Continuing my series on the writings of Elisabeth Leseur, which I started here.
This is the life of faith, understood not as passive acquiescence on the part of the mind, but as an active acceptance, a lively assimilation of truths that surpass the mind and which constant experience, suggested and directed by grace, impresses upon us. You will possess this life, and it is now going to begin in you... You will be a link in the long chain that Christian tradition is slowly forming and that will last to the end of time. You will, in a greater or less degree, enrich the collective consciousness of Christianity by your effort, energy, and sacrifices.
With this Elisabeth Leseur makes a transition from the introductory part of her letter to the meat of it: advice and instruction to an adolescent niece about to make her first Communion. In the beginning, she described how the faith of a Christian enriches and transforms the natural human life -- itself something worthy and full -- into a new life that is invisibly and immeasurably valuable, because animated within by new motives and intention. Now she turns to counsel.
From now on you ought to prepare yourself for this great task that is required of each of us... All Christians have the same aim and ideal, in every age... But circumstances require them to adapt their mode of action...
As a matter of fact, our Christian duty appears under a threefold aspect--
- and social.
And indeed, the counsel that Elisabeth will offer Marie is neatly divided into a description of the Christian woman's duties in these three spheres.
Before visiting each one, though, let's look at the next sentence, because of what it reveals about Leseur's philosophy:
I do not add its spiritual dimension because the other three [that is, the intellectual, the familial, and the social] are only different forms of the religious responsibilities imposed on us all.
An interesting definition of the scope of the spirit, to say the least!
Leseur on a Christian woman's intellectual duty
You ought to be a woman of real worth, well educated, with your mind open to every argument from outside. You ought to know how to discern among incoherent and varying ideas and systems that which is true or fruitful in each.... In this patient search for the truth and a habit of fairness that we ought to have towards others and their ideas, we need integrity of mind, clear judgment, and solid learning.
These are the words of a woman who is completely confident in the reasonableness and attractiveness of her faith -- and in the reasonableness and good will of the young lady who will read her letter! Elisabeth has no fear that any outside argument, system, or idea will tear her niece away from her proper destiny. This is not cautionary advice about keeping away from dangerous notions or dangerous people. This is encouraging, ennobling advice to get out there and fight the good fight -- with the sharpest of weapons.
Consequently, you need a serious education; there should be nothing superficial or mediocre, not only in your literary and scientific studies, but also in the intellectual knowledge that you ought to have of all things Christian.
I am sometimes shocked to see how completely ignorant most women are of the religion they profess... its living and imperishable dogmas are to them a dead weight that they drag around, and their appalling narrowness in matters of doctrine shows how completely they fail to recognize the heart of Christ beating for them under the veil of rituals and symbols.... a woman who 'practices' her religion, but who has nothing of that nobility of spirit, that interior beauty and liveliness of soul that every Christian woman ought to display.
...Devotional practices ought never to be anything other than the manifestation of what lies in one's depths. We must first thoroughly grasp the truth that such practices help to enliven within us. So, too , we must grasp the harmony of the Church as a whole, the vitality and power of Christian teachings, and the moral and social value of Catholic doctrine.
I hope... that... you will be a thoughtful Christian and that you will understand the reasons that undergird your faith and the grounds that you have for hope and worship. Then, when you will have matured.... you will bring a real spiritual and theological awareness to your religious practices, and you will reject all that might lead others... to suppose Christians to be eccentric and narrow-minded.
Here is a vision, not of spirituality coexisting with intellect, but of spirituality AS intellect. Human understanding of the theology under worship, plus the light of faith that is a gift from God, plus attention to devotional activities, plus maturity, equals a fully developed Christian spirit.
You must also make every effort to increase your depth of human learning; I should like you to be very well educated or even learned...
A woman is responsible for her intellectual development... so as to be capable one day of simultaneously fulfilling her role as a mother and her duty toward the society in which she lives. For it stands in need of illumination, faint though it may be, from all of us.
When we work not for trivial satisfactions but to strengthen our minds so that others may benefit from our work, we can be sure that it will be fruitful, and that God will bless it....
Once more let me remind you that none of our disinterested or generous efforts is ever lost.
Here is another echo of this threefold religious duty. This time she places one in primacy over the others. For Elisabeth, the intellectual duty -- the interior transformation of the self -- comes first. It prepares the way for the exterior manifestations that are the familial duties (motherhood, for women) and the social ones.
(Much as, in the previous paragraphs about religious education, Elisabeth insisted that devotional practices must be grounded in a thorough understanding of the faith.)
Here we find out a little of why Elisabeth believes in women's education. The education of Christian women is not to fit them for making money, or to give them better parenting skills, or even so they can teach the next generation. No, it is vastly more important than that! The education of Christian women is to make them into sources of "illumination" -- or, rather, channels of an illumination of which the true source is God. The illumination comes from the interior, invisible development of the self, and cannot help but transmit outward to fall upon the family and on the society through her actions.
No one with Elisabeth's conviction that every human action has incalculable value and consequence, could ever dismiss the worth of a woman's education.
So here is a summary of Elisabeth's program of the intellectual duty of Christians:
- Acquire the best education you can
- Be open to listening to all kinds of ideas
- Thoroughly understand the doctrines and teachings of the Church, and understand the reasoning behind all your devotional practices
- Work "not for trivial satisfactions but to strengthen" your mind so that others may benefit
Next time, we'll revisit what Elisabeth advises about these external duties.