Pilgrims venerate the relics of Blessed Louis and Marie Zelie Guerin Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse, outside of the basilica in Lisieux, France, before the couple’s Oct. 20, 2008 beatification. (Getty Images)
Louis and Zelie Martin, beatified in 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI, lie side by side in the crypt of the enormous basilica that honors their most famous child: St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Martins are not, however, simply the parents of St. Thérèse, whose “Little Way” inspired new zeal in millions of Catholics and whom Blessed John Paul II named a Doctor of the Church in 1997. St. Thérèse, in fact, once wrote of them, “God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”
Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin provide a rare and compelling witness to married couples today. Together, they brought nine children into the world, four who died in infancy and five who entered religious life. Through all their struggles and triumphs, Louis and Zelie’s heroic witness to divine providence and to the power of a marriage lived in fidelity offers profound insights into how a man and woman can reach holiness together.
FAITHFUL THROUGH TRIALS
The first years of marriage are rarely easy, and the Martins were no exception to this rule. On her wedding day, July 13, 1858, Zelie Martin wept for hours. She later reflected, “I can say that on that day I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again.” She had longed to enter the same Visitation convent as her elder sister, but had discerned instead that her vocation lay in the home. Louis, too, had pursued the priesthood, but the monastic community to which he applied rejected him. Their mutual desire to live for God alone drew them closer to one another. Zelie wrote many years later that Louis “understood me and consoled me … because his inclinations were similar to mine…. Our feelings were always in accord.”
Today, many couples enter marriage with disappointments from the past failed relationships or even attempts to follow a different vocation. These crosses can be borne in companionship, as Louis and Zelie discovered. Instead of longing for what could have been, they centered themselves entirely on the promise of heaven. Pursuit of holiness in the sacraments and prayer became a regular part of their increasingly busy home. Zelie raised the children and worked as a full-time lacemaker, while Louis traveled often for business. In spite of their rigorous schedules, they found time for family prayer in the mornings and evenings, and frequently attended daily Mass and eucharistic adoration.
These devotions were particularly remarkable in post-Revolutionary France. The Martins lived in a fiercely secular culture. The Enlightenment and constant civil war had left the Catholic community in Normandy as in much of Europe a small and despised minority. The Martins resisted fierce anti-clericalism, not unlike that found in much of the West today. They prayed fervently that their own children would be blessed with religious vocations. And in their home, they deliberately provided a strong antidote to the secularism that reigned in contemporary society. Families today can find encouragement in the Martins’ determination to focus not on the failures of secular culture, but on the gift of eternal life.
Zelie repeatedly reminded her brother, Isidore, whose faith had grown weak at the University in Paris, that complete happiness is not possible on earth: “In his wisdom, God wanted it this way to make us remember that the world is not our true home.” Two decades later, after his wife’s death, Louis Martin would echo these sentiments: “Our heart is satisfied with nothing as long as we’re not seeing the infinite beauty that is God.”
These words were not cheap piety. The Martins endured prolonged financial distress, a situation to which many families today can relate. When the Prussian army occupied and devastated the countryside around their home in Alençon from 1868 to 1870, Zelie’s lace-making business failed and the couple lived on their modest savings. The French economy was failing, and their home was periodically overrun with invading Prussian soldiers.
Despite these trials, daily life continued, and Zelie and Louis took great joy in their children. Zelie wrote that, however peaceful life in the convent might have been in comparison, she would never have chosen otherwise, for the sake of her children. Likewise, although Louis had sought solitude in the monastery, he instead found God in “the intimate happiness of the family, and it’s this beauty that brings us closer to Him.”
Nonetheless, tragedy struck repeatedly four children died before the age of five. Louis and Zelie spoke often of them as beloved members of their family, providing a beautiful example of healing for families who have experienced the inexpressible pain of losing a child. “When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain,” wrote Zelie. “Several people said to me, ‘It would be much better never to have had them.’ I can’t bear this kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children… We’ll see them again in Heaven.” Her words express the convictions of many parents that each human life, no matter its duration, is irreplaceable.
THE JOURNEY TO HEAVEN
The Martins’ courage and devotion in the face of illness and death are also a moving example for husbands and wives who today face terminal illness or the death of a spouse. Zelie had suffered pain in her breast for eleven years when she was finally diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer in 1876. Pain and the accumulated years of loss and trauma developed into irritability and depression. She confessed to her sister that the sleep deprivation made her “truly not very pleasant.” She continued, “Fortunately, I’m still willing to admit it!” Louis remained at her side until her death, comforting her in the long nights. He understood that his vocation was to become the face of Christ for Zelie, and he saw her safely into the heaven that she had always kept in the center of their home. She died in his arms in 1877 at the age of 45.
After Zelie’s death, Louis moved his five daughters from Alençon to Lisieux, where they could be near their cousins. The burden of raising the youngest girls fell to the two eldest, Marie and Pauline. Louis wrote to them expressing his fatherly approval and instructing them “to lead your little battalion the best you can and be more sensible than your old father….”
Although his life was difficult, Louis was not depressed or despondent. He wrote to a priest friend in 1883: “The memories of my whole life are so pleasant that … there are moments when my heart overflows with joy.” The burden of single fatherhood became yet another way in which Louis drew closer to the happiness of heaven.
Louis and Zelie’s prayers and example bore great fruit. Their five surviving children entered religious life: four at the Carmel at Liseiux, while the fifth entered the Visitation convent that Zelie herself had so longed to join.
For Louis, his daughters’ vocations were both the greatest sacrifice and the greatest joy of his later life. He gladly gave his daughters to Christ, whom he knew as the perfect and true Bridegroom. In spite of his deep attachment to their companionship, he willingly let them pursue the cloistered life. For Thérèse, his generosity and self-gift embodied the love of God himself. She called him her “King,” who “had offered himself as a victim to God.”
Near the end of his life, Louis wrote to his four Carmelite daughters, “I have the urgent desire to thank God and to make you thank God because I feel that our family, though very humble, has the honor of being among the privileged of our adorable Creator.”
As Louis suffered from cerebral arteriosclerosis, he grew silent and disoriented. He died in 1892 in a mental hospital. One year later, Thérèse expressed in a letter the heart of her family’s vocation: “We are voyagers who are traveling to our homeland.… There we shall be reunited never to leave each other, there we shall taste family joys eternally. … And we shall form a crown adorning the heads of our dear parents.”
Louis and Zelie won that crown. The story of their lives is a gift to all who face the illness, financial stress, secularism, and loss in a family. Their heroism and the lives of their children show that no one becomes holy by himself. Through the vocation of marriage, men and women are called to help bring each other and their children to glory.
ERIKA J. AHERN is a wife and mother of three daughters. She is the campus coordinator for Regina Caeli Academy in Hartford, Conn., and writes at philosophermoms.blogspot.com.