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Work in the life of Madame Acarie

When, at the age of 22, Barbe Acarie was dumbfounded by the sentence : « Is too miser the one to whom God is not sufficient », she took it literally and changed completely her way of life : God is sufficient for me, so from now, I ignore everything which is not God, I ignore the world, completely unnecessary. She immediately tried, with success, to live in the only presence of God. That was not not what God wanted from her, and he showed her that she must, when it occurred, leave him to serve him in the neighbour.
As immoderately, the young woman began to practice the love of god, not only by praying, but also in and by serving her neighbour. It was the beginning of an extremely dense activity, a very profitable work of almost every minute, personal work or team work, with her community, excellent in different fields, because she remained in the hands of God, going instanteneously from action to prayer, and that this way of life obtained her all the necessary graces.


Lecture by Michel PICARD

It is a pleasure for me to speak about Madame Acarie’s involvement in the world of work for three main reasons.

  • First of all, every individual knows what work is and has his or her own personal and extensive experience of working. It is a concept that requires no explanation.
  • Secondly, the depositions made during Sister Mary of the Incarnation’s beatification and canonisation process are replete with very concrete details of working life, both Madame Acarie’s and that of her associates who were under her authority.
  • Finally, Madame Acarie excelled in dealing with work-related issues ; she is a role model whom we can to a great degree understand and to a certain extent imitate. Everyone can profit in some way from her example.

Madame Acarie is, of course, known primarily as a mystic, but she is also known for her charitable work, that for a long period of time was carried out with the support of a bevy of domestic servants. For this reason, it seems to me that it was simpler to begin this study of Madame Acarie’s involvement in the world of work by describing her conduct as an employer. I shall then describe briefly her dealings with day-labourers on the one hand and qualified workers and craftsmen on the other. I shall go on to show how in certain areas she exercised management skills, to use the current expressionWhen clarity requires it, I shall use the present-day turns of phrase to which we are accustomed, even though this means employing terms and ideas unknown in Madame Acarie’s time. I hope that you will excuse this deliberate anachronism. To save the reader referring back to bare references, in the case where a clarification or a commentary has been added I have placed an asterisk after the reference number. References are not given if more than two witnesses have given the same testimony.. I shall then examine what motivated her in her own working life ; for example, I shall describe her first day in the Carmel of

Amiens. I shall end by giving an account of how Madame Acarie carried out the duties of her state of life and of her primary apostolate.

1. Madame Acarie as employer

When Pope Urban VIII decreed the opening of the Apostolic Process, he established the text of the twenty third ‘article on which the witnesses must be examined with regard to the beatification of Sister Mary of the Incarnation’. The fifth article ran thus  : ‘They (the witnesses) wish to prove that she had a deep concern for the eternal salvation of her domestic servants, both male and female, and that each and every one of them should be an example of piety and virtue, and that this was genuine and demonstrable’. The depositions of the witnesses relating to this are fairly brief : they account, nevertheless, for 7.5% of the total and they provide valuable information about the relationship between Madame Acarie and her servants.

To gain a better understanding of these relationships, we must try to forget our current mind-set, so imbued with the idea of workers’ rights and influenced by legal, rather than moral, considerations. We should also remember that the first legislation in this field was comparatively recent (We need only recall, for example, the 1841 law on child labour, and then go back 240 years in time.) On the other hand, the Church was fairly quick to make regulations with regard to social matters, for example, the Statutes of the Synod of Avignon in 1593 stipulate that  : ‘Parish priests should… remind… fathers of families and those in authority… that it is their duty to send their children and their servants to Mass’ on holy days.

This was an added reason for Madame Acarie to take the greatest care of her servants, ‘almost as much as she did of her children’Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de St. Leu) 2236 – 173. giving priority to caring for their souls.

She encouraged the devotional practice of her servants in several ways. The witnesses testify  :

that amidst a plethora of tasks she found time to speak to them about the things of God and to instruct them in the practice of the virtuesMother Marie of Jesus (de Bréauté) 2235 – 607..
When her servants were helping her to dress, she would speak to them of the virtues of which they stood in need and when she called on them or rendered them some service, she would always slip into the conversation a few words about God and virtueJ. B. Truchot, 2235 – 287..
She saw to it that her servants never listened to ‘the pernicious teachings and malicious discourses of the heretics’Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de St.Leu) 2236 – 178..

On a wider front, she was most assiduous in ensuring that her domestic servants fulfilled their duties towards God : devotional exercises, mental prayerIdem, 2236 –173., daily Mass, Confession and Communion on the major feasts, on the first Sunday of the month, and even more frequently, attendance at the catechism class at St. Louis’ so that they were aware of everything necessary to the faith, attendance where possible at the litanies recited in her domestic chapel,J. L’Espervier, 2235 –576. reading lives of the saints in books she provided for them,André Duval’s book, p. 53 and 2236 –317 and Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament, (de St. Leu) 2236 – 173. practices to obtain an indulgence.Mother Jeanne of Jesus (Séguier) 2235 – 814 and Mother Marie of Jesus (Acarie) 2236 – 503.

