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Élisabeth Leseur and Madeleine Delbrêl (part 2)

Reginald D. Cruz, CFX

After her conversion, Madeleine began to discern a powerful personal draw to a life of contemplation. Initially, she thought that she could achieve this by living as a Discalced Carmelite or Trappistine nun. But after years of serious consultation with Abbé Lorenzo, she discerned that what the Spirit was asking from her was to realize this call within the very society where “God found me.” With several of her women friends, she responded to this summons by immersing herself in the life of ordinary people, especially those who have been marginalized not only by the wealthy but by the Church itself. It just so happened that the poorest and most marginalized in Parisian society were located in Ivry, a commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris known as the city’s “Red capital” because of the overwhelming number of communists and their sympathizers who resided there. In 1933, Madeleine and two of her friends moved to Ivry. However, they did not settle there with any intention of converting or even religiously influencing their neighbors:

We did not come with many plans. What we sought was the freedom to live shoulder to shoulder with men and women of every walk of life, with those who were our neighbors in time, with the same years on our calendars and the same hours on our clocks. [1]

Like Élisabeth, Madeleine took pains to negotiate her life of Christian commitment with the militant atheism of the people around her. On one occasion, Madeleine prepared the body of a deceased communist neighbor but absent-mindedly arranged the flowers on his chest in the form of a cross. His wife and political allies loudly scolded her for this act. On realizing her mistake, Madeleine earnestly apologized and rearranged the flowers in a circular manner.

      The testiest relationship Madeleine and her companions endured was not with their communist neighbors but with their fellow Catholics. The curate of Ivry and his lay supporters considered the stance of the three women as an affront to the parish policy that Catholics should have nothing to do with communists. Moreover, the legitimacy of the group was put into doubt as they sought not to be formally affiliated with the parish and to live under a religious rule of life. On this point, Madeleine’s group captured an ecclesial vision that predated Vatican II: “Their principal objective was to remain as free as possible to live like Christ, rubbing elbows with everybody even when the elbows rubbed the wrong way.”[2] The tensions began to dissipate once Abbé Lorenzo took over the parish of Ivry and honored the autonomy of the avant-garde community. In firmly holding on to their convictions, Madeleine and her équipe apprehended a refreshing approach to the transcendent life – a spirituality of the gens des rues:

There are some people whom God takes and sets apart. There are others he leaves among the crowds, people he does not “withdraw from the world.” These are the people who have an ordinary job, an ordinary household, or an ordinary celibacy. People with ordinary sicknesses, and ordinary times of grieving. People with an ordinary house, and ordinary clothes. These are the people of ordinary life. The people we might meet on any street. They love the door that opens onto the street, just as their brothers and sisters who are hidden from the world love the door that shuts behind them forever. We, the ordinary people of the streets, believe with all our might that this street, this world, where God has placed us, is our place of holiness. We believe that we lack nothing here that we need. If we needed something else, God would already have given it to us.[3]


      Having embraced the ordinary and unspectacular everyday life as congenial to her, Madeleine undertook her quest for the transcendent within the locus of the ordinary. In time, she realized that the life of contemplation she and her companions sought as laypersons could be achieved by opening oneself to “the small solitudes of the day”:

Our tiny solitudes are as immense, as exultant, as holy, as all the world’s deserts, because they are filled with the same God, the God who makes solitude holy. The solitude of the darkened street separating the house from the metro; the solitude of a bench next to others who are carrying their part of the world; the solitude of long corridors streaming with souls on their way to the new day’s tasks. The solitude of the few moments crouching to light the stove; the solitude of the kitchen spent before the tub of beans. The solitude on our knees scrubbing the floor, in the entrance to the garden where we hunt for lettuce for the salad. The brief solitude of going up and down the stairs a hundred times a day. The solitude of the long hours with the laundry, washing, mending, and ironing.[4]

Madeleine also understood that solitude is also attainable in the “painful losses… which deepen our hearts – of loved ones who have to leave though we’d like them to stay…. things that we want to say, but no one is listening; the strangeness of our heart while we’re among people.”

