Theme 6 - Sophie Barat and the Contemplative life

In the measure that the Society increased in numbers and expanded rapidly, Sophie Barat feared that members would experience a loss of soul energy, become drained by success, overwork and a mediocre life of prayer.  She was concerned that such rapid growth would create a counter-image of the original vision she and her first companions had in 1800:

If we lacked the contemplative life the active life would soon become a lifeless spectre, and deprived of that vitality what good could we possibly do then? I am convinced that we lose our best candidates through the false notion that those who wish to enter our Society must be solely attracted to external work. Yet almost all those attracted to the ideal of the contemplative life have been successful with us. An order composed of these two attractions is spiritually strong.

          Sophie Barat to Elizabeth Galitzine, Rome, 6 February 1838.

In her guidance of the Society Sophie Barat nurtured and encouraged the life of prayer and contemplation. She invited the members to journey to the thresholds of their inner being, where shadows, doubles and counter-images, are revealed and confronted. She encouraged any signs of growth in this direction:

It seems to me that you are more at ease within yourself. I ask this of Our Lord for you. I ask Him to allow this work to your benefit. If we so will, such a surrender to the good wishes of Jesus is the alchemy (talisman) which transforms everything into gold.  This is a wonderful secret which we do not deepen sufficiently.

         Sophie Barat to Eliane Cuënot, Paris, 18 September 1856

If she saw someone hesitating to go forward, Sophie would urge them reach into their inner depths:

When will you be firmly rooted in Jesus, seeing only Him, seeking only Him, to such an extent that people and the self disappear, as if they were in the antipodes. It is in this way that our soul and its ways of operating become simple and we will have peace. By keeping Our Lord constantly in mind, and surrendering to His good will, we create peace and harmony in the depth of our soul. So open wide your heart.  You hold your inner self too rigidly.

       Sophie Barat  to Noémi de Gères, Paris, 29 July 1849.

As the members of the Society journeyed inwardly in prayer and sought to integrate this into their everyday life, Sophie warned them not to get caught in self-absorption or pride. She insisted on the need for a humble attitude in prayer, as the truest expression of integrity:

The Spirit rests in a heart that is emptied of self and of all the self-absorption which pride engenders. Then, when our heart is free of all self-interest, the Spirit of Jesus acts in peace and this good Master remains with delight within us and becomes our centre and main guide. Such are the fruits of humility.  So then, the habit of recollection needs to be acquired through the energy of our soul forces focussed on the things of God.  

       Sophie Barat to Alida Dumazeaud, Paris, 22 March 1853.

To someone overwhelmed and frustrated by inner turmoil, Sophie wrote:

Well, of course, we would be able to act more perfectly if we did not have strong feelings, and if we were continually under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. But this is not our privilege in this life. All the Saints have tried and only a few, very few, were exempt from the effects of the sin of Adam. So I am not at all surprised that you have regrets like so many others. Indeed,  if the great St Paul said: `I do the evil which I hate,  and I do not do the good I love', then without doubt, while he did not do evil acts, he was inclined that way like all human beings tainted  by original sin! So you should not be surprised by your weaknesses, by your failings. Who does not experience them?

     Sophie Barat to Adèle Lehon, Paris, 4 August 1860.

Transformation in Christ

Instead of being disheartened by failure, Sophie urged the members of the Society to press on to the source of Christian joy and hope, the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the core of her spirituality. All her teaching and guidance leads to Golgotha, to Calvary where transformation takes place, a resurrection into new life. Her rhetoric and language insist on 'the Cross' in this context. Sophie Barat spoke constantly of the power of Christ's death and resurrection as the source of inner peace and transformation, if we have the courage to go into the depths. In 1816, Sophie called these depths a foretaste of heaven:

We are alive, but our life is more divine than human. It is the tomb which the great Apostle [St Paul] talks of when speaking to the Christians of his time: When you were baptised you were buried with Jesus Christ; you have died with Him and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When we consent to be so purified, we may then hope before long to enjoy a glorious resurrection.

Sophie Barat to Adrienne Michel, Paris, 31 March 1816.  Sophie Barat cites the letters of St Paul to the Romans (6. 3-4), and to the Colossians, (3.3).  She underlines the quotations in her letter.

Again and again Sophie Barat's letters speak of 'the Cross' not as a place of arrival but of passage, of transition. In Holy Week 1831 she commented:

The last few days have been so sad, mirroring so accurately our situation!  Still, we shall be no less joyful for all that when we sing Alleluia.  Jesus, Spes Mea, is reborn.  He is the reason why we feel joyful.  Let us be reborn with Him and we will partake in His glory, but how much more will we have to suffer before we can reach this ultimate outcome!