With our modern outlook, we are shocked that such demands should be made by an employer; in an area that was eminently personal, Barbe Acarie imposed her own outlook and religious practices on her employees. St. Teresa herself provided an explanation when she appeared to Barbe in 1601 to entrust her with the mission of bringing the Reformed Carmelite Order to France  : ‘You who are bringing piety back to France…’ She brought piety back in the first instance to her household, to such a degree that visitors were amazed. ‘Her household was so well ordered that it seemed like a religious community’J.B.Truchot2235–287. and again ‘It was a real centre of devotion because those who lived there received Communion so often, even the most junior’J. L’Espervier, 2235–577..

It is well known that Madame Acarie also concerned herself with the physical wellbeing and interests of her servants when the occasion rose. Firstly, something that must be emphasised because it was quite unusual, she ‘took such great care to pay all her servants their wages that none of them ever had any cause for complaint.Michel de Marillac, 2236–811’ If some of her servants fell ill ‘she took care that they lacked for nothing and that they were kept neat and clean. She entrusted their treatment to those of her household who she knew were most inclined to charitable works.’A. Duval, p. 54. She would visit them frequently and would sometimes take their meals to them herself. She did this ‘with as much care as if they were her own children,’ J. L’Espervier, 2235 – 577. ‘always saying a few words about God to the sick person to encourage them to endure their sickness with patience and in addition she urged them to take all the remedies that the doctor gave them. If it happened that one of her servants was ill for a long time, she was most insistent that the tedium of caring for him should become in no way apparent.’A. Duval, p. 55.

Foremost among the servants of the Acarie family we must mention Andrée Levoix, but she would need a conference paper to herself and that would be the study of a special case, as it were, since she had such a strong links with her mistress. Barbe Acarie’s attitude to her lackeys Etienne and Vincent is, on the other hand, less remarkable but nevertheless exemplary.

Etienne, who could not only read, as many people could at the time, but could also write, which was more unusual, was very devout, very courageous ‘… never idle, a shining example for the other servants in the house’2236 – 505., said Marie Acarie, the eldest of Barbe’s daughters. His mistress apprenticed him to a tapestry-maker at no.17, Rue Sainte Croix (probably Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie in the Fourth Arrondissement of Paris) when he had finished his apprenticeship he fell ill and Madame Acarie withdrew him from his employment.N. Pinette de Charmoy, 2235 – 487. He visited her and made a point of telling her that he had made a vow to dedicate himself to God’s service. Following the advice of his former employer, he decided to serve as sacristan to the confessors and priests at the Monastery of the Incarnation.A. Duval, pp. 55 – 56. With regard to Etienne, we ought to take note of Barbe’s disinterested attitude (for she deprived herself of an excellent servant), her concern to ensure his professional future, the continuance of their relationship in spite of the differences in their state of life, Barbe’s care for his health and her assistance enabling him to be freed from his obligations to his employer, the tapestry-maker, and her sound advice that directed him towards the Monastery.

Her lackey Vincent was one day struck down by bubonic plague in the Acarie Mansion. Barbe said nothing to the other servants lest she should make them afraid. She put him in a place apart from the main part of the house, in a room to which she alone had access. She helped him herself, serving him, bringing him his meals, making his bed, changing his dressings and ensuring that he lacked for nothing until he was well again. Notice the tremendous confidence Vincent had in his mistress, a confidence she merited through the course of action she adopted, not sending him post-haste to the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital but settling him in her own home and through her care for him and the personal risk she took for Vincent’s well-being and the peace of mind and health of the other servants.

Busying herself constantly with the spiritual and physical well-being of her servants Barbe Acarie was nevertheless their mistress and their employer. She employed them because she needed them. How did she proceed? How did she, in the first instance, select her employees ?

She would only accept into her service persons of pious disposition and blameless life,J. B. Truchot, 2235 – 287. honest and eager to serve.M. de Marillac, 2236 – 759. She could not abide dissimulation, swearing, card-playing and gambling or laziness.A. Duval, p. 52 and 2236 – 316 and Mother Marie of Jesus (Acarie), 2236 – 503.

With regard to their comportment, she wished them to be modestly dressed, honest people of few words, humble and measured in their actions,Sister Marie of Jesus (de Tudert) 2235 –541 and Mother Marie of Jesus (Acarie) 2236 – 506. charitable to one another. She required them to speak gently to one another and to live as brothers and sisters, A. Duval, p. 52 and Mother Marie of Jesus (Acarie) 2236 – 504 to help one another in their need and even more so in their illnesses.J. B.Truchot, 2235 – 287. She would not tolerate any falling out or raised voices or dissolute language that would scandalize neither those aroundJ. L’Espervier, 2235 – 576. nor any waning in charity; neither would she tolerate harsh feelings.B. Truchot, 2235 – 287. This was to such an extent that she once scolded a chambermaid for the rough manner with which she had treated one of her companions.A. Duval, p. 52. On the other hand, she did not like them to be too serious.A. Duval, 2236 – 317.

