Booke Review: A wife’s intellectual apostolate
A wife’s intellectual apostolate
When Silence Speaks by Jennifer Moorcroft, Gracewing, 196pp, £15.99 reviewed by Emily Dytor
When Silence Speaks is the biography of a late 19th/early 20th century French lay woman called Elisabeth Leseur whose life of prayer and service in the world led to the amazing conversion of her atheist husband after her death.
Elisabeth was raised in a loving, well off Catholic family, and the Faith was very important to her from a young age. Her husband Felix was raised as a Catholic but during his medical studies became an adamant atheist. Despite their disagreement of faith, they loved each other deeply and Elisabeth devoted her life to praying and offering her many sufferings for his conversion.
Like a novel
Moorcroft breaks down Elisabeth’s life into ten chapters, beginning with “Early Life,” and ending with “Suffering Accepted and Offered.” In each chapter Moorcroft explores different aspects of Elisabeth’s life and uses excerpts from Elisabeth’s writings throughout to give the reader insight into her ongoing spiritual journey.
Clearly Moorcroft extensively researched Elisabeth’s life. She includes such intimate details and elegant descriptions that the book reads like a novel at times. We learn the exact birthdays of every member of the family (parents and four siblings), the address of Elisabeth’s family home in Paris and their second home in the countryside, of which Moorcroft writes, “Elisabeth
always preferred the country to the city and looked forward to staying there, with its rustic charm, its trees and flowers and lush gardens” (p. 3).
Elisabeth lived a privileged life of social status and enjoyable travel; however, she also knew suffering. Moorcroft describes her as having a delicate conscience, which she illustrates with various quotes from Elisabeth’s childhood journal. As a child and young adult she suffered severe illness; first hepatitis, then typhoid fever, both of which affected her health all throughout her life. The fact that she was unable to conceive children was deeply saddening to her maternal heart. Moorcroft continually illustrates the merit of Elisabeth’s suffering by noting that Elisabeth was more deeply pained than she often let on in her writings.
Return to the Gospels
Two years into her marriage Elisabeth’s prayer life began to degenerate and she started spending most of her spare time in “broadening her cultural and intellectual life” (p. 23). She and Felix travelled and socialized often. It wasn’t until after Elisabeth read two books recommended to her by Felix with the intention of destroying her faith that she deeply repented of her spiritual lukewarmness. The atheistic writing made her return to the Gospels, of which she wrote, “I read the Gospel, and by that sweet light I discover in myself many a nook of egotism and vanity. Unique book, perpetually new, supremely beautiful, resplendent with truth, of exquisite grace and charm, from which one can draw unendingly and never exhaust it!” (p. 29) From here she went on to build up a library of Catholic books to expand her knowledge and strengthen her faith.
An intellectual apostolate
After her deeper conversion, Felix became even more critical of her faith. Moorcroft writes, “[S]he had to tread a path of living with someone she loved deeply, who not only failed to understand what was now most precious to her but who was actively and resolutely opposed to it.” This lack of unity with and criticism from her husband pained Elisabeth greatly, but she did not allow it to steal her joy, instead she spent more and more time in prayer and discerned for herself that God was calling her to an “intellectual apostolate,” (p. 49) to be lived out amongst her and Felix’s atheistic social circle. Moorcroft uses another quote to beautifully summarize her mission: “Not to accept everything, but to understand everything; not to approve of everything, but to forgive everything; not to adopt everything, but to search for the grain of truth that is contained in everything.” (p. 50)
Elisabeth experienced great loneliness and isolation on account of her faithfulness, especially after losing her sister Juliette, a kindred spirit to her who gave her much support in her Christian vocation. Later in life, she found deep friendship with a religious sister and Moorcroft devotes a chapter to this relationship, referencing letters exchanged by them.
In the last two (of twelve) chapters of the book, Moorcroft describes Felix’s conversion. I found these last chapters the most compelling. After Elisabeth’s death, Felix feels the presence of Elisabeth and is convinced that she is alive in the communion of saints, leading to his dramatic conversion and reconciliation with the Church. There is not much detail given about this, which initially disappointed me as it seemed to be the climax of the book. However, as I began to reflect upon this I realised the profound and humbling truth that Elisabeth’s entire adult life was an offering for her beloved husband’s conversion. In sacrifice and love, she sowed seeds which she would never see flourish with her mortal eyes.
A beautiful reminder
Although the book was very enlightening and I enjoyed reading it, I did find the writing style and composition, especially
the insertion of quotations from Elisabeth’s journal and letters, somewhat awkward at times. However, Elisabeth’s deepening conversion throughout her life and Moorcroft’s attention to detail in her storytelling kept me wanting to read on.
I would definitely recommend this book as a thorough and enjoyable introduction to Elisabeth Leseur. I know I am inspired by Elisabeth’s life and want to read more of her writings. Her life can serve as an inspiration and encouragement for many, but especially for women unable to have children or women in an unequally yoked marriage. “The perfect union of two souls— how beautiful a harmony that would make! With him I love best in the world, let me one day make this harmony, O my God!” (p.68) Elisabeth longed for unity with her husband on earth, but obviously God had other plans, which she humbly accepted with grace. This life is not the end—When Silence Speaks is a beautiful reminder of that.
Emily Dytor is an American, Catholic convert, wife and stay-at-home mother who lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and two young children.