The message below was delivered by Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, former provincial of the U.S. Province, at the 2006 celebration of the Feast of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat at the National Archives of the U.S. Province St. Louis.
Have you ever had the experience of reading something familiar, for example a chapter of Scripture or a favorite poem, and coming across a few lines which you swear were never there before; you see the words truly for the first time? That happened to me two years ago on retreat when I decided to spend a day reading the original Constitutions of the Society. Towards the end, after a lengthy section on the three vows, Sophie notes that, though these are the three sacred vows which bind religious women to Jesus, still we can never unite ourselves to the Divine Heart without being united at the same time to one another.
Those are the exact words: We can never unite ourselves to Jesus without union with one another. And that is very strong language. Without mutual charity we are living a lie.
And then Sophie quotes the very Gospel you have just heard (John 15:1-13), saying that it is to us as the family of the Sacred Heart that these words are especially addressed: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Charity for Madeleine Sophie Barat was not just one virtue among many others from which we might pick and choose; mutual love for her is the essence of our lives; for Sophie it really matters how we love because it makes the truth of our commitment to the Heart of Christ real or not, visible or not, attractive or not, honest or not! Then as now only living together in love makes the witness of our lives coherent with the claims we make by our promises or vows.
Sophie was not naive about human nature. Now was she naïve about the cost of loving...
To one of her friends she said, “Be patient with our hot heads – bear with them. …You know very well we don’t live with angels but with human nature which we must learn to understand and make allowances for…. Those in whom you see these real faults and limitations are far from recognizing them themselves, and so are deceiving themselves. … For the sake of peace, I try to see things through their eyes. It would be useless to turn on a more searching light, as it would not convince them. So I just wait!”
To another, a superior newly in office, she wrote, “Your remarks on others are much too severe. When you learn to know human nature a little better, you will cease to be astonished at what it can do and say! Any group of men and women can, however holy, produce evidence of this, in small matters and sometimes in graver ones. So, we must be patient and peacefully tolerant, doing what we can, praying and putting our trust in God…” to carry out the divine work of transformation.
In a letter to Emilie Giraud she was more explicit: “I hear…of jealousies…lack of charity and forbearance…criticisms…constant complaints of one another…what a picture this makes! …these faults exist, and were it not for the holiness of many in the Society, who knows what the result might be.”
In the same vein she said: “…union among us all is the soul of the Society. If it spreads, this is the only means to keep it firm and strong; so each individual must be prepared to make every sacrifice to maintain it. Unfortunately, it is the disunion of some that has nearly been our ruin.”
Mutual love, Sophie knew, was costly, but in the long run she was convinced that a lack of charity was costlier still.
She, perhaps more than most, was devastated by the chicanery of those who called themselves her loyal daughters, who did not welcome her visits, who preferred the teachings of others, who though sent as her emissaries did not faithfully represent her thinking, who showed such promise and yet seemed impervious to formation or grace, who sowed seeds of dissension.
Yet in the midst of trial she could say: “Seek your sanctification in bearing lovingly with all around you, in forgiving and excusing and not dwelling on their faults. People in general are very little culpable in God’s eyes, and God sees more often weakness and not malice.”
I have come to a new understanding of Sophie’s desires for us especially from the way she herself went about loving no matter the cost and it is this:
Loving after the manner of Jesus Christ is loving those we have been given, not just those we choose.
Loving after the manner of Jesus Christ is learning to live without illusions and perhaps even with a measure of regret.
Loving after the manner of Jesus Christ is loving with Christ’s unfailing love, with forgiveness, forbearance, evenness, generosity, and surely a dollop of humor when things get really tough.
Sophie was a great believer in very tangible practices as reminders of things unseen. She kept a statue of the infant Jesus on her desk during Advent. She had a crucifix she kissed as she began her correspondence. She invited her sisters to prepare for feasts by specific acts of mortification or silence, and so on.
About mutual love she had the most concrete practice of all. She carved cor unum et anima una in corde Jesu into our profession cross, which, as she said, ‘would place these words upon our hearts, between the arms of the cross, keeping them constantly before our eyes.’
How wise Sophie was, not just in choosing such a tangible reminder to live in love, but in juxtaposing love and suffering. Thus she teaches us that one mind and one heart will be achieved largely through our daily dyings and risings after the manner of our teacher of love, Jesus Christ.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, May 25, 2006