It is quite clear that Barbe sometimes had to impose sanctions but these were measured out with great regard for charity. ‘ If her female servants had committed some fault with regard to what she had commanded them to do, she rebuked them with such gentleness and love that she seemed to be a mother rather than a mistress.A. Duval, p. 54 and Mother Marie of Jesus (Acarie), 2236 – 504. If one of her men-servants strayed into sin, she immediately cured him of it by an opportune correction, and drew him out of his fault’ always refraining from uttering ‘harsh or unmeasured words’ A. Duval, 2236 – 317. and ‘when, in spite of repeated remonstrances the domestic servants were set in their errant ways, she excluded them from her household’.J. L’Espervier, 2235 – 576. But André Duval tells us ‘the greatest pain she felt was when she was obliged to reprimand someone … she forced herself to do so out of love of God and so as not to fail in her obligation to those who were in her charge’.p. 54.C

Were Madame Acarie’s demands excessive? It is necessary to note in the first place that at the time the employment of domestic servants was the preserve of the elite; so some of these constraints were in everyday use by all employers. Apart from this general consideration, the ‘Acarie enterprise’ had a very precise purpose, open house : open house for priests, religious leaders, theologians, as well as the poor, prostitutes, women looking for the religious congregation to which they were best suited and also, until Pierre Acarie’s exile in 1594, a welcome for litigants and many other people. The atmosphere in the house was therefore of the utmost importance : peace, discretion, respect and goodwill were strictly necessary. And as there was frequently much work to be done the members of the Acarie household had to help one another without balking at the task in hand. Remember the words of Nicolas Pinette de Charmoy, ‘I have seen her prepare a main meal seven or eight times a day.’2235 – 489. and the recollections of Sister Anne of St. Lawrence, who engaged domestic staff in the Acarie household, ‘When evening came, they (the regular domestic staff) were so weary that they could hardly do any more’.2236 – 59. Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de St. Leu) confirms the abundance of work and the weariness of the servants but she describes the kind of recompense they received, ‘ There was so much work in the house on account of the numbers of visitors and they (the servants) could not have provided for their needs were it not for the happiness they had, when evening came, to see their good mistress in their company. As soon as she spoke to them and cast her eyes on them, they all relaxed and got new heart to give of their best.’2236 – 188.

2. Madame Acarie and day-labourers

In 1603 Madame Acarie had been moved by the precarious situation of day-labourers, at the time when the first Carmel was under construction. On her morning visits to the building site, she ‘passed an area where the men would go to earn a day’s wages. She saw some with one kind of a tool, some with another… These men left their homes without knowing who would employ them or at what tasks they would be employed. And when they were hired, they were not told if the work would be very easy or very hard; they went off, got on with what they were told to do and put up with it’Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier). Madame Acarie continued her refection with an outburst of gratitude to Providence : ‘For everything depended on Providence.’ It is evident that she employed workmen belonging to this category. Monsieur de Marillac tells us in this regard : ‘All the day-labourers and unskilled workers who were in her employment were promptly and freely recompensed and she treated these minor employees so lovingly, gently and fairly that they had a special love and respect for her.’2236 – 811.

On many occasions she was drawn to act through pure charity. ‘She took great care to employ poor people [on her own account] so that they could make a living, even though the tasks she set them were not strictly necessary. She employed them in periods of inflation to carry out work at Montbrault that she could well have done without. She gave them work when they had no work to do.’Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier), 2236 – 101.

It is easy to recognise here the situation described in the Gospel … and the scourge of unemployment afflicted not only manual workers but white-collar workers too.

3. Madame Acarie and skilled craftsmen

Marguerin Goubelet, the stone-dresser, worked under Barbe’s direction in the Monastery of Notre Dame des Champs in Paris and then in the Monastery of Pontoise, mainly from 1616 onwards when Sister Mary of the Incarnation was in residence there. He stated2236 – 573. with regard to this latter period : ‘I was much consoled when I was able to have a conversation with her because, although she spoke of building work and other similar things, she flavoured everything with such a spirit of devotion that every thing she said served to edify us.’ But this specialist worker says nothing about his working conditions under Barbe.

Mother Anne of the Blessed Sacrament (de St. Leu) gives a precious detail relating to how she dealt with all comers. ‘Blessed Mary would give advice in conformity with each person’s vocation […] With the same prudence, she adapted herself to all types of people, helping and advising them […] as far as she was able.2236 – 209. And ‘On site, she would address the workmen with respect and quiet gentleness.’Sister Anne of St. Lawrence (de St. Leu), 2236 – 73. She would speak to the workmen in charge with great prudence and measured words […and they] were often astonished to hear her talking about their trade or profession almost better than they could themselves.Mother Agnes of Jesus, (des Lyons), 2236 – 26. She spoke to the workmen on their own terms and suggested innovations.Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament, (de Marillac), 2235 – 719. It is noteworthy that in this way that she dealt with ‘sometimes more than a hundred workmen for whom she had entire responsibility when the convent was being built.’Mother Louise of Jesus (Jourdain), 2236 – 725. A. Duval confirms this in his book, p. 134 : ‘ It was incredibly difficult for her to be in these workshops amongst so many operatives […] for by temperament she was so powerfully drawn to silence and solitude’

Nevertheless tensions occurred. Then ‘…with a single glance she set each person to their own particular duty, to remain steady and to carry out their obligations’Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de St. Leu), 2236 – 209.and ‘Although they sometimes became angry, she always responded with the same gentleness.’Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac) 2235 – 719.

