How a wife’s secret diary drew her atheist husband back to the Church

Elisabeth Leseur's Cause has recently been introduced

Simcha Fisher, whose book The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning I blogged about a few weeks ago, writes a very amusing blog at the Patheos website, entitled “I Have to Sit Down”. For the Feast of All Saints she wrote a post with the arresting title (remember, she is American), “For all the saints (including all the jerks)”. She followed this with the challenging question “What saints can’t you stand?” admitting that for her “St John Vianney is one of those repellent types. Every time I hear a saint quote that makes me go ‘What?!?!’ it turns out to be St John Vianney.”

Just in case supporters of the Curé of Ars, as St John Vianney was popularly known, are getting hot under the collar here, Fisher goes on to make the sensible point that saints are products of their time and that they are not flawless. As the Church is for everybody, the saints show the enormous range of gifts and quirks latent within the Mystical Body. Fisher observes: “Some are for ballrooms, some are for bedsides.” What they have in common is using to the utmost the particular talents they were given, despite setbacks, failures and their own weaknesses.

I have just been reading a book about a largely unknown woman whose cause for canonisation has been introduced: Elisabeth Leseur (1866-1914). Her “secret diary” has been reissued by Sophia Institute Press in the hope that it will reach a new readership. I hope Simcha Fisher, if she comes across Elisabeth Leseur, will find her as attractive as I do. Within the confines of the bourgeois world of Paris at the turn of the 20th century, in which outwardly she seemed to live the conventional life of wife to a wealthy doctor, Felix Leseur, with all the social obligations and activities of her station, Elisabeth led a life of deep interior devotion and hidden suffering.

The chief sorrow she endured, apart from chronic physical ill-health and her inability to have the children she longed for, was the contempt and scepticism with which her husband held religious belief. Raised a Catholic like his wife, Felix lost his own faith as a medical student in Paris. Before their marriage he told Elisabeth of his atheism and for a few years afterwards she herself lived a life of merely conventional piety. Felix confesed after her early death from cancer at the age of 47 that he had set himself “to attack her faith, to deprive her of it” and had nearly succeeded.

But in one of those inexplicable acts of divine grace, it was while she was reading an irreligious book on Felix’s recommendation, Ernest Renan’s Origins of Christianity, that Elisabeth “felt herself approach the abyss and spring backward”, as Felix was to write in his introduction to her published diary. He discovered this journal among his wife’s papers when she died and, as she had prayed and believed – indeed, Elisabeth had offered her own life for her husband’s conversion – it had an extraordinary effect on him: he returned to his faith, became a Dominican priest and spent the rest of his long life (he died in 1950) promoting his wife’s writings for the benefit of others.

Apart from the spiritual direction she received from a Dominican priest, Fr Hebert OP, whom she met in 1903, Elisabeth lived “in an atmosphere of irony, criticism and indifference” within her social circle and among her husband’s friends. In 1906 she was to confide in her diary that she would “accept and offer to God those visits and receptions, the contact with indifferent people, those material occupations that are more painful to me than ever”. Outwardly she was as charming, affectionate to her husband and generous with her time and sympathy to their friends and family circle as she always had been. Inwardly her loneliness and sense of isolation must have been intense.

This is a book well worth reading, particularly in our time, for two reasons: the first is Elisabeth’s fidelity to her marriage, despite the many difficulties and tensions between her and Felix, in an age where marriage is not often seen as self-sacrificial anymore; the second is her loving, courteous and forgiving response in the face of mockery and incredulity at her religious faith which can teach us how to respond when faced by similar scepticism today. A highly educated and cultured woman, Elisabeth was loved and respected, even by those in her social circle who had no understanding of her inner spiritual life. Her journal, along with her “Resolutions”, “Daily Thoughts” and “Spiritual Testament”, which are also included in this volume, make thought-provoking reading.