A Marriage Saved in Heaven: Elisabeth Leseur's Life of Love by Robin Maas, Ph.D.
The name Elisabeth Leseur is unknown to most American Catholics; but the English translation of her remarkable journal, long out of print, is once again available. The recent release of a beautiful new paperback edition by Sophia Institute Press provides occasion for rejoicing, for this French housewife's spiritual odyssey is sure to give hope to the countless Catholic wives in this country whose suffering mirrors her own. For several years I have assigned Elisabeth Leseur's journal to my students at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Without exception, they are stunned by what they read and are deeply moved.
Many American women will find Elisabeth Leseur's writings psychologically inaccessible, for they witness to a vision of marriage and an experience of silent, sacrificial love for which our contemporary culture offers no explanation or support. At a time in history when women feel they have a right to personal fulfillment in both the major spheres of their lives - domestic and professional - this particular life may register with many as an enigma and a rebuke, for it reminds us that our personal ambitions are narrow and impoverished, lacking the luster and verve of the heroic.
Married in 1889 in Paris, Felix and Elisabeth Leseur were both from relatively prosperous and cultivated backgrounds. They and their impressive circle of friends were part of an intellectual elite who indulged themselves in a constant round of receptions and soirees, evenings at the theater and frequent travel abroad. The young husband was a medical doctor, and like so many ardent suitors, Felix had promised his fiancée that even though he was no longer a believer-having lost his faith in medical school-he would always respect her Catholic piety and never interfere in her practice of the Faith. Elisabeth was attractive, good-natured and intellectually curious. A lover of all the arts, when she was not busy entertaining or being entertained, she pursued her own intellectual advancement through self-directed study projects, mastering Latin, English and Russian.
Indeed, this was a couple that seemed to "have it all." To look at the handsome newlyweds one would never guess that the relationship would soon be permeated by the deepest and most hidden psychological anguish imaginable; and even more astonishing was the survival of their affection for one another in the midst of a massive failure of communication of the sort that would topple most middle- class marriages today.
The Cross of Spiritual Isolation
At the time of her marriage, Elisabeth Arrighi Leseur could be fairly characterized as a sincere but somewhat conventional Christian. There was no particular reason, given her background, for Felix to expect the kind of spiritual seriousness that emerged in her early thirties, just as there was no reason for Elisabeth to expect the dramatic change of attitude that developed in her husband not long after their marriage. From a staunchly Catholic family, the Jesuit-educated Felix was able to discard his religious formation surprisingly quickly under the pressures created by his own professional and social ambitions. Originally willing to tolerate what he himself had left behind, Dr. Leseur soon came under the influence of anti-clerical friends and adopted their attitude of militant resistance to Catholicism. His innate capacity for zeal came to full bloom in his conversion to atheism and the subsequent efforts he made to evangelize his wife.
Felix began to undertake a study of polemical anti-Catholic literature in earnest and in his enthusiasm thrust much of it upon his wife. Soon, it began to take effect. Elisabeth came to have serious doubts and started to look favorably on the arguments of liberal Protestantism, positions which Felix gladly endorsed since he saw these as only a short step away from radical agnosticism. One work in particular, Renan's History of the Origins of Christianity, he expected to produce the much desired coup de grace that would demolish the last remnants of his wife's religious convictions. To his surprise and dismay, the effort backfired:
. . . thanks to divine Providence, the very work that I thought would accomplish my hateful object brought about its ruin. Elisabeth . . . was not deceived by the glamour of the form, but was struck by the poverty of the substance . . . . She felt herself approach the abyss, and sprang backwards, and from then on she devoted herself to her own religious instruction.1
Elisabeth's reeducation in the Faith, which she herself planned and implemented, consisted of an extensive reading program devoted to the New Testament and the writings of the saints. Her husband's eager efforts to sway her had taught her the arguments; her own program of study gave her the background to reply confidently. Thus the net effect of Felix's attack on Elisabeth's Catholicism was to ground her much more firmly in her faith than she had ever been before.