Now let us turn to the remuneration of skilled workmen. Monsieur de Marillac gives us the general information  :

‘[With regard to her contractors] she behaved with such strict justice that it was virtue itself […] She said one had to give God his just deserts as well as the workmen and took this very seriously. […] Commercial traders and manual workers were more satisfied with her than anyone else because she made them understand justice, with so much gentleness and reasonableness and with the blessing of God, {tooltipso that they remained very satisfied.’}{end-text} 2236 – 810 and 811. {end-tooltip} M. de Marillac continues his explanation by describing her attitude to commercial traders, but this attitude could be extrapolated to contractors. ‘She had an exact knowledge of the value [of the goods and materials that were being employed]she understood their calculations, examined their papers and said to them without beating about the bush : Such and such costs you so much, you have to make such and such a profit, this is the price you must charge. She settled matters with such fairhanded justice that the trader (or the contractor) would place no objection in her way.’  

She did however deviate from this rational organisation in one way or another :

At the monastery of Notre Dame des Champs ‘When she saw that everything was in good order and the workmen had used their time well, she would give them something in addition to their daily wage.A. Duval, p. 134.
But she sometimes reproached herself for her hard-headed approach to business dealings, as Mother Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de St. Leu) tells us : ‘[When she was a lay-sister in Pontoise], she had some small item bought for the embroidery she was doing for the small oratories in the monastery; she stated the price that it was worth. The poor workman asked for more. Blessed Mary said that it was too dear. At this point one of our Mothers arrived and said to her : “Oh, sister, this man had nothing for his evening meal yesterday, you must give him what he asks.” When she heard this, Blessed Mary began to weep so copiously that the tears streamed down her face and striking her breast, she admitted her fault and said : “Oh, how hard-hearted I am. I am completely lacking in charity, yes, I’m completely lacking in charity.” Then she begged our Reverend Mother Prioress to give her portion of food from the refectory to the poor man.2236 – 192. Mother Agnes of Jesus (des Lyons) makes it clear (2236 – 10) that fringes were the object in question and advances the hypothesis that the artisan’s supposed lack of food on the previous evening was merely a fallacious argument to get extra remuneration. Nevertheless, if one accepts the hypothesis that he went without supper as credible, it gives one an idea of the precarious existence of certain skilled craftsmen.
On the other hand  : ‘I knew an hoquo; nest man, an embroiderer who worked for her,’ states Mother Jeanne de Jesus (Séguer) ‘He became rich, after having been very poor, through having worked for her on church embroideries when she was a secular 2235 – 819.(i.e. living in the world).’

Madame Acarie therefore behaved in a very different way towards her employees, with those seeking employment (day-labourers or those out of work) and with qualified workmen and skilled craftsmen. In the first instance, the eternal salvation of those concerned and the way they were welcomed by others took pride of place; her requirements of conduct and use of time were adapted to this double end; she and her husband took responsibility for any extra expense involved. Faced with those without work she was moved with compassion and gave them tasks in so far as she was able, for a dual purpose : to give them an income and to keep them from being idle. Even if she ‘reasoned’ them with some words of devotion her relationships with qualified workers and skilled craftsmen were marked by familiarity, patience and above all justice. She paid them a fair price, neither more nor less, because she was not personally responsible for the financial outlay for their work.

The preceding reflections are mainly concerned with Madame Acarie’s dealings with workmen rather than with work itself. It is now time to examine her own attitude towards work.

4. Madame Acarie, director of souls

It is curious to note, especially at that period, that a great number of people flocked to Madame Acarie with the desire of profiting from her spiritual insights. They can be divided into two categories : outstanding religious personalities and women anxious to discover their religious vocation; many lay people of differing social ranks also consulted Blessed Mary.

Dom Beaucousin gives a very simple explanation for the reason why he and many other theologians and clerics took her advice : He learned more from her than she did from him.’ Sister Marie of Jesus (de Tudert), 2235 – 558, who declared : ‘She was regarded in her lifetime as a saint by those who were most perspicacious concerning the things of God, […]Reverend Father Beaucousin,[…], though himself very enlightened, assured us that he learned more from her than she did from him, Father Pacifique[…] whose holiness of life was known far and wide, Reverend Father Coton […] who could not praise and admire the rare virtues of this Servant of God enough, Dom Sans […] who wrote greatly to her advantage in the memoirs he prepared about her life.’ André Duval states that she was ‘outstanding in knowledge because she only said those things which God by his illumination put into her mind.’pp. 344 and 364. In the area of spiritual direction, Madame Acarie would listen to someone who was considered an expert in the said area, and would give her responses, inspired by God. We can assume that each interview was an ordeal for her, partly because she in her humility was unwilling to give such interviews, and partly because the mere mention of God brought on an ecstasy and she exhausted herself in the effort to impede it. We know that these consultations were very numerous, although unsystematic because, as Sister Marie of Jesus (de Tudert) affirms, ‘There was no reform movement in any institution or enterprise aimed at the glory of God […] in which she was not asked to take part.’2235 – 556. At the end of the day, Madame Acarie’s conduct within the Church in France was like that of the Prophets of the Old Testament Covenant who relayed God’s message to the Jewish people. This was her ‘work’.

