This morning I encountered a somewhat obscure figure, about whom I now want to know more: Elisabeth Leseur. She was a married Frenchwoman, born 1866 and died of cancer in 1914 at the age of 48.
By all accounts, she was a remarkable person who developed a truly unique method of living out a sacrificial calling to evangelize the people around her by example, rather than words. In its originality, completeness, deceptive simplicity, and depth, I am reminded of the spiritual work of St. Thérèse, who was her contemporary.
Follow me to find out more about her and see if you agree.
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A few details from her Wikipedia page (the following are barely abbreviated direct quotes) will give you an overview of the milieu in which she lived her life:
- Elisabeth was born to a wealthy, bourgeous French family.
- She had had hepatitis as a child, and it recurred throughout her life with attacks of varying severity.
- She met Félix Leseur (1861–1950), also from an affluent, Catholic family [but no longer a practicing Catholic] in 1887.
- Dr. Félix Leseur soon became well known as the editor of an anti-clerical, atheistic newspaper in Paris.
- Their marriage was a happy one.
- Well-to-do by birth and marriage, she was a part of a social group that was cultured, educated, and generally antireligious.
- Elizabeth underwent a religious conversion when she was thirty-two and already married.
- From the beginning, she organized her spiritual life around a disciplined pattern of prayer, meditation, reading, sacramental practice, and writing. Charity was the organizing principle of her asceticism. In her approach to mortification, she followed St. Francis de Sales who recommended moderation and internal, hidden strategies instead of external practices.
- Her correspondence with Soeur Marie Goby [from 1911 until Elisabeth's 1914 death] was a source of companionship and mutual spiritual support for both women.
- Her husband, inconsolable in his grief, was converted by her writings and an uncanny sense of her presence after her death.
- Félix subsequently published his wife's journal... and letters to Soeur Goby. He was ordained in 1923. He was instrumental in opening the cause for Elisabeth's beatification as a saint.
The emphasis on "internal, hidden strategies" is mine.
I first learned about Elisabeth Leseur from this post at Disputations:
In her essay, "Elisabeth Leseur, A Strangely Forgotten Modern Saint" Janet K. Ruffing, R.S.M., proposes seven characteristics of this Servant of God's lay sanctity... Here are the seven characteristics identified by Ruffing, along with my clumsy descriptions.
- An apostolic strategy in a hostile, secular milieu. ...Outnumbered everybody:1, Elisabeth chose the path of non-confrontation, despite the frequent wounds inflicted by the conversation of her vocally anti-Catholic friends.
This wasn't a purely passive approach. She saw her role as trying "always to understand everyone and everything. Not to argue, to work through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to show God and make Him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one's intelligence, enlarge one's soul; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference... to open wide one's soul to show the light in it and the truth that lives there, and let that truth create and transform, without merit of ours but simply by the fact of its presence in us."
- A redemptive and transformative use of her physical and emotional suffering....
- A mature sense of agency and surrender. Elisabeth understood a woman's life as one of duties: "to bear children ... to develop unceasingly one's intelligence, to strengthen one's character, to become a creature of thought and will... to view life with joy and to face it with energy... to be able to understand one's time and not despair of the future." These duties in turn were ordered to the Christian duty of bringing Christ to those who suffer and to those who do not know Him.
- An active intellectual life....
- Devotion to her husband and [extended] family. This she saw as her principal duty, as a woman and as a Christian, notwithstanding her husband's hostility to her faith.
- A lay pattern of devotional and ascetical life. She developed her own rule of life, combining the discipline of daily prayer with an active home and social presence. According to Ruffing, her home-grown asceticism was "based on silence [with respect to discussing religion with her husband], self-giving, and austerity."
- A relationship of mutuality and support in her friendship with Souer Gaby.... After years of being essentially alone on her walk of faith, she finally found someone to walk with her.
I followed the link from the Disputations post and read Ruffing's entire essay about Elisabeth Leseur, reproduced as a PDF version from a chapter in a book.* The chapter is 13 pages long and begins with a brief introduction that presents Elisabeth, should her cause for canonization be successful, as an all-too-rare example of the Church putting forward a married laywoman as and example of how to live out one's Christian vocation in daily life.
Take a few minutes and read it.
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I think I was most struck by two aspects of Elisabeth's life:
(1) her strategy of silently evangelizing the people around her, particularly her husband, through diligent empathy, secret prayer, and self-giving; and
(2) her integration of her life as a married woman with her spirituality, in particular, the "rule of life" she set out for herself.
On (2), I'd like to pull out a few quotes from Ruffing's essay, beginning on page 125 of the book.
On "Marriage and Family:"
One of the most appealing characteristics of Elizabeth as a saint for the laity is how well she integrated her family life and spirituality. Tutored in the Salesian spiritual tradition, she fully accepted Francis De Sales' teaching that a life of devotion was fully compatible with marriage. Since her conversion occurred several years after her marriage, she assumed that this call to a deeper, more intimate relationship with God was to be lived as Felix's wife.
Despite the pain she increasingly suffered from Felix's inability to share faith with her as they shared everything else, every reference to her husband suggests a loving and mutually respectful relationship. She felt herself to be deeply loved by Felix, supported by his presence, com- panionship, and expressions of affection....
From his side, Felix was devoted to her and remained constant in his love and affection for her throughout her multiple illnesses. The devastation he experienced at her death evidenced the depth of his love and his emotional reliance on her.
On "Pattern of Devotional Life and Ascetical Practices:"
Elizabeth developed a flexible rule of life that organized her devotional life and ascetical practices, which she outlined in the part of her journal titled "Book of Resolutions..." Although she gave her life a specific structure, she adopted the two principles of flexibility and charity as determinative of her practice.
Her devotional life was never to interfere with either the comfort or needs of those she loved. She rigorously adhered to her program when she was alone and did not need to con- sider the rest of the household, and she was entirely flexible where others were concerned.
There was a daily pattern of morning and evening prayer.... She went to confession and communion every two weeks. She desired to communicate more often, if she could do so "without troubling or displeasing anyone"....Monthly,she gave one day to a spiritual retreat. For her this meant as much solitude as possible, more time in meditation, an examination of conscience, reflection on her life, and preparation for death. Annually, she tried to make a few days of retreat.
It takes an unusual kind of listening to respond to the cryptic call to evangelize through silence. It takes an unusual kind of perception to discern the need for a rule that is characterized by flexibility. And yet, having done some reading about Salesian spirituality myself, and feeling a certain attraction to it, I immediately see the connection to the kind of devotion promoted by St. Francis de Sales, whose peculiarly modern voice has a lot of solid common-sense advice for women living comfortably in the world, just as it did around 1600.
To give you an example of the kind of reach she has: According to the Wikipedia article, through her husband's exhortations she even exerted some formative influence over good old Abp. Fulton Sheen, and her story apparently appeared in some of his talks.
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Now I want to know more. This Kindle eBook and paperback (Sophia Institute Press) purports to be an English translation of Elisabeth's diary and spiritual writings. The author of the essay I excerpted, Janet Ruffing, has published a book of her selected writings in Paulist Press's Classics of Western Spirituality series (the same series where I originally encountered St. Francis de Sales). Félix originally published her diaries and letters, respectively, under the titles Journal et Pensees pour Chaque Jour (Journal and Daily Thoughts) and Lettres sur la Souffrance (Letters on Suffering). Amazon.fr has them, but I haven't yet found a copy for sale in the U.S.; maybe the library.
*Ann W. Astell, ed. Lay Sanctity, Medieval and Modern: A Search for Models, Notre Dame Press, 2000.