Sophie Barat House: A hidden oasis of spirituality
Opening up about her personal spiritual quests in front of a group of strangers was daunting at first, but it didn’t take long for Carolyn Abaunza to find her comfort zone – and a group of fellow seekers – at the Sophie Barat House, a Religious of the Sacred Heart spirituality center on Napoleon Avenue.
“It can be a very lonely experience if you don’t share your spiritual experiences with others,” Abaunza said. “It’s like having an expansion of your thoughts – they listen to your thoughts and you listen to theirs.”
Sharing God’s love for us
Nestled behind century-old oaks, the house at 1719 Napoleon Ave. is entering its third decade as a spiritual ministry center in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Established in 1994 with the blessing of Archbishop Francis Schulte, the ministry sprang from a desire to make the spirituality of the Society of the Sacred Heart available to more people.
“We are into communicating the Good News – what it means that God loves us, what it means to make that love in the person of Jesus Christ,” said Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Jane McKinlay, the house’s director and one of the house’s credentialed spiritual facilitators.
“God is offering each of us a fullness, and that includes a personal relationship with the members of the Trinity, and there is a richness beyond logic that comes into one’s life when they discover the ways in which God is meeting them,” she said.
‘Meaty’ material on tap
The ministry began as a daytime retreat center but soon evolved into a place where adult men and women of all faiths could spend a couple of hours on weekdays, once or twice a month, attending professionally facilitated, prayer-filled and Scripture-rich discussions on faith-related topics from September through early June.
Eight different groups totaling about 70 men and women availed themselves of the house’s spiritual gatherings last year.
“They’re saying they feel comfortable here, they feel safe and it’s reliable – they can count on the fact that they’re going to find something meaty here,” said Sister Jane, describing a recently completed course in which participants were invited to look at how habits and traditions – such as the waving of palms to herald the entrance of a king – sprouted independently in various areas of the world before the era of communication.
“We developed that general theme of how God’s action – in all of creation, in a rhythmic form – has all kinds of ramifications,” Sister Jane said. “It’s been discovered by cosmologists that habits that are taken up by one group of humans or animals are frequently repeated by another group of the same species without any contact and even across generations,” she said. “So when Jesus came into Jerusalem just before his passion, the people lined the streets with palms and waved palm branches. Back in King David’s time, people didn’t bring out their spears to welcome David back from victory, they didn’t beat drums; they waved palms. It was very spontaneous when the people were waving their palms at Jesus’ passion.”
To explore the tradition of palm-waving, Sister Jane invited her participants to look at the event through the eyes of St. Peter, setting the stage by playing a video dramatizing Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
“Peter was right there by Jesus’ side taking it all in. What was this experience like for him?” she asked attendees.
Letting the Spirit speak
After completing the more academic phase of the day’s topic, participants moved into the chapel, equipped with some optional suggestions for prayer, and spent 10 minutes of total silence.
“In stillness we get an opportunity for the Spirit to touch us, so the more we become still with that intention in our hearts, the more effective the Spirit can be,” Sister Jane said. “We are here in a sacred space during those two hours and we hope that we’re going to emerge with something that has nourished us and fed our souls.”
Sister Jane is launching a new series of spiritual reflections this month. “The Seven Spiritual Townhouses of St. Teresa of Avila” will be explored through the perspective of a different New Testament figure every month.
“St. Teresa speaks of an ‘interior castle,’ and within the castle there are seven ‘mansions’ – that’s what I’m calling ‘townhouses,’” Sister Jane explained. “As we grow spiritually, we move from one townhouse to the next. Within each townhouse there are various rooms.”
Two other Religious of the Sacred Heart sisters are facilitating study groups at the Sophie Barat House in 2016-17: Sister Maureen Chicoine will explore “Dealing with Disputes in the Early Church,” while Sister Annice Callahan will shed light on “19th Century Teachers of Prayer” in spring 2017.
Finding that quiet place
Sister Jane also facilitates a first-Friday “Centering Prayer” group in which participants reflect on a “kernel” of faith, do a breathing activity and spend 20 minutes in silent reflection. Readings for the upcoming Sunday Mass are slowly read aloud twice, with participants invited to pick out some word or phrase that catches their attention.
“Life is rather frenetic and the amount of stimulation that comes from every corner is immense, which can leave people feeling fragmented and like they are living on the ‘surface of things,’” Sister Jane said. “There’s a thirst for depth, and meeting as a group is powerful!”
Religious of the Sacred Heart Sisters Judy Vollbrecht and Anne Byrne offer year-round, one-on-one spiritual direction to men and women at the Sophie Barat House. Other on-site events include an Advent Day of Prayer on Dec. 10 and a Lenten Day of Prayer on March 11. Registration is ongoing. For more information, call 899-6027.