The good wife: although she died 100 years ago, Elisabeth can teach us a lot
Just one verse each day.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once remarked —
General Audience, May 5, 2010).
As a path to salvation requiring daily, and sometimes heroic, self-emptying, out of love for one’s spouse and children (just ask any mother of multiple kids how much “me time” she enjoys in the average week), it is surprising that there are relatively few declared saints who were married women. And even among them, it’s hard to relate to many of the better-known married women saints because, well, you tell me. What do Elizabeth of Portugal, Margaret of Scotland, Elisabeth of Hungary, Bridget and Catherine of Sweden have in common? Right. They were royals or at least stinking rich. Having a country as part of their names is a clue that their lives are not a lot like ours.
So, while they personally renounced wealth and led holy lives, they also had the wherewithal to conspicuously do great good for the poor, the sick and the orphaned. Wonderful as that is, the average married woman who is striving for holiness can’t build schools and hospitals for the underserved. We pretty much live and die in relative or complete obscurity.
Others, like St. Monica (patron of married women) and St. Helena, are primarily known because of their sons — Augustine and the Emperor Constantine — and St. Anne is primarily known because of her daughter, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. We can hope that one day our kids will offer great material to promote our cause for canonization, but that doesn’t solve the problem of how we should excel in holiness while dealing with the banalities of life.
Where does that leave us average modern moms who sacrifice and pray daily for our families, while trying to remain generous in our love and attention, trying to smile through the petty annoyances that come from living with an imperfect spouse (aren’t they ALL?) and legions of kids at various stages on their journey from barbarian to virtuous Christian gentlemen and gentleladies? Who can we turn to as a model for inspiration, advice, emulation and moral support?
Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur has been called the Thérèse of Lisieux for married women. And she did, in fact, discover her own little way of sanctification through pure and sacrificial love, humility, meekness, redemptive suffering, a vibrant prayer life and, critically, shutting the heck up.
Born on October 16, 1866, Pauline Elisabeth Arrighi was an educated, cultured, gentle, but only conventionally Catholic French woman from a well-to-do family. She contracted hepatitis as a child and throughout her life suffered painful relapses. In 1889, she married Felix Leseur, a medical doctor from a similarly affluent background, but no longer Catholic (a point she discovered only shortly before their wedding). He not only refused to practice Catholicism, he was outwardly and vehemently hostile toward the faith, becoming well-known as the editor of an atheistic and anti-clerical Parisian newspaper at a time when these opinions were the height of chic in Parisian society. They entertained often and the guests were invariably his atheistic friends. So forcefully did he browbeat Elisabeth about Catholicism that she (who was not then well-versed in Catholic teaching) fell away from the Church for two years.
At age 32, however, she resumed practicing her faith and began to read great spiritual works to better defend it. With the aid of her spiritual director, she began a disciplined program of life grounded in her relationship with God. She had always quietly performed charitable works
— to the extent her health allowed — and now, meditating on the doctrine of the communion of saints, her mission included offering her physical and emotional suffering (which included the sorrow of infertility), as well as her sacrifices and prayers for the conversion and salvation of her husband, relatives, friends and for the souls in Purgatory.
While actively engaged with the world and the arrogant, atheistic Parisian society (where, according to her husband, even the atheists were attracted to her grace and holiness), she simultaneously and unassumingly lived a hidden life as a contemplative and mystic.
Elisabeth’s death in 1914, from breast cancer that had metastasized, was prolonged and painful, but Felix testified that she bore it with calm and sweetness. She had asked her sister to destroy her spiritual “Diary” after her death, but instead, her sister gave it to Felix, who published it a few years later. He was so moved by the profound faith and love of his wife, that within a year, he returned to Confession and the faith. Several years later, he entered the Order of Preachers. Ordained nine years after her death, Fr. Leseur spent much of his time until his own death in 1950 speaking about her spirituality and promoting her cause for sainthood.
Her diary is filled with wisdom and “resolutions” that can guide Catholic wives to sanctity and inspire it in others. A few examples will, I hope, suffice to encourage women to read “The Secret Diary of Elisabeth Leseur.”
Chastity, determination, and the dignity of life should be perpetually taught and developed in all. Women, whose immense role and influence the French do not yet fully grasp, and who does not always grasp it herself, should from now on realize her task and consecrate her life to it.
… Today there is a duty to bear children (and it is often a sacrifice); it is a duty to have a care for those in less fortunate circumstances than our own in the matter of wealth or education; it is a duty to develop unceasingly one’s intelligence, to strengthen one’s character, to become a creature of thought and will; it is a duty to view life with joy and to face it with energy. Finally, it is a duty to be able to understand one’s time and not despair of the future (pp. 11-12).
He who has ceased to love is not a Christian. … There is no exception to this rule. Those who are separated from us … the poor savage whom we never see, those who are most abject and most guilty — all are entitled to our love, all should be brothers to us. …
Let us open our hearts to admit all humanity. At the touch of the divine, let us resound with every generous thought, every human affection; let us learn to find in each soul the point at which it is still in touch with the Infinite, with God (p. 16).
A few of Elisabeth’s “Resolutions”:
To be very severe. … To accept troubles, sadness, suffering, and to practice voluntary mortification, all in the spirit of penance and reparation, and for souls.
For others: Not to speak of myself and my spiritual life, to keep silence about my good deeds. To be simple, true, always humble. … To be friendly and full of sympathy for men and ideas, to try to enter into and understand them. To be kind, with that true kindness that comes not from the lips but from the heart (pp. 62-63).
To sum up: To reserve for God alone the depths of my soul and my interior life as a Christian. To give to others serenity, charm, kindness, useful words and deeds. To make Christian truth loved through me, but to speak of it only at an explicit demand or at a need so clear as to seem truly providential. To preach by prayer, sacrifice, and example. To be austere to myself, and as attractive as possible to others (p. 63).
Susan E. Wills
is spirituality editor of Aleteia’s English language edition.