Theme 5 - Introduction  

Themes 1, 2, 3 and 4 followed the evolution of Sophie Barat's life from her birth in 1779 until her death in 1865.

Now Themes 5 and 6 explore Sophie Barat's guidance of members of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

The manner in which Sophie Barat led the Society of the Sacred Heart, from its origins in Paris in 1800 until her death in 1865, shows how her own biography influenced her spiritual leadership and how she integrated her inner life with her service of leadership.   

Sophie Barat's integration of inner life and spiritual leadership


The evolution of Madeleine Sophie Barat's spiritual leadership is contained in the collection of her 14,000 letters and show the spirit in which she guided the Society of the Sacred Heart. There are two voices in these letters. Her public, formal voice is heard in her letters to popes, bishops and priests, to families of the members of the Society or to parents of the pupils, or to secular authorities. These letters have a format and rhetoric which allow her to deal deftly with situations and realise her aims for the Society. Similarly, her general letters to the Society, usually to mark the preparation for and outcome of General Councils, also tend to be formal, quite distant in tone. They are letters of government and administration.

However, Sophie Barat's personal voice is contained in her letters to the members of the Society, to her own family and to friends, and here she is spontaneous and, for the most part, unguarded.  These letters are her first drafts, sent uncorrected.  Sophie Barat writes quite unconsciously and she never imagined so many of her letters would be preserved. She certainly never suspected that her letters would be examined minutely for the process of her own canonisation.  It is in these personal letters that Sophie Barat's spirituality emerges as, day by day and year by year, she deals with people and issues in the Society. The comments she makes, the advice she gives, the decisions she takes, the endless suggestions and proposals for discussion and exchange, all reveal her spirituality at work. Each letter contains a number of elements. It opens with a greeting and giving of news of the Society (including her health), followed by business/ personnel matters, and usually ends with some spiritual reflection and advice.  The letters read like written conversations, and some are very long.

Depending on the context, Sophie Barat's letters concern good governance of the Society, especially the vitality of the communities and schools. They deal with issues regarding the members of the Society, their personal needs and work issues. Some treat of acceptance or dismissal of members; others discuss legal cases arising from the dowries or pensions given by families to the Society. In her letters to community leaders and to headmistresses Sophie Barat shows keen interest in the education given in the boarding and the poor schools. She also deals with issues of health in the schools and in the communities, and is particularly attentive to the quality of food in both. When making appointments to leadership, either in the communities or schools, she discusses how these could impact on the members of the community and on the

students in the schools. She guides the community leaders personally and urges them in turn to care for the spiritual needs of the members. She constantly addresses the on-going spiritual formation and practical training of the community. She deals with financial questions endlessly: the buying and selling of properties, negotiating with civil and ecclesiastical authorities, always insisting on financial viability and avoidance of debt.    


Letter writing was Sophie Barat's essential mode of communication with the members of the Society, along with her visits to communities which became rarer after 1850. As the Society expanded Sophie's letters became more prolific. Despite being under pressure for time, her letters tend to be long and she admitted that she found it easier to write a long rather than a short letter.  Her tone is direct and realistic, pragmatic and engaged, sometimes brusque and laconic, often full of wry humour. She can be abrasive and infuriated, especially if she sensed the recipient was not engaged fully on her task, or had not grasped the implications of either action or inaction in critical situations.  And yet there can be a rush of tenderness and understanding in these same letters, a wry, self-deprecatory remark, in an effort to soften the bluntness of her observations.  As she writes Sophie Barat quite naturally weaves in quotations from the Gospels, especially that of St John, and from most of the letters of Paul, particularly to the Romans, Colossians and Corinthians. She quotes Horace, Virgil and Ovid. She enjoys comparing situations with the Fables of La Fontaine. She cites Teresa of Avila, Malebranche and Voltaire, and she refers to the newspapers of the day, La Quotidienne, Ami de la Religion, and Gazette de France. Most of all, she has an endless source of French proverbs which allow her to make her points with freshness and realism.  

Sophie Barat's guidance of members in the Society of the Sacred Heart

From its foundation in France in 1800 the impulse of the Society of the Sacred Heart was to bring the message of Christ to a country torn apart by the Revolution. This aspiration was symbolised and expressed in the spirituality of the Heart of Christ pierced on Calvary. In the course of her life and leadership Sophie Barat returns to this as to the point on a compass and it is the basis of her spiritual teaching.  She assumes that the women who ask to enter the Society are committed to growing spiritually and ready to take the steps to reach that goal. Her guidance at all stages of their journey is direct and clear, and she calls each from where they were to where they could be. Once this basic orientation is established Sophie then invites the person to choose consciously to go onward and deeper on her spiritual path. By way of encouragement she often indicates the joy and fulfilment of those who respond to Christ in freedom and generosity.

But she continually warns that the price is costly; there are no shortcuts; only by following Christ all the way to Golgotha can each reach the joy of Easter. She develops this in various ways: she speaks of the polarity between the creature and God; she writes of how human nature is transformed by the Spirit of God; she stresses the power of the Resurrection, the impact of the action of Christ in each one's life. Her constant meditation is on the Passion of Christ as the source of growth and she urges individuals to move into that space of consciousness and live in that depth. She explains again and again that human nature is not destroyed in the process of spiritual growth; rather it is transformed. In her teaching Sophie Barat devises a path of self-knowledge and generosity which leads to transformation in Christ and self-giving for mission.

