [] but was advised to remain in France so as to collect Madame de la Peltrie's revenues in order to meet the foundation's expenses.[8]

Despite his ardent desire to become a missionary, Bernières remained in France and managed the resources for the missions in Nouvelle-France during the 20 years following the founding voyage. He had a lengthy correspondence (unfortunately lost) with Marie de lIncarnation, his senior in mysticism who enabled him to progress and overcome his limitations.

Bernières himself had problems with his family over financial matters. As a member of the Franciscan Third Order, he wanted to give his possessions away. His family objected. He complained: My sister-in-law does her best to prevent me from being poor; she has good clergymen speak to me on this subject [] there is no longer any way of being poor".[9] During his final years he reached an agreement; he lived only on what his family gave him, that is to say very poorly and uncomfortably. Finally satisfied, he declared: "I embrace poverty although it may shorten my natural lifespan."[10].

Social status meant nothing to Bernières. To him his servants were not mere lackeys, but true brothers in Jesus Christ. His valet regarded him as his spiritual father:

You are my master, I must tell you everything as to my spiritual father You may do so, I told him, as I love you in Jesus Christ, and I have kept with you with me so you might belong entirely to him.[11]

 Jean died in spring 1659. The memory of his confessor Jean-Chrysostome's painful last agony had stayed in his mind, and so he was very anxious about dying and the idea that he could be damned. In fact his over-active life wore him out and his wish for a pleasantly rapid death was granted: 

Nevertheless, he was afraid of death [] A family tradition reported that he always asked God to die suddenly [] On 3 May 1659 [] after returning to the Hermitage when evening came, he began to say his prayers. His manservant [Denis Roberge] came to warn him that it was time for him to go to bed. Jean asked him to wait a little while and continued to pray.[12]

His manservant only realised [that he had died] on hearing him fall onto his prie-Dieu.[13]

Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement[14] wrote on this: 

His illness and death only lasted a quarter of an hour. Without being at all ill, at 9 in the evening on Saturday 3 May [] He will remember us. He loved us.[15]

His inner life

Nearly two hundred edited and dated letters have come down to us, tracing his spiritual path starting from 1641.[16] The eighteen years covered by this correspondence describe his relations with Mectilde / Catherine de Bar from 1643 (his correspondence with Marie de lIncarnation is unfortunately lost), and then from the death of Fr. Chrysostome in 1646, the year when the building of the Hermitage began, to its completion two years later; finally, the correspondence concludes the death of his friend Gaston de Renty in 1649: Jean then took over responsibility for the Company of the Blessed Sacrament.

Bernières was almost blind at the end of his life and dictated his letters to a priest who lived with him. Le Chrétien Intérieur, compiled after his death, was put together hastily on the basis of these letters.

During his youth Bernières was full of guilt and tension: he belonged to the confraternity of the 'Blessed Abjection' founded by Jean-Chrysostome, and although at that time the word 'abjection' denoted gratitude and submission before the divine grandeur, we prefer the letters which have come down to us from his mature years when, perhaps thanks to Marie de lIncarnation, Bernières evolved from abjection towards abandonment.

In his last years he achieved great simplicity:

I express myself as I can, for it is necessary to search for the words to express something of the reality of that state which is above all thoughts and  conceptions. And to say it in a word, I live without life, I am without being, God is and lives, and that is enough for me [] Here then are many words which express nothing of what I want to say.[17]

Inner prayer was the foundation of his life:

Inner prayer is the source of all virtue in the soul: anyone who moves away from it falls into lukewarmness and imperfection. Inner prayer is a fire which warms those who approach it, and anyone who moves away from it infallibly grows cold.[18]

He described several sorts of inner prayer, and above all proposed passive inner prayer, in which he lived throughout his last years. He wrote to his sister Jourdaine that it put the soul in "a total nudity, to make it capable of immediate and consummated union":

"[The soul] cannot bear any activity, being supported solely by the passive attraction of God [] In that state it is necessary to let God operate and receive all the effects of his blessed operation through tacit consent in the depth of the soul.[19]

The sole support on which this inner prayer can therefore rely is total renunciation of whatever is not God: no satisfaction, no matter how little, should be given to "[human] nature". This principle has often given rise to ascetic excesses which are no longer accepted these days; we find love of suffering and intense guilt concerning our "nature" shocking. But here the reason for this rigour is much more profound; its intention is to let grace, the presence of Jesus Christ govern all human actions:

