"Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a perfect society existed".

We can read the whole of human history as the search for Paradise, for the ideal world, the ideal society, the ideal expression of the noblest in our humanity.At its best religious life mirrors the deepest aims of human society. It specifically tries to live out a blend of politics, economics and culture, in the context of commitment to the person of Christ. It participates in the longing within the human heart to create a new world, a Utopia, in Christ.

In their day and for their time, Sophie and her companions tried to live out their vision of the perfect society.This vision was to reflect the spiritual impulse of the Society of the Sacred Heart: to contemplate and make known the love of God revealed in the Heart of Christ. Sophie and her friends tried to root the communities and the tasks of the Society around this primary vision.  

So, they faced this question: Once you have a vision, how do you earth it?

First of all, it has to come from individuals and from the times they live in. If you read the biographies of Sophie Barat and of the women around her you will see how profoundly marked each of them was by the French Revolution, especially by its violence and brutality. No ideal society here. But the Revolution was profoundly idealistic and it certainly initiated the ideals of liberty, equality and sisterhood/brotherhood which the world is still yearning to realise. In that sense the astonishing aims of the Revolution were premature. So what did the early members of the Society do?

To understand what they were straining after we have to put aside our 20th and 21st centuries' heads and try to live into the consciousness of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe. Sophie Barat lived in the wake of the Reformation and the Counter- Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment. These were huge movements in history which awakened human consciousness and opened up vast horizons of inner and outer exploration and change. In such a world the challenge was to hold inner and outer worlds together, in unity and harmony, to reach inner and outer balance with integrity. In her letters and manner of leading the Society we can see Sophie Barat sensing that her task was to enable this integration happen. She saw the Heart of Christ as the inner centre and unifying spiritual source of transformation, and looked for forms, structures, to serve this vision.

My own vintage

In the wake of the French Revolution Sophie was drawn to contain this vision in a Counter-Revolutionary form. From the beginning, most of Sophie's colleagues belonged to aristocratic families, and many had been members of monastic orders until these were suppressed by the Revolutionaries. It was quite natural in the early 19th century, in the context of their experience, that the members of the Society of the Sacred Heart identified with the religious, social and political Counter-Revolutionary stream in Europe. So between 1800 and 1815 Sophie and her companions created a form of life that mirrored a search for stability, for the renewal of society and a restoration of balance. This form of life reflected the social structures of the Ancien Régime in France. These social structures were based on the fortune of birth and on the division of labour; class and wealth awarded each one their place and their task. Even after the Revolution and Empire of Napoleon these class structures had not substantially changed, despite the rhetoric.They were more profoundly challenged in 1848 and in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

It is clear that the Society of the Sacred Heart, from the beginning, drew its inspiration from the religious, monastic communities and schools of the pre-Revolution. In this regard, the initial years of the Society in Amiens, and particularly the on-going influence of the circle around the chaplain Louis de Sambucy de Saint-Estève and Eugénie de Gramont, cannot be overestimated. After the purchase of the Hôtel Biron in the Faubourg St Germain in Paris in 1820, the Society of the Sacred Heart became inevitably identified with the Bourbons, with the monarchy.

From 1808 the communities of the Society had two groups of women: choir religious, designated for teaching, care of the students in the boarding schools and leadership tasks; and coadjutrix religious, designated for the domestic tasks of nursing, clothing and catering for the community and students. As in wider society, so in the Society of the Sacred Heart the two groups within the community lived separate and apart.This twofold structure of community life was mirrored in a two-fold educational project: boarding schools for the aristocracy/upper bourgeois students, and schools for the poor. These schools were established usually on the same property, though built and run as separate entities.

