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Élisabeth Leseur and Madeleine Delbrêl (part 1)

Reginald D. Cruz, CFX

Attitudes toward saints have changed significantly in the past fifty years. Immediately after the Second Vatican Council, regard for the place of saints in their personal faith and spirituality changed among Western Catholics. That is quite understandable given the way these women and men had previously been presented as superhuman intercessors for the living, romantically portrayed in plaster casts or stained glass windows. The saints, it seemed, were too remote from the realities that late modern women and men contended with in their daily lives; they seemed removed from the complexities of the politics and technologies of the late twentieth century. For many forward-looking Catholics, the saints became an undesirable reminder of the highly pietistic preconciliar church that they wanted to leave behind. Such was the situation for some fifteen years until Catholic and Protestant thinkers began to re-assess the place of saints in Christian faith and spirituality. Notre Dame Professor Lawrence Cunningham articulated one of these earliest reconsiderations when he defined a saint as “a person so grasped by a religious vision that it becomes central to his or her life in a way that radically changes the person and leads others to glimpse the value of that vision.”[1] For Cunningham, saints were not lifeless plaster cast statues but historically-located individuals who, at a crucial point in their life, became so in-touch with the Transcendent that they endeavored – whether gradually or immediately – to center their lives on this reality.

      Under the promptings of divine inspiration, saints experience a transformation in the way they understand themselves and interact with the people around them. Even if saints choose to keep the experience of transcendence to themselves, Cunningham points out, it is inevitable that the people around them begin to glimpse the value of a transcendence-centered life. A life centered on the Transcendent radiates its appeal to others. By pointing to the Transcendent, some people serve what is deepest in us as individuals and as a community of believers.


      Our communitas “evolves spontaneously out of the desire of its inhabitants to get to the bottom of the very mystery that brings them together.”[2] Those who constitute the communitas ask the unanswerable questions together, find the energy for their fellowship in That which they do not know, and are led by ‘learned ignorance’ to a worship of the Truth, of which they are completely ignorant. This idea forms part of what Christians confess when they declare their belief in the communion of saints:

In a community of companionship in the Spirit that circles the globe today, living saints seek the face of God, cling to divine compassion in the face of suffering and sin, know the joy of Holy Wisdom’s gracious action in their lives, and make their own contribution to the Church’s heritage of faith and love.[3]

Yet, belief in the communion of saints emphasizes that the communitas is not only one that “joins all living people who seek the face of God into a circle of mutual companions” but also one that

… connects this living community with the faithful dead of all ages; one that… embraces the totality of the human community with the outstretched wings of the creating, redeeming, liberating Spirit of God who unites and lures them further into participation in God’s own life.[4]

We become transcendence pointers not only through the influence of the Spirit-centered people with and among us, but also through the influence of similar individuals who have already died.

      The dead become transcendence pointers through the narratives of their lives, which we may discover and resonate with. Thus a contemporary American who aspires for a deeper life in the spirit may find resonance in the experiences of a fifteenth century Spaniard like Teresa of Avila after encountering her biography and writings. Underscoring this phenomenon is the sacramentality of the Christian experience. Theologian Richard McBrien made this point in the following reflection for All Saints Day:

Christianity is a sacramental tradition. We believe that the God we cannot see is made visible to us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of faith. But there is no possibility of communion between God and ourselves unless God somehow reaches us at our level. God has done so in Jesus Christ. Given our human limitations and the distance of centuries, however, it isn’t possible for us to experience the historical Jesus in the flesh. We who have never seen Jesus in the flesh need some models or exemplars of Christ with whom to identify and through whom to experience Christ sacramentally. The church canonizes saints in order to provide a steady, ever renewable stream of exemplars, or sacraments of Christ, lest our following of Christ be reduced to some kind of abstract, intellectual exercise.[5]

Herein lies the importance of the saints for our spiritual journey: along with living women and men who inspire us in our search for spiritual meaning, certain saints – canonized or not – may enlighten our path if we allow them to be part of our communitas. This becomes especially true when we sense that these deceased transcendence pointers comprehend what goes on in our personal and public spaces despite the psychological, cultural, and temporal differences separating us in time.


     I would like to offer two exemplars of transcendence pointers. Élisabeth Leseur (1866-1914) and Madeleine Delbrêl (1904-1964) are in many ways different from us. As French-born women, they saw the world and articulated their understanding of it according to their cultural origins. Élisabeth is temporally the more distant from us; she died from cancer at the age of 48 a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Madeleine died in October 1964 at the age of 60 – thus some of us may be familiar with the social realities and anxieties that she beheld in her lifetime.