What is purely natural does not please God; for an action to be agreeable to him and prepare us for union with him, it must contain grace.[20]

A very useful means for inner prayer is to become accustomed to doing nothing except when moved by God. The Holy Spirit is in us and guides us: we should be prompted by him before doing anything [] The soul  well knows these divine promptings owing to the peace, sweetness and freedom of mind which accompany them, and when it leaves them to follow its nature, it well knows owing to a secret synderesis [conscious remorse] that it has committed an infidelity.[21]

In particular, charity must rely solely on that profound inner life. Contrary to the voluntarism of his youth, Bernières mistrusted any action not dictated by a prompting from grace:

Do not trouble yourself about exterior things without a clearly recognised order from God, if you do not wish to receive mental affliction and loss in your perfection. [] Oh, how rare is pure virtue! What seems the best is a mixture of nature and grace. [22]

Bernières' Lettres à lami intime [23] are his most beautiful letters, and he reveals himself in them: although his friend (probably Jacques Bertot) was younger, Bernières had found someone to whom he could freely confide his most profound states:

I cannot express to you by thoughts what happiness it is to enjoy God in the centre [] 

The more God rises in the centre of the soul, the more one discovers an immense expanse of country where one must go; and an annihilation to be done which has only just begun; it is unbelievable, except to those who see it in God himself, that after so many years of flowing into God, one is only beginning truly to find God and be annihilated

After believing that abjection was best of all and practising self-humiliation before God with extreme austerity, in his final years he became aware that abandonment[Sash1]  was the key to everything, and in his joy he composed a hymn to it:

Oh dear abandonment, you are now the object of my love, which in you is purified, grows and catches fire. Whoever possesses you feels and experiences delightful enthusiasm in great freedom of mind. []

Oh dear abandonment, you are the state of mind above all states, and all others relate to you. Blessed is he who knows you, for you are worth more than all the graces and all the glory of earth and heaven. A soul abandoned in a pure gaze towards God  feels only resentment for his own interests, has no desire even for crosses and abjection; it abandons everything to become abandoned. A few words cannot explain the great inner effects you produce; one is never perfectly established in God if he is not established in you. You make him impervious to all sorts of misfortunes; only your loss can afflict him.

You are admirable, my God, you are admirable in your holy operations and in the ascension of souls whom you lead from light to light with a blessed and divine providence which is seen only when experienced.  Formerly it seemed to me that the Grace of the love of abjection was as it were the final end; but you reveal others to me which make my soul rise higher. []

Oh dear abandonment, you are the good friend of my heart, which sighs after you alone. But when shall I know that I possess you perfectly? That will be when the divine Will reigns perfectly in me. For my soul will be established in complete indifference regarding the events and means of perfection when its only joy will be the joy of God, with no other sadness, no other happiness, no other bliss. [] [24]

The Director of Conscience

As was possible at that time, this highly respected layman directed both clergy and laity: he was considered as the "director of directors of conscience".[25] He created a rather unusual "hospital" to receive his friends who practised mental prayer, a house he had built "at the foot" of Jourdaine's convent. He spoke humorously about it:

I have been taken with a desire to call the Hermitage the Hospital for the Incurable, and to lodge only the poor in spirit there with me. [] At Paris there is a Hospital for the bodily Incurable, and ours will be for souls.[26]

I entreat you, when you go to Brittany, to come and see me; I have a little chamber I keep for you; you will live there as solitary as you wish; together we will seek the treasure hidden in the field, that is to say, inner prayer.[27]

In a letter of 29 March 1654 he specified the goal of these meetings of friends:

The spirit of our Hermitage is one day to reach perfect nothingness, so as to live a divine life unknown to the world there, completely hidden with Jesus Christ in God.

We say no more on this subject here, as Volume IV discusses the Hermitage and its fecundity at length (the chapter on Regular Visitors to the Hermitage).

[1]              This Franciscan figure is presented in Expériences mystiques  II, 361 sq.


