The impending beatification of the parents of St Therese of Lisieux teaches us much about marriage, both as an institution in society and as a sacrament by which families receive grace. Fr Tadgh Tierney OCD, of the Morley Carmelite Community, examines their story.
In the Basilica of Lisieux dedicated to their youngest daughter St Therese, Pope Benedict XVI will beatify Zelie and Louis Martin on October 19 – the anniversary of the day on which Therese was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1994.
What factors have led up to this unusual event? There are two aspects to a beatification. First there must be evidence of the holiness of the candidates and secondly an approved miracle needs to have taken place.
Regarding the latter, the required miracle concerns a boy who recovered from an acute condition of the lungs. Pietro Schillero from Monza in Italy was born with a congenital lung defect and could breathe only with the help of a respirator.The family made a novena to the Martins and the child left the clinic shortly afterwards completely cured.
The holiness of Zelie and Louis Martin is well attested. The Carmelite, St Therese, is one of the great figures of the modern Church. Because of Therese, her parents, and indeed her whole family – especially her elder sisters Pauline and Celine – became well known in the Catholic world. Therese herself led the movement to eventually recognise the holiness of their lives when she wrote in her autobiography, ‘I was blessed in having saints for parents’. Again she wrote, ‘I have only to look at my father to see how the saints pray`.
They were both serious-minded people and both initially wished to enter Religious orders. Zelie Guerin twice applied but was refused entrance to the convent, first at a local convent and later at the Visitation in Le Mans where her elder and only sister was a nun and where one of her daughters, Leonie, would later join. Zelie decided to train in lacemaking, becoming an expert practitioner of the famous ‘Point d’Alencon’.
Zelie Guerin’s future husband Louis Martin was born in Bordeaux but his father retired to Alencon when Louis was a young man. Louis was a lover of nature – his hobby was fishing. He was an admirer of the Romantics and read Chateaubriand and Lamartine. Perhaps for this reason when he too tried his religious vocation he applied to a monastery of the Great St Bernard in the scenic Alps. But he was advised to learn Latin before being allowed to join. Louis studied for a while but after a bout of illness he abandoned the idea of Religious life and took up watchmaking. It looked as if he would be content to live a devout single life.
Another factor was at work, and in this case it seems indeed that marriages are made in heaven.
One day Zelie Guerin had a chance encounter with the tall handsome Louis on an Alencon bridge. She was impressed by the serious demeanour of this young man and an inner voice told her, ‘this is he whom I have prepared for you.’ This unusual circumstance was reinforced by the watchful eye of Louis’ mother who had been impressed by Zelie whom she had met at lacemaking classes. Within three months the couple were married.
Louis Martin has sometimes been depicted as a kind of dreamer but this was not the case. He ran a successful business and when he decided to give priority to his wife’s lacemaking business he was equally successful and travelled widely securing orders for lace products. In fact he was able to set up a roomy middle class home for his family and acquired an additional property known as the ‘Pavilion’ which he used for retreat and study.
In due course Zelie presented her husband with nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Therese was the youngest. The Martins were a most devout family and strong Christian values were inculcated in the children from their earliest years. Sadly, this idyllic family would soon experience deep tragedy.
While the cross was not absent from the start – four children already deceased – its shadow lengthened.
As a child, Zelie had injured her breast against the corner of a table and apparently the injury later developed into cancer.
For some reason treatment was not sought in time and the young mother’s health deteriorated. The family were disappointed that a trip to Lourdes did not result in a cure. She died on August 28, 1877. Therese was only four-and-a-half years old.
She remembered her father taking her in for a goodbye kiss to her dead mother.
After Zelie’s death, Louis sold his house and business and moved to Lisieux to be near his brother-in-law who ran a pharmacy in the town.
Louis Martin lived an exemplary Christian life back in Lisieux, looking after his family with the help of his eldest daughters Marie and Pauline.
He was most charitable to the poor or to any good causes that were brought to his attention. He helped establish Nocturnal Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Lisieux. Losing four of his five daughters one by one to the convent was a severe trial to a devoted father. Like his wife Zelie, Louis Martin was not spared the cross. Soon after his youngest daughter followed her sisters to Carmel, Louis’ mental health began to deteriorate.
Therese recalled a kind of premonition she had at one time when she had a vision of her father at their home. Louis was away on a trip but in her vision he appeared to be wandering through the garden with his face veiled.. In fact as his illness got worse Louis would sometimes cover his head in this manner.
Her father`s mental illness was one of the greatest trials Therese had to suffer. After a series of strokes, Louis suffered a final heart attack and died on July 29, 1894 in the presence of his daughter Celine and other relatives.
It is almost unique in the Church to have a married couple beatified who already have a daughter declared a saint. Is this latest model of Christian family life too far beyond our reach? Perhaps. Certainly many people will regard it so.
And yet in an age where families are marked by frequent tension and domestic violence, an attractive alternative is all the more necessary.
Our age is not radically different from nineteenth century France. The Martins would have been aware of the anti-marriage ideas current in France in their day.
From mid-century on, liberal writers like Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier advocated radical and communist values. Among these was the abolition of marriage which they equated with slavery.
Nearer their own day (1878) Jules Guesde in his `Socialist Catechism` wrote,
`Ought the family to be preserved? No, for up to the present it has been one of the forms of ownership, and not the least odious…The interest of the species, as much as the interest of the elements that enter into the composition of the family, demand that this state of things should disappear.`
In the intervening 150 years such attitudes have only hardened. In the Beatification of Zelie and Louis Martin the Church is putting before us the ideal of strong Christian family life. It is a high standard.
Yet we can reflect that if athletes never raised the bar above a certain standard no records would ever be broken and mediocrity would prevail all round.