Élisabeth Leseur | She Loved Him To The End
by Maria Grizzetti
In a letter to a woman on the verge of losing her eyesight, Élisabeth Leseur wrote: “The Stoics say, ‘suffering is nothing’. They were wrong. Illuminated by a clearer light we Christians say, ‘suffering is everything’.”
Élisabeth Arrighi was a modern woman who lived the high life in late 19th century Paris. She was well educated and lived in relative leisure. She married Felix Leseur, a medical doctor who also served as editor of an anti-clerical and influential atheistic journal. Together, Felix and Élisabeth hosted academic and scientific salons in their Parisian living rooms.
While her husband excelled professionally and socially among his non-believing coterie, Élisabeth expanded her own knowledge of the Catholic faith, taking on the challenge of serious studies in theology and philosophy– a relatively uncommon thing for a woman at the time. Élisabeth amassed a library of the best titles in biblical exegesis and philosophical exchange to match Felix’s collection of the leading blatantly irreligious works of their day. She was self-taught, studying philosophy and theology on her own, and later under the tutelage of mentors.
Early in their marriage Élisabeth realized that study is the key to the discovery of truth. Learning the Truth liberated her, and helped her persevere in the conviction that the Faith was rationally defensible. She knew that faith and reason are necessary to each other. Felix’s unbelief was to be outweighed by the strength of her conviction. Through all this ideological division, she loved Felix deeply. Were it not for her authentic love that remained unshaken by storms of her suffering, their marriage would have failed.
But love conquers all. And grace heals human nature.
Élisabeth had contracted hepatitis as a child, lived with unexplained infertility, and then suffered a form of general cancer in later life. She could not conceive, and this was one of the great crosses of their marriage. She writes about this — albeit peripherally through her lengthy reflections on suffering, and the the extensive effort she made to be a mother to her sister’s children.
While details of the medical circumstances are left out, one senses the pain was significant, and that her illnesses were further impetus to find existential consolation in her faith. She knew human suffering has a purpose, and she was intent on discovering it. This pursuit was at the heart of her interior life. She encouraged the weak from the depths of her own weakness, and made of her childless life the oblation for the conversion of unbelieving hearts. Élisabeth believed redemption flows from the sufferings of the Incarnate Christ. It is through Him that human agonies become spiritually powerful. She corresponded with many during the course of her illnesses, consoling those in distress, the sick, those whose faith was weak, and people outside her own social milieu, including influential atheist, Protestant, and Jewish friends in Paris.
The fruits of this particularly hidden and sacrificial maternity flowered after her death. Those she had counseled then told her husband of the greatness of Élisabeth’s kindness, her humility, and the conviction of her faith. Felix knew little of this hidden and generous love. He discovered the great number of people with whom Élisabeth corresponded when they all came to offer their gratitude and pay their respects at her funeral. Felix would later say he discovered his “real Élisabeth” by the charity she lavished on their friends, and the patience with which she responded to their struggles to believe.
Élisabeth harbored no resentment. In her struggles she did not despair, but bore witness to the truth of suffering and pain, borne as pain is, with significant difficulty and visceral agony. “Suffering is everything.”
There is little in Élisabeth’s writings on the great struggle of childlessness, but we gain insight of her experience of this cross from what she did in the place of raising children. She exercised a maternity that transcends the physical bond of fleshly life bearing, and discovered that the first soul entrusted to her care was Felix’s own. Realizing this, she became both wife and mother. Her love bore fruit in the union of souls. While Felix persistently and publicly attacked her faith, she made a private promise to offer even her life in return for the conversion of her husband’s heart. Her diary chronicles her prayers for his precious soul, the anguish she feels at his unbelief, and the nature of this personal offering. She describes the offering as a kind of “pact with God”. In the weeks before she died, Élisabeth tells Felix of her conviction of his impending conversion, and the certainty that he would one day become a Catholic priest.
How does one respond to the free and conscious choice to love so completely, so freely?
And is it any surprise, that the God Élisabeth so believed and loved took her offering seriously?
Élisabeth asked that the diary she kept be destroyed on her death. Her sister convinced her otherwise in the final months of her illness, believing her writings would bring Felix consolation in his grief. Felix Leseur finds the diary of her writings and realizes that while he spent his life berating the irrationality of her faith, she had spent hers secretly saving him from himself, and all the while living a private Calvary.
