Husband & Wife Articles


 

Sts. Louis and Zélie

A story of ordinary parents that can inspire us all

Michele Chronister

During the Synod on the Family at the Vatican this month, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Their stories should give us parents pause, because they contain aspects of ordinariness that we can all relate to.

Louis and Zélie both attempted to join religious orders, and were turned away for various reasons. Subsequently, Louis worked as a watchmaker, and Zélie as a maker of fine lace. Zélie became extremely successful, and it was through her lacemaking that she met the woman who would become her mother-in-law. The rest is history.

Michele and Andrew Chronister are shown with their two daughters.

Louis and Zélie show us what holiness looks like in the midst of marriage and ordinary family life. The other married saints who come to mind – Mary and Joseph, Anne and Joachim, Elizabeth and Zachariah – all lived in an extraordinary juncture in salvation history. In each of those marriages, both spouses played a key role in the unfolding of the work of redemption – as mother and foster-father to Jesus, as parents to the mother of the Redeemer, and as the parents of him who would be the “voice crying out in the wilderness,” the forerunner of Christ.

But Louis and Zélie did not live in a particularly significant time. They lived in 19th-century France, a society not unlike our own, which struggled with many of the issues we do. Louis and Zélie had to battle materialism within their prosperous household, find a balance between abstinence and conjugal love, keep Sunday holy amid secularizing forces, and prepare many children for heaven despite the work and worries of the world. They knew grief and illness, with children dying young, Zélie succumbing to cancer, and Louis suffering mental disorders in old age.

What is particularly inspiring to us is the ordinariness of most of their challenges. They were a married couple who knew the struggle of balancing work and family. In fact, to strike a better balance, Louis gave up his watchmaking to help Zélie run her thriving lace business. They knew the importance of praying together, and they committed to resting on Sunday, even if it meant losing business.

They also knew what it was to disagree on the sorts of things that all married couples contend with from time to time, such as finding a balance in their conjugal love. Still longing for the monastery, Louis initially proposed a Josephite marriage, modeled after Joseph’s complete abstinence with Mary. After a short time, however, Zélie went to their priest, who convinced Louis that conjugal love could be a great good in marriage. We thank God that he stirred their hearts in this way, or the Church would never have been blessed with dear Thérèse, one of our greatest saints, and her holy sisters, who all entered the convent. What married couple cannot relate to the tug and pull of finding balance in married love? What married couple hasn’t struggled in the ups and downs of discerning openness to children?

Perhaps the greatest example of this couple, though, was in their handling of material goods. The Martin family was hardworking and well-off. Yet they saw material things in their proper light. They enjoyed the things of the world, especially their lovely home, but did not place them above love of God. They accepted good things from the hand of the Lord, and used them for his glory.

Yet the fact that Louis and Zélie are being canonized does not mean that they were perfect parents. Zélie’s letters to her sister reveal a bit of frustration as she describes how mischievous Thérèse was as a toddler. In reading her descriptions, I know that she truly understands what it takes to be a parent. In another letter, Zélie complains that her children were not born with any particular devotion. From this maternal lack of insight, we know that being a saint does not bring supernatural insight into our children’s interior life!

The Martins were an ordinary in a way that parents can understand, and their ordinariness gives us hope. For out of this family, three canonized saints have been gifted to the Church. Truly, there is hope for our families, too.

Michele Chronister is a freelance writer, book author and founder of My Domestic Monastery, which offers insights into a household’s life of work, prayer, play and rest. She is married, with two young daughters.