Outside, gray clouds scudded damply across the spring sky. Inside, a continuous procession passed by the woman’s bedside. “People came to pray near her, to bring her a last token of affection,” her husband recalled years later.
“I thus saw in my home numbers of people whom I did not know, whom I had never seen before, and who gave free vent to their sincere and touching grief.” So many attended her funeral, expressing such emotion, that the clergy present asked in utter astonishment, “Who was this woman?”
She was Elisabeth Arrighi Leseur, born and raised in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century. She died just forty-eight years later, on the eve of World War I.
Elisabeth came from a middle-class family, Catholic and wealthy. She was intelligent and well educated, her mind quick and discerning. She knew Latin, English, and Russian, and was beginning to master Italian toward the end of her life. She was attractive, with wavy dark brown hair, high cheekbones, and eyes that shone with gaiety and warmth. But none of this explains what it was that drew such crowds to Elisabeth’s funeral, let alone why, in 1934, the cause for her canonization was introduced. Indeed, the secret of Elisabeth’s appeal and holiness lies in the interior drama that began unfolding shortly after her marriage.
Saved by the Spirit. Elisabeth was twenty-one and moving comfortably and pleasurably in society, when she met Felix Leseur. Also from an affluent Catholic family, Felix was studying medicine in Paris, with aspirations of starting a career in one of France’s colonies. For both, it was love at first sight.
Shortly before their wedding, however, Elisabeth learned that Felix was no longer a practicing Catholic. Swayed by militantly secular friends and literature, he had abandoned his faith and considered himself atheist and “profoundly anti-religious.” But Elisabeth was deeply in love. Reassured by Felix’s promise to respect her faith and allow her to practice it freely, she married him on July 31, 1889. Rapidly, though, the respect that Felix had pledged turned to impatient tolerance. Before long, he was actively trying to undermine Elisabeth’s faith.
He nearly succeeded. For a brief period in 1897, he managed to persuade Elisabeth to abandon her practice of Catholicism. She duly read the materials Felix gave her, but then his efforts backfired. Using her intelligence, ability to reason, and good sense, the Holy Spirit steered Elisabeth away from doubt and agnosticism. Instead, she began her own course of religious instruction, balancing Felix’s anti-Christian library with works of the saints and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Above all, she read and reread the New Testament.
Elisabeth’s shaken faith steadied. Over time, it became resolute, unwavering, and ever after unaffected by argument or objection.
Holding Fast. It sounds so simple: Elisabeth collected the writings of holy men and women, read them, thought them through, prayed, and read Scripture daily, and voila!—she attained unassailable, unshakable faith. In reality, she spent years at the task, challenging years in which she held fast to what the Spirit showed her, despite Felix’s renewed criticism and ridicule.
They were lonely years, too. Elisabeth longed to share some of what she was learning, but she could not, for the Leseurs socialized with the worldly Paris elite. Politicians, scholars, doctors, musicians, playwrights, artists, journalists—in these circles, there were few who were interested in religion or even sympathetic.
To fill the void she felt, Elisabeth began to keep a journal of her prayers and resolutions. Without intending to, she left a stirring testimony of her steadfast trust in God’s love and his power to accomplish absolutely anything in anyone’s life.
Apostle of Love. “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34). With this verse, Elisabeth began her journal in September 1899. A year of concentrated thinking, praying, and trying to understand God’s will for her life had brought her to an intense love of others, especially “those whose birth or religion or ideas separate them from me.” She had grasped how precious each soul is to God and wanted to “give them a little of what God has placed in me.” She undoubtedly had her dear Felix uppermost in mind, for she loved him as much as ever.
While Elisabeth’s spiritual aspirations soared, her health limped along. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had an intestinal abscess that was to plague her for the rest of her life. Periodically, she was obliged to rest in bed for days or weeks at a time. But this experience of physical weakness only strengthened her resolve and understanding of how to communicate light and strength. What could she do in the face of the evil and indifference she encountered? “Nothing of myself,” she wrote, “but all by and with God.”
Throughout her journal, Elisabeth wrote of having sympathy and tenderness for others—virtues that didn’t naturally abound in her. And so, again and again, she begged God fervently to transform her so that she could truly love. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ wavering first disciples were changed into apostles whose lives and words drew others to the Lord. In her own life, Elisabeth wanted nothing less.
Everyday Evangelism. Elisabeth’s mission field presented enormous challenges. In the years leading up to World War I, the country’s spiritual climate was not just secular but hostile to Catholicism. Also, France was enjoying a golden time of peace with its neighbors in Europe; of fascination with inventions like the lightbulb and dishwasher, pasteurization of food and X-rays; and of infatuation with amusements like the cabaret, cancan, and cinema. It was a society that seemed consumed with itself and determinedly indifferent to God.
Elisabeth saw the staggering spiritual needs but did not back away. “Why groan when, with love, we can act?” was her approach. She determined to seek out whatever “misery and grief” were within her reach and to relieve them as best she could, in quiet ways that only God would see. From within the milieu where God had placed her, she worked to radiate him to all she met—by being pleasant and attentive, by treating people with tenderness and a smile. Those who lived chiefly for themselves were her special concern. More than others, they struck her as needing to see God’s love revealed—not through lectures or arguments, but through someone who was being transformed by the Spirit.
Elisabeth pursued her goals in down-to-earth ways. She was careful to dress attractively, and she made her home warm and welcoming, especially to young people. Felix, for one, considered her a “perfect hostess.”
For the sake of finding common ground that would enable her to share God’s love, Elisabeth made an effort to take an interest in things that sometimes struck her as childish, superficial, or empty. “Let us try to speak the language they can understand and to stammer eternal truths with them,” she wrote. “Hasn’t God done the same with us, and hasn’t he placed in our souls only as much light as we can bear?”
“Make Them Live.” Above all, however, Elisabeth prayed. With great confidence in God’s love and mercy, she interceded for family and friends who seemed so far from faith. On their behalf, she offered the sacrifice of her suffering—her physical illnesses, Felix’s spiritual alienation, the sorrow of not being able to have children. And knowing that only God can transform the human soul, she waited and trusted that he would act. As she wrote, “We can only point out to him those we love, saying, ‘Lord, make them live.’”
When Elisabeth died of breast cancer in May 1914, the many mourners who turned out for her wake and funeral were living witnesses that her hidden life of love had borne much fruit. But the most dramatic sign of all took place the following year, as Felix read the spiritual diary Elisabeth had continued to keep. In it, he discovered depths he had never suspected: “I understood the celestial beauty of her soul and that she had accepted all her suffering and offered it—and even offered her very self in sacrifice—chiefly for my conversion.”
The discovery prompted a spiritual “revolution” that led Felix back to God, back to the Church, and then into twenty-seven years of ministry as a Dominican priest. He had given Elisabeth little reason to hope for such an outcome, but she had never despaired, believing that “no cry, no desire, no appeal from the depths of our soul is lost, but all go to God.”
For us all, the legacy of Elisabeth Leseur is an example of serene confidence that a loving Father is in control. No matter how great the task or how small the prospects of success, we can trust that a loving Father hears and answers our fervent prayers for those we love. From us, wrote Elizabeth, only one thing is needed:
“Let us love. Let our souls and our lives be a perpetual song of love for God first of all and for all human beings who suffer, love, and mourn. Let profound joy live in us. Let us be like the lark, enemy of the night, who always announces the dawn and awakens in each creature the love of light and life. Let us awaken souls. . . . Each Christian should be the voice crying in the desert: ‘Let us love!’”
Ann Bottenhorn is a frequent contributor to The Word Among Us magazine.