Eighteen years ago, when I was discerning about joining the Society of the Sacred Heart, I asked for a biography of the foundress. The novice director also gave me a biography of someone else, explaining "she's my pin up". This someone else was St Philippine Duchesne RSCJ (1769-1852), whose feast day is today.
By the time I opened the book I had heard a few things about Philippine: she had been a close companion of Sophie, and spent years longing to become a missionary, eventually leading a small band of RSCJ who took the Society to the USA. The book cover showed her working with Native Americans, and so I assumed she must have spent years doing this. I also assumed I was about to read the biography of someone who had been a successful pioneer, foundress, spiritual guide and administrator.
In fact, what I found myself reading was the biography of a strong, passionate, courageous, generous, dogged, stubborn woman who gave 110% of herself to the service of God... and who, in the process, encountered more failures than successes.
If ever a woman had been over-endowed with a non-Midas touch, it was Philippine. She struggled to master even basic English, which in itself limited her effectiveness; the schools she ran struggled whilst her companions flourished, and - every other page - something always seemed to go wrong. There were the decisions and priorities changed by others, clerical bullying, rebukes, ill health, arguments, misunderstandings, difficulties in communicating with the mother house, tough conditions, financial precariousness... all sorts of setbacks. And throughout, Philppine worked long and hard, prayed even longer and harder and was keenly aware of her many failures: in 1834 she wrote to Sophie that she felt like a worn out tool, a useless stick, fit only to fill a hidden corner out of sight.
Philippine's heart's desire had been to work with the Native Americans, and whilst reading the biography I did keep wondering when she would get round to fulfilling the promise of the book cover! In fact, she was 72 and in failing health when she finally made it: she only lasted a year, largely spent as a prayerful presence, which earned her the name Woman Who Prays Always. Her last ten years were filled with even more prayer, alongside even more diminishment and sense of uselessness and failure.
But as we know, God sees differently, and Philippine was canonised in 1988 - not for what she had done, but for who and what she had been. She is a reminder that sanctity doesn't depend on success, and that God looks not on our achievements or failures, but on the purity of our intention and the wholeheartedness of our hearts. And Philippine's heart - whatever her failings or limitations - blazed with love for God, and her one desire was to love even more and to be of service, wherever and however she could.
As T Gavan Duffy SJ said of her in Heart of Oak: -
What have we learned from her?
The value of steadfast purpose,
The success of failure and
the unimportance of our standards of success;
the power of grace released by deep, divine desires
and simple duty daily done.
This is surely something worth celebrating and remembering, in a world driven by success rates and measurable outcomes and results!