Print

Life of the couple

 

Introduction to the newly translated English edition of the family correspondence of the parents of St. Therese "A Call to a deeper love", published par Alba House.
by Fran Renda. The usage of this Introduction has been approved by Alba House.

Zélie

Martin

 

medaille-mariage

Louis

Martin

Throughout the ages, holy people have been inspired to lead the faithful to a deeper understanding and love of God. Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, as a married couple and parents of nine children, hold a unique position in this procession of saintly men and women. Their mission is a resounding call to the New Evangelization, a call to renew the Sacrament of Marriage and the vocation of parenthood and the family. We have discovered their gift to the faithful of the 21st century. Through Louis and Zélie Martin we have been given a grace to better identify with them, and grow in their spirituality of marriage and parenthood.

The foundation of their marriage was a strong commitment to the Christian values of their faith, and they never gave up their high ideals of love, radiating the face of Christ to each other, despite the extreme hardships and tragedies they experienced. They called each other to live a life of sanctity, and committed to help each other in this endeavor. It was during this marital journey that they encountered each other’s limitations, looked at their own weaknesses and embarked in the honest work of love and transformation.

It is through their family correspondence that we are given piercing insights into the lives of Louis and Zélie Martin. We are given the gift of their being role models for married couples today, as they encourage us to deepen our marital love and to share this love with our children, family and neighbors.

Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin lived ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Their story opened on the Bridge of St. Leonard, which spans the River Sarthe in Alençon. As they passed each other walking over the bridge, Zélie heard an interior voice say – “This is the man I have prepared for you.” Inspired by the Holy Spirit, their encounter was not accidental. Like any passage over a bridge, which leads from one place to a new destination, their providential encounter, called into being by Divine Love, would lead them from the life they knew to a new life, a married life in Christ. After the formalities of introduction, both Louis and Zélie grew in awareness of their love for one another and they responded to the grace they were given in a work as yet undefined. Both Louis and Zélie understood that their marriage was a call to holiness. Three months later, on July 13, 1858, Louis and Zélie were married in the medieval Church of Notre Dame d’Alençon at midnight, in a candlelight ceremony surrounded by family and friends. Abbé Frédéric Hurel, the Dean of the Church of Saint Leonard and Louis’ spiritual director, witnessed their vows. As they stood in mystery and darkness before the majestic High Altar, in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, their love was fused to the flame of LOVE, which would now exist between them, a flame that their children would later be imbued with.

The bridal couple was surrounded by their family and friends, each holding a candle and pledging to support them in their times of darkness, while blazing torches that provided light encircled the entire wedding party. This image gave the impression of a blazing fire – a flame of love in the heart of the Church. A spark from this flame of love from their last child, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, would set the world on fire in the 20th century, as she wrote in 1895:

“I have flames within me,
And each day I can win
A great number of souls for Jesus,
Inflaming them with His love…”

(The Poetry of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. tr. Donald Kinney, OCD. Poem 25, “My Desires Near Jesus Hidden in His Prison of Love.” Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1995, p. 133)

And then, in turn, Louis and Zélie promised to be the light of Christ for each other and for everyone that came into their lives. Louis and Zélie’s love was a Eucharistic love centered on the Paschal Mystery. They understood the importance of sacrifice for their love to grow and the need to die to oneself in order to live, as Jesus said in John 12:24:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies,
it remains only a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

