I have learned more about how to approach and regard suffering from St Therese than anyone else. I wouldn’t say that the suffering is any less painful now – just that I am not overwhelmed by anguish because of it. In fact, with the help of Therese i can begin to see glimmers of indescribable joy and peace within suffering. Nowhere am I closer to Christ than when I am being crucified along side Him.
But who shaped Therese’s view of suffering? Who did she learn all this from? Who were her examples?
Well, the two most influential people in any child’s life are their Mother and Father. In Therese’s case, she had two incredible role models in regards to suffering.
Born into a military family, Zelie described her childhood and youth as “dismal.” Her mother and father showed her little affection. As a young lady, she sought unsuccessfully to enter the religious order of the sisters of the Hotel-Dieu.
After marrying at age 26, Zelie bore nine children, seven girls and two boys. “We lived only for them,” Zelie wrote; “they were all our happiness.” Zélie, in contrast to her own mother, was very loving to her daughters, and combined her roles in a busy routine of homemaker, businesswoman and tender mother.
The Martins’ delight in their children turned to shock and sorrow as tragedy relentlessly and mercilessly stalked their little ones. Within three years, Zelie’s two baby boys, a five year old girl, and a six-and-a-half week old infant girl all died.
Zelie was left numb with sadness. “I haven’t a penny’s worth of courage,” she lamented. But her faith sustained her through these terrible ordeals. In a letter to her sister-in-law who had lost an infant son, Zelie remembered: “When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and buried them, I felt sorrow through and through….People said to me, ‘It would have been better never to have had them.’ I couldn’t stand such language. My children were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find our little ones again up above.”
Zelie developed breast cancer and died when Therese was just 5 years old. She left her husband of 15 years, Louis – a watchmaker – to bring up their surviving 5 daughters on his own.
Louis adored his daughters and openly declared “I am a big child with my children!” But it was not just his wife who would depart from him. Each of his 5 remaining daughters would enter the convent. Louis’s paternal heart did not find it easy to part with his girls, especially his “Queen,” little Thérèse.
Louis also knew illness. He suffered dementia in his final years but was cared for at home until the end.
So these were the people who shaped Therese from the start. These gentle kind and loving parents who knew so much suffering. And although great suffering had left its mark on mother and father, it was not the scar of bitterness.
Therese is of course the most famous member of the Martin family. Nevertheless, the sanctity of the parents was prior to that of the daughter—both in time and, to a degree, in causality. Louis and Zelie were not saintly because they raised a saint; they raised a saint because they were saintly.
The more i get to know about this couple the more indebted i feel towards them. It was the little day to day things that shaped Therese and her sisters. They way their grief was born with such acceptance and humility. The way that Zelie set aside her lace making business to spend two hours on a dolls’ dinner party. All these day to day little things that may have seemed totally insignificant and normal at the time, were actually the cause of their sanctification and tiny shoots of future sainthood for them and their daughter Therese. It makes me view my own day-to-day trials in a completely different light.
The Church’s focus on lay sanctity has been more explicit since the Second Vatican Council, which identified the lay vocation as follows: “They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” Louis and Zélie Martin, in the “ordinary circumstances” of family life, of labour, of prayer, and of play, fulfilled this description to the letter.
As I finish my novena to Louis and Zelie tomorrow I will pray that I not only learn a deeper understanding of day-to-day life and day-to-day love and suffering from their daughter Therese, but also imitate Louis and Zelie’s practical example of how to live this truth of love and suffering in my own home.
Blessed Louis and Zelie, pray for us.
St Therese, pray for us.