Columbanus vs. Madeleine Barat

  1. Welcome to a FULL WEEK of Saintly Sixteen action! The Quirks and Quotes will be flying as our Celebrity Bloggers take us through our saintly paces all week. We kick things off with Columbanus vs. Madeleine Barat.

On Friday, James Holly defeated Kateri Tekakwitha 58% to 42% to advance to the Elate Eight.

Later today, keep your holy eyes peeled for this week's episode of Monday Madness. It will, naturally and inevitably, be epic. But first, go vote!


Like so many holy and notable historical figures, St. Columbanus’s birth was foreseen in visions by his mother, and in those visions, he was predicted to grow into a remarkable genius.

Around the age of forty, after living the monastic life for many years in Ireland, he went to the continent and began his impressive and successful missionary work founding monasteries and converting Celts to Christianity. As the monasteries grew, he often sought solitude in nearby caves. Sometimes, the cave was already occupied. One of the miracles attributed to him to verify his sainthood happened when he spiritually compelled a bear to vacate the cave where Columbanus wanted to pray in peace and quiet. When Columbanus lived in the cave, he relied upon a companion to travel back and forth to the Abbey with messages. The messenger was not, in fact, the bear.

Columbanus was incredibly skilled at winning the patronage of influential people. According to his biographer, Jonas of Susa, “he could be impetuous and even headstrong, for by nature he was eager, passionate, and dauntless. These qualities were both the source of his power and the cause of his mistakes.” He allied himself with kings and grew powerful, which made him the enemy of bishops. Monastic and diocesan tensions flared over matters of grave theological importance: the method of calculating the date of Easter and the proper shape of a monk’s tonsure.

The bishops of France objected that Columbanus and his monks calculated the date of Easter according to the Irish method instead of the Roman one. While this squabble was undoubtedly about power and prominence, it also caused a practical complication around when, in fact, Lent ended and feasting could begin.

The Frankish bishops also disapproved of the way Columbanus’s Irish monks wore their hair. While Roman clerics shaved the top of their heads, leaving a narrow circular band of hair called a corona, the Irish monks wore a different hairstyle. Much scholarly debate has been waged over this crucial spiritual detail–what exactly was the shape of the Irish tonsure? Sources claim the head was shaved over the crown from ear to ear but was it curved across the forehead, or pointed in an exaggerated widow’s peak? Salvation hangs in the balance. Will we ever know for sure? And which is the correct and holy way?

Eventually, the theological controversies died down, at which point, Columbanus rebuked the royal family of Burgundy for immoral behavior and was taken captive by them, but managed to escape.

Columbanus has a few other notable miracles attributed to him. He is credited with multiplying bread and beer for his monastic community, but on another occasion when beer was prepared for a pagan celebration, he destroyed the barrel of beer with his breath. Clearly, he was filled with the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, Columbanus was known as a friend to animals. When he walked in the woods, birds landed on his shoulder and squirrels cozied up in his cowl. While he did not employ a bear as his messenger from his cozy cave, he did tame one and yoke it to a plow.

-- Amber Belldene

  1. Madeleine Sophie Barat

Madeleine Sophie Barat was the youngest member of the budding order of the Sacred Heart when she was appointed Mother Superior. Before any of her sisters could congratulate her, Sophie knelt down and began to kiss their feet. As one Sister remembered, “such was the spirit of her government”.

The Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (RSCJ) took the traditional three vows of religious life (poverty, chastity and obedience), as well as a vow of education. They were meant not just to teach, but to cultivate “the heart of an educator”, helping people to discover their God-given gifts so that, “they may discover the significance of their lives, devote themselves to others and help transform the world.” In Mother Barat’s words, “Present day society will be saved by education; other means are almost useless.”

The Society made education available to the rich and poor alike. Knowing that hungry students couldn’t learn, Mother Barat and her sisters served a midmorning snack. This practice is known as Goûter (to taste), and continues today.  Another beloved Sacred Heart practice still in use is “Congé”. Meaning “to take leave”, in this yearly celebration all classes are canceled and replaced with games, treats, and other fun for students.

Mother Barat didn’t want new students to think of school as a punishment. New arrivals were not to be served “sensible food”, but given whatever they asked for, even if it was trouble for the kitchen. One nun who worked with Mother Barat wrote about a little girl who demanded "potatoes that open with butter inside." Mother Perdrau sat with the girl and listened to her while the potatoes disappeared. When the Sister took the child to her new dormitory, “the child hugged her pillow happily, then suddenly threw her arms around me. ‘Why do you love me so much?’, she asked, ‘You’ve never seen me before!’”

Mother Barat’s own words are perhaps the best way to encounter her legacy:

“What is needed for winning parents and children is to be busy about them, at their service from morning to night; to forget oneself and enter into what concerns the children, body and soul; to listen to them with interest; to console and to encourage them; finally to sacrifice for them everything except one's soul; and become for their sakes gentle, patient, indulgent, in one word, a mother.”

“Let us respect childhood; let us honor the soul of that small creature of God who can already make choices of the best if we take the time to awaken her reason and make her use her judgment.”

 “We don’t live with angels; we have to put up with human nature and forgive it.”

 “Let your heart be more attentive than your head, for the Holy Spirit is love, and to take hold of her, it is more important to love than to understand.”

In perhaps the ultimate act of quirkiness, Mother Barat is said to have predicted her own death, which took place on the Feast of the Ascension, May 25th 1865.

-- Eva Suarez


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81 comments on “Columbanus vs. Madeleine Barat”

  1. Columbanus, that Celtic Church fellow
    To Gallica brought a great bellow:
    Celts and Romans did spar
    While the Pope, from afar,
    Sipped a cool glass of fine limoncello.

