On a side table in our dining room, I have a letterboard with this famous quote from St. Frances of Rome, “…sometimes she must leave God at the altar to find him in her housekeeping.” Until a few days ago, I had always focused on the leaving part of that quote. I had always considered it a reminder to seek God in my home, even when I would rather be in adoration or at daily Mass.
But then, the other day, I realized that in order to leave God at the altar to find him in my housekeeping, I had to begin at the altar. St. Zelie Martin, wife to St. Louis Martin, mother to St. Therese of Lisieux and Servant of God Leonie Martin, knew this well.
As a young woman, discerning her vocation, she had felt called to religious life. When that door was closed to her, she devoted herself to her work (making lace) and trusted in God to show her his plan. Enter Louis Martin (who himself had felt called to religious life).
It would have been easy for Louis and Zelie to create a home environment that mimicked monastic life. In fact, they initially embraced a Josephite (celibate) marriage, until Zelie felt called to children (and, with the advice and counsel of their priest, convinced Louis that they should have children).
When her children came along, Zelie threw herself into motherhood. Despite losing nearly half of her children as infants or young children, she still loved each one without reserve. She continued to pursue her passion for lace-making (running her own business with Louis’s support) which served as a valuable source of income for her family. (She’s a wonderful patron saint for working mothers!) But did she throw herself into a secular lifestyle, or did she become lost in worries about her home?
Zelie (alongside Louis) continued to pursue God. The two went to daily Mass together, early every morning. Prayer was a foundation of her life, and a source of her strength. Of course, she was a wonderful wife and mother, but her first love was always God.
What was the end result? A distant, scrupulous mother who turned her children and husband away from religion? The exact opposite resulted.
Zelie’s faith led her to be more gentle and loving with her children. St. Therese was a notorious little stinker (which is reassurance that even the craziest kids can turn out just fine). Servant of God Leonie suffered from significant mental illness throughout her life. Both are saints, in great part because of the tender, deep affection of their mother. Zelie laughed over Therese’s antics and undoubtedly prayed for her in heaven (St. Therese was only four when her mother died). She tried everything in her power to help her Leonie, refusing to give up on her. Her daughters all remembered their mother fondly, and knew that she loved them deeply.
But children aren’t always very lovable-acting, so what enabled her to keep loving so beautifully?
Zelie wanted to live a monastic life, a life imbued with prayer and hours in church. Instead, she had to settle for less than an hour with Jesus in the Eucharist each day (and, as a mother of nine, weeks to months in which she could not be with Jesus because she was pregnant or recovering from childbirth or tending a child). She could have been bitter about that. (After all, Louis never had to sacrifice that time away from Jesus in the Eucharist, since he wasn’t the one bearing the children.) Instead, it only increased her thirst for Christ. That thirst was, undoubtedly, a cause for her deep joy and peace. That thirst was what enabled her to love her children — even the ones she lost — so freely. She knew that they, too, were made for union with Christ.
In order to find Christ in her housekeeping, she had to first seek him on the altar and in her prayer. And seek him she did. It was because of this seeking that she was able to be so patient, so willing to suffer for her children and husband, and so willing to sacrifice whatever God asked of her.
It is so easy, especially for wives and mothers, to feel guilty for spending time away from their families praying, going to Mass or adoration, or attending a retreat. But what Zelie realized was that the two are not separate. There is not real life and faith life. Faith life, prayer, and the Sacraments aren’t just a break from daily toil. They are the source of life. In fact, vocation (especially vocation to family life) only makes sense when it is viewed from this perspective. Our life with God is the primary focus of our lives. The rest of our life — marriage, motherhood, friendships, work, hobbies — are only streams feeding from that main river.
When that is the source of our energy and love, the very reason why our heart continues to beat — then our families can’t help but be transformed.
Go to Jesus in prayer, and especially in the Eucharist. Even visiting for a couple of minutes (daily, when possible) will increase your thirst and help you to become the saint that God is calling you to be.