After exchanging their wedding vows, and as a sign of his love and commitment, Louis presented Zélie with a silver medallion he had designed and engraved with the images of Sarah and Tobias, two Biblical personages from the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament. Louis’ gesture was subtle, although a powerful expression of his inner feelings. As their family and friends looked on, Louis permitted Sarah and Tobias, through this symbolic gesture, to communicate what was in his heart and how he intended to live in marriage with Zélie. This gift was the fruit of his contemplative prayer. He understood through this story of Tobit and his son, Tobias, and his daughter-in-law, Sarah, that God would guide him and Zélie on their marital journey, and they would receive from God all they needed to be healed of the “blindness and demons” that would afflict them. They were called, through the Sacrament of Marriage, to be like the angel Raphael in this Biblical story, an angel in each other’s life, radiating the face of Christ to each other and committed to bringing each other closer to God. Louis also understood through Raphael that God gives us what we need if we ask Him and are open to what He gives us. Louis also understood through Raphael the need to make God a priority in his life and Louis clearly tried to communicate that message to Zélie. Through this story, Louis communicated his intent that charity would be central in his life, and, like Tobit, the father of Tobias, he would feed the poor, clothe the naked, bury the dead and be just to his workers. For him, Christ would be the ultimate focus and priority in his life. And, like Zélie, Louis also gave voice to their deep belief that it was trust, confidence and total resignation to the will of God that would be the pillars of their faith. Thus, their marriage would provide the road for their spiritual journey toward total union with God in love. 

Nineteen years later, in a letter to her daughter Pauline (CF 192), Zélie described their wedding day in a visit to her sister Élise (Sister Marie-Dosithée) at the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans. During their visit, Zélie tells us:“I went to see her for the first time at the monastery on my wedding day. 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. My poor sister didn’t know how to console me.

“And yet it didn’t make me sad to see her there. No, on the contrary, I would have liked to be there, too. I compared my life to hers, and I cried even harder. In short, for a very long time, my mind and my heart were only at the Visitation Monastery…. I would have liked to hide my life with hers. You who love your father so much, my Pauline, are you going to think that I was hurting him and that I’d ruined our wedding day for him? No, he understood me and consoled me as best he could because his inclinations were similar to mine. I even think our mutual affection grew from it. Our feelings were always in accord, and he was always a comfort and support to me.”

So, from the very first day of their marriage, Louis was there for Zélie, understanding, caring and supporting her. Céline comments in the footnote of CF 54 that her father did all he could to alleviate the pressure and stress that Zélie was experiencing. Finally, as an act of love toward Zélie and total gift of himself, Louis gave up his artisanal business, giving up his artistic expression, the many years of study in Rennes, Strasbourg and Paris, to help Zélie in her lace business, and he became a businessman representing her company in Paris, buying supplies to make lace and selling her artistic work in stores and to private clients. How difficult this must have been for him, to give up the very essence of who he was as an artist and to be on the road and away from his wife and children. Above all, how difficult it must have been when the children were young and very sick, knowing that Zélie was on the road alone, on cold winter mornings and late at night, going to see their sick infant, but he gave and gave generously. This giving of himself was a major part of his Eucharistic spirituality.

Throughout their years of marriage, Louis had faithfully lived a complementary relationship with Zélie, and, daily, he was directed by the words of the angel Raphael in the story of Sarah and Tobias. Zélie tells us in her letters that Louis soothed and reassured her throughout their marriage. He supported her as a full partner in the parenting of their children and a full partner in their business. She tells Pauline in CF 192 that Louis “understood” her, and we realize what a significant gift this was for her, since she never had this as a child from her mother and father (CF 15). However, what stands out in bold relief in the letter Zélie wrote to her brother, Isidore, while on her deathbed (CF 216) is what she had needed since her childhood. She writes:

“Finally, I was able to stay in bed as long as I was sitting up. When I began to fall asleep, the imperceptible movement I made no doubt woke up all my sufferings. I had to moan all night. Louis, Marie and the maid stayed by my side. From time to time poor Louis would hold me in his arms like a child.”

When Raphael, in the Biblical story, declared his identity as an angel sent by God, he told Tobit and his son, Tobias, “…God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law, Sarah.” (Book of Tobit 12:12) We understand that Louis was like the angel Raphael, sent to heal Zélie by soothing and reassuring her during the many heartaches in their nineteen years together. This was Louis’ final gift of love to Zélie as she lay dying (CF 216). In meditating on the captivating image of Louis holding Zélie in his arms like a child as she lay dying, we witness Louis offering Zélie the ultimate gift of loving and cherishing her as she had never been loved or cherished as a child. Louis, whose whole life was focused on rendering Christ present and letting Christ act through him, understood the call of marriage and became the face of Christ for Zélie—loving and cherishing her with Christ’s love. Through this letter, we are a witness to Zélie’s final journey from his arms to the arms of God’s eternal embrace and realize that Louis had responded to the extraordinary graces he was given to fully accomplish his marital commitment.

