Theme 7 -
This Epilogue draws together the Themes, Texts and Reflections on the life of Sophie Barat. It is a summary of her life, of how she lived her destiny of founding and guiding the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Epilogue, May 1865
In 1849, on the advice of her lawyer, Sophie Barat revised her will and signed it in Paris on 27 June 1850. She left that aside for good and began to consider another type of legacy, her testament to the Society of the Sacred Heart. Between November 1852 and April 1863 Sophie drafted and redrafted this will and testament. It was a review of her life and a reflection of her prolonged administration of the Society since its foundation:
I brought nothing into the Congregation other than 6 frs, left over, I think, from my journey from Paris to Amiens. I should have received 1000 frs from my parents' estate but I thought I ought not to claim them, since my sister had ten young children to look after then. This was the advice I was given at the time.
Sophie took stock and looked back over her administration and acknowledged the amount of responsibility she had held for so long. She did not comment on the extraordinary personal journey she had made in her life. Nor did she speak of her personal achievement of leading the Society for so long, seeing it through its foundation phases, its growth and expansion crises, and then its period of consolidation. She made no reference to the 3,359 women who belonged to the Society nor to the 89 houses in existence in Europe, North Africa, north and South America. Neither did she refer to the thousands of pupils being educated in the schools of the Society. Over the years, and especially after 1850, Sophie spoke frequently of the women who had created the Society, and did not focus on herself. Besides at 85 life looked very different and her focus was elsewhere.
She looked back over her life, not as superior general, but as Sophie Barat, the individual person. From that perspective Sophie felt the weight of what she had carried and she recalled her mistakes and errors of judgement, at different stages of her life. What worried her even more was the way in which she had treated the members of the Society. She regretted that often she had been severe and demanding and had acted too quickly on the criticisms she had heard. She admitted that she herself had been moody and quick-
Sophie had an impulsive, energetic nature which even the strictures of Louis Barat had never curbed. It was that nature, that energy, which had seen the Society through so many critical phases and which in the end ensured that it would not disintegrate. She had kept faith and saw her work through to the end. She who appreciated hard work and commitment in others was the hardest, most committed worker herself. Sophie's faults were the shadow side of her own life and the shadow side of the Society of the
Sacred Heart. Sophie reminded those who would succeed her that the central aim of the Society of the Sacred Heart was to make present in the world the knowledge and love of the Heart of Christ. That was the core of their lives and without that vision at the centre there was no point in its existence.
At different stages in the course of her life Sophie had taken many steps forward alone. She had found the courage to move out from the shadows of diffidence and to assume leadership. She used her unusual capacity for relationships and she inspired her companions. She learnt the joy and pain of deep friendship and the cost of possessiveness. She experienced rejection and ridicule from some of her closest companions and from some sections of society and of the church. In the course of it all she found her inner freedom and individual strength and demonstrated the impact of power exercised with reticence. Each stage of the journey brought its pain and its joy because her heart and courage were great enough to respond to life, even if at times she could barely imagine surviving another day. She found her source of strength in her faith in God and in the life of prayer which empowered her. That too was bought at a price, for she drew energy from a God mediated through the image of the Heart of Christ wounded on Calvary. This meant undoing the Jansenist image of God, not just for a time or during a phase in her life, but always.
Many years before Joseph-
Yet her relationship with Louise de Limminghe had changed profoundly and perhaps this best signals the inner changes in Sophie herself. Sophie made it clear to Louise de Limminghe that she could not resonate with her old friend's spirituality, which had remained harsh and severe, thoroughly Jansenistic. Sophie had left that world behind her. This stance with her old friend represented the transition which Sophie had made, signalling that she had found a spirituality which was liberating and joyful. It had not been either easy to find or was it always simple to live out with congruence and consistency. She could readily fall back into her old images, especially in times of difficulty and depression, and then had to journey out into the light again.
But Sophie Barat's will and soul power were strong and she had the unique quality of living consciously from those places. From there she spoke to the members of the Society, either in her letters or in personal contacts. Of course, at times she erupted with anger or frustration and cried out in pain and fear, and she had difficulty restoring her inner peace and calm. And so in 1863, as Sophie looked back over her life, she inevitably saw the mistakes and errors she had made. Yet her avowal was not a type of self-
Though absorbed in making preparations for her inner journey over the threshold of death Sophie did not lose touch with the wider world. In February 1865 Sophie wrote to her nephew Stanislas in Joigny:
What times we live in! We have two extremes before our very eyes: the view of unbridled luxury which swallows up wealth and yields merely instant pleasure. And alongside these crazy expenses, there are thousands, I ought to say millions, of people, of every class and every age and of every condition, who are dying of hunger. How can those generous Christians who still exist and are so few in number come to the aid of so much need and distress? Yet nearly all the calamities and needs of the world fall on this little group of people, to do what is needed and it is not enough: for America, for Poland, for the missions in the East. But even around us here, how many are destitute. Indeed some in the higher classes of society are in the most pressing want! We are inundated with requests, I could not tell you of all the appeals we get from every side!
In April Sophie wrote to her nephew Stanislas, commenting on the wonderful spring in Paris and hoping that no late frost would harm the blossoms. She also thanked him for paying her back a sum of money she had lent him. Now her money affairs were in order. Early in May 1865, taking advantage of the warm spring weather, Sophie spent some of the mornings in the garden. Sometimes the children from the junior school would join her as she sat under her favourite tree. That month too Sophie decided to pay a visit to the Hôtel Biron. She went to her old room there, originally used by Eugénie de Gramont. For a time she was lost in thought and then in a remark, typical for its brevity, she said very quietly, almost to herself:
Once again I see these places where I lived and suffered so much.
It was a final farewell to a place which had marked her life profoundly. Sophie was calmly putting her life in order, before she entered into the final fortnight of her life. On the morning of 22 May 1865 Sophie got up early and all was normal until she started breakfast. She complained of a pain in her head and decided to rest for a time, thinking it would pass. This was not to be. Sophie had a stroke, slipped slowly into unconsciousness and never spoke again. She remained in this condition for three days and for a time it was clear that while she could not speak she understood what was spoken around her.
But her final journey had begun, and on the evening of Ascension Thursday, 25 May 1865, at 11pm, Sophie Barat died peacefully. During her life-
Sophie had expressed the hope that she would die in silence. Her wish was granted. In 1839 she had written to Emilie Giraud, thinking then that death could not be far away for them both:
Let us be like the swan. When it is dying it gathers all its inner forces and sings with more harmony than ever before in its life. That is how saints die. It is the purest act of their life, the one most burning with love, the most perfect.
The image of the swan attracted Sophie then but she still had twenty-
Sophie Barat's funeral took place on Monday, 29 May 1865 in the rue de Varenne in Paris and Sophie Barat was laid to rest in Conflans. Madeleine Sophie Barat was canonised a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on 25 May 1925.
Process for reflection on the Epilogue
As you reflect on the Epilogue consider also your personal biography, on the people, places, experiences which formed you at each stage of your life.
The Epilogue describes the life and vocation of Sophie Barat. How do you describe your life and vocation, now and into the future?
Can you talk to Sophie Barat about this?
For continued reading:
Madeleine Sophie Barat. A Life; The Society of the Sacred Heart in 19th century France.