[2]                  Souriau, Deux mystiques normands au XVIIe siècle, M. de Renty et Jean de Bernières, Paris, 1913 (& 1923 with a different title: Le mysticisme en Normandie au XVIIe siècle) ; R. Heurtevent, L’œuvre Spirituelle de Jean de Bernières, Beauchesne, 1938 ; L. Luypaert, « La doctrine spirituelle de Bernières et le Quiétisme », Revue dHistoire Ecclésiastique, 1940, 19-130 Rencontres autour de Jean de Bernières mystique de labandon et de la quiétude, coll. Mectildiana, Parole et Silence, 2013, the first  collective work published since Bernières' death. These studies examine his background, doctrine and influence, but barely touch on his personal life.  


[3]                  [Un choix :] Jean de Bernières, Le Chrétien intérieur [livre VII]. Textes choisis suivis des lettres à lAmi intime [] par Dominique et Murielle Tronc, Arfuyen, Paris, 2009 ; [thecorpus of the work:]  Jean de Bernières, Œuvres Mystiques I, LIntérieur chrétien suivi du Chrétien intérieur augmenté des Pensées, Critical edition with an essay on the author and his school by Dominique Tronc, Ed. du Carmel, coll. « Sources mystiques », 2011 ; Œuvres Mystiques II, Correspondance, Critical edition presented by Fr. Eric de Reviers, Ed. du Centre Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix, same collection, forthcoming.


[4]                  Fr. Chrysostome, an eminent figure in the Franciscan Regular Third Order, was presented at length: Volume II, 361-374.




[7]                  Dom Oury, op.cit.,  297-299.


[8]                  Dom Oury, op. cit., 320 ; v. DS 10.490. - Legal actions ensued between Madame de la Peltrie, assisted by Bernières, and her family, who tried to have her placed under an interdiction for using her possessions extravagantly because she had settled her business in France a little too rapidly.


[9]                  Boudon, Œuvres II, 1313. 


[10]                Souriau, Deux mystiques, 115; Chrétien Intérieur, 380.


[11]                Œuvres Spirituelles II, 61. Later his servant  Roberge went to Nouvelle-France


[12]                Souriau, Deux mystiques, 119.


[13]                Annales of  the Ursulines of Caen citées by Charles du Chesnay,"The death of M. de Bernières at Caen and Mgr de Laval's arrival in Quebec in spring 1659", Notre Vie [Eudist journal], 1959.


[14]                Mectilde / Catherine de Bar (1614-1698) is presented in Volume II: The Mother of the Blessed Sacrament and her Benedictines, 115 sq.


[15]                Cited by Souriau, Ibid., 271.


[16]                Jean de Bernières, Œuvres Mystiques II, Correspondance, Critical edition presented by Fr. Eric de Reviers, coll. Sources Mystiques, forthcoming;  Dom Joël Letellier, "The circle and spirituality of Jean de Bernières" (Lentourage et la spiritualité de Jean de Bernières " Bernard Pitaud, "The spiritual correspondence between Jean de Bernières and Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament" La correspondance spirituelle entre Jean de Bernières et mère Mectilde du Saint-Sacrement in Rencontres autour de Jean de Bernières, op.cit.


[17]                Œuvres spirituelles, II, 469-470 ( Letter of 11 November 1654 ).


[18]                Chrétien Intérieur, VII, 2.


[19]                Œuvres spirituelles,  II, 244 & 245-246 (Letter of 20 October 1654).


[20]                Chrétien Int. VII, 5.


[21]                Chrétien Int.  VII, 6.


[22]                Chrétien Int. VII, 5.


[23]                Jean de Bernières, Œuvres spirituelles, II,  eighteen "Letters to the Intimate Friend" (Lettres à lami intime): their unnamed recipient  is probably Jacques Bertot. See our edition, Le Chrétien intérieur, Arfuyen, 2009, p. 151 sq.


[24]                Chapter 13of the third book of the Chrétien intérieur [in the eight-book edition].


[25]                Souriau, Deux mystiques,196.


[26]                Bernières, Chrétien Intérieur, VI, 11.


[27]                Bernières, Œuvres Spirituelles, II, 122.


De nos jours, au moins dans le Bouddhisme, on dirait plutôt 'letting go', lâcher prise; je pense que c'est tout aussi valable pour l'oraison chrétienne, mais le terme me semble trop moderne pour traduire M. de B.

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