To describe the methods by which Barbe Acarie guided women towards the religious congregations to which they were best suited, we must first of all listen to the words of Sister Anne of St. Lawrence (de St. Leu) : ‘ The first time that I went to her house to speak to her of my desire to become a religious, although I was only a poor, young girl of the lower class, she welcomed me with as much love and charity as if I counted for something, giving me as much time as was necessary, and as peacefully as if I were the only one whose needs she had to satisfy.’ 2236 – 59. This deposition shows up Madame Acarie’s availability, her extraordinary desire to be available to everyone, in spite of her multifarious occupations.

But, of course, special mention must be made of the young women associated in the ‘Congregation of St. Genevieve’ : The same witness tells us that Barbe ‘took care of its temporal and spiritual welfare.’ 2236 – 60. Mother Louise of Jesus (Jourdain) shows that this was not a leisurely activity. ‘Worn out as she was [by overseeing the building site of the Carmel of the Incarnation] she would return to her young girls, whom she called living stones. It was often very late in the evening. She would ask for a morsel of bread, without allowing them to prepare anything else for her to eat. She would speak to them of spiritual matters as if she had no other thing to occupy her. She would sometimes send them all to a house she had [in Ivry].Especially when the plague was raging in Paris. (A. Duval, p. 136). She would go to them there to talk to them and to train them in mental prayer and spiritual matters, teaching them the ways of the Spirit according as each one was led, speaking to each of them individually and at other times speaking to them as a group.’2236 – 724.

On a totally different plane and on two occasions Madame Acarie had to act as a veritable Managing Director on the board of one of our present-day limited companies, when it was a matter of bringing the Reformed Carmelite Order to France and then the Ursulines. In both cases she received the aforementioned missions directly from God; she gave an account of this to her confessor, he gathered a group of learned men (the board of directors as it were) who would give a ruling on the project which she would put before them; she submitted to the group’s decision, which in the first instance was negative. She ended by joining in their deliberations and Mgr Francis de Sales states (with reference to Carmel) that ‘They took her advice and that served to close the matter.’Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier), 2236 – 109.819. She was expressly commanded to assume responsibility for the realization of the project and she gathered around her the necessary co-workers (steered in her direction by God) giving evidence, moreover, of real authority.M. de Marillac, 2236–766. She gave them the necessary instructions, like a managing director addressing his heads of department that is, by issuing directions but at the same time allowing them a great deal of initiative in an atmosphere of complete trust. For example  :

She had drafted a very broad agreement with Mademoiselle de Sainte Beuve that the latter should be the foundress of the Ursulines. When the project was well advanced, she had to make her aware of what it would cost her. ‘She begged me, M. de Marillac2236–769. explained, to go and see the said young woman […] and make her understand how grateful she was for this undertaking. I made some slight objection, fearing that I would bungle the matter and that such a burdensome message brought to her by me, with so little to show for it, would create a breech that would be difficult to heal […]. She told me that I should not hesitate and so I went, confident that God was working within her.’
The same M. de Marillac tells us how the enormous project of bringing the Carmelite Order to France was organized : ‘Everything necessary was put into place entirely on the orders and under the direction of the said person, who, nevertheless, never did anything without having first held discussions with the aforementioned Monsieurs Gallement, Duval and de Bérulle [who had become the three directors of the Carmelite Order and therefore formed in relation to Madame Acarie, a sort of administrative council] […] And these gentlemen held her in great honour and revered her greatly, they acted upon all her initiatives and often asked her what was the will of God.’2236–764.
Down to earth and level-headed, Pierre de Bérulle was nevertheless very sensitive to the extraordinary mystical events that he witnessed. Madame Acarie was aware of this, and fearing that his choice of Spanish Carmelite sisters might be unduly influenced by the raptures that certain of them experienced, she gave him very firm directives : ‘It is necessary that the persons you choose are possessed of solid virtues […] Choose souls in whom the virtue of charity is particularly resplendent […] because without that, I would see no point in mentioning any other virtues.’ Letter, March 18, 1604 .

Nevertheless it is regarding Madame Acarie’s performance of her daily tasks that there is the most abundant information.

5. Madame Acarie goes about her daily work

It is useful, in the first instance, to go back to Barbe’s childhood years. As a girl, born into a wealthy family, little Barbe Avrillot was shielded from the necessity of working to earn her living. When she reached adolescence, she had merely to carry out the wishes of her parents who were anxious to find her a suitable husband. We know that the vision she had of her future was completely different : she wished to become a religious so as to look after the sick poor in the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital. So was this a desire for full-time work? Probably not. What she wanted was to give herself at one and the same time to God and her neighbour. Since she realised that she had a gift for caring for the sick, she campaigned to serve God and the sick. And she knew full well that this would not simply be an occupation for her leisure time, but a job of work and difficult work at that.