Through these structures Sophie Barat and her companions wished to establish and live out the vision of the Society of the Sacred Heart. Within this two-fold community each member would find her place and space to live out her spiritual calling; and within this place and space each one would fulfil her destiny and help realise the longing for the perfect society, the City of God in the world. It was rather like a village, self-contained and enclosed at one level and yet open to the world of its time. It was coherent and credible and it grew rapidly in France and beyond. It was an attractive way of life. It opened out new possibilities for women from all classes of society; it offered a spiritual path to single women and a life laden with new opportunities and adventures. At the same time the boarding schools for the wealthy classes and the poor schools for the lower classes were eagerly sought after, and opened the world of education to women. In the context of the time, the Society of the Sacred Heart was considered both radical and innovative.

We can only admire these pioneering women. From our knowledge and perspective today we can appreciate the vastness of the task facing Sophie Barat and her friends. They were attempting to create a brave new world, and they had to find the words, the ways and the structures to create their dream of Utopia. Soon the forms the Society chose in 1815 were unable to respond to the profound changes happening in the 19th century. Indeed, even by 1830 it was becoming clear that the structures of the Society would have to change to meet the changes and challenges experienced by the membership, not just in France but in Louisiana, and in the Italian States.

All the issues of the day impacted on the Society, in one place or another: class, race, colour, creed, gender, theology, politics, education. Clearly, Sophie Barat governed a Society which had expanded and developed way beyond her expectations and beyond the structural forms enshrined in the 1815 Constitutions. Sophie Barat recognised this and between 1833 and 1851 she consistently planned for a change of forms, in a situation of enormous complexity. Her success was partial, as she wryly admitted after 1851. Sophie learnt painfully that we never create in a vacuum.  While we wish to create anew, we inherit what has been and have to live with a blend of both. In the crisis in the Society generally from 1839-1851, the struggles were around the forms of governance chosen by the Society in 1815, and the manner of Sophie Barat's leadership. There was no doubt in Sophie's mind at this time that the Society needed radical, spiritual reform as well as new forms of governance.

Complex circumstances prevented thorough structural reform at this time, and by 1851 Sophie Barat was exhausted. Unable to resign her post, Sophie then concentrated on maintaining the Society in its spiritual vitality, and she presided over the inevitable consolidation and institutionalisation of the international community. It could be said that after Sophie Barat's death in 1865, the Society entered upon a long period of institutional sleep.When the choir and coadjutrix communities merged in 1964, that was a clear signal that the form of the Society of the Sacred Heart, established as early as 1808, had finally passed away.

Sophie Barat's leadership was strong, forceful and energetic. Sophie was demanding of both groups in the Society, choir and coadjutrix religious alike. Her mode of governing was highly educative, and for those who could take her demands, highly rewarding and liberating. She insisted on and truly admired good standards of teaching, cooking, nursing, needlework, care of the students, care of the farms and gardens, especially of the animals, and she was correspondingly scathing when standards dropped. She had a quality of telling the truth which was daunting then, and may shock us today.At times she could be quite ruthless in her manner and mode of acting.This woman, from a simple, sturdy, rural Burgundian background, was at home in aristocratic and artisan circles, with the choir and with the coadjutrix circles in her communities. In her own social background and through her leadership, Sophie embodied and united in her own life the ideal Society she wished to create.

To understand the Utopia which Sophie and her companions wished to create we need to take them on their own terms and in their own time and context. Otherwise we judge them by our experience. All of us, to a degree greater than we realise, suffer from historical amnesia. Because of this,we give ourselves and the Society's past more pain and misunderstanding than we need. Sophie herself questioned who she was, what she was doing, why she was doing it; she worried over what it meant; she wondered if she was in the right place; at times she wondered if her life was somehow a horrible mistake. Only in 1853 did she rest in the knowledge that she was in the place of her destiny and in the space of God's Providence for her. Intense, personal biographical work revealed God's action in all the intimate details of her life. For her as for us all, following our destiny, our call, our vocation, is to discover who we are and who we can be, in our time and place.

Further Reading

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

For Introduction: the context within which the Society was founded pp 1-6

For the development of the Society's vision: pp 101-104; 115-116; 144-149; 180-181; 238-252; 310-312; 370-374; 408-417.


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