Louis and Zélie were married for nineteen years in what was both a happy, loved-filled relationship and one filled with extraordinarily stressful and tragically painful times. They had nine children in thirteen years; three died in infancy (Marie-Joseph-Louis at age five months, Marie-Joseph-Jean-Baptiste at age eight months, and Marie-Mélanie-Thérèse at age seven weeks), and one in early childhood (Marie-Hélène, who died at the age of five years, four months). Of the five daughters who did survive, all came very close to death in their infancy or childhood (Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline and Thérèse).  

The repeated trauma and loss that Zélie and Louis experienced for fourteen years was extraordinarily painful and debilitating. In her letters, Zélie gives voice to her long battle with anxiety and depression, which are characteristic of repeated trauma. Their third child, Léonie, suffered from birth to adulthood and on several occasions came very close to death in the first two years of her life. This “difficult child” suffered from several chronic illnesses; however, her oppositional behavior, uncontrolled outbursts of anger, mood swings, poor peer relationships and inability to function in a school environment, caused her and her family much pain and frustration. She was a withdrawn child with poor self esteem and chronically felt like she didn’t belong. With current sophisticated diagnostic instruments and modern psychological evaluation to diagnose her symptomatic behavior, the possibility of abuse would be one important concern to look for given the constellation of symptoms Léonie manifested that are characteristic of either physical or emotional abuse. This was understood five months before Zélie died, when Marie informed her that the maid, Louise Marais, had been abusing Léonie (CF 193).

In their entirety, the 218 letters of Zélie and the 16 letters of Louis are a treasury of rich insights into the lives and spirituality of Louis and Zélie Martin. One has the sense that what we are given are snapshots, as if taken by a camera continuously shooting. The letters give a tone and texture to the basic facts of their lives, and the incidents that Zélie describes are palpable, rendering the reader access to an honesty and intimacy that was not meant for the general public. However, these letters greatly enrich our understanding of this charismatic couple who radiated holiness and brought to life their last child, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the greatest saint of the modern age. They underscore the fact that sainthood is a family project of parents and children immersed in the God of love.

Zélie comes to life in her letters; her strong voice gives witness to a very capable businesswoman, a woman of deep faith and trust in God, a good mother of deep commitment and generosity, a wife who was open to transforming herself from a frightened, immature young bride to the heart and soul of her family and the unexpected gift of love that Louis was given on the bridge over the River Sarthe in Alençon.

Louis, in contrast, wrote only sixteen letters that have survived, casting him in the shadows without a voice and leaving the reader wondering about the role he played in the life of the Martin family. And yet, at a closer reading, we realize that Zélie referred to Louis in 120 letters, bringing him to life and highlighting his relevance as a husband and the father of their family.

Zélie reveals Louis to have many dimensions:

