Sophie Barat's spiritual insight was born in the midst of years of turmoil and violence, unleashed by the French Revolution. Her initiative was in direct response to the devastation she experienced all around her, particularly in Paris, and from 1800 she committed herself to the restoration and renewal of her
broken world.

The spiritual energy for such a vast project came from Sophie's insight into the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ wounded on Calvary. The ultimate range of her vision was the transformation of her world, 'into a multitude of adorers, in spirit and in truth.'(Jn.4.23)

In addition to the context of the French Revolution, Sophie Barat was born into a world where devotion to the Sacred Heart was widespread. French mystics had explored the mystery of the devotion, centred on the humanity of Christ and particularly on Christ's presence in the Eucharist. Closer to Sophie's time, St Margaret Mary Alacoque had received revelations of the love of God, symbolised in the Heart of Christ.

With this rich spiritual inheritance, we might think the path forward for Sophie Barat would be straightforward. But it wasn't. In fact, it was unimaginably difficult. All her life, Sophie had deep struggles within herself, finding it such a challenge to personally believe and trust in the love of God. It was a constant stumbling block for her until her mid-seventies, with roots in her own origins.

Sophie Barat was born into a world where the theology of Jansenism had taken hold of the soul of France. Indeed Sophie was born into the most jansenistic part of France, the region of the Yonne. During her childhood bitter battles were fought around Jansenism, in St Thibault, her parish church in Joigny, a few yards from her home. So Sophie Barat was born into a world where light and darkness, warmth and cold, life and death, were in grave conflict.This context reveals the depth of Sophie Barat's destiny and her spiritual task in life, as founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

She struggled with Jansenism, a theology which presented God as severe, cold, and distant, and the human being as dark, sinful and corrupt, incapable of ever pleasing God. By the mid-17th century, Jansenism had become profoundly rooted in the French Church, in the training of the clergy and in their preaching. It dominated, indeed overshadowed, the inheritance of the French School of Spirituality. The theological debates around Jansenism and the devotion to the Sacred Heart were battles for the soul of France.This disastrous theology was reinforced in Sophie's own family, through her mother, her aunt and, most of all, through her brother, Louis.

We can track Sophie Barat's slow journey of inner liberation from this shroud of darkness, in her letters, and especially in her correspondence with Joseph-Marie Favre (1824-1838), and Césaire Mathieu (1842-1843). The circumstances and demands of her life and leadership forced Sophie to face her own darknesses and demons. Painfully and slowly, tentatively yet consistently, she journeyed into the world of the love of God. She began to trust the love of God, especially in the inner regions of her being. Her friendship with Joseph-Marie Favre (whose own journey was similar to Sophie's), introduced her to new images of God, of Christ, and of herself.

At so many levels, Sophie Barat had to find a foothold, a path, then a middle space, where she could keep her balance. As Sophie recognised herself, she fell continually (literally) until she reached steps and paths in wisdom. And one step led to another, on and on, until she was 85. At a personal level, her soul forces had to be transformed, continually, out of death into life, out of coldness into warmth, out of darkness into light.And at the same time, she was calling the membership of the Society of the Sacred Heart to
journey likewise.

It was a rich and complex project, a personal inner journey, woven into her leadership and lived out in a very public way.We can watch Sophie at work in the ways she shaped and formed the membership of the Society, at once for the inner journey and for the public tasks of the Society.We see her shape the communities she established and the educational institutions she initiated for the rich and the poor.We can see Sophie's ideals at work in the formative values and standards she insisted upon: the training of teachers and treasurers, cooks and nurses, farmers and dressmakers, leaders and guides.We see them too, in the spirituality of the constitutions of the Society, in the letters Sophie wrote, in the ways she tried to govern the Society, in the manner she related and sought to maintain friendship.

How far did Sophie's ideals reach the communities, the personal experience of the members, the actual systems and institutions? Our history portrays the complexity of the project. Certainly Sophie Barat herself felt the weight of what she was doing, the immensity of the undertaking.No wonder she said at the end of her life: I have only begun the task.

When we reflect upon what the Society of the Sacred Heart has become over the decades, both individually and corporately, we see its light-side and its shadow-side.We see how polarities and challenges have been played out in different countries, at different times, in different cultures, and how these have shaped and formed members of the Society of the Sacred Heart, students, colleagues and friends, over many generations.

Further Reading

From: Madeleine Sophie Barat A Life (Cork University Press)

Epilogue: pp 429-432

My own vintage


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MadeleineAuthor - Phil Kilroy

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