Life & Soul

The Martins didn’t know they were saints – but they wanted to be

Zélie and Louis Martin

If your only Catholic association for the date of July 12 was hitherto the painful one of the Battle of the Boyne, a new and beautiful one can be added to it, for it is now the feast day of Ss Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of Thérèse Martin, “The Little Flower”.

There are so many aspects to their lives worth pondering. We have more contemporary evidence for the life of this family than for many saints and so we have a responsibility to delve deeper. Too often we have a view of sainthood which is no more mature than the theory that storks bring babies, and similarly seeks to avoid the grittier parts of reality. The life of this saintly couple was marked by suffering of the kind which makes most of us recoil when it comes to being asked to practise heroic virtue. How they kept faith through this and stopped it hardening their hearts is what should cause us to love and imitate them.

The Martins did not have the self-regarding comfort of knowing they were saints, as infant mortality and tuberculosis, cancer and mental illness, and death ravaged their family. The difference might be that they wanted above all to be saints. Their own subjective reactions to terrible events, like the shells of the invading Prussian army falling on their town as they hid in a cellar, was to pray, trust and surrender to the will of God, however scandalous it felt to their natural affections, which were tender and heightened.

One aspect of their early disappointments has always been of interest to me because I think it has such contemporary relevance to building a culture of vocation. Both Louis and Zélie began adulthood believing they were called to religious life; she to the Sisters of Charity and he to the Augustinian, but neither was deemed suitable. He apparently did not have the necessary academic qualifications; Zélie seems to have been deemed to lack either the required physical or mental robustness.

Louis and Zélie carved out useful occupations and continued to seek God. Married life for them was not a consolation prize, a second best. It was the sphere in which they would thrive humanly and spiritually. Zélie rejoiced in her motherhood and offered her children to God in their lives and deaths. Louis was a tender and devoted husband and father who ended up caring for his family without his wife and making the supreme sacrifice of seeing all but one daughter go into the cloister before he died. The parents’ love of religious life bore fruit in their children.

I think it is a beginner’s mistake to discern vocation in opposition: shall I embrace religious life or priesthood, or shall I be married? Louis and Zélie show us that the fundament of vocation is the desire to consecrate one’s life to God and to love with your whole heart. There is only one sort of love: the ability to shun egoism and go towards the other is what prepares one for both kinds of vocation. The qualities required of a good husband or father towards his family are the same as those of a priest towards the Church and her faithful.

A religious life not imbued with a mother’s power to nurture love through self-sacrifice is not an authentic one. Equally, the concomitant for the laity is that they consecrate their married lives to God and seek to sanctify their children as the Martins did.