Story of a Family
Something quite remarkable took place in the Church on October 18. A married couple was canonized together. Even more amazing is that one of their five daughters is also a canonized saint. The daughter is Thérèse Martin, otherwise known as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and the couple is Zélie and Louis Martin. What is most incredible is that this is the first time in history that both parents of a saint have been canonized. There are a lot of saint siblings (Sts. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Macrina, as one example) and there are saint mothers and children (such as Sts. Monica and Augustine), but this is the first time ever for both parents of a saint to be canonized. A clarification is in order here: another of Zélie and Louis’ daughters, Léonie, also has a cause for canonization in process. That the Martins had two daughters who were exceedingly holy is an amazing thing. And of the others, I would not be surprised if they were found to be heroic in their Christianity, too. What a family!
Marie-Azélie Guérin, called Zélie, was born in 1831. She had wanted to enter religious life, but was dissuaded. Instead she married Louis Martin in 1858 and eventually gave birth to nine children, but four died in infancy. The heartache from this must have been terrible though she was a woman of great inner strength and faith. She died in 1877 at the age of 45 from breast cancer; her youngest child, Thérèse, was only four years of age at the time. Prior to her death Zélie had travelled to Lourdes seeking a cure from her cancer. Although she did not receive the cure, she accepted this, saying that her time was up and that God wanted her to be “somewhere else other than on this earth.” She was deeply devoted to God, and the faith she shared with Louis was the center of their marriage.
Louis Martin was born in 1823 and died in 1894 at the age of 70. When he was young he had wanted to become a monk, but could not master the Latin he was required to learn. So he left the monastery and became a watchmaker and family man, exhibiting great love for his wife and children. Because of his earlier desire for the religious life, he maintained a disciplined prayer life, seeking times of solitude and prayer as part of his daily routine. He had a strong love for nature and therefore he liked to travel, making a number of pilgrimages during his life. He had a close relationship with all his daughters, and doted on Thérèse in particular after his wife died. When he had a series of strokes in the last years of his life, Thérèse, already in the convent, took it very hard.
The example that Zélie and Louis set for their daughters was that being close to God was natural. For them it was the only way to live. They were not perfect, but they very deeply loved each other, their children, and their God. They attended Mass daily; prayer and spiritual practices were as much part of their lives as eating and sleeping. As much as they were extraordinarily close-knit, they all accepted the grace to let go of one another in order for each one to follow the call of Jesus. As mentioned earlier, every one of their daughters left home to enter religious life; all into the Carmelites, except Léonie who became a Visitandine.
Noticing that both Louis and Zélie had tried to enter religious life when they were young made me wonder what the world would have lost if Louis had decided to stick it out in the monastery, mastering the Latin somehow. What would have happened if Zélie had entered religious life rather than marrying? There would have been no St. Thérèse, nor would any of her sisters have existed either. With no Thérèse there would be no Little Way, no proclamation that “my vocation is Love,” no “Story of a Soul,” no “spending my Heaven doing good on earth.” The most popular female saint of modern times would never have been born! There would have been no saintly couple of Louis and Zélie to give witness to the sanctity of marriage, and no example of how a man and woman can help each other grow in holiness or be guides to the culture of a family in which holy children might be raised.
The Martins helps us to see the importance of good discernment as to our vocational choices. They remind us that God guides each of us to a particular vocation even if our road to it takes a few twists and turns. Who knows if Louis would have been a good monk or Zélie a happy religious? But what we do know is that it was not the right choice for either of them. They found a world of happiness as a married couple, a great gift God gave them and which they shared with the world in raising daughters to also be people of faith. This is not to say that one vocation is better than another. Rather, one vocation is better for each individual than the others, because there is one to which each of us is ultimately called. No matter which vocation we live, we are called to live it in such a way as to glorify God and grow in sanctity through it. Louis and Zélie are excellent examples of this. They produced five daughters who each felt that religious life was where they could love and serve God the best. Being women of faith was in their spiritual DNA, so to speak, because they had godly parents from whom they learned.
The gospel for this week was the one in which James and John, brothers, asked to have the reward of sitting at God’s left and right hand when they were finally in heaven. The other apostles were outraged at this, but Jesus simply said to them that they had no idea what it was they were really asking. While noting that only the Father would decide who was to sit at His right or left, Jesus said that they would have to drink the same cup which He had drunk, which basically boiled down to the fact that He had come to serve and not be served. He said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be the servant of all.” (Mark 10:44) This is what the Martins seemed to have learned so well. Louis and Zélie served God by raising their daughters with the same values as Jesus taught His followers. The last will be first, and so they had to learn to serve if they truly wanted to love God in return. It is no wonder that Thérèse wanted to do even the smallest thing with great love and came to discover her Little Way. The seed was planted by her parents that it is in serving that we are most like Jesus.
From all the saintly Martins we learn that we can do this, too. Drinking the cup is not simply about suffering the way Jesus suffered. Drinking the cup means that we are called to be humble, sharing what we have without lording it over others. It means that we serve God by meeting the needs of those we see around us who may be suffering, lonely, poor, or in need of spiritual guidance. It means helping those who are spiritually searching to see that God loves them unconditionally, something we can teach through our own love and mercy and sometimes through our words. Drinking the cup means that like Louis and Zélie, we think of our home as it really is: the domestic church. (The Catechism, 2204 and following)* It means that whether we have children or not, whether we are married or single, whether we are in religious or clerical life, we are all called to live out the gospel in the family of God, the Body of Christ, into which we were baptized.
St. Louis and St. Zélie had no idea when they raised their daughters that they would make such an incredible contribution to the world in their own right. They did not seek fame or reward, save that of loving God greatly in everything they did. What we can learn from them, and from their daughters, is that each one of us is called to nothing less than this: that we do everything with love, even the smallest of things. We are called to service, generosity, mercy, and love whenever opportunities present themselves in whatever vocation we are living. We are called to do the best with whatever it is we have. And we are invited to grow more deeply in love with our good and generous God who loves us more than we can imagine.
May we be inspired by new saints, Louis and Zélie Martin, to lead lives of humility and service! May we be inspired by the witness to marriage and family life they gave us! May we ask the Martins to intercede for us when we are in any sort of spiritual or familial need! May we learn to drink from the cup from which Jesus drank so that we may learn what it means to serve our neighbors, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters! May we ask the Martins to intercede in praying for vocations, that all may find the vocation to which they are truly called! And may we recognize the joy that comes from being a member of our true family, the Church, the Body of Christ! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the section on the Christian Family
Some good resources on the Martins are the following websites, (though I must mention that the best insight into St. Thérèse is her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul.) There are many other resources also.
The first photo is found at https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/st.-therese-of-lisieuxs-parents-to-make-history-as-first-married-couple-to
The photos that follow are all mine. Of these the first is a photo montage of St. Thérèse and her sisters which was on display at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
Next is the garden at the house Thérèse lived in with her father and sisters after the death of her mother in Lisieux, France.
Following, is a photo of a stained glass window in the cathedral dedicated to St. Thérèse in Lisieux, France.
Last is the view from the garden at the Martin house in Lisieux.
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