Furious at this unexpected turn of events, Felix redoubled his efforts to get his wife to see the light, but there was an unmistakable change in Elisabeth that even her frustrated husband could not ignore. He saw her faith become
a new thing, unassailable, unshakable, and radiant, opening henceforth to her the way to the sanctification in which she was so marvelously to progress. Her ascension to God had begun. And this faith "that could move mountains" had been set by God upon the firmest rock of all-that is, upon suffering.2
In Elisabeth's case, the primary source of her suffering was her marriage, but as we shall see, it had nothing to do with having married "the wrong person" or in the death of marital love. The radical tension between husband and wife over the issue of religion was to be a constant, implacable reality in this marriage, and a source of unremitting pain for Elisabeth. The following entry captures accurately the poignant nature of the isolation she endured: "I thirst for sympathy, to bare my soul to the souls that are dear to me, to speak of God and immortality and the interior life ..."3
Elisabeth confides to her journal the acute pain she suffered when not only husband but friends as well attacked or made light of what she treasured in her heart:
Bitter suffering of an evening spent in hearing my faith and spiritual things mocked at, attacked and criticized. God helped me to maintain interior charity and exterior calm; to deny or betray nothing, and yet not to irritate by too rigid assertions. But how much effort and inner distress this involves, and how necessary is divine grace to assist my weakness!4
That a young wife should be deeply wounded-and angered-by such a betrayal is to be expected. What is remarkable here is Elisabeth's capacity to make use of her suffering for the benefit of those who inflicted it on her. Where human nature seeks just reparation for pain inflicted, Elisabeth is unwilling to indulge that very natural demand; nor will she simply suffer. Instead, she "spends" that pain to benefit those who caused it. Immediately following her description of her distress, she adds this plea and a resolution:
My God, wilt Thou give me one day. . . soon . . . the immense joy of full spiritual communion with my dear husband, of the same faith, and, for him as for me, of a life turned toward Thee? I will redouble my prayers for this intention; more than ever will I supplicate, suffer, and offer to God Communions and sacrifices to obtain this greatly desired grace.5
An Apostolate to Souls
Felix recalls that when asked to inscribe a motto in the day-book of her beloved younger sister, Elisabeth had written the following: "Every soul that uplifts itself uplifts the world." He continues, "In that profound thought she defined herself."6 This message to someone she loved presaged what was to become the leitmotif of her own life and the meaning of her personal mission as she understood it.
While still a young woman, Elisabeth had come to the conclusion that the popular conviction that for activity to be valuable it must have a widespread and measurable social impact was mistaken. Aware of the profound and transformative action worked by grace in the depths of each soul, she claims to "believe much more in individual effort, and in the good that may be done by addressing oneself not to the masses but to individual souls. The effect one can exert is thereby much deeper and more durable. . ."7 In one of her earliest journal entries she voices an aspiration that will mark the special character of her apostolate: "I want to love with a special love those whose birth or religion or ideas separate them from me; it is those whom I must try to understand and who need me to give them a little of what God has placed within me."8
One thing God certainly gave Elisabeth Leseur in abundance was a profound empathy to the sensitivity-and fragility-of individual souls. Thus she accepted as her special task to learn, first, to understand those who, so different from herself, took delight in abusing what she loved; and second, to love these same souls. Moreover, she must love them "for themselves alone and for God, without counting on a single recompense or sweetness, simply because they are souls and because Christ, the adored Master, in looking upon them . . . uttered. . . : 'I will have pity upon the multitude.'"9
Her prayers for a productive apostolate were certainly answered, for in the end, a great multitude were blessed through their encounters with her. The passing of time and the addition of trials in this woman's life were consistently accompanied by resolutions such as the following:
To go more and more to souls, approaching them with respect and delicacy, touching them with love. To try always to understand everything and everyone. Not to argue; to work instead through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to reveal God and make Him felt without speaking of Him; to strengthen one's intelligence, to enlarge one's soul. . . ; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference. . . . Never to show the wounds that are caused by certain hostilities, declarations, or misunderstandings; to offer them for those who cause this suffering.10
This craving to give what she herself almost never received becomes the means through which Elisabeth's personal purgation proceeds. Towards the end of her life this desire burns through her entire being like an invisible flame:
To learn from the Heart of Jesus the secret of love for souls and deep knowledge of them: how to touch their hurts without making them smart and to dress their wounds without reopening them; ... to disclose Truth in its entirety and yet make it known according to the degree of light that each soul can bear. The knowledge required for for the apostolate can be had only from Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist and in prayer.11
The Highest Form of Action
Although for Elisabeth no physical or additional emotional suffering could compete with the pain that Felix's spiritual alienation caused her, along with her lifelong sorrow in not being able to have children, she met with and was forced to endure suffering in almost every area of her life. Unbeknownst to most of her friends-but not to her physician husband-she fought a constant battle with a variety of physical afflictions.
