Until yesterday, Louis and Zelie Martin were simply the parents of the greatest Saint of modern times and youngest Doctor of the Church, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Granted, being the parents of a great Saint is something, but we must not settle for that: we must become great Saints ourselves, and as of yesterday, World Mission Sunday, Louis and Zelie have done it, with a bit of help from their mother and ours, the Church.
While I don’t want to argue politics (within or without the City of God), I do want to emphasize a point that bears on the state of the world and the Church today. As St. John of the Cross put it in his Sayings of Light and Love, “The Lord has always revealed to men the treasures of His wisdom and His spirit, but now that the face of evil more and more bares itself, so does the Lord bare His treasures the more.”
These treasures are the Saints, and the Church delights in presenting them to us not only for our edification, but more especially for our imitation, and so they can become our best friends.
The only problem is that once the Church canonizes someone (or Some Two, like she did yesterday), by that very fact they take on a glamour that seems to put them beyond our reach. Consider John Paul II and Mother Teresa, for instance.
You may say they are huge saints, and ones we can’t easily imitate: few of us will be Pope (thank the good Lord), few of us will found a religious order…And yet before we realized they were out of our league, John Paul and Mother Teresa were quite certainly among us, physically at least. It’s a safe bet that everyone reading this piece has either met one of them personally or knows someone who has. Just a few years ago I decided I was the only person I knew who didn’t have a framed picture of JPII and me hanging in the living room or the hall or the bathroom (as if my friends were saying “Hard to find room for all the pictures of The Holy Father and Me”).
Granted, on my fridge I have a snapshot of Mother Teresa from the day I met her, but that only proves my point, which is that these two lived in our midst, and that’s a terrific boost launching us over the first obstacle the devil sets between us and them—the insidious idea that they could hardly have lived, they were so holy. In the case of these two, thankfully we have photographic evidence they did live, and lived among us, although we’re still faced with the problem of their greatness. A good problem for them to have, but for us, that greatness sets them apart. It takes another Great (or so we think) to imitate them successfully, let alone become their friends. Which leaves us alone with our less-than-greatness.
Enter our newest Saints, utterly imitable, with all the freshness and liberty of the Holy Spirit.
Louis and Zelie’s message isn’t new; it’s the same message their daughter has been spreading so handily for the last 120 years, the message of the Gospel. But if we ask where Saint Thérèse learned her little and very ordinary way of sanctity, the answer comes back from the Church: she learned it first in the home of her parents, whose way was absolutely ordinary.
Not for Louis and Zelie to become Popes or found religious orders. Far from it: they both attempted religious life when they were young; with their ardent desire for sanctity it was their first choice, but God had other plans. Louis did not make the cut as a monk, nor Zelie as a nun, and so they met and married. They decided at the outset to live a celibate life together; that didn’t last long either—a priest instructed them to be normal married folk and raise up a family for God. They went with that and prayed for sons so they could give God priests after His own heart; He decided to take their two sons to Himself in infancy, thus ending that dream.
Did ever two Saints look so like us in their unrealistic quests for holiness? Perhaps we haven’t aimed for such heights, but I don’t think we’re all that different from Louis and Zelie, say when we give up chocolate for Lent and barely last through Ash Wednesday before our spiritual director (or more likely our husband or BFF) tells us we have never been more irritable and to just eat chocolate, for Heaven’s sake, and give up something easier, like gossiping or our second latté of the day…
This may sound like dumbing down the Saints, but I think we need to stop helping the devil raise them beyond the recognizable. Our new Saints are quite near to us, and because so near, how very normal they seem! And yet how quickly, if we don’t immediately seize their coattails and apron strings, they will recede with the other Saints to the highest heavens. So before they escape us, before the devil finds a way to convince us they are unlike us, let us reach up, ever so slightly up, and take Zelie and Louis into our hearts—Saints Zelie and Louis to be sure, but remember, two days ago they were merely blessed, and who among us isn’t blessed?
To hold onto Zelie and Louis before fame and their new titles lift them beyond recognition, start with their letters in the indispensible volume A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus. The subtitle is slightly deceptive: true to the feminine genius (garrulity) and the masculine genius (brevity) of the authors, the book consists of over 200 letters by Zelie and merely 16 by Louis. In fairness to Zelie, and evidence of her sanctity, only four are addressed to her husband; the rest she wrote mostly to women who were, no doubt, as fascinated by the details of her day-to-day life as she was.
The message of Saints Louis and Zelie Martin is simply this: Sanctity is not beyond our reach—it is Christ’s doing, and He thirsts to do it in us. The Church will not rest until she gets this message through our very thick heads: the saints were human like we are, and we need not be daunted by their greatness. It is just such greatness that Jesus has in mind for us, the greatness of the little ones. Without Him, we are nothing, and when He makes us great, it is simply His greatness shining forth in us.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman said he wasn’t impressed by talk about the Saints, but by reading their own words, especially in their letters. Here, then, is one of Zelie’s. I don’t offer her most saint-sounding letter, but one in which she sounds like us—she is like us—so that we may be inspired to turn the tables and become just like her.
To her brother, Isidore Guerin
September 5, 1871
It’s been such a long time since you’ve written. I’m worried about you, especially about your wife. How is she? And the children? And you, are you still working as much? Is your business going well? Mine wouldn’t be going too badly if I dared to throw myself into it, but I’m always afraid. However, I did sell three thousand francs worth of Alencon lace last month.
My children are wondering a great deal if I’m going to be a godmother soon and if it will be during the holidays, so I can bring them to the baptism?
Yesterday we went for a carriage ride six leagues from Alencon. We didn’t have much luck because it rained almost the entire afternoon. Marie was very upset that we spent our money and didn’t have a good time!
I’m already accustomed to the house on the rue Saint-Blaise. If you knew how much I long for you to come and see us here! So when will you bring the three little girls? You mustn’t let my prediction frighten you because I’ve noticed that things always turn out opposite from what I think will happen. So I don’t trust myself and my ideas, above all when they’re about important things.
What’s taking place at the moment is that I’m having a discussion with Louis regarding a business matter that I’d like to share with you. You know that he sold his Crédit Foncier stock because I pleaded with him. Now it happens that we were too impatient. The stock rebounded quite a bit. If we’d waited until now, we would have lost twelve hundred francs less. Well, it’s done. But what bothers my husband the most is to have our money doing nothing.
This morning, while reading the newspaper from the Stock Exchange, I saw Pontifical bonds. Right away I thought that these should be excellent later on because I firmly believe in the imminent victory and restoration of the Holy Father to his States. If this happens, it seems to me that this would be a very good investment. So tell me, please, what you think about it. Louis is undecided on the matter. I press him continually. I know I could make him decide, but I wouldn’t want him to have only my advice. He doesn’t know that I’m consulting you on this. However, he has great trust in you and will do what you recommend.
The combox is open. Give me your excuses for not being a saint so I can talk you back into the project. In the words of the daughter of Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, “The poorer you are, the more Jesus will love you. He will go far, very far, in search of you, if at times you wander off a little.” We are very poor indeed, just like Zelie with our business matters, our buying and selling, our concerns for the Church and the Holy Father. Saints Louis and Zelie and little Thérèse, pray for us!