In a timely article for The Catholic Thing, Father Mark Pilon highlights what he thinks is the most important event of the current Synod: the canonisation of Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of St Therese of Lisieux, this coming Sunday. It so happens that the CTS have also reprinted and updated a booklet about this saintly married couple by Fr Paulinus Redmond, which I have just read.
What struck me about their married life was their straightforward trust in God – whatever happened. This sounds an obvious thing to say. We Christians know that “trust in God” is fundamental to our Faith, emphasised over and over again in Scripture. But how often do we live out this virtue in the unswerving way that the parents of St Therese did? What distinguishes them from countless other practising Catholic couples?
It seems that at every stage of their lives they listened to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. As single people, both convinced that they were meant to enter religious life, they accepted that this was not God’s plan for them. Zelie composed a prayer following her disappointment at not having a vocation to the Sisters of Charity: “Lord, since…I am not worthy to be Your bride, I will enter the married state in order to fulfil Your holy will. I beg of you to give me many children and let them all be consecrated to You.”
Then, certain that God would answer her prayer, even though she had no suitor, Zelie petitioned Our Lady to advise her on appropriate work. On 8th December 1851, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, an interior locution told her, “See to the making of Point d’Alencon” – a sign she understood to mean she was to become a lace-maker. It was employment at which she excelled – and which she could do at home while raising a family.
The story of how Zelie came to know that she was to marry the clockmaker, Louis Martin, is better-known: crossing the bridge of St Leonard in Alencon at the same time as Louis, whom she did not then know, she heard the same inner voice: “This is he whom I have been preparing for you.” Louis, who had also been drawn to religious life, was prospering in his own trade and loved walking, fishing and gardening. Three months after their first sight of each other they were married.
For the first ten months of their married life they did not sleep together. The modern world will find this strange, even unnatural behaviour, but that is to misunderstand the depth of the couple’s faith. They did not love each other any less by deciding that they were called to imitate the chaste marriage of Our Lady and St Joseph. However, after consulting a priest, he advised them that God wanted them to have a normal, rather than an exceptional, married life, open to children. In the event, they were to have nine: seven daughters and two sons. The two boys both died as babies and also one of the baby girls; the other, Helene, died aged five, an event that caused her mother particular grief. The remaining five daughters, Pauline, Marie, Leonie, Celine and Therese, all eventually entered religious life – as Zelie had once requested in prayer.
Louis and Zelie were exemplary parents to their remaining daughters. Leonie, their third daughter, had a difficult temperament and tried her mother’s patience: Zelie wrote about her, “This poor child makes me very anxious, for her character is undisciplined and her intelligence undeveloped…” Of Therese, the future saint, she wrote about her “almost invincible stubbornness.” Their greatest trial, however, was the onset of breast cancer, which was to kill Zelie in 1877, aged only 46, when Therese was only four. Again, despite grieving at the thought of leaving her children motherless, Zelie showed her great faith and trust in God, writing that although she hoped for a cure “it is quite possible that such is not the will of God. Everything has been done; let us leave the rest in the hands of Providence. If I am not cured it means God is holding firm and He wants me.”
Louis remained a devoted father. He never remarried and lived to see four of his daughters become nuns. In old age he prayed, “My God…I wish to suffer something for You and I offer myself.” God took him at his word; he was to suffer the indignity of losing his mind and eventually needing institutional care.
Both parents are buried in the cathedral in Lisieux, built to honour their daughter, St Therese. Do they set an impossible standard for other couples? No. Although they were not spared the usual sorrows of life, their response was never bitterness, despair or self-pity, but prayer and trust in God. Above all, they show us that holiness is more than piety, goodness or niceness; it is heroic.