We know that she ended up by getting married, in 1582, to Pierre Acarie. Under the guidance of her Mother-in-law, she became a woman of the world, with far greater leanings towards worldly things than towards any kind of work; every eye was on her on social occasions. She was visibly a doting mother, she read … devotional books of such a kind that about the year 1588 she was very receptive to the sentence : ‘Trop est avare à qui Dieu ne suffit.’ Her life was transformed and from the following year, 1589, she devoted her day-time hours to caring for the wounded in the hospital. We should note in passing that Barbe Acarie now fulfilled to the letter what eight years earlier the indomitable Barbe Avrillot was completely set on doing : serving both God and those who were sick or wounded. And, shortly after she set her heart entirely on God, by applying the words ‘Trop est avare’ to herself, God himself confirmed her direction in life : one that people thought was too absolute for a woman living in the world; and he made her see clearly that : ‘when necessary one must descend and divert oneself from God for the things of this life, in order to serve that same God.’Dom Sans de Ste Catherine, 2233–69. It was indeed in order to serve God that she served the wounded in the hospital. And this double objective would be a fundamental constant in Barbe’s life : serving God by serving her neighbour.

As we have said, Madame Acarie felt that she had a gift, as indeed she had, for tending the sick and the wounded. She was also artistic, as well as being musical (she was a singer and played the spinet) she was an accomplished designer, for example, shortly before her death, she designed the pulpit that was installed in the chapel of Pontoise Carmel. But she also excelled in designing embroideries and ecclesiastical furnishings. As the sworn enemy of idleness – this was another fundamental aspect of her life – she occupied her leisure moments with this craft. This was also a good way of avoiding all idleness in her household; her daughters, her servants, unemployed prostitutes and also numerous high-born ladies who came to visit her would do church embroidery, so that, ‘when some poor priest needed vestments and hangings for his church, she would give him some immediately, so that he would never omit saying his daily Mass’A. Duval, p. 74.. After entering Carmel, she naturally continued this occupation and drew her sisters to it with enthusiasm : ‘She would say to us : “Come, sisters let us work for God.” She would provide us with a thousand and one new ways of doing things.’M. Jeanne de Jésus Séguier, 2235–819.

Let us return for a moment to Barbe’s horror of idleness. M. de Marillac recalled her nights of suffering, her fatigue in the morning, her courage in getting up at the appointed hour and what motivated her when during the three years’ absence of her husband, she suffered such severe and continual pain during the night that she was unable to sleep and felt that she would not survive until the morning. He said that, nevertheless, ‘When the usual hour for getting up came, she got out of bed and dressed in order to take up her usual [occupations]; she told me the reason : “I was afraid said she that the devil was inflicting these pains on me in order to deprive me of sleep, so that I would sleep during the day and waste time. When morning came and I thought I could go to sleep. It occurred to me that I was obeying the evil one, which made me get out of bed immediately.”’2236 – 799. One can recognize St. Benedict’s maxim; ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’ and even the Latin proverb : ‘Idleness is the mother of all the vices.’ )

She was not content with requiring that her servants should help each other with their work; she took a full share of their work : Mother Louise of Jesus (Jourdain) related in connection with this : ‘She always had several major pieces of work on the go. I was there one day when she said to her servants, “Leave all the problems to me; I’ll take care of them.”’ 2236 –722. It was evident that she behaved in the same way in Carmel but even more devotedly. ‘When she had received permission to help us in the kitchen, she looked upon this as a great favour. She always sought out the most menial tasks.’Sister Marguerite of St. Joseph (Langlois), 2235 – 775. And her enthusiasm for work astonished them : ‘She worked […] as if all the monastery had to be supplied by her efforts and that she was obliged to do this workSister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac), 2235 –679..’ ‘Her greatest joy was to relieve her sisters by accomplishing their share of the work, so that they were able to go sooner to recreation.’Sister Marie of St. Ursula (Thoine), 2235 –453. ‘And when it seemed to her that she had not done enough work during the day, she would take the time to work in the evenings even though this severely damaged her eyesight.’ Sister Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier) 2235 769.

She applied herself very seriously to the execution of her various tasks and emphasized that even the most ordinary actions take on great importance when they are carried out in a recollected spirit.The same, 776 and 764. ‘The fervour of her words and her attitude in no way prevented her from taking the utmost care that [the dishes] were sparkling clean : she scrubbed them inside and out, telling us that such an action was not insignificant, that there was nothing insignificant in our holy religion, but that everything was of great importance. This is why she gave us this advice : “we should take great care, in all circumstances, to carry out our actions in a recollected spirit [for] when we do them out of habit, we soon get weary, but when we do them with recollection it seems we are always doing these actions for the first time.”’

With reference to some anecdotes that have, nevertheless, a profound meaning we should add that she was fond of making reference to the work of the Infant Jesus, as the following witnesses testify :

Mother Marie de Jesus (Acarie)2236 – 511., her daughter and Sub-Prioress of Amiens Carmel : ‘When she was washing the dishes she would often talk of how Our Lord, when he was on earth, out of his great humility, would wash the dishes belonging to his most holy Mother and St. Joseph and the manner in which he did this and all other menial actions and labours.’
Sister Marguerite of St. Joseph (Langlois)2235 – 768., her co-worker in the kitchen of Pontoise Carmel : ‘She had in her cell, in full view, a picture of the Infant Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph at work. She would often look at it with great love. She showed me the picture and said : “Look at the good Jesus, how he is working! As for us, are we content to do nothing? You see with what love and humility he is sweeping the floor.”

