On October 19, 2008, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis Martin and Zélie Guerin were beatified together in the Basilica of Lisieux, France. This is only the second time in recent history that a married couple will be beatified together. The chosen date coincides with World Mission Sunday and the eleventh anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Thérèse as a Doctor of the Church by John Paul II
Father Pius Sammut OCD
The traditional family of man-woman-children has been badly knocked around over the last 30 years. Marriage is in a crisis. The proportion of married couples with children is falling as the marriage rate itself. One in three marriages end in divorce, the number of people cohabiting is on the increase and the fertility rate of women in the Western world has been halved in the past 40 years. Every one is aware of the hurt and suffering all this is causing.
Marriages, of course, break up for many reasons but all of them end with broken dreams. Is it time to re-evaluate our dreams about married life? Perhaps yes. This is why the beatification of Louis Martin and Zélie Guerin, the parents of the ever popular Saint Thérèse, this coming October 19, is highly significant.
Zélie was twenty seven when she got married in 1858 to Louis, eight years her senior. The odd thing about this wedding is that they got married at midnight – in the Church of Notre-Dame at Alençon in northern France. Like many things in life, this marriage was not supposed to happen. Louis had in mind to become a monk and Zélie a nun. But as the rabbis say, ‘man plans and God laughs’. Both were refused entrance to religious life!
Both were hard workers, she was a maker of point d’Alençon lace, he a watchmaker. Zélie’s business was more successful and so Louis sold his watch-shop so that he could handle the administration of her lace-making venture. But it was tough. “If I were free and alone, and if I had to go through all I have suffered for the past twenty-four years, I would rather die of hunger; just thinking of it makes me shudder!” Long hours, too many demands from the customers, very painstaking and meticulous work obviously had its toll. Well, as the German critic Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “for a tree to become tall, it must grow tough roots among the rocks”.
The couple had nine children and raised five of them to adulthood. A few weeks before Thérèse’s birth, Zélie wrote to her sister-in-law: “I love children to madness. I was born to have them!” The parents put the name ‘Marie’ as the first Christian name to all the children. Later Thérèse would write of “the maternal preferences of heaven’s Queen for our family”.
They were well enthused in every day life. They did travel quite extensively. Life at home was fun. The father liked fishing and playing billiards. The children spoke a lot about feasts at home and parties. Yet the parents never forgot to inject the real dimension of life in the minds and hearts of the children. We are here to go to somewhere else – to heaven! Louis often repeated “Oh! The homeland! The homeland! It is beautiful, the Homeland!”
The Gospel was their standard. When a neighbor sued them over a boundary dispute in which even the judge found the Martins innocent, Zélie wrote to her daughter Pauline: “We can but accept contradictions patiently, since we must suffer in this world. If only it enables us to avoid a little Purgatory, we shall bless M. M. in the next world for having made us undergo some of it in this life. But I prefer that it should be he who should do us this wrong, rather than that we should have to reproach ourselves with having caused him a quarter of the trouble.”
Recently the Pope, commenting on the present financial crisis that has struck Wall Street, explicitly said that “whoever builds his life on this reality, on material things, on success … builds (his house) on sand. Only the word of God is the foundation of all reality. We are now seeing, in the collapse of major banks, that money vanishes, it is nothing. All these things that appear to be real are in fact secondary. Only God’s words are a solid reality.”
Perhaps here is one secret for a happy married life – in all things, God is first. It is significant that although Zélie and Louis were constantly pressed for time, each one was faithful to their life of prayer. They both attended the early 5:30 Mass, saying it was the only one the working persons could attend. They tried hard to keep a regular prayer schedule with their whole family. They put an emphasis on celebrating Sunday together.
This intimacy with God led them to have a deeper relationship between themselves. In October 1863, away on business, Louis wrote to Zélie: “My dearest, I cannot get back to Alençon before Monday; the time seems long to me, for I want so much to be with you. I embrace you all with my whole heart, while awaiting the joy of being with you again.” And he signed “Your husband and true friend who loves you forever.” Dreamy romanticism or the possibility that exists to live love always deeper?
Ten years later when Zélie took her kids to visit relatives in Lisieux, we find her writing to him: “I am with you all day in spirit, and say to myself: ‘Now he is doing such and such a thing.’ I long to be with you, Louis dear. I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection doubled by being deprived of your company. I could not live apart from you.”
Suffering is part of life. The way we react to it makes our life rewarding or miserable. In six years they lost four children, three infants and one little girl, Marie-Hélène, at the age of five. Death in infancy was a terrible reality in the 19th century.
To her sister-in-law, whose baby had just died, Zélie wrote: “Your dear little child is with God; he is looking down on you and loving you, and one day you will possess him again. This is a great consolation that I have experienced myself, and which I still feel. When I had to close the eyes of my dear children and bury them, I felt deep sorrow, but I was always resigned to it. I did not regret the pains and the sorrows I had endured for them. Many persons said to me: ‘It would have been better for you if you had never had them.’ I could not bear that kind of talk. I do not think that the sorrows and the troubles I endured could possibly be compared with the eternal happiness of my children with God. Besides, they are not lost forever; life is short and filled with crosses, and we shall find them again in Heaven.”
Zélie died of breast cancer at age of forty-six, when Thérèse, her youngest, was only four years old. During her illness, her concern was the future of her five daughters. She worries above all for “poor Léonie,” who was more fragile than the other girls. After she was diagnosed, she wrote “So let us leave it in God’s hands. He knows what is for our good much better than we do. It is He who wounds and He who heals. I will go to Lourdes on the first pilgrimage, and I hope that the Blessed Virgin will cure me if that is necessary.”
When she was not cured at Lourdes, she still kept the faith. About her return to Louis, who had been waiting at Lisieux for news of a cure, she wrote: “He was not a little surprised to see me returning cheerfully, as if I had obtained the hoped-for miracle. It gave him renewed courage, and all the house was filled with cheerfulness.” Not long before her death Zélie wrote asking prayers “if not for a cure, then for perfect resignation to the will of God.”
Louis also had to experience his ‘passion’. He accepted giving all his daughters in turn to God: Pauline (1882); Marie (1886); Léonie (who would make several tries in religious life and would finally become a Visitation nun in Caen in 1899); next his little Queen, Thérèse (1888). Céline entered Carmel in 1894.
His health deteriorated more and more until a serious attack made it necessary for him immediately to enter the Bon Sauveur asylum in Caen. Today we call it a psychiatric hospital, but in 1889 people called it the “insane asylum” instead. He accepted this trial generously and brought many other patients back to God. When his daughter Celine, wrote and told him that even in there he is being an apostle because he is helping others regain their faith, he answered, “That’s true, but I would prefer to be an apostle elsewhere; however, since it is God’s will! I believe it is to break down my pride.” The realism of the saints is breathtaking.
To declare them blessed a miracle was missing. Finally in 2002, little Pietro Schiliro, born at Monza into a family of four children, was healed of a very serious and fatal pulmonary illness after two novenas to the Martin parents. A Process was conducted in the diocese of Milan and came to a favorable conclusion. Cardinal Tettamanzi closed it in Milan on June 10th, 2003. The medical dossier of the healed child numbers 967 pages!
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