Leseur      Separated by time and class, Élisabeth and Madeleine had common experiences in their spiritual journey. Significant among these was the experiences of loss of faith and conversion. Élisabeth came from the privileged upper middle class Arrighi family which raised its children to appreciate music, culture, literature, and travel. It can also be fairly described as a formally Catholic family that was content with following those religious obligations late 19th century French society expected from members of their class.  Félix Leseur entered her life when she was 21 years old, drawn to her joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity. For her part, Élisabeth fell for the young man – writing to her parents that “I have found in Félix everything that I desire in a husband”[6] – and to everyone it appeared as a perfect match. Félix and Élisabeth were united in a church wedding on the last day of July 1889, but Élisabeth may have carried within her some degree of ressentiment for it was only the night before their marriage that Félix admitted to her that he was not only a non-practicing Catholic but also a complete and militant agnostic. He promised, however, to respect and support her religious practices.

       Félix remained true to his promise for a while, even reticent in expressing his views on religion so as to not offend Élisabeth. Nonetheless, Félix was immersed in the anticlerical politics and thinking of late 19th century France and he wanted Élisabeth to share in his beliefs. He encouraged her to peruse the books in his private library which included Protestant, rationalist, and modernist thinkers. In the whirl of travel, social life, entertaining, and Félix’s constant activity, Élisabeth’s habits of recollection and her practice of the faith began to weaken. By 1896, she had developed doubts about her faith which led her to stop her religious practices altogether, much to the disappointment and shock of her parents.

Delbrel      Madeleine, meanwhile, came from a petit-bourgeois family originally from Dordogne in southwestern France. Her parents were a thoroughly mismatched couple who openly bickered with each other – even throwing pans and other things they could grasp at each other while in front of their only child. Madeleine was the single factor uniting the antagonistic couple, and they nurtured the intellectual and artistic potentials they perceived in their prodigious four-year-old daughter. Madeleine described her early education as “a bit anarchical,” privately tutored and subjected to numerous changes in teachers because of her father’s whimsical – though brilliant – character and frequent work transfers. In her early adolescence she personally sought catechetical instructions which she did not receive from her religiously indifferent parents. She was also on her own when she received her first communion at the age of twelve.

      This elementary introduction to Catholicism, however, did not hold fast once Madeleine and her family moved to Paris in the fall of 1916 and got caught up in the city’s social frenzy and intellectual currents. “In Paris,” she recollected later, “remarkable individuals offered me a contradictory formation regarding religion. By the time I was fifteen, I was a strict atheist, and the world grew for me more absurd by the day.”[7] The lively and inquisitive adolescent voraciously took in every pleasure accorded her in the lecture halls of the Sorbonne and the nightlife of Parisian nightclubs. But this lust for life gave way to disillusionment with life as she reached the cusp of adulthood:

It has been said that “God is dead.” Because this is true, we need to have the honesty to live as if God does not exist. Since we have settled the question for him, now we have to settle it for us…. The legacy of God’s death has yet to be settled. He left everywhere bonds of eternity, power, and spirit. So who’s the beneficiary? Death! God was everlasting; now only death lasts forever. God was spirit – I’m not even sure what that is – but death is everywhere, invisible, and effective. It gave a little tap, and boom! – love stops loving, thought stops thinking, babies stop smiling, and then there is…. Nothing.[8]

Her nihilism became evident to family and friends who were alarmed by her growing moroseness. The loss of a boyfriend further escalated her withdrawal into her shell; she avoided her girlfriends and dropped out of the Sorbonne – the gaiety of Paris had lost its appeal for her.


      Both Élisabeth and Madeleine experienced a return to the Spirit after negating God in their personal lives. For Élisabeth, the conversion happened unexpectedly two years after she stopped practicing her faith. Having nothing to read, she asked her husband to recommend something to her. Félix recommended Ernest Renan’s Life of Jesus, a widely popular book which courted controversy for dismissing the authority of the Gospels for their lack of historical weight. Élisabeth read the book, but instead of assenting to Renan’s position she comprehended “the fragility of its debatable and oftentimes contradictory hypotheses” using her own intellectual acuity.[9] In order to substantiate her suspicions, she revisited the Gospels and soon became deeply affected through her daily reading of them. Her strong mind compelled her to find answers to the pressing religious and social questions which she faced in the anticlerical intellectual and political circles she and Félix frequented. Élisabeth began a program of reading, study, and prayer, and began a journal for her spiritual musings. She eventually amassed a collection of two hundred books on philosophy, morality, spirituality, apologetics, and hagiography. By 1899, Élisabeth returned to a life of faith, strengthened by the interior crisis she had resolved on her own.

