There’s a real lesson here about living peaceably with those we love -- and with whom we disagree.
The Victorian era was very different in manners and values from our 21st-century milieuthat it can seem like another world. But one notable couple of that time had an astonishing amount in common with many modern-day couples.
Élisabeth and Félix Leseur lived in a way that would be very recognizable today. They were intellectuals who enjoyed culture and travel. They surrounded themselves with friends of all different religious and philosophical persuasions. They loved each other faithfully despite their very different personal beliefs.
They also struggled with crosses that many modern couples understand all too well. They were never able to have children. Élisabeth suffered from chronic health issues and, eventually, cancer.
All this is no doubt part of the reason their story has taken hold of the popular imagination. But I suspect that, more than anything, it’s their unusual religious journeys that have captured so much attention.
When the couple married, Élisabeth was a practicing Catholic, but not very religious. Félix, meanwhile, was an atheist, and he was determined to make her one as well.
His efforts proved unsuccessful, to put it mildly. Instead, his criticisms of her faith prompted Élisabeth to learn more about Catholic beliefs and to become a much more ardent and devoted Christian.
Even as her own faith deepened, Élisabeth didn’t try to convert her husband by her words or argue him out of his opinions. To the contrary, she wrote, “Let us not think that we hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God for souls by our personal action. As long as the Divine hour has not come, our efforts will be in vain, or rather they will be but an active prayer, an appeal to the one who transforms and saves.”
There’s a real lesson here about living peaceably with those with whom we disagree. Élisabeth shows that arguments and preachy lectures don’t do a thing to improve relationships. In fact, they may have the opposite effect!
Instead, she gave a witness of simple, faithful, totally sincere love. This witness affected not only those around the couple but Félix himself. Over time, he ceased to argue with her and learned to treat her beliefs with the respect she showed to him.
While he had criticized her beliefs, she never tried to argue with him about his. Instead, unbeknownst to him, she began to pray fervently for his change of heart. She also privately practiced many works of mercy and charity.
When Elisabeth died of cancer at age 47, Félix discovered her diaries, a great spiritual treasure. He also discovered that she had been praying for him for all those years. She even had predicted that he would convert to Catholicism and become a priest after her death.
Her words proved prophetic. There is much more to the story, and you can read about it in a recent book, Salt and Light: The Spiritual Journey of Élisabeth and Félix Leseur. He did indeed convert and was ordained. He dedicated the rest of his life to continuing her legacy of charity and sharing her story with the world.
Élisabeth and Félix are a beautiful example of a faithful and fruitful marriage. Although there were some bumps along the way, overall they treated each other with mutual respect and devoted love. Their witness may be all the more remarkable because they didn’t have children to bind them together, yet lived their vocation to marriage with wonderful fruitfulness.
Élisabeth in particular gives an example of the forbearance, kindness and patience that make marriage so happy, regardless of the couple’s differences or similarities in belief. After her death, Felix wrote,
“Élisabeth, living in the world, fulfilled every duty of her state, and her example shows how it is possible, when one has the will and calls upon divine grace, to live an intense spiritual life and to practice the highest evangelical virtues in the midst of outward activity.”
Modern couples may recognize themselves in the Leseurs’ travels, their cultural exposure, and the intellectual diversity of their social circles. Hopefully we can also learn to imitate their loving respect for each other and their personal holiness.