I first encountered Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur about five years ago when I was towards the beginning stages of my spiritual dry spell. The Magnificat had included a reflection of hers that reads:
“Those who seem to be spiritually dead are not always those least accessible to the divine Word; when wood is dead, it needs only a spark to set it afire.”
These words spoke very loudly to me, like a loud voice in a once silent room. At the time, I felt like that dead wood, searching for that spark, and reading her words set me on a journey of discovering a new saintly friend.
Elisabeth Leseur was born in 1866 in Paris to a wealthy French Catholic family. She had hepatitis as a child, and it recurred throughout her life. In 1887, she met Dr. Felix Leseur, also from an affluent, Catholic family, and they were married in 1889. However, shortly before they were married, she discovered that her husband-to-be was no longer a practicing Catholic. Felix was an outspoken atheist, and he would bring these anti-religious attacks against Elisabeth. Prompted by her husband’s confrontations, she probed deeper into her own faith, and she experienced a profound religious conversion at the age of 32. At that moment, she saw that her biggest task in life was to pray for her husband’s conversion while remaining patient with his criticism of her faith. She took all of this in stride throughout her marriage, bearing her cross silently, only to share her sufferings with her diary and with those she had a spiritual correspondence through letters. She wrote in her diary:
“We pray, suffer, and labor unaware of the consequence of our action and prayers. God makes them serve his plan; gradually, they take effect, winning one soul, then another.”
This was not the end of her inner suffering, though. Elisabeth experienced profound spiritual darkness at times during her marriage and felt deep loneliness from being isolated for her faith in her marriage and feeling apart from God. When she did write about her struggles in her diary, her entries are filled with longing for God, to feel his spark again. Despite the darkness she felt, she often saw the good that God would bring out of her suffering, and the peace she felt in discovering God each time anew:
“It is surprising to see how much spiritual progress we make in times of aridity, when no conscious joy of any kind unites our souls with God. It is then indeed God himself whom we love, and not his consolations; and whatever we do then, requiring constant effort and appeals for grace, is indeed duty in all its starkness. Then, when the dusty road is over and the way becomes easier, we are astonished to see how far we have come; sometimes we arrive at a gentle resting place, in peace, near the heart of God.”
In addition to her interior suffering, Elisabeth suffered from many physical afflictions. She and her husband also bore the cross of infertility, never to have children. In 1907, she became so ill that she was forced to live a highly sedentary life, directing her affairs from a chaise lounge in her home. Despite these sufferings, she didn’t let this stop her. She was quite intelligent and wrote on political and women’s issues for the time. She also had a great love for the poor and was active in a lot of charity work, although this greatly deteriorated as her health declined. In 1911, she received radiation for a malignant tumor, and while she initially recovered, she passed away from cancer in 1914.
But her story doesn’t end there. After her death, her husband found a note by her addressed to himself that prophesied about his conversion and him becoming a priest. She said:
“I shall die before you.
And when I am dead,
you will be converted;
and when you are converted,
you will become a religious.
You will be Father Leseur.”
In order to prove his wife wrong, Felix went to Lourdes to expose it as fake, but instead he experienced his own religious conversion. He read and re-read her diary, and was finally made aware of the holy woman with whom he had spent so many years. He wrote of his conversion:
“And so from her Journal I perceived clearly the inner meaning of Elisabeth’s existence, so grand in its humility. I came to appreciate the splendor of the faith of which I had seen such wonderful effects. The eyes of my soul were opened. I turned toward God, who called to me. I confessed my faults to a priest and was reconciled to the Church.”
And her prophesy did come true. In 1919, Felix became a Dominican novice and was ordained a priest in 1923. For the next 27 years, he spent much of his priestly vocation speaking about his wife’s spiritual writings, and he constantly looked to her for guidance, writing: “Elisabeth had led me to the truth, and even today, in my inmost being, I continue to feel her guiding my steps to a more perfect union with God.” He shared her holiness with the world by publishing her diary, and he was an instrumental part in opening the cause for her canonization in 1934.
There is so much to admire about Elisabeth, and I pray that she is canonized someday. She is a role model and provides us with many spiritual lessons, just from her life and death. She was a laywoman, and she shows especially those of us who do not have a call to the religious life how to live a holy life through our lay vocations (although her spiritual guidance is also incredibly appropriate for priests and religious). She was faithful to her marriage, despite the attacks she endured (and despite how it sounds, she and Felix loved each other very much). She teaches us how to bear with those who persecute us, especially those who we love, by being patient with them and praying for their conversion all while living an interior spiritual life. And with her holiness, she struggled in her faith as so many of us do, and while she experienced profound spiritual darkness, she never gave up on God. She saw the good He worked in her life through her suffering, and she offered up her sufferings for others, even to the point of offering her own death.