      Madeleine’s conversion occurred in the late winter of 1924. On one of her rare outings to the neighborhood dance halls, Madeleine fell in with a group of young people – the “gang of six” – who relished in the Parisian nightlife and au courant ideas:

I met several Christians, neither older nor dumber nor more idealistic than I was; in other words, they lived the same life I did, they discussed as much as I did, they danced as much as I did. They even had a few things in their favor – they worked harder than I did, they had a technical and scientific formation that I didn’t have, and they had political convictions that I didn’t have and didn’t practice.[10]

After months of passionate debate and discussion with them, she was introduced by the gang to Abbé Jacques Lorenzo. Unlike the pietistic and overbearing priests she scoffed at, Abbé Lorenzo came across to Madeleine as an intelligent yet self-effacing pastor, rooted in the knowledge of Scripture and respectful of human beings and their nature. Through the influence of these convinced believers, Madeleine came to believe: “I was no longer able to leave God in the absurd. At the age of twenty, my intellectual religious search ended in a radical conversion.”[11]

      After their experiences of conversion, Élisabeth and Madeleine spent their following years reordering their familiar circumstances so that they could harmonize with their renewed spiritual lives. With Élisabeth, these negotiations had to take place within the “givens” of her life as an upper-middle class matron, which she would later lament as “a duty I find most oppressive (because) I should remain calm in dealing with those around me who hear me but who do not understand the language of Christians.”[12] Sensitivity toward Félix was always foremost in her mind. Lest it be misunderstood – especially because of how past biographies wrongly portrayed the marriage – the union of Félix and Élisabeth was completely loving and unconditional. Privately, Élisabeth mourned only two things about her marriage: one, that biological reasons prevented them from having children – a sorrow she mitigated by showering her nephews and nieces with much affection and attention; two, that she could not fully share her Christian faith with her beloved husband. Despite his acknowledged difficulty in accepting his wife’s renewed faith, Félix remained completely in love with her. Illustrative of this point is the writing table he gifted her with in 1901. In one of his less-than-sensitive episodes, Félix began calling his wife “Madame Péchin,” a character in Anatole France’s The Amethyst Ring who insisted on her belief in immortality. Élisabeth responded to Félix’s teasing with good humor. When Félix later realized that he was beginning to hurt his wife with his persistent name-calling, he sought to make amends by having the writing desk delivered together with a love letter. Élisabeth responded to his thoughtful and loving gesture by initiating her new desk by writing a love letter:

I am sending this to you, dearest Félix, from the depth of my little Péchin heart, a feeling of tenderness, in which all forms of love are mixed together, united so that it would be impossible to separate them…. I am so grateful for the happiness of being loved by another dear and good person such as you.[13]

      To fulfill her desire for transcendent centeredness, Élisabeth devised a flexible Rule of Life which organized her devotional and ascetical practices. She imposed on herself a regimen which involved daily morning and evening prayer and meditation. She resolved to spend a day of retreat each month and a longer retreat once a year. She reconfigured her inner life so that she could have as much solitude as possible for meditation and self-examination. Élisabeth also organized her outer life as part of her spiritual program. She followed her Rule only when she was home alone and did not need to consider the rest of the household, careful that her life of devotion would not interfere with either the comfort or needs of those she loved. Her relationship with her agnostic husband was her primary concern:

My duty to my husband: deep love… constant care to be useful and gracious to him. Especially, to be reserved concerning matters of faith, which are still veiled to him. If a quiet statement should be necessary, or if I can fruitfully show him a little of what is in my heart, that must be a rare event, done after careful thought, gentleness, and serenity. To show him the fruit but not the sap, my life but not the faith that transforms it, the light in me but not the One who brings it, to reveal God without speaking his name. This is the only way, I think, I can hope for the conversion and holiness of my dear companion, my beloved Félix.[14]

Since she was not always healthy, Élisabeth took on only that domestic work that her weak health permitted her to do, involved herself with the needs of the poor, and sought to treat her servants warmly without crossing the boundary of familiarity.

[1] Lawrence S. Cunningham, The Meaning of Saints (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1980), 65.

[2] James P. Carse, The Religious Case against Belief (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), 84.

[3] Elizabeth Johnson, “A Community of Holy People in a Sacred World: Re-Thinking the Communion of Saints,” New Theology Review (May 1999): 7.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Richard McBrien, “Who needs canonization when there are saints in the ‘hood?’” National Catholic Reporter, 28 October 1994, p. 3.

[6] Élisabeth Leseur, Paris, to Antoine Arrighi and Gatienne-Marie-Laure Picard, Paris, 30 July 1889, in Félix (Marie-Albert) Leseur, Vie d’Élisabeth Leseur (Paris: Gigord, 1932), 94.

[7] Madeleine Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr., and Charles F. Mann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 260.

[8] Ibid., 47-48.

[9] Félix Leseur, 125.

[10] Delbrêl, 8.

[11] Ibid., 260.

[12] Letter of Élisabeth Leseur to Sr. Marie Goby, 21 January 1912, in Elisabeth Leseur, Selected Writings, ed. Janet K. Ruffing (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 248.

[13] Letter of Élisabeth Leseur to Félix Leseur, 09 March 1901, in ibid., 287.

[14] “Notebook of Resolutions,” in Élisabeth Leseur, 93.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.