October 05, 2016

Yeast as a Metaphor: Élisabeth and Félix Leseur

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

It’s a wonderful phenomenon—yeast.  It permeates lifeless flour and causes it to rise and expand.  The power of yeast effects the brewing of beer and the making of wine.   The yeast plant is a fungus that grows without limits to its borders.  Only if yeast is alive and active will it interact with the dough.

On her TV program, “Martha Bakes,” the talented Ms. Stewart cannot contain her delight when she makes yeast dough: “Look at the sheen—so soft and shiny! The aroma is “bee-you-tee-ful,” and the fragrance gratifies all the senses!” Follow these instructions: proof active yeast, blend it into the flour mixture, and let it rise to double the size.  From yeast dough come baked goods such as breads, sticky buns and sugar buns, and monkey bread.  “Soo pretty, soo delicious,” Ms. Stewart swoons over her culinary works of art.

Yeast as a Metaphor

In the Matthean parable (13:33), the reign of God is like yeast that a woman took and kneaded into three measures of flour.  Eventually the entire mass of dough began to rise.  The image of yeast was a favorite in the Early Church.  Everyone understood the inner power of yeast with its limitless ability to make things grow, even in small beginnings with “three measures of flour.”  They grasped the comparison.  The yeast referred to the Church as an unlimited and growing reality, “destined ultimately to be present everywhere and to affect everything, though by no means to convert everything into itself” (Walter J. Ong, “Yeast: A Parable for Catholic Higher Education,” America Magazine, April 7, 1990).  The Church is catholic because it has always been expanding into new and shiny ‘dough’ without limit. Katholicos, from kata or kath and holos, means “through-the-whole or “throughout-the-whole.”

The Laity: Worldly and Yet Unworldly    

The laity are catholic, yeast in business and finance, entertainment, nursing and medicine, arts and science, law and law enforcement, politics, and sports.  They are the inner power with its limitless ability to make things grow, even in small ways. The laity find their holiness in the world with its financial concerns and family responsibilities.  Those who marry and have children become not just a family but also the Domestic Church.

In 1987, the Catholic Church held a World Synod on the Laity, one of many, beginning with Vatican II in the 1960s.  According to the synod’s final document, the laity are equal with clergy and consecrated religious in the life and mission of the Church.  

The call to holiness of the laity differs from the vocation of consecrated religious.  The laity are to be in the world in an unworldly way.  They approach life with wisdom that teaches the limited and relative value of material things. This would seem to be a contradiction in terms.  How to be worldly and unworldly at the same time?   It cannot be easy, for at times, the challenges seem insurmountable.  Yet, it remains for the lay vocation to find a theology of being present in the world. It is a practical spirituality of the family and the workplace.  For the laity, this is where holiness resides.*  

Holiness of the Laity

The holiness of the laity began with Jesus himself.  He was a rabbi and teacher, as were his disciples. Peter was a married man, and for all we know, so were the other apostles, the exception being John, the Beloved Disciple.  

St. Paul addresses and refers to those he evangelized as ‘saints,’ meaning that they were on their way to becoming saints.  In the Early Church, there were no consecrated institutes of men and women.  All Christians grasped the importance of living as disciples and ambassadors of the Lord.

As increasing numbers of Christians came to view the world as wicked, they flocked to the desert to live alone. When the desert grew so overcrowded with these solitaries, they came together and formed religious communities.  Thus, the start of monastic orders of men and women.


Consecrated men and women, and especially those who live in cloisters, spend several hours a day in prayer.

This is not the way of the laity. Their days focus almost entirely on family and the means of supporting it.  Their prayer is measured not in hours but in minutes—two here, five there, perhaps a Holy Hour or Retreat Day on rare occasions.

The conciliar document on the sacred liturgy encourages Catholic families to pray portions of the Liturgy of the Hours (#102-111).  The Hours are not private or devotional prayer but the prayer of the entire Church, the Church at prayer.  Praying the psalms nourishes Catholic family life whose welfare is daily beset with conflicting external forces. If prayer is the underlying power of strong family life, then parents can find ways to incorporate parts of the Hours into their daily schedule. In prayer, married couples derive the strength of God’s grace to live their married vocation.  

