A couple of days ago I received my copy of Elisabeth Leseur: Selected Writings, which I ordered almost immediately after I "discovered" her in a blog post last week. I briefly scanned through the diary entries that form the front part of the book, and then I decided to skip them and go straight to her essays and letters -- writings that were meant by her at the time of writing to have an audience, composed syntheses of the thoughts she may have recorded in bits and pieces in hr diary.
(I always feel it's better to get to know a writer first via the voice she presented to the world, before turning to something more intimate like diary entries or even letters. It's after I become intrigued by the themes found in stories, novels, and philosophies that, hungry for more, I have the motivation to look deeper inside a mind and see the rawer, scattered threads from which the big-picture was woven with labor. Just to name two such writers in my library -- why would I want to read the collected letters of Flannery O'Connor before I became fascinated by the mind which could produce such characters and stories, or the letters of Richard Feynman before being charmed by his eccentric and clear way of setting out the principles of advanced physics?)
At any rate, the first piece I turned to was An Essay on the Christian Life of Women, which Elisabeth wrote to her goddaughter Marie on the occasion of the child's first Communion. I didn't see any mention of it in the book, but from what I know about French Catholic culture around the turn of the century, it's likely that Marie was twelve to fourteen years old when she received this letter; delaying first communion till adolescence was at that time a common practice that would not be condemned until 1910 (Quam Singulari, Pius X).
This little letter turned out to be a great introduction to Elisabeth's thought, as we might expect since she wrote it as a sort of "introduction to the Christian life" for a young person.
I'll starte with one tiny detail which charmed me. Elisabeth Leseur was opposed to "indiscreet proselytism," and strongly believed that her calling was to preach the Gospel in hidden ways. I love the way she first plainly testifies about God's work in her own life, but then, pauses to express respect her niece's intellectual autonomy by, essentially, acknowledging that she hopes for Marie's permission before she writes to her openly about Marie's own interior life:
Now, I want to talk to you and pass on to you some of my most important thoughts and deepest convictions, which by God's grace and inspiration are the fruit of the effort, meditation, prayer, and work of many years. All the good in me I owe to God alone, whose parental and continuous action is so visible in my life that, in spite of great trials... I can still fervently thank him and try to transform myself and my life for his service in the future.
If it is all right with you, I will talk to you about your first communion, and especially about your Christian life that will follow from it. I will talk about what you can and ought to do to become spiritually strong, to make your life fruitful in good works, and to share with others, according to the great law of Christian solidarity, the gifts that you have received.
It seems a small thing, but it stood out to me as emblematic of the degree to which Elisabeth felt she was called to understand and respect other people, who necessarily walk a hidden interior path.
Here is another passage that makes reference to an "other," in this case not Marie, but human beings who do not share the Christian faith. She is laying out her theological understanding of what faith is, by contrasting people who do not have it with people who do. But note the positive, fully-human way that Elisabeth describes all people; she doesn't say that unbelievers are any less, nor does she suggest that they are endangered or that God loves them less. Rather, faith adds something to the fully human, subtracting nothing.
Every individual is a thinking, reasoning being, illumined by that natural light which is the first degree of the divine intelligence, as you will learn later from Saint Augustine. This is the light that Saint John says enlightens everyone who comes into the world. Those who know no other will be judged by God according to this light. We, too, possess it, and it leads us to the place where the light of faith begins, to that point where, as Pascal says, "reason's last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it."
This light of faith comes directly from God and shapes our supernatural existence. It gives our actions, which appear to resemble those of other people, an end that the actions of others do not have, and it gives an incomparable value to ourselves and to souls. Our bodily and rational lives differ in no way from those of the other members of the human race, but there is something "beyond," not, as all too many people imagine, antagonistic to this life. There is a higher life, which permeates our entire selves, transforming them, giving them motives for action, supernatural like itself, and fashioning our outer lives into the likeness of our innermost being, so as to create an harmonious unity.
This supernatural light never overshadows the human mind and its learning. Rather, shedding its rays upon them, it illumines them more intensely... It reaches the soul within and gives it a motive for living and acting...
Elisabeth writes with profound respect for the natural human intelligence and reason which exists prior to the gift of faith. It is clear that she regards those who enjoy the "natural light," and no other, as fully realizable human beings in a natural sense.
There is, too, a remarkably Eucharistic vision of the human person here. I love her insistence that the actions of Christians "appear to resemble" those of other people -- on the outside, they look the same and perhaps have the same effects as the actions of other people. The exterior has a natural appearance. But in those who have faith, a divine gift alters something wholly invisible, and not demonstrable to others -- the motives, the intention, the end-goal behind those actions.
Can any of us prove to another what were our motives and intentions behind such and such an action? No? Are motives real, are or they imaginary? Do they matter? I think they are real, and that they do matter, although they are not material. Is there a sense in which our comprehension of the reality of an action is transformed by knowledge of the intention that motivated it? I think so. But, again, motives and intentions are not material and can never be demonstrated -- only testified to. The reality is transformed, has meaning, although the externals appear the same.
I know many people, Christians included, find themselves asking -- either in general or about some specific matter: Do I have faith? Has God given me any? There is nothing I can see to point to -- how can I know if I have been internally transformed?
Leseur's comments here make me wonder if one sort of test is to ask oneself: Although I look the same and act the same, have I new motives and intentions that I would not have were I merely a "natural" man or woman?
Another riff on the same Eucharistic theme of hidden interior reality that emphasizes, by contrast, the vast significance of our external choices and thereby the value of every human person:
[N]eutrality is impossible where it is a question of doing the good... Every person is an incalculable force, bearing within her a little of the future. Until the end of time our words and actions will bear fruit, either good or bad; nothing that we have once given of ourselves is lost, but our words and works, passed on from one to another, will continue to do good or harm to later generations.
This is why life is something sacred, and we ought not to pass through it thoughtlessly but to understand its value and use it so that when we have finished our lives we will have increased the amount of good in the world.
This is an astonishingly clear vision of the value of every human life and the import of free will. I found an echo of the same theme reiterated in a quote from an earlier letter to Charles Duvent which appeared in the introduction to this part of the book:
The first thing to do is to try to become our best selves... And God will do the rest. Our effort, our sacrifices, our actions, even the most hidden, will not be lost. This is my absolute conviction: everything has a long-lasting and profound repercussion.
This thought leaves little room for discouragement, but it does not permit laziness.... I am unable to despair of humanity.
With that, I'll stop for now, and next time write about the advice that Elisabeth offered to Marie as the younger girl was about to set out on the Christian life.