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 Leseur was a modern woman. She lived the Parisian high life in the late 19th century. By all accounts she was on the path of liberated women who would follow her. She was well educated and lived in relative leisure. She had a paradoxical life: think New York socialite converting to Catholicism at thirty-two and living as a contemplative academic among prominent society. She married a man whom she loved, and they lived happily together. Felix, her husband, had lost his faith in early adulthood. He was a medical doctor whose personal project was an anti-clerical and influential atheistic journal. Together they hosted academic and scientific salons in their Parisian living rooms. She elegantly welcomed the very same friends who with her husband would insult her faith in the halls of their home.
While her husband shone among his non-believing coterie, she 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. She could have well spent her days reading Vogue and shopping the grand boulevards as she was herself one of the Parisian fashionable set. Instead, she discovers sacred scripture, and the full theological and philosophical patrimony of the Catholic faith. Élisabeth began to amass a new library of the best titles in biblical exegesis and philosophical exchange to match Felix’s collection of 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 on in their marriage she realizes that knowledge and study is the key to the discovery of truth, and that there is no incompatibility between the pursuit of truth and the expansion of faith. Learning truth liberated her. She lived a life of existential enclosure in high society, trapped between insults, sophisticated disbelief, superficiality, ignorance, and yet remaining firm in the conviction that her faith was rationally defensible. Her husband pursued the dualist and divided life of reason opposed to faith. She knew, au contraire, that faith and reason were not just compatible, but necessary to each other. His unbelief was to be outweighed by the strength of her belief.
Through all this she loved him deeply. Were it not for this deep and authentic love, an impassible love that is not shaken by storms of suffering, their marriage would have fallen apart on grounds of clearly irreconcilable differences.
But love conquers all. And so the story goes.
Of the many accounts of heroic married love we can aspire to, the marriage the Leseur’s lived is probably one of the most impressive untold stories. They share everything, beginning with a passion for their life together. Somehow the division they lived on matters of belief was not a deterrent to living a united married life; it may, in fact, have been the very reason they clung to each other. This would be a radical rereading of marriages that struggle, but it is a highly probable scenario. Their idyllic romance was overshadowed by Felix’s unbelief, by the difficult company of friends and acquaintances that daily surrounded Elizabeth and tormented her peace, and painfully, by the further suffering of her illnesses and of their shared childlessness. By all accounts it makes no sense that their union survived. But it did.
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. They desired to build a family. They desired a fruitful love because they were in love. She writes about this, albeit peripherally through her reflections on suffering in her journals, and the extent of the efforts 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 — powerful enough to compel her to an increasingly ardent faith, and the determined and relentless exercise of a hidden maternity.
Her illnesses were further impetus to find existential consolation in her faith. She knew the eminent meaningless struggle of human suffering had a purpose, and she was intent on discovering it. This pursuit was at the heart of her interior life and would inspire her reflections and writings. She corresponded with many during the course of her illnesses, and took on the mission of consoling those in distress, the sick, and those whose faith was weak. She corresponded with people outside her own social milieu, and with influential atheist, Protestant and Jewish friends in Paris.
Élisabeth proposed the possibility that the very act of redemption was effected through the sufferings of the Incarnate Christ. It is through Him that human agonies are no longer meaningless, but drenched in power. She encouraged the weak from the depths of her own offered weakness, and made of her childless life the offering for the conversion of unbelieving hearts.
On her death, the fruits of this particularly hidden maternity would flower. All those she had counseled were the very ones to tell her husband of the greatness of Élisabeth’s kindness, her humility, and the conviction of her faith. Felix knew none of this. He discovered the number of people with whom Élisabeth corresponded when they all came to offer their gratitude and pay their respects at her funeral. Felix and 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.
In all her struggles, exterior and interior, physical and spiritual, Élisabeth harbors no resentment. There was no rebellion in her, just the honesty of pain, borne as pain is, with significant difficulty and visceral agony, and yet borne well. Suffering is everything. She was after all a strong woman, compelled by a zealous and ardent faith, a faith that strengthened her resolve as she bore the weaknesses of body and the agonizing void of a childless and largely faithless marriage.
There is little in Élisabeth’s writings on the harsh reality of childlessness apart from what she did in the place of raising children. She took it upon herself to exercise a maternity that transcends the physical bond of fleshly life bearing, and discovers that the first soul entrusted to her care is Felix’s own. Realizing this, she becomes both the mother and the wife; love bears fruit in the twofold union of souls. While Felix persistently and publicly attacks her faith, she makes 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 in letters she writes to Felix. She describes the offering as a kind of ‘pact with God’. In the weeks before she dies, she tells him of her conviction of his impending conversion and proposes to him with certainty that he would one day become a Catholic priest.
Of all the loves the world offers and the great romances that play themselves out, none can be more compelling than the desire of a woman to love her man so faithfully, even to the offering of her life for the salvation of his soul. This is a kind of liberation that even the women’s movements that would follow Élisabeth’s time cannot contend with.
How does one respond to the full and conscious choice to love so completely, so freely? Is it any surprise, then, that the God Élisabeth so firmly believed and loved — He who respects the full spectrum of actions possible in the free exercise of a divinely given human freedom — takes her offering seriously?
She dies an early death, succumbing to protracted illness at the young age of forty-seven. It is only then that the social romance that had played itself out in the salons of Parisian intelligentsia reveals an entirely hidden dimension. She was a woman so free that nothing would stop her from loving the love of her life: a woman who would love to the end and not count the cost, even if it meant that her very life become the offering for his soul.
Élisabeth asks that the diary she kept be destroyed on her death. Her sister convinces 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 after her death. He reads them and realizes that while he spent his life berating the irrationality and relative stupidity of her faith, she had spent hers not publicly shaming him, but rather secretly saving him from himself, and all the while living a private Calvary.
He was transformed by the power of her love. Later he would write
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
The suffering with which she loved him, quietly, perfectly, unreservedly, would be enough to move him to believe as well. Theirs was a love story that thrived in life and flowered in loss.
In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI writes
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 given up and sought her freedom elsewhere. She could have chosen a different part. She could have succumbed to the discontent that usually permeates the souls of those who suffer greatly. He could have claimed irreconcilable differences and divested herself of so burdensome a life.
She chooses instead to become a sufferer 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 remain 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 abandonment of herself, and a 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
Arguing was not necessary, nor was the need to prove herself right. 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 in an often Christ-less world. She knew intuitively that the only way to respond to unbelief is to believe more faithfully, more ardently. She put her heart, her soul, her very life on the line. She put her desire for children on the line. She put herself beneath the Cross and there chose to participate in the continuing sacrifice that brought life to a fallen world.
In doing this, she received the hundredfold, and the conversion of the man she loved to the end.
On Élisabeth’s death, Felix goes to the Marian shrine of Lourdes, intending to expose the miraculous healings reported there as frauds. While at the Lourdes grotto, he experiences a profound conversion. He proceeds to later publish his wife’s journal. A year later, in 1918, he publishes her correspondence in a compendium titled Letters on Suffering. On his conversion to Catholicism, he enters the Dominican convent in Paris, and is 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.
Her offering had been completed. She had saved him from himself and brought him to the Savior. So powerful is the faith of one soul. The man Élisabeth loved was her husband, and in a sense her son as well; her hidden maternity was at work for the sake for the many they loved together, and of one she loved as her own flesh and blood. The two became one flesh, and one soul.
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. And so the story goes. 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..