      Élisabeth was no stranger to the solitude Madeleine described. In resolving “to be reserved concerning matters of faith” with her beloved Félix, she inevitably entered a period of spiritual loneliness. This was alleviated to a certain degree once she found a spiritual director, the Dominican Fr. Joseph Hébert, in the spring of 1903. She later talked about this encounter as “providential,” coming “at a precise moment of need.”[5] However, the direction occurred mostly in the context of sacramental confession, occurring twice a month –rarement très longues (seldom very long), according to the priest.[6] Hébert noted that her spiritual crisis increased as the years went by, heightened by the death of her younger sister Juliette in 1905 and a recurring liver ailment from 1908.  Élisabeth’s correspondence to friends and relatives during this period reveals an interesting development in her spiritual life. While accepting the spiritual isolation brought about by her resolution, the physical and emotional sufferings she underwent widened her capacity for compassion:

When she encourages her correspondent to embrace the particular form of suffering entailed when witnessing the suffering of someone she loves deeply, it is clear that Élisabeth knows what she is talking about. She is aware of her own helplessness in the face of the death of family members, especially Juliette’s death. The intensity of Élisabeth’s emotional responses has not been numbed by her own suffering and illnesses. She continues to feel deeply and to suffer emotionally as a result. She witnesses her friend’s suffering; she is also aware of how much Félix suffers when he witnesses the particularly acute and intense periods of physical suffering in the course of Élisabeth’s illness.[7]

      It is apparent from the previous discussion that Hébert’s awareness of his directee’s inner life was wanting. It cannot be otherwise since their association had been peripheral and formal except in the final years of her life. Moreover, Hébert was at odds with Élisabeth’s acceptance of the spiritual paths chosen by her Jewish, Protestant, and even atheist acquaintances, even criticizing her for not having any hatred toward them.[8] After her death, Hébert openly bewailed his inability to provide a deeper direction for Élisabeth:

Madame Leseur knew I was involved in a fairly active ministry, and she was scrupulous to show – without being too demanding – her eagerness for the spiritual comfort that the reception of the sacraments brought her…. But I must I confess that my innate nonchalance perhaps too easily accommodated itself to this set of circumstances, which seemed to explain my inaction. I did not insist on having more frequent meetings, keeping the regimen to the minimum due to my laziness. Today I do not recall this without being perturbed by my attitude. To be frank about it, I am not without reproach.[9]

While respecting Hébert, Élisabeth was intelligent enough to perceive that his spiritual support was inadequate: “True spiritual direction is a precious but rare thing. One can be comforted and strengthened by the guidance of a holy priest and yet never achieve that fullness of direction God sometimes reserves to himself.”[10] He remained her spiritual director to the end. But because of the inadequacy of his guidance, she appraised toward the end of her life that “(her) whole spiritual life had been spent alone with God.”[11]

Élisabeth LeseurWOMEN OF SPIRIT

      Élisabeth built her self-formation in the spiritual life on the ground of her womanhood. Her life coincided with the rise of feminist consciousness in 20th century France. Though she did not participate visibly in the budding women’s movement, Élisabeth revealed in her musings her strong conviction that a woman cannot simply withdraw into the margins that the wider society has determined for her. While accepting that child bearing is a gendered obligation – which she qualified as “often a sacrifice” – she firmly believed that the role and influence of woman in French society went beyond the domestic, something her contemporaries “had not fully grasped.” In fact, she mused that “it is an obligation (for women) to develop unceasingly one’s intelligence” as well as “to understand one’s times and not despair of the future.” Élisabeth understood that women can reach such new perspectives for “as much as men, they are beings who think, act, and love; they can proudly reclaim their right to responsible action.”[12] 

      Élisabeth expressed her feminist consciousness further in an essay she wrote in 1905 for Marie Duron, her young niece and godchild, who was then preparing for first communion:

A Christian woman is a human being like everyone else. Every individual is a thinking, reasoning being, illumined by that natural light which is the first degree of the divine intelligence, as you will learn from Saint Augustine…. You must make every effort to increase your depth of human learning. I should like you to be very well educated or even learned. The word learned does not bother me, in spite of Molière, for whom learned women are nothing but silly pedants. In our times a learned woman can do much good. A woman is responsible for her intellectual development and ought to increase the breadth of her knowledge and enlarge her intellectual horizon, so as to be capable one day of simultaneously fulfilling her role as mother and her duty toward the society in which she lives. This stands in need of illumination from all of us, faint as it may be. When we work not for trivial satisfactions but to strengthen our minds so that others may benefit from our work, we can be sure that it will be fruitful and God will bless it. One day, sooner or later, it will bear more fruit than we can imagine.[13]

And though such vision of womanhood may not yet seem visible or even realizable, Élisabeth encouraged her niece to behold and hope in it for “none of our disinterested or generous efforts is ever lost.”