She also quotes another episode in the life of Jesus more directly drawn from the GospelsSister Marguerite of St. Joseph (Langlois) 2235 – 764. : ‘When I used to say to her “Sister, you must rest, you are exhausting yourself”, she would describe the affection with which St. Martha served Our Lord and the great love with which she prepared his meal, overcome with devotion, she would say : “If Our Lord were on earth and we had to prepare his meal, with what great love and devotion we would do it! So, we should see him in our sisters and serve them as if we were serving him, with great love and without ever growing weary.”’

Serving God with love, both directly through her neighbour, shunning idleness, helping others in a systematic way, working with recollection, in straightforward imitation of Jesus and Martha, these were the chief principles underpinning Barbe Acarie’s own work, both in the world and in Carmel. A reconstruction of the way in which she made use of her time, on February 15, 1614, the day she entered Amiens Carmel, provides a very concrete overview of her attitude with regard to work.

6. Barbe Acarie’s first day’s work in Carmel

At the time of her husband’s death, Madame Acarie was seriously ill. She would not ask for admission to Carmel until she had recovered. To speed up her entry, she made the journey from Paris to Amiens, via Pontoise, in a litter, because she ‘could not have tolerated the motion of a carriage without falling’.A. Duval, p. 237. She arrived at her destination towards eleven o’clock in the morning. After acts of the humblest submission to the Prioress, and even to the rest of the sisters, she asked for, and obtained, permission to go and help in the kitchen.Sister Marie of St. Ursula (Thoine), 2235 – 450 and Sister Marie of Mercy (Talissier), 2235 – 470, lay-sisters.

To proceed in this way was in itself surprising : Barbe had chosen her place of work herself. But she knew better than anyone that her physical handicap rendered her unfit for many household tasks and that, with a few adaptations, she could very easily prepare meals and wash dishes, or more precisely the soup-bowls, jugs and cauldrons. And, because it was about eleven o’clock, it was necessary to make haste to finish the cooking and preparation of the mid-day meal.

Then she asked for, and received, permission to wait at table.‘Waiting at table’ was the expression used by the two lay-sisters when relating the incident; but as Mother Marie Jeanne, the present Prioress of Pontoise Carmel, points out, until the Second Vatican Council, waiting at table had become separated into two parts. Before the whole community, choir sisters and lay-sisters together, arrived in the refectory, the lay-sisters served the cold or even the hot, dishes, then during the course of the meal, a choir sister, designated by rote each week, served the remainder of the food to all the sisters. Given this explanation, it is understandable that on February 15, 1614, Barbe had been authorised by her Prioress to bring the ready-prepared individual portions to each sister’s place, before the mid-day meal. Another surprise, because she was accustomed to lean on two crutches in order to walk. A possible explanation was that she did not yet rely on her crutches to go short distances. As it happened she had to walk a relatively short way and Barbe would pay dearly for the excessive effort she made on that day ; this is stressed by Sister Marie of the Blessed Sacrament (de Marillac) ‘she put so much weight [on her infirm leg] that because of the resulting damage she could no longer walk without crutches or a stick, with the exception of two occasions, when she received the habit and when one of the sisters took the veil2235 – 666..’ Lack of foresight, fecklessness, inability to cope with the situation, as we would say nowadays? By today’s standards, yes, this is how we would describe her behaviour; but she was a saint, and her Prioress in Pontoise explains her behaviour in more general terms : ‘One cannot describe the extent of her charityIn this extract, Sister Mary of the Incarnation’s charity centred on one sick Carmelite, but the life she was leading at the time of her entry into Carmel allows us to infer that she behaved in a similar fashion on other occasions. except by saying that in all her dealings she took no account of the state of her health or any inconvenience, but all her thoughts were unwearyingly directed to what would please her neighbour.’ Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier), 2236 – 111.It was clear that on that day she wished to lighten the tasks of the other lay-sisters. And perhaps the thought occurred to her, a thought put into words by Edith Stein many years later  : ‘God knows what he is going to do with me. I have no need to worry about it.’Letter to Sister Adelgundis, April 28, 1931, quoted by Bernard Sésé in Petite vie de Édith Stein, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 2003, p. 23.

Barbe then asked if she could wash the pots and the Prioress agreed, but sister Marie of Mercy, who was a lay-sister and officially responsible for this task, objected : ‘You don’t wash the pots on the day that you enter religious life.’2235 – 470. Barbe was unaware of this custom and a drama ensued : she ‘went off very upset in search of the Prioress and said to her with tears in her eyes : “I am not fit to wash the pots and they’ve sent me away.”

It was a curious conclusion on Barbe’s part, to think that she was not fit to wash the pots, she who had never been concerned about her dignity : quite the reverse. I think there are two possible explanations for this demoralised observation :

‘Worthy’ sometimes means ‘capable’ as in the expression ‘a worthy representative’, a person who is fully capable of representing the person who has given him orders. It is possible , then, to understand Barbe’s fit of depression; she felt capable of doing hardly anything but washing the pots and similar tasks and they objected to her doing so for a superficial or even fallacious reason. It followed that she would become a heavier responsibility for her sisters than she feared; she really would be useless, she who by contrast felt obliged to be everyone’s servant.
But Barbe was probably using the word ‘worthy’ in its usual sense : the person who is worthy to carry out a particular task is the one who merits being chosen to accomplish it. This interpretation is often given by the long-term unemployed in today’s world : no employer has confidence in me. Barbe frequently used such language in Carmel : my sins prevent my being judged worthy by God of being corrected by my Prioress, of profiting from my sister’s words and in this instance of being useful in some small way by washing the pots.