  • He was a sensitive and supportive husband and father, full of passion with a wide range of emotions. He was playful and humorous, always patient and understanding of the needs of his wife and children (CF 52, CF 68 and CF 201).
  • He was a man who took charge, lending his support and strength in different situations (CF 128, CF 129, CF 146 and CF 157).
  • He was a devoted family man to his wife and children, as well as Zélie’s family, whom he embraced as his own (CF 33, CF 75 and CF 77).
  • He was a full partner in parenting their children, constantly present and sensitive to their needs (CF 53, CF 61, CF 91, CF 96 and CF 98).
  • He was an astute businessman, who held a significant financial stock portfolio. In addition, he speculated in real estate, with several real estate holdings. All resulting in a man who retired at an early age due to his financial success, establishing his family’s financial security while consistently donating a substantial portion to many charities, among those that supported the poor and the foreign missions (CF 114).
  • He was a man who loved people. He had several close childhood friends that he associated with. These friendships might have helped to fill the void left in his early adulthood by the deaths of both his sisters and his brother. Louis and his friends were part of the Catholic Circle and the Conferences of Saint Vincent de Paul, as well as the Nocturnal Eucharistic Adoration. This group of men and women lived balanced lives, working together in the lay Catholic apostolate to render Christ present, socializing and supporting each other, as well as praying together (CF 172, CF 198 and CF 212).
  • He was a man with a deep relationship with God, daily renewing his Eucharistic love and sharing it with his family, friends and the poor. He was a man who lived in the world, but was totally immersed in Christ (CF 116 and CF 175).

Above all,  Louis Martin was a man who was extremely generous, and he demonstrated his loving generosity by modeling his life on Christ.

  • Louis experienced many losses in his life (see footnote in CF 65), and in the last ten years of their relatively short marriage of 19 years, Louis experienced the excruciating pain of losing half of his family (his wife and four of their children) and the terror and pain of the near loss of all of their remaining children. It was also during this period, in 1868, that he made the decision to send their two older daughters (Pauline and Marie) to boarding school to relieve Zélie of the enormous stress that she was experiencing. Although this was a loss for both of them, Louis made this extreme sacrifice for Zélie despite the pain he experienced from this separation and loss.
  • In 1871, sensitive to the enormous burden and anxiety Zélie was suffering, Louis sold his clock and watchmaking business in order to free himself to totally devote his time and business expertise to support Zélie and her lace-making business.
  • In 1877, after Zélie’s death, Louis, again expressing his selfless love for his children, gave up his life in Alençon to move to Lisieux to live close to Zélie’s brother Isidore, his wife, Céline and their children in order to be a part of their family life. This afforded Louis and his children the stability and warmth of an extended family. This sacrifice, which was a gift of self, meant that he would no longer live close to his mother, his family, and his friends. He gave up his social and apostolic works, and his friends in religious life who had supported him through prayer and spiritual direction (e.g., The Poor Clares). He gave up his favorite pastime of fishing and walking in the beautiful Normandy pastures and woods, and the hermitage he called the “Pavilion” where he engaged in contemplative prayer.
  • Towards the end of his life, in his late 50’s and 60’s, Louis became more vulnerable, and, in 1887, at the age of 63, he experienced his first stroke. During this period, we witness Louis’ generosity – of heroic proportions – as he willingly offers each of his daughters to Christ as religious, leaving him without the support he had envisioned and desperately needed in his old age.

In studying the life of Louis Martin, we realize that he ultimately became the Eucharist, repeatedly and totally giving himself as gift – taking up his cross and allowing himself to be crucified – laying down his life for others. Further, it was Louis’ transformation of the pain in his life into an energy of love, a spirituality that was given to his children, that greatly influenced Thérèse, his last child. She understood and internalized his spirituality, which was the basis of her spiritual doctrine which she proclaimed for the 20th century, resulting in Pope John Paul II proclaiming her Doctor of the Church on October 19, 1997.

As Louis and Zélie Martin offered themselves to Christ as a couple, they set out to discover the ministry of a man and a woman joined in marriage. They model for us the marital journey to ever deepen our understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage – a call to conversion in Christ – a call to mirror Christ’s love – in a word, a call to a deeper love. And they beckon us to join them in the priesthood of the laity, given to us at Baptism, to restore our marriage, our family and the world around us to the God of merciful love, thereby building a Civilization of Love.  

Thus, through looking at the marriage of Louis and Zélie Martin, we understand that their marriage was a gift from God to the Church and their love for each other was fruitful far beyond what they could have accomplished through their own sanctity. They call out to us to be attentive and accepting to the God that is present in the everyday events of our lives, however confusing and painful they may be, and to have total trust and confidence in the God of love.  

Back to the Martin Couple page