      Élisabeth found much relief from her spiritual isolation through her journal writing and correspondence. But in all likelihood, the most crucial source of consolation for her was her relationship with Marie Goby, a vowed religious of the Hospitaller Sisters of St. Martha of Beaune. Quite interestingly, the friendship began in 1910. The relationship lasted for hardly five years as Élisabeth died in May 1914.  It is also worth noting that apart from their first encounter, the two women met face-to-face only twice afterward. Despite this, the friendship was enriched through the deep and personal letters they sent to each other: Élisabeth writing seventy-eight, Marie forty-five. Élisabeth was able to share with Marie her deeper spiritual insights. Through their epistolary friendship, the two women supported each other with prayers and sufferings and developed into what some today would call “soul mates.” Élisabeth expressed to Marie the importance of this relationship for her:

How open I can be with you my friend, so easily and simply! The atmosphere in which I live is hardly favorable, from a religious point of view, to this kind of transparency. I run into souls in distress, suffering hearts, hostile or indifferent minds every day. And from this contact considerable suffering arises and, at the same time, an interior consolation from trying to dome some good.[14]

      On being diagnosed with breast cancer, Élisabeth experienced an eclipse of the Divine. Although overwhelmed and weakened by pain, she found the inner strength to resist the feeling of abandonment by God. Once Élisabeth began her final journey, it was to Marie that she confided her profound insights as a dying woman.

For several weeks God has seen fit not to treat me too gently physically and morally. After having been treated by God like a spoiled child, it’s only fair that I be led along a rougher road, and for almost two years that’s the way it has been. My dear sister, how well I understand now what the ascetic authors say about this straight and painful path that must be walked in order to reach the First Light. I’m catching quite a glimpse of the “dark night” of St. John of the Cross! When God drew me to him by some wonderful means without any human intermediary, he lavished me with such graces and flooded me with such ineffable joys that I have been completely conquered forever. But until then he was the perpetual giver, doing everything for me who had never done anything for him, who had on the contrary, worked against him. That was all well and good. It was just that the time came for personal work, for labor, for effort; the time for personal giving, for self-denial, for sacrifices; the time when I would finally be able to offer something to the one who had given me so much. I had already suffered at the time of my sister’s death and because of my health, but to suffer in the joy of the spirit is nothing. That’s why the trials of the soul, the most intimate and subtle heartaches had to come to purify and transform. This divine work continues, and I daily offer my sorrows or my efforts to my unique Friend, to the one who alone knows my depths. [15]

Madeleine Delbrêl      Madeleine Delbrêl had a longer life than Élisabeth Leseur.  Likewise, her world expanded beyond the domestic (her équipe) and the local (communist-dominated Ivry) as her gens des rues spirituality gained credibility among members of France’s postbellum hierarchy. Apart from Abbé Lorenzo, the most important of her clerical supporters was Emmanuel Suhard, cardinal-archbishop of Paris. In his desire “to tear down the wall” (abattre le mur) separating Church from French society, he established in 1941 the Mission de France, a territorial prelature consisting of clerics who would dialogue with and serve the socio-economically marginalized. He had also given full support to the Worker-Priest Movement (Prêtres-Ouvrier) whose clerical members donned secular clothes and worked in factories to regain the confidence of the French working class. Madeleine rejoiced in the cardinal’s innovative projects and avidly gave her support when asked for help in forming the social science curricula to be taught at the prelature’s seminary in Lisieux. Cardinal Suhard admired the petite social worker of Ivry so much that he appointed her as an advisor for Mission de France. More importantly, he made certain that Madeleine’s équipe would keep its unique lay character by refusing to subsume it into the institutional church as a secular institute.

      The groundbreaking thrust of the French church under Suhard did not receive enthusiastic support from the Vatican however. Pope Pius XII himself was wary of the innovations, fearful that these social experiments would be used by communists to destabilize the church. On 1 July 1949, a few weeks after the sudden death of Cardinal Suhard on 30 May, the Congregation of the Holy Office issued an interdict against the association of Catholics with communists. The decree understandably stung Madeleine who had spent all of her post-conversion life in bridging the divide between the two groups. She found in her poetic soul the means to express subtly yet powerfully her disagreement.

      The ironic tone of Le bal de l’obéissance (The Dance of Obedience) became immediately evident from the day she chose to write it – 14 July, Bastille Day, when tout le monde va danser (all the world is going to dance). She echoed the Gospel lament against les gens serieux (the serious people) who refused to participate in this dancing Nous avons joué de la flûte et vous n’avez pas dansé (We played the flute but you did not dance) – and chose to remain couchés (lying down):

Les religieux récitent les matines de saint Henri, roi.

Et moi je pense

A l’autre roi,

Au roi David qui dansait devant l’Arche.

[Monks and nuns are reciting the matins of St. Henry, the king.

But I am pondering

Over that other king,

King David, who danced before the Ark.]

