Spirituality is a rich and all-embracing word. We use it in various ways, to talk about what gives us vision, insight and energy to respond to the designs of God's Providence in our lives. We also use it to describe how we pray and reflect about God, about our world, ourselves and our relationships. It is intimately woven into our life from the time of our birth into a certain family, in a certain place, at a certain time.

Spirituality is also shaped by what is happening in the country and religion/church we were born into, and by the political and theological influences of the day. And yet, we have imbibed much of our spirituality unconsciously, and it is only gradually that we realise what has developed within us over many years.

So, as in everything else in our lives, our spirituality is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. In a way, spirituality is like a big, cosmic cookery book, full of spiritual recipes. Some of these recipes are good and nourishing for us when we are young; some we actually detest and cannot stomach at all! Others we take to with gusto! Then, when we are older, we begin to explore, to experiment with recipes, or search for and sense that they do indeed exist, somewhere. This can take us very far.  

From the time of her birth in Joigny, Sophie Barat received a rich spiritual formation from her mother and father.The circumstances of her birth alone, in the midst of a raging fire, especially formed her spiritual forces and sensitivities.As a little girl, her parents showed her how to pray, attend Mass in St Thibault and follow the rhythm of the festivals of the year. Sophie's mother gave her a prayer book for her First Communion, which Sophie kept all her life.

Jacques Barat initiated Sophie into the wonders of the earth, the rhythm of the seasons, the care of vineyards, the skill of wine making. From him she learnt when to sow, when to prune the vines and when to harvest, how to handle wood and shape it into barrels. She also learnt from him how to care for animals and ensure they were looked after, and fit for their tasks in the vineyards. From her mother, Madeleine Fouffé, Sophie learnt how to cook and sew and how to look after a house. She worked with her mother on the family financial accounts and at the age of twelve took over this responsibility when her mother was gravely ill. Madeleine Fouffé was artistic by temperament, deeply influenced by Enlightenment consciousness, and ambitious for each of her children. She held a reading circle regularly in her home and was proud to show her neighbours that Sophie could read aloud the novels of the day.

From her birth then, Sophie Barat was shaped and formed by positive elements of spirituality and these served her well in the course of her long life. At her birth, Sophie Barat inherited two rich spiritual traditions: the Medieval School of Spirituality and the17th century French School of Spirituality, both of which expressed a warm and tender love of the Heart of Christ.Yet she also inherited the spirituality of Jansenism.This was an austere theology, which viewed God as distant, severe and menacing and the human being, as sinful, unable to please God.The world, especially the human body, was suspect and innately evil.

It is key to the understanding of Sophie Barat to know that she was born in the region of the Yonne, the most Jansenistic part of France. During Sophie's childhood, continual arguments around Jansenism took place in her local church, St Thibault, just a few yards from her home. Her mother, Madeleine Fouffé and her brother Louis Barat, were profoundly influenced by Jansenism and this severe, negative vision of God and the human being entered Sophie's soul as a little child. It was part of the atmosphere of the Barat household. And yet Madame Barat was torn.While she approved of Louis' education of his youngest sister, she was dismayed at the severity of the regime he established. She knew it was too severe for a young girl, and indeed the negative impact of Louis' treatment on Sophie's mind, heart and body was life-long.

In 1856, when she was 77, Sophie admitted that Jansenism was one of the shadows, which had affected her, all her life:

"It is true to say that in life there are certain circumstances, certain events, apparently of little significance and with little effect on what Providence has planned as our destiny. It is good that you know I was born into a Jansenist family... very attached to this sect which has always been the declared enemy of the devotion to the Sacred Heart." Sophie Barat, 30 May 1856

The childhood world of Sophie Barat was also marked by the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.The ideals of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity were proclaimed in Paris, to France and to the world. But these ideals were quickly lost to a world of violence and brutality, and within a short time all the institutions of church and state were demolished. The Terror took over, and Joigny, as in all parts of France, experienced the impact of this furious energy. Louis Barat, then a seminarian, was imprisoned in Paris. The Barat household was not spared either, for the family was placed under surveillance and their goods sequestered.

All these elements, created Sophie Barat's spirituality. They were the designs of God's providence in Sophie's life, and all contributed to helping Sophie fulfil her destiny. The core of Sophie's own spiritual journey was to move out of the dark power of Jansenism into the sunlight of God's tender love.This was her reason and motive for founding the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800, in the midst of a world shattered by the Revolution. And in her own life and experience, Sophie Barat embodied the spirituality of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

Sophie was 85 when she crossed over the threshold of death. In the course of that long life she journeyed through many experiences, seeking the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ pierced on Calvary. Her spirituality was created, modified and changed,
over a period of many years. Her spirituality as a little girl in Joigny was not the same as the elderly woman in Paris in 1865, though there are elements which remained part of her, all her life.

All along the way, Sophie had friends who encouraged her to go forward, and there were some who did not understand what she was trying to do and positively opposed her. New winds of theological and spiritual change were matched by opposition and fixed views. Some of the struggles were more political, though couched in a spiritual language. We can follow Sophie Barat as she struggles, sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes without success, to heal the splits in herself, between her inner and outer life, her self-image and the image of God, the public task of the Society in the world of education for the rich and the poor, and the actual spiritual task of the Society of the Sacred Heart. It is one thing to know and value a spirituality. It is quite another to root it and live it, in all aspects of life. One life is not enough to complete such a big task.

“What a life we have...while we were young we thought that we would bury ourselves in a Carmelite monastery.The ways of God are unfathomable. I would always regret not going to Carmel if I did not have the assurance that God so designed it. But at least we must unite solitude to the work we do, and counter this whirlwind with a deep cavern where the soul can take refuge as often as possible. For us this cavern in the rock is the Heart of Jesus!”

                                                 Sophie Barat to Emma de Bouchaud, Paris, 18 June 1853:

Certainly, the core of Sophie's spirituality is her absorbing focus on the Heart of Christ. This is rooted in her life's experience, a reaching forward, out of Jansenism, into the light of God's love revealed in the Heart of Christ. In Sophie's life these are two movements seeking resolution; or two polarities seeking balance; a continual play of light and shadow.

My own vintage


Further Reading

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

Childhood spirituality of Sophie Barat, pp 7-26

Turning points in Sophie's spirituality, pp 163-167; 214-215; 238-249; 368-372; 414-417

Summary of Sophie Barat's spirituality, pp 429-432 (Epilogue)

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Madeleine Author - Phil Kilroy