As children mature, they too must learn to travel the road to discipleship in the Lord.  Small children can be taught to pray a psalm or two at bed time. If this is not feasible during the week, then prayer on weekend is an alternate possibility.  

A minimal and external Christianity will not fortify today’s Domestic Church but only a vibrant Christianity in which Christ is a living reality.  It takes a few minutes to pray short sections of the Hours, even on public transit.  It is a consoling thought to recall that “in him, we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  

At Pre-Cana instructions, couples can learn the practice of making the Hours an integral part of their married life.

Can Yeast Corrupt?

The image of yeast is not always positive.  In First Corinthians 5:6-8, St. Paul mentions what all Jews understood.  At the Paschal festival time, they were to destroy all yeasted products because leaven was a metaphor for the corruptive influence of evil, for puffing up the self, leaving no room for God.   

Proofing the yeast in warm water will yield bubbles around the surface, and the yeast will become puffed up if it does not interact with the flour dough.  The puffed up yeast will die.  In this sense, neither the laity, nor any minister in the Church, can afford to be puffed up with pride.

Élisabeth Leseur (1866-1914) and Félix Leseur (1861-1950)

The story of Élisabeth Arrighi Leseur exemplifies the limitless power of marital love.  Élisabeth was born into a wealthy French Catholic family of Corsican descent.  As a child, she had contracted hepatitis, a disease from which she suffered all her life.  At twenty-one, she met Félix Leseur, a medical doctor, who also came from an affluent Catholic family.  Shortly before they were to be married, Élisabeth discovered that Félix was no longer a practicing Catholic.  Soon he became well known as the editor of an anti-clerical, atheistic newspaper.  

Despite the circumstances, the couple married, for Élisabeth was deeply in love with Félix.  They were unable to have children, a fact that made their marriage all the more difficult.  His attack on her religious devotion prompted an even more serious fidelity to the faith. She bore the brunt of his hatred of the Church with patient love.  At thirty-two years of age, Élisabeth experienced the grace to a deeper form of prayer.  She was convinced that her task now was to love her husband and pray for his conversion while remaining steadfast during his taunts against religion, and the Church in particular.

Homebound and Bed-Ridden

Élisabeth’s deteriorating health forced her to lead a sedentary life.  She received visitors and was able to conduct a vibrant apostolate from the confines of her home.  She became a devotee of St. Francis de Sales who wrote for the layperson in the seventeenth century. His Introduction to the Devout Life, perhaps the most famous spiritual guide of all time, is an offshoot of the Ignatian Exercises. During this period, Élisabeth kept a secret spiritual diary.  

When, at the age of forty-five, Élisabeth underwent surgery and radiation for the removal of a malignant tumor, she recovered and continued to receive visitors to her home. Three years later, she succumbed to cancer.  Her life has been recommended for sainthood. Why?  We turn the page to continue the narrative of her husband.

Dr. Félix Leseur

After Élisabeth’s death, Félix found a note addressed to him.  Not only did it predict his conversion, but he would also become a Dominican priest.  His hatred of the Church prompted him to expose her note as a fake, and he decided to do so at Lourdes, the famous Marian shrine in France.  There, something prevented him from carrying out his intended project—call it God’s intervening grace. As Élisabeth had predicted, he experienced a conversion and published her spiritual journal.  In 1919, Félix entered the Dominican Order, was ordained a priest four years later, and spent his remaining years speaking about his wife’s difficult yet remarkable life with him.  

In 1924, the future Archibishop Fulton J. Sheen made a retreat under Fr. Leseur’s direction.  It was at this time that he learned of Élisabeth’s life and her husband’s conversion.  In 1934, Fr. Leseur, O.P. worked to begin the cause for her canonization, and the Archbishop shared the story of this remarkable married couple in many presentations.  Élisabeth is currently a Servant of God, the first step in the cause for sainthood.

Élisabeth Leseur’s suffering was not wasted. On the contrary, her lifelong devotion to Félix was central to his conversion.  She became the yeast that permeated the lifeless soul of her husband.  It forever transformed his life so that he could affect change in the lives of others. Love begets love.

*The Ignatian “Prayer for Finding God in All Things” by Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. can help the busy person find God throughout the day.  Copies are available from the Institute of Jesuit Sources, Boston, MA.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.