Just as saints like Teresa, John of the Cross, and Francis of Assisi were heureux de vivre (happy to live) because they danced, Madeleine declared that

Si nous étions contents de vous, Seigneur,

Nous ne pourrions pas résister

A ce besoin de danser qui déferle sur le monde,

Et nous arriverions à deviner

Quelle danse il vous plaît de nous faire danser

En épousant les pas de votre Providence.

[If we were happy with you, Lord,

We would be unable to resist

this urge to dance that is sweeping the world

And we would be able to discern

how it is you would like us to dance,

By following the steps of Your Providence.]

To be a joyful participant in this sacred dance, one needs

Être allègre,

Être léger,

Et surtout ne pas être raide.

[to be cheerful,

to be light,

and above all not to be stiff.]

Unfortunately, this is not the case for the church’s somber people:

Mais nous oublions la musique de votre esprit,

Et nous faisons de notre vie un exercice de gymnastique….

Et qu'il n'est de monotonie et d'ennui

pour les vieilles âmes

Qui font tapisserie

Dans le bal joyeux de votre amour.

[But we tend to forget the music of your spirit, 

And we turn our life into a gymnastic exercise;

And all monotony and boredom 

is left to old souls 

who play the wallflower 

in the joyful ball of your love.]

      In the years that followed, Madeleine sought to dialogue with the Pope and his curia with the assistance of similarly impassioned members of the French clergy. It was not always easy and many times she was deeply disappointed by Rome’s “tragic manifestation of blind bureaucracy.” In spite of her frustrations,

Madeleine made every effort to maintain her faith in the Church as the sacrament and worldwide embodiment of Christ’s love. Even the Church’s teaching authority, she trusted, was derived from and directed toward that love rather than a lust for power and control. She also tried not to despair by reminding herself that the Gospel still proclaimed a message of Good News. Maintaining her focus on the Church’s essence and the Good News was at times her only way of remaining steadfast under such distressing conditions.[16]

One can thus imagine her immense joy when Pope John XXIII – her “tiny little miracle” – convoked Vatican II. She sensed in the council the irruption of the Spirit that she had powerfully experienced in her own life. Because of this, she gave her full assistance to the French bishops drafting the preparatory documents on the laity, atheism, and religious culture. And it was in the middle of this work and all her other engagements with her communist environment that Madeleine suddenly died at her desk in October 1964. Not long before this, she wrote the following final anthem to God and life:

You were alive and I was completely unaware of it. You had fashioned my heart to your size, you had made my life to last as long as you, and, because you were absent, the whole world seemed to me a tiny and ridiculous, and the destiny of man stupid and cruel. When I realized that you were living, I thanked you for having given me life, I thanked you for life of the whole world.[17]

The Spirit of God was no longer dead, as it was for the young Madeleine, but alive in the brokenness of the Church and the world-at-large.

[1] Madeleine Delbrêl, Ville Marxiste (Paris : Desclée de Brouwer, 1995), 40.
[2] Charles F. Mann, Madeleine Delbrêl: A Life Beyond Boundaries (San Francisco, CA: New World Press, 1996), 63.
[3] Delbrêl, Ordinary People, 54.
[4] Ibid., 67-68.
[5] Letter of Élisabeth Leseur, Paris, to Marie Goby, Beaune, 21 January 1912, in Selected Writings, 248.
[6] Joseph Hébert, “Préface,” in Élisabeth Leseur, Lettres sur la souffrance (Paris : Gigord, 1932),viii.
[7] Janet K. Ruffing, “Introduction,” in Elisabeth Leseur, Selected Writings, 38.
[8] Henri Brémond, Manuel illustre de la Littérature Catholique en France de 1870 à nos jours (Paris: Editions Spes, 1925), liii.
[9] Hébert, ix-x.
[10] Letter of Élisabeth Leseur, Paris, to Marie Goby, Beaune, February 1912, in Selected Writings, 250.
[11] Letter of Leseur to Goby, 21 January 1912, in Selected Writings, 248.
[12] Journal, 30 July 1900, in Selected Writings, 58.
[13] An Essay on the Christian Life of Women, in Selected Writings, 173-74.
[14] Letter of Élisabeth Leseur, Paris, to Marie Goby, Beaune, 20 April 1912, in Selected Writings, 254.
[15] Ibid., 253.
[16] Mann, 116.

[17] Christine de Boismarmin, Madeleine Delbrêl: Rue des villes, chemins de Dieu, 1904-1964 (Paris : Ed. Nouvelle Cité, 1985), 26.

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Last updated: 11/25/10.