Elisabeth Leseur endured years of mockery at the hands of her atheist husband yet never lost her faith
Having blogged several years ago about the journal of Elisabeth Leseur, ‘My Spirit Rejoices’, I was delighted to read When Silence Speaks: The Life and Spirituality of Elisabeth Leseur by Jennifer Moorcroft (Gracewing, £15.99). There is something about this married Frenchwoman, born in 1866 and who died in 1914 that speaks to our modern age, especially to women who remain faithful and loving to a spouse during a difficult marriage.
Elisabeth Arrighi, from a cultivated, wealthy Parisian family, married an ambitious young doctor, Felix Leseur, in 1889. Deeply in love, they seemed ideally matched. But before they married, Felix confessed to his fiancée that he had lost his faith and only went through its motions to please his family. Elisabeth’s own faith at the time was one of conventional belief and piety; though saddened by his confession she did not see a conflict between her own practice and Felix’s scepticism.
However, influenced by his atheistic milieu and the secular journals to which he contributed, he gradually became less tolerant towards his wife’s faith, more aggressive in his criticism of the Church. The couple travelled widely and entertained a wide circle of the Parisian intelligentsia. Then in 1898, Felix persuaded Elisabeth to read Ernest Renan, a famous anti-Christian writer of the time. An intelligent and discriminating reader, she found his arguments shallow and contradictory and returned to the Gospels. Reading them brought about her conversion to a newfound appreciation of her faith. She began a diary in 1899 when she was aged 33, writing, “By the serenity that I mean to acquire I will prove that the Christian life is great and beautiful and full of joy.”
Elisabeth intuitively recognised that arguing with her husband was futile and would lead to constant conflict. Thus she made the heroic decision to patiently endure his attacks on her cherished beliefs, to pray for his conversion and to hide her secret sorrow from the world. A later diary entry reads, “My God, will You 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 towards You!”
In her own spiritual life, Elisabeth had a fervent devotion to the Communion of Saints. For her, it was not merely a tenet of the Creed to be recited at Mass, but a vital bond with souls in Purgatory and in Heaven. She devised her own ‘Credo’ in which she wrote, among a list of her deepest convictions, “I believe that there is coursing through souls – those on earth, those in Purgatory, and those who have attained to true life – a great unending stream made up of the sufferings, merits and love of all these souls, and that our least sorrow, our faintest efforts can, by divine action, reach certain souls, whether near or far, and bring them to light, peace and holiness.”
Elisabeth’s mental and spiritual sufferings were not slight. Felix continued to mock his wife’s faith for years on end. A diary entry in 1910 conveys something of the burden she carried with outward serenity and cheerfulness: “Bitter suffering of an evening spent in hearing my faith and spiritual things mocked at, attacked, and criticised. God helped me to maintain interior charity and exterior calm…But how much effort and inner distress this involves…”
After many years of intermittent ill-health, Elisabeth died of cancer in 1914. As she had earlier prophetically intimated, Felix discovered her journal after her death and understood for the first time what anguish he had caused his wife by his constant scorn. It proved to be the catalyst for his profound conversion. He published his wife’s Journal so that others could know of her journey to sanctity, and eventually became a Dominican priest, dying in 1950.
As her biographer writes, Elisabeth’s life and marriage “are an example of persistent prayers and the power of divine grace to change even the hardest of hearts”, adding that the Leseurs’ example “gives hope to a world where militant secular atheism is so prevalent and married life and Christianity itself are under attack as never before…”
Now a Servant of God, Elisabeth’s Cause is progressing. I hope that one day this valiant woman will be publicly recognised as an important saint of married life.