Eventually Elisabeth's physical suffering made it increasingly difficult for her to leave the house, let alone maintain the active involvement with socially worthy charitable causes she had previously enjoyed and continued to support financially. Living with these severe constraints, she came to see that her suffering, rightly used, could be a source of formidable power.
Trying to explain this to a friend whose very active husband was facing the prospect of blindness, she wrote:
I know by experience that in hours of trial certain graces are obtained for others, which all our efforts had not hitherto obtained. I have thus come to the conclusion that suffering is the highest form of action, the highest expression of the wonderful Communion of Saints, and that in suffering one is sure not to make mistakes (as in action, sometimes) - sure, too, to be useful to others and to the great causes that one longs to serve.12
Again, we see an attitude that strikes at the heart of contemporary assumptions about how a work of value can be accomplished in the world, especially by a woman. The demand for the freedom to be actively involved in worthy projects (if not actually in charge of them) has become a predominant theme for modern women; yet here is someone who claims to have found the secret of personal effectiveness in a form of action that far transcends the only type of involvement that most of us can imagine. Indeed, a life consisting of constant physical pain, emotional suffering and undiminished social obligations would not appear to offer much scope for a late-twentieth-century woman who is zealous to accomplish some great work for the world. Yet as Elisabeth's body steadily weakened, her convictions about how souls are captured for God were just as steadily confirmed and clarified:
When we feel impotent against hostility and indifference, when it is impossible to speak of God or the spiritual life, when many hearts brush against ours without penetrating it, then we must enter peacefully into ourselves in the sweet company that our souls never lack; and to others we must give only prayers and the quiet example of our lives and the secret immolation which makes the most fruitful apostolate.13
As we have seen, Elisabeth's generosity of spirit and sensitivity of soul created in her a space large enough for each person who entered her life and a willingness to love and respect them all by meeting them where they were.
But in many cases, this level was far below the higher reaches towards which she was herself drawn. Thus, when she would much prefer to be praying or studying in solitude, she would instead willingly converse with husband or friends about a host of things of only secondary importance, at the same time refraining from mentioning those subjects which spoke to her own deepest interests and needs, since she knew this would provoke alienation or ridicule.
While the modern preoccupation with "personal authenticity" would quickly condemn such a strategy, it is important to recognize that there is no effort here to pretend that what she detests has great intrinsic worth and that somehow she must either learn to appreciate its value or resign herself to inevitable suffering. What interests her is the soul itself, and so the hidden effort she makes to accommodate herself to the needs and interests of each person she encounters is not a form of passive acquiescence. For her this was a gesture of love, an intentional and active apostolate, a reaching out to souls in desperate need of what she loved and wanted to offer openly but could not because of the dread it inspired in unconverted hearts. It was the simple power of her own, God-possessed presence she learned to rely on in these encounters, and, in the end, it was to have an enormous impact on many souls, including the one whose resistance hurt her the most.
The soul whose well being obsessed her was, of course, Felix's own, and she never stopped praying for his conversion. She came to recognize that any deliberate efforts to bring about his conversion would be doomed to failure. The change she so ardently longed for in Felix would be God's work entirely; in the meantime, she must love and not give in to temptations to self-justification that might only serve to make that work more difficult.
The Conquest of Love
The power of Elisabeth Leseur's freely-embraced apostolate of suffering, born of her love for a soul in grave danger of being lost, was finally manifested in the life of Felix Leseur. The first signs that it was having its desired effect came in a cessation of hostilities as Felix found he could no longer ignore the growing and unmistakable evidence of sanctity in his wife. Several years before her death he found his attitude toward her persistence in the Faith softening:
When I saw how ill she was, and how she endured with equanimity of temper a complaint that generally provokes much hypochondria, impatience and ill-humor, I was struck to see how her soul had so great a command of itself and of her body; and knowing that she drew this tremendous strength from her convictions, I ceased to attack them.14
Then, in 1911, while Elisabeth was recuperating from a difficult operation, Felix accompanied his wife on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Expecting to see only "hucksters in the Temple," he was taken completely by surprise when, unobserved, he witnessed Elisabeth praying at the Grotto, apparently levitating.
