Clearing the Heart to See the Truth

A Saint from Saints

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was called the “Greatest Saint of modern times,” by another great saint, St. Pope Pius X. Shortly after her death in 1897, her fame spread quickly, and her spiritual auto-biography—Story of a Soul—became an overnight success. In it, she recounted the growth of her interior life due to the workings of grace, culminating in her final words before entering into the abode of the blessed, “Oh, how I love him!” The ‘Him,’ of course, was Jesus. Despite her terrible disease of tuberculosis, which by the time of her death had consumed much of her lungs and capacity to breath, she remarked how her sufferings were joyful, as they drew her closer to her Beloved, Jesus.

When I first returned to the Church in the early 1990’s, I tried reading her writings. I must admit, when I read some of them for the first time, I had to put the book down. The love and affections conveyed there were just too much for me. I confided to her sadly and secretly in the depths of my heart, “Thérèse, I don’t love Jesus like you. Further, I don’t even want to love Jesus like you did…but I want to want to.” She has been working on that part of my prayer ever since.

Thus, when I was able to travel to Lisieux this summer with my teenage daughter, Claire Thérèse, to visit the wonderful shrines dedicated to her and her now canonized parents, I recognized her hand in all of this, nudging me—pushing me—to grow closer to her Beloved. To add extra leverage, she brought in her parents, Zélie and Louis. In learning about her parents, I understand better why Thérèse became such a great saint. In this beautiful family, a saint came from saints. By studying these holy parents and visiting their shrines along with Thérèse’s, I discovered five keys to that helped me understand obstacles to my growing closer to Jesus through my family and vocation as a father and husband.

  1. Recognize that Marriage is a Vocation

Louis and Zélie each wanted to become a religious. After finding their efforts spurned, and through a providential meeting between Louis and his future mother-in-law, Louise-Jeanne, Louis met Zélie. They courted briefly and married. At first, the Martin’s struggled to understand God’s plan for them, since each wanted so desperately to serve Him in lives devoted to poverty, chastity, and obedience. Thus, they lived as brother and sister for the first ten months of their marriage before being encouraged by their spiritual director to truly embrace marriage as designed by God. By discovering that marriage is also a holy calling from God and a beautiful way to serve Him, they enthusiastically accepted all that marriage entails, eventually enjoying nine children!

Even though I discovered the truth about marriage twenty-six years ago when I was discerning between marriage and the priesthood, I was always bothered by the fact that if marriage is indeed a way to serve God and become a saint, why are there no examples to prove this? Reading about the lives of Louis and Zélie confirmed my belief that marriage is a legitimate path to holiness.

  1. Fill Your Marital Life with Prayer and Hope

The Martin household filled each day with prayer, prayer that only increased their virtues, of which there were many. Louis turned an odd-shaped room in his house (his daughter Celine described it as a hexagonal-shaped tower) into his prayer room. The family and guests were allowed to visit him when he was there, but only if they wished to discuss the things of God. On one side of the wall he had written, “God sees everything.” On the opposite wall, he had written, “Eternity is near.” This sums up the way both he and Zélie lived their lives; recognizing fully God’s ever-present providence which led to their continuous conversation with Him in their daily meditation. In so doing, the Martin’s suffused every event in their life, the good and the bad, with the hope of heaven. If I were to sum up their lives with one word, it would be that they lived their lives in accordance with the theological virtue of
hope
. It was this virtue that enabled them to transform every tragedy into reason to grow closer to God.

  1. Allow Jesus to Purify Your Marital Love

The Martins gave themselves totally to God by giving themselves totally to each other. They shared everything together: their struggles, their worries, their goals, and their victories. They prioritized their time together, ensuring that they spent time each day conversing, dining, and recreating together as a family. They prayed individually every day, but also prayed daily as a family, especially the Holy Mass, the Rosary, and frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. By centering their lives on Christ, He became the source of their love for each other. The letters that Zélie wrote to her husband while on his many business trips after 15 or so years of marriage were filled with longing, loving desires, respect, trust, and admiration. She couldn’t wait for his return. These letters seemed more like those of an infatuated young girl than a grown woman who, by that time, was the mother of nine children, only six of whom survived beyond infancy. She expressed to her sister many times that, despite the desires of her youth to become a nun, she was made for children, and how she loved to have them near her, even while working in her lace-making company.

  1. Do Not Be Discouraged by Imperfections

Like many of us, I had the impression that saints were perfect humans, freed by grace from mistakes and struggles. This, of course, is false. I give credit to Celine, their daughter and one of their biographers, as well as other scholars who have written about the Martins, for not editing out their imperfections and struggles. For instance, on one of his trips to Paris, Louis had written in a letter to Zélie that he found the debauchery and the lax morality Paris was infamously known for and which were reflected in Parisian dress-codes of the day, greatly challenged his desires to remain chaste in heart. Zélie struggled with anxiety and worries, particularly with regards to her daughter Leonie. As a parent, I can relate to all of the above. It was encouraging for me to know that even saints have difficult children. By the way, Leonie did eventually respond better to her mother’s promptings and became a nun with the Visitation Sisters.

  1. Keep Holy the Sabbath/Sanctity of Work (tie.)

Both Louis and Zélie refused to operate their shops on Sunday, even though their counterparts were all caving in to the culture and working at least in the afternoons on Sunday in order to get more business. Zélie always said that the reason that she and Louie had money was because they respected the Lord’s command. They spent that day with their daughters and with those in need, bringing them necessities of every kind, whether corporal or spiritual. They carried this perspective into their everyday work lives as well. They always emphasized serving their cliental followed by their workers before they thought of their pocketbook. Yet, their home, although not wealthy, nevertheless avoided the poverty and financial struggles one would think they would have for not being concerned with making money.

Relics of Sts. Louis and Zelie in the crypt at the Basilica in Lisieux

By seeking to live a holy marriage, men and women are called to embrace the paradox of being in the world while being relentless about removing all worldliness from life. It’s hard to live a good life on earth and make sure that everything you do is done with Heaven and holiness in mind. This is what Louis and Zélie accomplished. They got married, had a family, ran a business, went on business trips — very common, normal stuff — while they were just constantly working to make sure that everything was purified, everything was geared to God, everything was charged with the supernatural. It was this witness by these great parents that produced that greatest saint of modern times. Difficult to be sure, but not impossible. Perhaps their example is a beautiful witness for our cultural road to renewal.

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2 Responses to “A Saint from Saints”

  1. tina says:

    I’ve been reading the correspondence of Zelie and Louis Martin and it has been so refreshing. They have worries just like the rest of society but they always turn to Christ in tough times. Christ was.always in her letters and it was beautiful. It was so encouraging to me because I am not perfect but I can turn to Christ. Such a wonderful example! I also think Zelie is hilarious! Her letters to her brother have a lot of teasing and sarcasm. It’s very funny

  2. Beautiful synopsis of the way that we are ALL called to holiness, regardless of vocation, and how that is possible through daily prayer, by keeping God central and foremost, or putting “first things first” as St Ignatius of Loyola taught, and struggling to grow in virtue each day while doing God’s will the best we can. Thanks for sharing your insights, Troy!

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