  2. “We don’t live with angels; we have to put up with human nature and forgive it.” I want that quote on the back of the Golden Halo mug if she wins it.

    1. Wow, great idea Kim! Now I want Madeline Barat to win it. Or in any event I want that mug.

  3. No one has time for those who argue over hairstyle. There are children to feed and educate. Go Mother Barat!

  4. I keep my favorite Madeleine Sophie Barat quotation on the board in my office:
    Your example, even more than your words, will be an eloquent lesson to the world.

  5. The Sacred Heart schools in my area are elite schools for the rich, but how glorious it would be to bring that same fervor to improving the curriculum and levels of education in poorer, or more remote area, schools. I voted for the founder's intent, not the current practicalities.

  6. Poor Columbanus! Defeated with the child's statement, "Why do you love me so much?"

    1. I often cry out to God, "Why do you love me so much?" To our Father who sent his son to die for me, that I might be redeemed to him.

  7. I'm printing out these words of wisdom from Mother Madeleine, to have them before me on days when I am trying to teach rambunctious children!

  8. St. Madeleine Sophie, and the order she founded, educate girls in a world that more highly values boys. The schools that continue to look to her for inspiration educate students to develop:
    a personal and active faith in God,
    a deep respect for intellectual values,
    a social awareness which impels to action,
    the building of community as a Christian value, and
    personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.
    What a glorious legacy she has left to the world.

  9. Of course all the emphasis on education won me over to Barat. I love her quote about not living with angels. So true.

  10. Madeleine Barat’s educational philosophy reminds me so much of the sisters at the Anglican school I went to. While we were taught to be excellent in our scholastic endeavours there was always a relaxed atmosphere in the school that meant we felt loved, and the sisters could be a lot of fun. We too had days off for picnics and games.

  11. Cultivating the heart of an educator so that people may discover their God given gifts won my vote today.

  12. For anyone who thinks Madeleine Sophie Barat wins (if she does) because she was a woman, I'm going to say that I voted for her because she was all about humility and service. I can't find anything in Columbanus's bio that shows such qualities. Converting Celts and fighting over monks' tonsures doesn't impress me as Christ-like; but Mother Barat's actions surely do.

    Side note: including the years and location in the bio of each person would be very helpful.

    1. If the dates (or approximate dates) are known, they're usually in the first round writeups which are in the Saintly Scorecard and online. Locations also.
      Columbanus: born 540 CE in Ireland, worked in Ireland, Gaul, and Italy. Died in 615 per
      Madeline Sophie Barat: born 1779 in France and died 1865, also in France.
      Agreed, a recap for the second round would not go amiss, especially since the store sold out of Saintly Scorecards early on this year.

    2. I agree thoroughly, Belle. Anybody can scare a bear out of a cave and not be eaten alive, but children are a "bear" of a different sort.

  13. As a catechist working in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program for a couple of decades, how could I not vote for Mother Barat? I see in her quotations the spirit of welcoming that children need to grow and thrive in mind and in body.

  14. As a retired kindergarten teacher, I readily agree with Barat’s way of working with children. She was certainly a forerunner in treating children as the special little people they are in an age where childhood was often ignored or mistreated. To do everything for love certainly sounds like Jesus. I vote for her and her influence in education of young children.

  15. How could I not vote for a saint who said,"Let us respect childhood; let us honor the soul of that small creature of God." What a beautiful example.

  16. I think the contest today is not for most worthy saint, but for most endearing write-up.

  17. Even before reading the full write-up today, I knew I'd vote for Mother Barat. My spiritual director for three crucial years in my life was an RCSJ sister, for whose wisdom I will ever be grateful. RIP, Retsy Piper, RCSJ.

  18. Inspiring write-ups. Convinced me to not just vote for the saint I voted for in the previous round, but vote for the one I didn't.
    I do miss the thoughtful collects.

  19. The conge got me, as I have fond memories of my college's "Spring Riot"--on an unannounced spring evening, the library lights were turned off long before library closing; the hour women had to be back in their dorms was pushed to 2 am(it was a long time ago), and the next day was no classes, campus-wide picnic, and general mayhem. Perhaps not quite what Sr. Barat envisioned, but served the same purpose for college students in the mid 60s.

  20. If I were voting on the writing or the fact that I'm Irish, I'd totally vote for Columbanus. Alas, I'm voting based on their accomplishments and collaborations, and for that I have to go with Madeleine Sophie Barat.

  21. Amber Belldene - Thank you for the tongue-in-cheek comments and puns so subtly slipped into the information on Columbanus. 🙂 As much as I enjoyed them, I find I must vote for Madeleine.

  22. Madeleine Sophie Barat and her colleagues taught from the heart to enable their young students to "discover the significance of their lives, devote themselves to others and help transform the world.”

    I have very recently gotten involved in pushing back against troubling new voices on our local school board, which like too many school boards all over has been infiltrated with people who want to take books out of circulation and diminish students' access to knowledge, information, and varied voices, instead of expanding it.

    Madeleine Barat is a saint and prophet for our times. “Present day society will be saved by education; other means are almost useless.”

  23. I thought that I was going to vote for Columbanus (in honour of my Celtic heritage), but Mother Madeleine's love for kids did me in. (As a former teacher, I know that knowledge can't get into the brain if the stomach is empty.) That quote about human nature also spoke volumes to me. Go, Madeleine!

  24. I like the quote “Let your heart be more attentive than your head, for the Holy Spirit is love, and to take hold of her, it is more important to love than to understand.”