        Sophie Barat to Louise de Limminghe, Chambéry, Easter, 2 April 1831


Trust that your inner world will gradually be transformed, even the inner world of each of your community. For whoever is a channel [of God] has an effect on others in the measure that she is more in harmony with the One empowering her to act. Then she becomes the person described by the great Apostle [Paul]:  she is hidden with Jesus Christ in God.  She is buried in the tomb with Him in his death and she rises with Him, leaving her human nature in the tomb, like the silk-worm that Teresa [of Avila] talks about.

Sophie Barat to Louise de Limminghe, Paris, 4 April 1853.  See Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, V. Ch.2; Ch. 3.  

To those struggling day by day to manage the challenges of life in school and community, Sophie Barat offered them a wider view and deeper purpose. 'The Cross' was the road to hope:  

We will never enter into the Heart of Jesus if we want to do so by any other way than that of the Cross. For he opened his Heart only when he had died on the bed of shame and now the place of glory! So we must not get discouraged.

Sophie Barat to Marie de Tinseau, Paris, 3 November 1853.

During Holy Week 1853 Sophie told a friend how she kept her, and indeed the whole Society, in her prayer during 'these days fully given over to the mysteries taking place between the arms of Christ'.  This mystery of Calvary remained Sophie Barat's continual source of meditation and contemplation. She commented how Mary Magdalene, who remained at the foot of the Cross, was:

the first person, with St John, to see, to experience the wound revealing this Divine Heart to humanity. We cannot doubt that Jesus disclosed to her the mystery of Love.

              Sophie Barat  to Marie de Tinseau,  Paris, 22 March  1853.  

To those who worried about the past Sophie Barat invited them to leave all to the love and compassion of Christ:

What's done is done. Let us stop worrying about it anymore now! The past should be left to the compassion of Jesus Christ. Besides, we did not have enough light at the time and so our mistakes are less culpable. Now, if we did the same again we would be culpable and without excuse. So acknowledge the action of Jesus in his creatures, and see only his presence in their lives. No matter what happens say: Fiat!

Sophie Barat to Anna de Lommessen,  Paris 20 April 1859

And she asked that those in leadership take care of their own lives and health, and that of their community:

Like us in France, you are short of personnel and often everyone one is overworked. Usually it is the superior of the house who is the first to take on more than she can manage, indeed beyond her strength and time. She needs to understand how to manage her health, if she is to maintain her leadership in the house. What happens to the team if the leader is absent? You know what happens. You have to put up with so many difficult characters, tiresome, even weird people. Above all, let us quieten down our activity, and our desires, for however good they are, they are deeply affected by our human nature. As far as possible, let us refuse nothing to the Spirit of Jesus, who wants all our activity to be transformed by our union with His Sacred Heart.  Goodbye. I have reached the end of my page, and my time.


                Sophie Barat to Thérèsine Trincano, Paris, 5 April 1863.

From her election as superior general in 1806 Sophie Barat's spiritual guidance was inspiring. The consistency of her teaching and the frankness with which she expressed her views were hugely demanding. Sophie remarked that it was often the leaders of the Society who were most offended by her continual demands for reflection and honesty, taking this as her lack of confidence in them. But Sophie pressed on. Her letters to key leaders of the Society leave no doubt of the qualities Sophie Barat demanded of her colleagues. She called them continually to go beyond and even transcend their perceived capacities. She spoke bluntly if she felt they had been out of line, and tested them if she felt they had acted wrongly. When they made mistakes she called them to order, suggested remedies and pressed on. Only if they continued to repeat errors would she remind them of past failures. Otherwise it was over and forgotten; a fresh start had begun.

Sophie Barat's process was always the same. She guided the members along a path of continual self-knowledge and self-giving, leading them gradually to a space of inner transformation in Christ which in turn empowered them for their tasks in life.  Sophie Barat's spirituality was pragmatic, consistent and insightful; it was healthy and challenging, and became more confidant as she became wiser and more experienced. Her guidance of the Society arose out of her experience of the following of Christ, as it evolved over the years and shaped her own spirituality, beginning with her birth in Joigny in 1779.  The core of this spirituality is the transforming experience of the Love of God revealed in the pierced Heart of Christ.  

Process for reflection on the contemplative life

Theme 6 - Suggestion:

As you reflect on the theme of the contemplative life, reflect on your personal biography, on your understanding of contemplation and its place in your life.

Pointers which could help your reflection.

In her spiritual guidance Sophie Barat underlined that a balance needs to be maintained between the contemplative and the active life.

She was concerned about overwork/idleness. How do you think Sophie Barat managed this balance herself?   What about your own experience?    How do you manage? Can you talk to Sophie about this?

Further reading:  

Madeleine Sophie Barat. A Life; The Society of the Sacred Heart in 19th century France


In the evening time, take time to speak with Sophie Barat about your life and your concerns at this time; about her life and her experience. Bring this reflection into sleep. In the night hours while we are asleep the spiritual world is open and present to us. Sophie Barat belongs to that reality. As a transformed being, she is alive, active and ready to help us.  

10 October 1800 9 September 1817 contents
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Madeleine Author - Phil Kilroy

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