Jeanne Chézard de Matel (1596 – 1670) lived in an environment of French solons and antechambers, where dress was extremely important. Moreover, the nuns of her day wore the costumes and accessories that decent and respectable women would have worn a few centuries earlier, but which Jeanne’s time regarded as the distinctive apparel of religious women. Since the end of the Middle Ages, the habit had continued to gain considerable importance as a way to distinguish numerous Orders that began to appear in the Church.
By the time of Jeanne Chézard de Matel, there were various legends in which Mary, the Blessed Virgin, had appeared and given a particular habit to the Dominicans (1260-1270), the Servants of Mary (1318), the Olivetans (1451), and the Cistercians (late 15th century). In this cultural climate, it is easy to understand how Jeanne Chézard de Matel would have understood the imaginative visions she received in prayer as directions for how the Sisters of her Order of the Incarnate Word were to dress, and the symbolic meaning of our emblem and colors. In the draft copy of the First Constitutions, when writing about the habit of the Order, Jeanne said that it “is the dress of the strong woman, clothed in strength and beauty; and further, “this habit represents the great mysteries of the Holy Trinity.” In her Autobiography, Jeanne remembers how, on January 15, 1625, as she was taking part in the Eucharist celebrated by Father Coton, she had an imaginative vision of Christ clothed in a purple mantle as in the scene of his scourging. Jeanne understood that her sisters should share Christ’s sufferings “in order to be more conformed to Christ” and she asked for “the grace to be vested entirely in Christ’s crucified Self.” Several months later, she again saw the Incarnate Word dressed in a white tunic, and understood that the habit of the Order was to be of this color. It was through visions such as this that the design of the habit of the Order was gradually sketched, and the design and colors took on symbolic meaning which Jeanne explains in a variety of ways in different writings. Red represents strength, Jesus’ true humanity, love for Jesus’ Passion, and the Holy Spirit who is totally the fire of love. Blue is the color of the Creator, Mary, the sky, the hidden life of the Trinity, assurance and loyalty. White is the brightness of eternal light, the innocence and purity of the Incarnate Word, and hope.
In another place in her Autobiography, Jeanne tells how, on the evening of June 22, 1625, as she was praying in the Church of the Jesuit College in Roanne, she saw a crown of thorns within which was written the name Jesus and, beneath it, a heart with three nails and the words AMOR MEUS or MY LOVE. She understood that she should have these symbols embroidered on the scapular of her sisters, because Jesus desired to rest upon their hearts.
Jeanne de Jésus de Bély, the first biographer of Jeanne, tells us in her Memoirs that, “the crown of thorns encircling the name of Jesus, with the cross, that previous measure of Christ’s love, and the nails which are the arms of Christ’s passion, should cause us to remember to do all our actions in a spirit of penance and of mortification, both interior and exterior. The heart with three nails, should help us remember to offer our own hearts so that we can be faithful victims of the Incarnate Word’s divine love. We should allow the Incarnate Word to rest in our hearts and establish there a peaceful dwelling. In this way, we can bring an end to the complaint that Christ made during His stay on earth that the birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Although most of our Sisters do not wear the traditional habit today, the crown emblem, and the colors and the values that they symbolize, continue to give shape to the habits of our hearts and our lives. Wherever we use the colors of natural white, burgundy red, and the blue of our traditional habit, or display the crown emblem, we are reminded that in our lives we are called to resemble the person of Jesus, making God’s presence visible.