The saint who knew when to let go
”Only God could ask such a sacrifice.” That phrase has occupied my mind since the summer holidays. In the garden of Les Buissonnets, the house in Lisieux to which the Martin family moved following the death of Zélie, there is a statue of Louis Martin and his youngest daughter, Thérèse, sat beside one another on a bench. She is turning towards him, her hands in his. It commemorates the moment and the spot where the 15-year-old Thérèse asked her father for permission to enter Carmel.
It is not hard to imagine his feelings. Thérèse was the youngest of nine children, of whom three had died in infancy. Louis doted on her and called her “my little queen”. She must have been a powerful connection to his beloved wife whom they had lost just over 10 years previously. That loss must have forged a bond of affection and protection between father and daughter of a kind which could so easily have become enmeshed or codependent.
The temptation to cling to Thérèse must have been powerful for many reasons. He had already given her two eldest sisters to the enclosure of Carmel. Léonie, the third surviving daughter, had tried her vocation and failed and for the moment was unhappy and unfulfilled. Céline would stay with her papa until he died, when she would finally enter Carmel. So it was hardly in the natural order of things that Thérèse, the baby of the family, should leave him at 15. In The Story of a Soul she recalls her father’s response to her request. His eyes filled with tears and he said to her: “Only God could ask such a sacrifice.” It is such an expressive, heart-wrung reply, encapsulating a wealth of faith and feeling.
Louis loved his daughter so much that the prospect of so painful a separation was more than he felt his ordinary human resources could bear. With deep faith he was willing to accede to something which was entirely against his natural desire, for God’s sake, and yet he recognised that God did not compel it, but rather asked it. Louis could exert a right to refuse but there would be no peace in such a refusal since he had identified that the origin of the request was in God. It was a sacrifice that only God could make bearable or heal. But the healing required the courage to sustain a deep wound for the sake of a good which faith promises in an uncertain future. Only to the eyes of a heroic faith did this request look like anything other than another bereavement on top of so many, a bereavement the father was asked to embrace as a sacrifice in exchange for a daughter’s embrace.
His words affirm her ability to know God’s will for her. By reference to the One who asks, he acknowledges that his own love participates in a hierarchy of love of which God is the origin and head, and so cannot be gainsaid if love is to continue to true finality and realisation. Louis’s grief was real and healthy but not selfish. The cost to him was not to be held over Thérèse or confused with the measure of the worth of what she wanted to do. He did not try to dissuade her by telling her she was too young or inexperienced to know her own mind.
It is amazing the number of times one comes across practising Catholic parents who try to discourage their children from religious vocations on the basis of dubious rationalisations like youth or inexperience. They do not honour, as Louis does, a capacity for freedom of choice which in every other sphere dictates its own imperative, but rather assume that vocation is the result of delusion or compulsion. If they do not consider who is asking they cannot hope to understand what is being asked.
It is that last distinction which characterises the saintly Martin parents. They surrendered all their attachments to God because faith transformed not their experience of pain, but rather their experience of hope. They had come to learn through pain that earthly love is the promise and foretaste of something which is only fully revealed in heaven. We would be foolish to imagine that this meant it cost them less dear. Zélie’s early death and Louis’s acute mental instability after Thérèse left home attest to the huge stresses they endured. Only God could ask such a sacrifice, and only the deepest love would be capable of making it.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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