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When Silence Speaks: The life and spirituality of Elisabeth Leseur, by Jennifer Moorcroft

22 May 2020

John-Francis Friendship considers the devout life of Élisabeth Leseur

THIS valuable book concerns the life and profound spirituality of a married, childless Frenchwoman who lived in an era of intense atheism and religious persecution in late-19th-century France.

Born into a world of wealth and culture, Élisabeth Leseur (née Arrighi) moved beyond her childhood faith when she married a man who turned out to be leader of the French anti-clerical movement. But they loved each other dearly, and, eventually, she rediscovered God, as others have, through reading the Gospels and a Life of Jesus. Much is known about her through her letters and the books that she wrote, and the cause for her beatification proceeds.

What makes this of such interest is the way in which it reveals the development of her relationship with God against a background of ill-health and a society aggressive towards Christianity. It gives a moving insight into her piety at a time of violent atheism, a piety rooted in the School of Berulle, which involved a deepening love for Christ and the saints as self was set aside in the service of others.

In particular, the spirituality of St Vincent de Paul informed her as she developed a ministry among the poor, believing that every loving act, no matter how small, had a consequence. In her often solitary life in Christ, the place of the communion of saints played an important part — something that I found particularly refreshing, as this can often be neglected by Anglicans, and yet is of such importance at times when many feel isolated.

This book might challenge those who dislike personal piety or 19th-century French spirituality. It certainly offers an approach different from much that is being written at present; but Leseur’s own writings, liberally quoted throughout, have inspired many, and, after her death, brought her atheistic husband to faith and the religious life — a story related in the final two chapters.

The author gives inspiring insights into this woman who, in her early forties, was diagnosed with cancer. The title of the book reflects the way in which Leseur’s spirituality led to a place of deepening silence as her health deteriorated, and concerns the strength that she found through regular confession, reception of holy communion, a deep and intense love for her husband, and an utter abandonment to God’s will. Here is a mysticism rooted in a life that was centred on the love of God at a time when atheism was intellectually fashionable.

The Revd John-Francis Friendship is a senior team member at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction.

When Silence Speaks: The life and spirituality of Elisabeth Leseur
Jennifer Moorcroft 
Gracewing £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40

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