I had before my eyes the spectacle of something that evaded me, that I did not understand, but which I recognized clearly as being "the supernatural," and I could not withdraw my eyes from so moving a sight. I returned from Lourdes troubled by what I had seen and felt in that land of miracles. Oh, I was certainly still a rationalist, on the surface at any rate-deeper down, Elisabeth acted upon me without my perceiving it; and this action grew stronger during her last illness. I could never weary of admiring her moral force in the midst of a real martyrdom.15
At the time of Elisabeth's death (from cancer), Felix made another dumbfounding discovery in the vast scope of her spiritual outreach, evidenced in a huge correspondence with people from all walks of life and of whose existence he had had no inkling. Amazed, he watched what seemed like a never-ending stream of visitors come to visit Elisabeth during her last days, and an even greater number of entirely unknown mourners file past her body prior to the funeral. He reports that following the outpouring of grief at the funeral he heard that the attending clergy asked in astonishment, ". . .who was this woman? We have never seen such a funeral before."16
It was not until after her death, when Felix discovered, read, and reread her journal and a document she entitled her "Spiritual Testament," that he realized what was working in him was the direct result of Elisabeth's own self-conscious offering of her life to God for his conversion. This realization was one of those momentous revelations that overturns what has been in an individual's life to make way for the new:
... a revolution took place in my whole moral being. I understood the celestial beauty of her soul and that she had accepted all her suffering and offered it - and even offered her very self in sacrifice - chiefly for my conversion. ... Her sacrifice was absolute, and she was convinced that God would accept it and would take her early to Himself. She was equally persuaded that He would ensure my conversion.17
By the spring of 1915 Felix's conversion was complete, and he soon decided to publish his wife's journal. He had found in this document, the meaning of her life and, finally, he felt the full extent of her love for him.
A New Vocation of Love
The story of Felix Leseur does not end with his conversion. The power of the love with which he was loved continued to work in his life in the most surprising of ways. The very same zeal that had been focused on Elisabeth in an effort to get her to apostasize came to the surface once again in Felix's life, but in a vastly altered and purified form.
Two years before her death, Elisabeth and Felix had what would prove to be a fateful conversation in which they speculated about what each would do when the other died. Elisabeth's response was: "I know you. I am absolutely certain that when you return to God, you will not stop on the way because you never do things by halves. ... You will some day be Pere Leseur."18
Indeed, Felix had thrown himself back into the faith of his childhood with fervor, reading the Gospels and the books in his wife's library, going to daily mass, and even becoming a Dominican Tertiary.
Elisabeth was right. Felix conceived a desire to become a Dominican priest. His Dominican director said no, dismissing his request as evidence of the inordinate zeal of the new convert. But with the same persistence with which he once attacked his wife's faith, Felix persisted in his quest for the priesthood. In the fall of 1919, at the age of fifty-seven, he became a novice in the Order of Preachers. At the age of sixty-two he was ordained.
Married for twenty-five years, his priesthood would cover a span of twenty-seven years. Much of his time as a cleric was spent speaking publicly throughout Europe about his wife and her apostolate. Eventually he was given the task of petitioning Rome to begin the process of her beatification. Pere Leseur died in 1950 after several years of hospitalization. When an inventory of his room was made, "they found only his breviary and his rosary."19
Felix Leseur discovered that under his very roof a life had been lived the meaning of which had entirely escaped him. He had witnessed much suffering without guessing that it was he who had benefited most directly from it and would continue to be the chief beneficiary of that life's redemptive value. The life of Elisabeth Leseur was a life of love, a vivid testimony to the possibility of loving totally despite the absence of every opportunity for personal fulfillment and meaningful "activity" as the world understands these things. This was a life that completely changed another life - perhaps many lives - because it was willing to open itself fully to the possibility that in her and through her own pain and loss, God could do the loving.
Dr. Robin Maas teaches at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.