Colette (1381-1447) was the daughter of a carpenter who felt herself called to restore the Poor Clares to the rigour which had originally been prescribed by St Francis and St Clare.
The most direct path to heaven, Colette believed, was that of suffering patiently endured. Her inspiration lay in those most challenging words from the New Testament: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Her complete submission to this injunction gave her immense strength in overcoming early disappointments. At the same time, though, her spiritual exaltation was allied a strong practical streak. Her reputation for raising the dead did not hinder her from collecting royal and aristocratic patronesses.
Colette eventually succeeded so well in her reforming mission that her reputation spread beyond her native France.
In 1513 Henry VIII of England, then in his palmy Catholic days, compared her to “a diligent bee that gathers exquisite honey from the precious flowers of the most rare virtues”, and petitioned Pope Leo X that she should be canonised. This notion would eventually be fulfilled in 1807.
Nicolette Boylet, as Colette was christened, was born in Picardy. Her early attraction to religion may have connected with her father’s work at the abbey of Corbie.
At all events, after both parents died in 1398 Colette entered the Third Order of St Francis. In 1402 she began to live as a hermit, walled up in cell alongside Corbie parish church.
Her isolation, however, was disturbed by terrifying visions of the world being swept into the abyss of hell. And then she saw St Francis, kneeling before God and asking that she, Colette, should reform his order. At first she shrank back in alarm, both from the call and from her own presumption in countenancing it.
These doubts were conquered and, almost immediately, through the good offices of the sister of Clement VII, the Avignon anti-pope, Colette was granted an interview with Benedict XIII, Clement’s successor.
Benedict encouraged her, inducting her as a Poor Clare and appointing her as superior of any convent she would found or reform.
Such authority, conferred upon an unknown girl, naturally created resistance. Not until 1410, at Besançon, did Colette begin to succeed in her vocation. She would go on to found 17 new convents, in Flanders and Savoy as well as in France, besides reforming several existing ones.
Colette preached the gospel of austerity with irresistible charm, though without compromising her view that all evil stemmed from disobedience. Among those she was able to select as abbesses of her convents were princesses from the Bourbon house of Naples.
She died at Ghent. During the French Revolution her remains were taken to Poligny in Savoy.