When I first learned of the case for canonization of Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, I was very intrigued.
This couple both wanted to be religious, but met each other and got married instead. They had nine children together, lost four of them at a young age, and worked together for the family income with a lace making business. Zelie made the lace and managed the workers and Louis ran the business side of it.
A Call to a Deeper Love is a wonderful volume containing 218 letters of St. Zelie and 16 of St. Louis. Reading Zelie’s letters, mostly to her brother, sister-in-law, and daughter Pauline is like reading a 19th century mom-blog.
And that is one of the reasons they are so great! Zelie recounts her daily life in her letters, and I realized that it very well might be possible to be a saint in the 21st century modern world.
Here are a few things I learned about being a saint from her:
1) Even saints need a maid sometimes
“Pauline said this evening, “Oh! What a pity today is over. I’d like it to be this morning again.” I didn’t completely agree with her because I have had a tough battle. For three days, I’ve been alone with these little ones because the maid is with her family. Along with this, I have a terrible cold and a fever, and can barely stand up.” (Letter 25)
Zelie wrote this when she had five children under seven. When I read this, I really was encouraged. It is hard being alone with the little ones without help, and even Zelie thought so.
2) Fasting is hard even for saints
“I’m suffering so much from the fasting and abstinence! Yet it’s not a very severe mortification, but I am so tired of how my stomach feels, and especially so cowardly, that I would not want to do it at all if I listened to my nature.” (Letter 130)
I have never fasted like Zelie and Louis, all day with a small meal at the end. That in itself seems heroic, and to read how she overcame her nature and suffered for God is inspiring
3) Saints worry about getting it all done
“I have my two older girls with me, who are on vacation. It’s a true pleasure for me, but also a real increase in work because I must take care of everything they’ll need for the summer holidays. I’m having all their dresses repaired, so I am up to my neck in dressmakers. And in addition to this, I have urgent orders due this week; none are completed, and that worries me.” (Letter 131)
I always felt that trusting in God meant never worrying about all the things that have to get done, but after I read Zelie’s letters I began to wonder if it is not the worrying that is the problem. Some of us are just born to worry; it would seem we can worry and still trust in God.
4) Saints have bad days
“Oh well, that’s the day so far, and it’s still only noon. If this continues I will be dead by this evening! You see, at the moment, life seems so heavy for me to bear, and I don’t have the courage because everything looks black to me.” (Letter 132)
She became a saint because she turned to God in her hard times; she turned to him continually even when things were bleak or when she was just having a bad day.
5) Saints’ children do not always do as they are told
“I felt very bad that the little girls didn’t go with him to greet their uncle. It was their fault. It didn’t matter how many times I told them, “Get dressed early.” They went about it in a way so as to not be ready on time.” (Letter 137)
I can’t tell you how many mornings I have told my children to get dressed and they dawdled and were not ready on time, and I find it so encouraging that a mother who became a saint had the same problem.
6) Saints get frustrated with keeping all the children clothed
“Oh well, I do nothing but shop all day. Your father says, amusingly, that it is a passion with me! It is no use explaining to him that I have no choice; he finds it hard to believe.” (Letter 143)
The change of seasons is particularly frustrating when you have to figure out who needs what and what fits and what doesn’t! But even Zelie had trouble keeping up with it all, and her husband, Louis, made fun of her for it.
7) Being a parent and being a saint means raising children for Heaven
“When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. We lived only for them. They were all our happiness, and we never found any except in them. In short, nothing was too difficult, and the world was no longer a burden for us. For me, our children were a great compensation, so I wanted to have a lot of them in order to raise them for Heaven.” (Letter 192)
To be a married saint means to live out the vocation God gave you. If God gives you children, then they are part of your earthly happiness. It is easy to get caught up in a worldly mentality of raising our children, but really, they are meant for Heaven.
8) Saints pray to their children in Heaven
“When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems I had endured for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would be better to never have had them.’ I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven. Above all, it was on the death of my first child that I felt more deeply the happiness of having a child in Heaven, for God showed me in a noticeable way that He accepted my sacrifice. Through the intercession of my little angel, I received a very extraordinary grace” (Letter 72)
Zelie prayed for the intercession of her sweet babies who died at a young age. She said that she would rather her children die young than not make it to Heaven. That is true love for children.
9) St. Therese of Lisieux behaved like a normal three year old
“I have to correct this poor baby, who goes into a terrible rage when things don’t go as she’d like. She rolls around on the floor like a desperate person, believing all is lost.” (Letter 147)
My three year old acts like a saint!
10) Saints don’t always get what they pray for
“The Blessed Mother didn’t cure me in Lourdes. What can you do, my time is at an end, and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth.” (Letter 216)
While dying of cancer, Zelie went to Lourdes and had just about the worst time imaginable on her trip. When she was not cured, she resigned herself to God’s will, even though it did not correspond with her prayers.
11) Married saints need each other
“I am longing to be near you, my dear Louis. I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection so much more when you’re not here with me. It would be impossible for me to live apart from you.” (Letter 108)
Louis and Zelie were each other’s greatest comfort! To become saints as a married couple really means giving oneself entirely to each other and to God.
BONUS from her husband St. Louis Martin:
12) Family is a reflection of God’s love
“Soon we’ll have the intimate happiness of the family, and it’s this beauty that brings us closer to him.” (Letter 229)
Okay, so the 12th one isn’t from Zelie, but it’s from her husband St. Louis Martin. Louis only wrote letters when he traveled and the ones in published in the book all reflect the importance of family life as a good that brings us closer to God.
Reading these letters showed me that becoming a saint is possible to anyone who opens themselves up to God’s grace and truly seeks Him. Ss. Louis and Zelie Martin went through so much heartbreak and had so many troubles, but they remained faithful and raised five daughters to become sisters, one of which is now a saint, St. Therese of Lisieux, and another who is a now a venerable, Ven. Leonie Martin.
[See also: The Astonishing Fact of the Incorruptible Saints]