This teaching is present from the beginning of her leadership, but becomes much more assured and refined as she gains experience.  When read in the context of her own biography, it is clear that what Sophie Barat asks of the members of the Society she asks of herself. Her advice is practical and basic, especially in the beginning stages of spiritual development.

Path of self-knowledge  

At every stage of life in the Society of the Sacred Heart Sophie Barat insists on self-knowledge and on developing the capacity to reflect. She constantly points out the danger of living a double life if the members do not know themselves, in their light and in their shadow. Without that awareness individuals and communities cannot understand the impact they have for good or ill on each other. Sophie Barat asks that members accept personal responsibility for their lives and their actions, in their communities and in the tasks they undertook there or in the schools. Such frank advice was essential for dealing with difficulties in relationships, differences of approach and opinions, as well as differences of social backgrounds. Otherwise intractable problems set in, either in a community or school, which led to impossible polarities. As the Society expanded Sophie Barat could not connect with every member but she could train leaders of communities and schools. If they were seriously engaged on a spiritual life, insight would be given for their tasks:   

I pray that the Lord may enlighten you, for it has to be said that you only know the good side of yourself while you do not know your faults well enough.  The dark spirit is deceiving you and you do not realise it. True, your motives are genuine, but you are far from acting with caution and judgement.  If you pray, the Holy Spirit will confirm what I am trying to convey to you.  Though I do not believe myself to be divinely inspired, nevertheless I think I am right.

Sophie Barat to Marie de la Croix, Paris, 22 August 1828

Some in the Society offered or expected to be leaders but they did not have the capacity for this task. These were told this truthfully:  

Though you are unaware of this yourself, you are not free enough with regard to the office of superior. You know you have gifts and that you wish to do well. But although you have some essential qualities, you lack others that are necessary. You are not at all calm enough; you exaggerate both good and bad qualities; you are not interior enough, at all. You count too much on yourself and not enough on God; you want to do too much. In a word, your way of acting is too frenetic. Fulfil your present duties and you will render the Society a great service.

  Sophie Barat  to Alexandrine de Riencourt, Paris, 23 October 1828.  

To another, who wrote to her to report an abuse in her community, Sophie thanked her and assured her that her perception was true, and that a resolution of the issue was already in train. In the meantime, her task was to continue to grow in self-knowledge:  

You need to know your deepest self, plumb the depths of your inner life. This time of trial will pass. Only be faithful to humble yourself and overcome your temptations with regard to the person who torments you. When you get the opportune moment warn your superiors of the abuses you see.

     Sophie Barat to Josephine Buesan, Conflans, 13 December 1845

When Sophie Barat sensed that the person was committed to journeying spiritually, she offered endless encouragement, often for years:

[Christ] does not ask that we become perfect all at once, but that we work towards this each day, in the measure that grace operates in us and the radiance of the Holy Spirit enlightens us.

Sophie Barat to Alida Dumazeaud, La Ferrandière, 12 January 1852

As part of their growth in self-knowledge, Sophie Barat asked leaders to reflect on how they used their power in relation to others. Typically, she told one leader that she was too uptight, somewhat rigid and cold in manner. Sophie asked her to reflect on this and see what light she could gain on how her leadership impacted on the community and school. She linked her observations with complaints in the school about poor food, knowing by her own experience that issues around food and rigidity were often linked.   

Eliane Cuënot was treasurer of the local community in the rue de Varenne in Paris and had difficulty dealing with some of Sophie Barat's colleagues, especially the Treasurer General of the Society, Henriette Coppens, and the Secretary General, Adèle Cahier. Sophie accepted that these relationships were complex and offered her a possible way to resolve, or at least alleviate, tensions:

I cannot recommend enough that you use all your religious spirit and tact when dealing with them, especially Mother Henriette.  Be the same with Mother Cahier. She really is working on her character. For your part, do the same. Normally we do not become perfect in day. Imitate the silence of Jesus, the eternal Word. It is so true that silence is indeed more excellent than anything we could say, when we are not obliged to speak out.

        Sophie Barat to Eliane Cuënot, La Ferrandière, 29 December 1851.

Sophie Barat knew how roles take centre stage and create power cliques within a community or school, and that this applied not just to leaders but to all office holders: the headmistresses, cooks, infirmarians, dressmakers, farmers, treasurers. Sophie called on them to remain conscious of the fundamental purpose of their lives, asking that they be honest with themselves and with her. When Marie de Tinseau wrote frankly about her struggles, Sophie responded warmly:

Learn to appreciate this divine Light and walk only in its radiance. It will cost you, without any doubt, to watch over your natural impulses and not allow them to dominate or take action.   But the practice of watching how you act, which you must consent to without limit and in complete inner freedom, will make this habit easy and reassuring.  

    Sophie Barat  to Marie de Tinseau,  Paris, 18 September 1858.  

Process for reflection on the integration of Sophie Barat's inner life and her service of leadership


Theme 5 - Suggestion:

As you reflect on the theme of the integration of Sophie Barat's inner life and her service of leadership, reflect also on your personal biography, your own self-knowledge, and on the elements which formed you at each stage in your life.   

Pointers which could help your reflection.

Sophie Barat continually stresses self-knowledge as key to spiritual growth. How and when do you think she learnt this wisdom?

Does this echo with your own experience? Can you remember instances when you received real insight and self-knowledge?   How did this happen?

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.  

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Madeleine Author - Phil Kilroy

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