Saints with Lives Like Ours

This is the first of a two-part post on Louis and Zélie Martin.

Last week, we celebrated the feast day (July 12) of Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and some of us may have celebrated their wedding anniversary (July 13). This is the first time that we have the joy of celebrating the feast of these saints for they were only canonized last October. Their canonization is unique because they were the first married couple to be canonized together as a couple in the history of the Church. The Holy Spirit’s timing was very fitting because they were canonized at a time in which marriages and families are struggling from various attacks from within and without, including an attack on their very definitions. Our own Supreme Court of the United States essentially redefined marriage to include same-sex couples only a few months prior to the canonization of Louis and Zélie. In her book The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse Helene Mongin writes: 

In canonizing a couple as a couple for the first time in its history, the Church is sending a powerful message, showing the beauty of God’s plan for marriage and family and recalling that marriage is one of the royal paths to sanctification (p. 139).

I couldn’t agree with her more. However, it is possible that we could completely miss the powerful message sent by the Church if we never get to know the lives of this extraordinary couple--the lives that show us God’s plan for marriage and family and the holiness we can reach through the vocation of marriage.

So we need to ask the question, who are Louis and Zélie Martin? Of course, you will not know them sufficiently by reading this blog, but it may at least be a launching pad for you. This post will highlight two important aspects of this saintly couple: 1. They were ordinary people who experienced joys and sorrows very similar to yours and mine. 2. Their ordinary lives were made saintly because, as their daughter St. Thérèse put it, “Heaven is the place toward which all their actions and desires tended” (Mongin, 43.)

We may sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the saints were people “made of different stuff” than we are, that they were in some way born saintly. Louis and Zélie Martin remind us that saints are not always priests or religious who levitate and perform miracles. Ordinary people with ordinary lives can become extraordinary saints--and it is a process of becoming--people are not born saints.

There is much we can sympathize with in the lives of Louis and Zélie. They had pastimes as we do: Louis enjoyed fishing and playing billiards with his friends (p. 18); Zélie enjoyed letter writing to her family, going to devotional meetings, and making lace (p. 29); they loved being with and playing with their children and, as Zélie put it, “they were all our joy” (p. 25). They experienced the joys of parenthood: Zélie wrote of little Pauline, “You don’t know how good and affectionate she is...She hugs us all the time without our asking; she blows kisses to ‘good Jesus; she doesn’t speak but she understands everything; she’s a unique child” (p.50). They also knew the struggles of parenthood: staying up with a baby who cried for 36 hours straight! (p. 50) and the suffering of parenting a difficult, distant daughter, Leonie. Zélie wrote of Leonie: “I had tried by all the means I could think of to draw her to myself; everything had failed until now, and that has been the greatest sorrow of my life” (p.61). Louis and Zélie also knew the pains and joys involved of caring for elderly parents; they cared for both of their fathers until death. Many of us can also empathize with their working situation, as both Louis and Zélie worked tirelessly on the family business, lace-making (Louis was also a watchmaker, but he took a break from his profession in order to help Zélie’s growing lace-making business). They experienced times of too much work, not enough work, and certainly not enough sleep. Finally, they suffered from health and mental health problems well known to us today: Zélie suffered periodically with anxiety and depression and she suffered and died of breast cancer; Louis suffered and died from cerebral arteriosclerosis, a disease that affected his mental faculties among other things and caused him to stay at a mental hospital near the end of his life.

How, then, did these people with ordinary lives become saints? And what can they teach us about marriage and family life? As St. Thérèse put it, ““Heaven is the place toward which all their actions and desires tended” (p. 43). What does this mean in concrete terms? It means that they saw everything in relation to God and lived the present in light of the eternal. It means that every little thing they did had meaning because they were doing it for God. St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” was not a way she discovered entirely on her own, but it was a way she experienced in the lives of her parents (Mongin). Because they had their eyes set on their eternal happiness with God in Heaven, nothing on earth could disturb them, neither fortune nor suffering.

 

This is the first of a two-part post on Louis and Zélie Martin.

All citations are taken from The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse by Helene Mongin, translated by Marsha Daigle-Williamson.

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