instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Servant of God's Elisabeth Leseur's characteristics of lay sanctity

In her essay, "Elisabeth Leseur: A Strangely Forgotten Modern Saint," Janet K. Ruffing, R.S.M., proposes seven characteristics of this Servant of God's lay sanctity.

The essay's sub-title notwithstanding, I've come across frequent references to the Leseurs -- Elisabeth's husband Felix converted from atheism after her death, due largely to reading her journal that revealed her hidden spiritual life.

Here are the seven characteristics identified by Ruffing, along with my clumsy descriptions. The interested reader is referred to the original essay, linked above, for fuller details.
  1. An apostolic strategy in a hostile, secular milieu. From the sound of it, today's New Atheists would have been right at home in the pre-World War I French society the Leseurs lived in. Outnumbered everybody:1, Elisabeth chose the path of non-confrontation, despite the frequent wounds inflicted by the conversation of her vocally anti-Catholic friends.

    This wasn't a purely passive approach. She saw her role as trying "always to understand everyone and everything. Not to argue, to work through contact and example; to dissipate prejudice, to show God and make Him felt without speaking of him; to strengthen one's intelligence, enlarge one's soul; to love without tiring, in spite of disappointment and indifference... to open wide one's soul to show the light in it and the truth that lives there, and let that truth create and transform, without merit of ours but simply by the fact of its presence in us."
  2. A redemptive and transformative use of her physical and emotional suffering. Hepatitis, cancer, and other illnesses added to Elisabeth's suffering over her husband's and friends' anti-clerical atheism. Ruffing cites St. Catherine of Siena's "mysticism of suffering," devotion to the Sacred Heart, and Jesus' own life-giving passion and death as the principal sources of her own approach to redemptive suffering.
  3. A mature sense of agency and surrender. Elisabeth understood a woman's life as one of duties: "to bear children ... to develop unceasingly one's intelligence, to strengthen one's character, to become a creature of thought and will... to view life with joy and to face it with energy... to be able to understand one's time and not despair of the future." These duties in turn were ordered to the Christian duty of bringing Christ to those who suffer and to those who do not know Him.
  4. An active intellectual life. Even before her re-conversion, Elisabeth cultivated her mind. After she returned to regular practice of the Faith, she studied theology and philosophy -- the latter because it "throws light on many things and puts the mind in order."
  5. Devotion to her husband and [extended] family. This she saw as her principal duty, as a woman and as a Christian, notwithstanding her husband's hostility to her faith.
  6. A lay pattern of devotional and ascetical life. She developed her own rule of life, combining the discipline of daily prayer with an active home and social presence.According to Ruffing, her home-grown asceticism was "based on silence [with respect to discussing religion with her husband], self-giving, and austerity."
  7. A relationship of mutuality and support in her friendship with Souer Gaby. Souer Gaby was a nun with whom Elisabeth shared "a profound spiritual friendship," mostly through a series of letters written in the three years prior to Elisabeth's death in 1914. After years of being essentially alone on her walk of faith, she finally found someone to walk with her.
This seems to me like a complete program for sanctity according to her state in life. The private devotional part sustains and is given focus by the interpersonal and public part, which in turn is shaped by the knowledge and direction obtained through study, prayer, and contemplation. The consolations and fruitfulness of communion with a close friend in Christ may be undervalued today, particularly by those who work out their own rule of life principally through reading and self-study.