Contributed by Dr. Kelley Spoerl
Professor of Theology, St. Anselm College
Elisabeth Leseur is one of the few Catholic Christian spiritual writers unusual not only for being a happily married woman embedded in an ordinary domestic life defined by responsibilities to home and family, but also for leaving behind a rich trove of writings in which she speaks of her efforts to be, as she often prays, “a Christian and an apostle” within that context. Rare is the spiritual diary in which the author speaks so warmly of a beloved spouse as “the one I love,” “the one that I love most of all in this world” – but also of the real-life tensions, frustrations, and disappointments that beset even the most committed marriages. This is just one of the many reasons why Elisabeth’s example and writings were valuable to the twentieth-century Church and continue to be so today in the twenty-first century. They provide vivid proof of the effectiveness of sacramental marriage as a path to personal sanctification for the believing spouse as well as an arena for evangelization – one that in the case of Felix Leseur was spectacularly successful.
There are other aspects of Elisabeth’s thought that speak to the needs of our times. Encouraged by her Dominican spiritual director (member of an order devoted to teaching and preaching since its founding in the thirteenth century), Elisabeth took seriously the call, current in the Church of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, to embrace the lay apostolate, the duty to give witness to her Catholic Christian faith in her home and through service to her community. Elisabeth experienced challenges to her efforts in this domain because of the indifference or hostility she encountered from Felix and other members of their social circles to her religious beliefs. Some (like Felix) were atheists; others liberal Protestants; others secular Jews. Most were highly educated and well-informed about new developments in the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Europe that fueled hostility to traditional Christianity. Some of these movements included Marxist communism, socialism, scientific rationalism, and anti-clericalism. This context impressed upon Elisabeth two imperatives if she was going to be an effective Christian apostle. First, she determined that she had to be as well-informed as she could be about Catholic doctrine and current Church teaching, so as to be able to answer any questions others might have about the faith or correct any misunderstanding she might encounter in conversation with friends. Proof of the depth of her efforts in this regards lies in the extensive list of books that are appended to the volume La Vie Spirituelle (The Spiritual Life). Second, Elisabeth stressed the need for tolerance of and a sincere effort to understand the convictions of those of different faiths and no faiths. Despite her deep love for Catholic truth, Elisabeth rejected fanaticism in any form in expressing her religious beliefs and stressed the need in conversation to assume the good will and integrity of those who did not share them. She lived by the motto “Not to accept everything, but to understand everything; not to approve of everything, but to forgive everything; not to adopt everything, but to search for the grain of truth that is contained in everything. To repulse no idea and no good will, however awkward or feeble. To love souls, as Jesus Christ loved them. . . .” (Daily Thoughts in the Journal) Discretion and delicacy, too, were values Elisabeth thought essential to her domestic apostolate: waiting for the right moment of openness to speak gently of her faith and what it had done to sustain her in the difficult moments of her life. Elisabeth’s intellectual and moral virtues in this regard are ones that many can fruitfully practice who seek to give witness at home, at work, or in their communities in increasingly pluralistic societies.
Influenced again by her Dominican spiritual director – though in keeping with longstanding Christian tradition going back to New Testament times – Elisabeth’s apostolate was also grounded in the practice of prayer and sacramental participation. She prayed the Rosary, said novenas, went to Mass every Sunday and when she could during the week. She set aside time every morning for spiritual reading and meditation, and kept a spiritual journal. Perhaps encouraging to those of us who find ourselves in similar domestic situations struggling to balance multiple personal and professional or volunteer obligations, Elisabeth admits that sometimes she got distracted and failed to keep up her self-imposed schedule, or had to substitute service to family for some of her charitable works, as when her sister Juliette was dying of tuberculosis. Yet once she underwent her adult conversion, Elisabeth remained faithful to an ongoing effort to become not only a well-informed Catholic, but a devout one too. Asceticism, the Christian practice of self-denial undertaken to promote spiritual growth, also had a place in Elisabeth’s spiritual practice, despite her social location as an upper-middle-class married woman living in comfortable circumstances in Belle-Epoque Paris. She did not wear a hair shirt or fast on bread and water as the ancient desert monks did. She instead practiced asceticism by accepting with patience and good grace the challenges great and small that everyday life presented – yes, her childlessness, Juliette’s illness and death, and Felix’s opposition to her practice of Catholicism, but also the tedium of the endless dinner parties Felix liked to throw for their fashionable friends, the arrangements for the streams of guests at their summer house, managing the house and its staff, attending to the needs of her large extended family. Instead of complaining about her own poor health, Elisabeth made light of it while listening for hours to the troubles of others. Once she tellingly wrote, “Silence is sometimes an act of energy, and smiling, too” (Daily Thoughts in the Journal), referring to times in which she may have wanted to express her own pain, but chose not to for the sake of others. In her practice of asceticism within the domestic setting in which efforts to overcome oneself are hidden from the outside world but no less effective over time, Elisabeth embodies the spirituality of the great seventeenth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose collected works she had in her personal library. De Sales wrote the classic Introduction to the Devout Life for a specifically lay audience to convince its readers that men and women could achieve true holiness even amid ordinary commitments to work and family. Prayer and self-denial remain central in Salesian spirituality, but in different guises shaped by the often unpredictable demands of lay life. In Elisabeth’s own time, the Little Way of St. Teresa of Lisieux represents an influential development of Salesian spirituality. Though the Little Flower was not canonized until the 1920s, we know Elisabeth had a devotion to her and made special prayers to her prior to her surgery for breast cancer in 1911. Thus, Elisabeth’s writings and her journal, in particular, were likely to have been influenced by St. Teresa’s spirituality and served as a conduit for its further spread in the 1920s and 30s.
In this respect we might say that the Little Flower’s spirituality passed from the convent setting of the Carmel of Lisieux to the lay one in Elisabeth’s Paris apartment, following a path that is in some ways the opposite of what we see in the Salesian school, wherein a spirituality articulated for a lay audience was embodied in institutional form in the religious order of the Visitation of Holy Mary founded by St. Francis (with the collaboration of St. Jane de Chantal) in 1610. Perhaps we see the same path in the life of Felix Leseur – converted by the luminous witness of his wife in his own home, his Christian commitment eventually took the form of a monastic and priestly vocation. What these continuities suggest is that the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, Teresa of Lisieux, and Elisabeth Leseur is one of perennial value for all Catholic Christians, whether lay or in vowed religious life, and deserves to be studied and emulated by all who wish to be faithful Catholic Christians today.