After having summarized my preceding remarks, I shall concentrate on three points for reflection  :

  • Madame Acarie’s accomplishment of the duties of her state of life.
  • The one known exception to this rule of life.
  • Madame Acarie’s basic mission.


Madame Acarie would not tolerate idleness; her daughters had always to be occupied in some way and Andrée Levoix had the responsibility of seeing to it that they were. Her servants had to fill their spare moments and to this end she provided them with books. Work was, in her eyes, a good solution to the avoidance of idleness in her household; but for all that, one cannot say that Barbe recognized that work had any other intrinsic value.

On the other hand, she was motivated by great respect for her domestic staff, workmen and co-workers. This respect manifested itself firstly by unfailing financial justice but also by a demand that each person should be fulfilled by work well done, and by a particular attention to their spiritual needs; everyone’s devotion had to increase; in connection with this we are reminded of the testimony of Goubelet, the stone-dresser.

She did not personally seek work for its own sake. From the moment that God had called her, in 1588 or 1589, to come down from the heights to serve him in her neighbour, the best part of the day was devoted to the service of others. And this service involved much work, tremendous activity. Except when she was confined to bed, she never allowed herself a moment’s respite; she never used her poor health or the frequent pain she suffered as an excuse to refuse to help someone, when she could well have done so.


It was a fact that simultaneously or successively, willingly or no, she fulfilled many roles in life. When she was very young, she saw herself in the double role of religious sister and nurse. Shortly afterwards, she found herself playing the multiple roles of married woman, mother, daughter-in-law, woman of the world and employer. In 1589, she witnessed the consequences of the civil war and immediately became a nurse and a person who assisted the dying. When her husband went into exile, she was in the position of a woman facing adversity almost alone. While waiting for the favourable decision of the judges, she gave spiritual guidance to several good-living young women. People came to ask her advice because she was recognized as someone who experienced divine guidance. Having become the direct co-worker of St. Teresa of Avila, she was commissioned to bring the reformed Carmelite Order to France. And so on. Finally, she became a Carmelite, a lay-sister, being asked nevertheless to instruct the novices and advise her Prioress.

In all these circumstances she simply carried out the duties of her state of life, motivated at all times by her love of God, so that she passed effortlessly from silent prayer to action and back again.Mother Marie of St. Joseph (Fournier), 2236 – 100.


Genevieve Acarie, Barbe’s last child, was born on Feb 22, 1592. André Duval gives a brief account of the event in his book and draws a parallel between Barbe and the Blessed Virgin. Jeanne L’Epervier also testifies to the incident in article 14 relating chiefly to Barbe’s ecstasies. It seems that no other witnesses described the event or consequence so that it is a little known episode.

André Duval writes : ‘She [Barbe] was so absorbed in God that the doctors and the women around her thought that everything was lost, both the mother and the child would perish. She was unable to help herself : with joined hands and her eyes raised to heaven, she was completely unconscious and shook so violently that they thought she was suffering the convulsions that heralded her death. But the child was nevertheless safely delivered.’

At a crucial point Madame Acarie did not fulfil the indispensable duty required by nature, and so put in jeopardy both her own life and that of her daughter. Nevertheless everything had a satisfactory conclusion … because God intervened when all hope was lost.

At the present day a good number of people ask for the intercession of Bl. Mary and several of them have made known their prayer intentions to the Carmelite sisters. So we know that between 1955 and 2004, 76 people prayed to Madame Acarie regarding an unborn child and consider that their prayers have been heard because the child in question was born with no sign of the expected deformities.

400 years after God’s intervention at the critical stage of Madame Acarie’s delivery women who either want to conceive a child or are concerned about their current pregnancy (and fathers are concerned too) put all their confidence in God through the intercession of Madame Acarie. One would almost say that she is the patroness of expectant mothers. Cardinal Richard, Archbishop of Paris, expressed the desire as early as 1893 that she should become the patroness of Christian families.His pastoral letter of April 1, 1893, the text of which is reproduced in the most recent edition of André Duval’s book.


Patroness of expectant mothers, patroness of Christian families! These are attractive ideas, but we must also remember what St. Teresa of Avila said in 1601 to the young Madame Acarie, on God’s behalf : ‘You who are restoring piety in France…’ When we take into account its originator, the message is of fundamental importance.

When we look in the Dictionnaire de Théologie we learn that ‘piety’ was formerly defined as love of God and of neighbour. The idea of ‘love of neighbour’ was subsequently glossed over but there has been a return to the primitive 16 th-17 th century definition, the one made around 1601. So with strict attention to the sense of the Divine message, one can say that Madame Acarie was the instigator of a return to the love of God and of neighbour.

Why should this still not be so? Why should she not be the patroness of those who are lacking in the love of God and of neighbour (and that goes for all of us, in some way)? If she is invoked under this title she would lead us in all probability in the first instance, as Pope Benedict XVI does, to love our neighbour and to serve him systematically for the love of God as she did, in all the small details of our many states of life. This is what she inspired me to do when I was preparing this lecture.