He was transformed by the power of her love.
Later he wrote:
When I married Elizabeth, I was profoundly anti-religious. I had been raised Catholic but lost my faith in medical school. Materialistic influences, assisted by my own passions, carried me on to paganism and atheism. I searched for weapons against Catholicism. I set myself to attack Elizabeth’s Faith, to deprive her of it, and — may God pardon me! —I nearly succeeded.
My beloved wife, Élisabeth, prayed incessantly for my return to the Catholic Faith. Daily for this intention, she accepted and offered up all her sacrifices, trials, sufferings, and at the end, even her death.
But she did this secretly. She never argued with me; she never spoke to me of the supernatural side of her life, save by her example.
I have, since Elisabeth’s death, learned to appreciate the power of her silence. God heard the constant prayer it concealed, and, when her sacrifice was accomplished, completed the conversion that was begun in me by her influence and by my reading her diary, which I found after her death…
— Felix Leseur, in an introduction to the published writings of Élisabeth Leseur
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI reflects on the kind of offering we can to God on behalf the guilt of those who do not believe:
The idea that God allowed the forgiveness of guilt, the healing of man from within, to cost him the death of his Son has come to seem quite alien to us today. That the Lord “has borne our diseases and taken upon himself sorrows,” that “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities,” and that “with his wounds we are healed”[Isaiah 53:4-6] no longer seems possible to us today. Militating against this on one side, is the trivialization of evil in which we take refuge, despite the fact that at the very same time we that the horrors of human history, especially of the most recent human history, as an irrefutable pretext for denying the existence of a good God and slandering his creature man. But the understanding of the great mystery of expiation is also blocked by our individual image of man. We can no longer grasp substitution because we think that every man is ensconced in himself alone. The fact that all individual beings are deeply interwoven and that all are encompassed in turn by the being of the one, the Incarnate Son, is something we are no longer capable of seeing….Cardinal John Henry Newman once said that while God could create the whole world out of nothing with just one word, he could overcome men’s guilt and suffering only by bringing himself into play, by becoming in his Son a sufferer who carried this burden and overcame it through his self-surrender. The overcoming of guilt has a price: We must put our heart – or, better, our whole existence – on the line. And even this act is insufficient; it can become effective only through communion with the One who bore the burdens of us all.
Élisabeth could have chosen a different part. She could have succumbed to the discontent that usually permeates the souls of those who suffer greatly. She chose, instead, to suffer with Christ, carrying with him the burden of souls whom He loved to the apex of Calvary, and so win for them, through Him, the gift of salvation they remained unable to find on their own. She put ‘her heart — or better, her whole existence — on the line.’ Love was for her a substitution, an act of abandonment and radical trust in an older commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has a greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15. 12-23).
The victory had already been won. It was for her to choose the better part. Élisabeth understood that her role as wife, as woman, as hidden mother, was to bear Christ into the world. She knew intuitively that the only way to respond to unbelief is to believe more faithfully, more ardently. In doing this, she received the hundredfold, and the conversion of the man she loved to the end.
Following Élisabeth’s death, Felix went to the Marian shrine of Lourdes, intending there to expose the miraculous healings as false. While at the Lourdes grotto, he experienced a profound conversion. He proceeded to later publish his wife’s journal. A year later, in 1918, he published her correspondence in a compendium titled Letters on Suffering. On his conversion to Catholicism, he entered the Dominican convent in Paris, and after some challenges, was ordained a Dominican priest in 1923. Élisabeth’s prediction had come to pass. He spent the rest of his life in repentance for his earlier years, speaking publicly of his wife’s writings. Later he would begin the cause for her beatification. Élisabeth is now counted a Servant of God.
It is a difficult task, a heroic effort, to bring forth the thought that is in us, but we must do it, breaking our souls as we might break a sacred vase so that others may breathe the divine perfume.
—Élisabeth Leseur, ‘My Spirit Rejoices: The Diary of A Christian Soul in an Age of Unbelief’
We must break our souls for love. Suffering is everything. L’amour triomphe de tout. From grace to grace. And Love to love.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com
This continues a series on maternity. See also Modern and Barren, Conceiving Christ, The Hidden Face of Love, The Common Good of Hidden Maternity, Why I Choose Not to Buy Myself A Child, and Procreation is Not For Us..