The family of saints: a look into the bold faith of the Martins, the family of the "Little Flower"
Families are complicated things. The word itself is loaded with sub-surface meanings and connotations; it denotes an intricate web of relationships where each strand is meant to strengthen and support the other. For some, however, the word “family” unfortunately does nothing but conjure a cloud of negative emotions and experiences. We cannot choose our family, in one sense, but we can choose how we live within it. What is the best way to live in such a complicated thing? For Christians, the answer is what it has always been and always will be: simply, and with love.
Allow me to paint a picture for you of a simple family. We have all heard of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “The Little Flower.” What I wish to do is to open a window into the spirit of the home in which she was raised by her equally saintly parents, Louis and Zélie Martin.
As Father Stéphane-Joseph Piat, OFM, writes in his book entitled The Story of a Family: The Home of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Martin household “was governed by three principles: God’s supreme rights; faith in His providence; a trustful, happy acquiescence to His will… everything [was] arranged sub specie aeternitatis – in view of eternity.” Perhaps this pervading sensitivity to spiritual things can be traced to Sts. Louis and Zélie’s shared experience of an initial perceived calling to the religious life; once married (and thus set on another path to holiness), this inward monastic instinct flooded outward into their home.
Louis, a watchmaker, and Zélie, practiced in the art of a specific lacemaking style known as Point d’Alençon, plied their respective trades on all days except Sunday. Some of their less religiously disciplined neighbors and acquaintances wondered at this and questioned them as to why they were so obstinate in their refusal to do business on Sunday. They were missing out on profits! One was even bold enough to suggest that Louis keep the front door of his shop locked but surreptitiously keep the back door open, so as to project the outward appearance of keeping the Third Commandment. To all this, Louis and Zélie answered simply: Sunday was the Lord’s Day, and it should be kept holy.
There were times when some of their neighbors would be awakened in the early hours of the morning at the sound of a door opening and movement out in the street. Whatever misgivings they might have had were soon dispelled with the realization that it was only the Martin family leaving for 5:30 a.m. Mass.
Such was the strength of the monastic character of the home the Martins cultivated that Pauline, one of St. Thérèse’s sisters, would give this testimony during the beatification of her parents, Louis and Zélie: “My father and mother… possessed a profound faith. When we heard them talking together of eternity we were led, young as we were, to look upon the things of the world as pure vanity.” Herein lies one of the greatest triumphs achieved by the Martins. Like all Catholic Christians are called to be, they were in the world, yet they were not of the world. They did not allow themselves to swerve ultimately from their course towards Heaven, and when, like all of us, they inevitably encountered temptation and failure, it was treated like a weed in the garden. One could say that their spiritual compasses unfailingly pointed true north.
Many of the saints about whom we read and hear led lives gilded with heroism of one form or another. St. Joan of Arc fought with and led the French army in the Hundred Years’ War. St. Thomas Aquinas authored one of the most influential theological and philosophical texts of all time with the Summa Theologica. St. Louis IX, apart from being King of France, crusaded in the Holy Land twice. The towering achievements of saints such as the ones above, while no one would dispute them, may inadvertently cause some to erroneously assume that one must command legions of knights, write works of deeply edifying value, or fight in battles thousands of miles from home to achieve sainthood. Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, two middle-class parents living in late 19th century France, no strangers to the cares and concerns, joys and sorrows, that the majority of us either have or will experience at some point in our domestic lives, should force us to reevaluate whatever falsely narrow and grandiose conceptions of saintliness and heroism we might heretofore have held.
Heroism can be quiet, patient, and firmly rooted to the earth. It doesn’t have to be raucous and world-altering. Heroism can take the form of remaining strong in your faith after four of your children have died soon after birth, as the Martins endured. It can take the form of choosing to eschew extra monetary gain in favor of spiritual gain, storing up treasures which we can actually take with us when we leave this world. And for parents, it can most certainly take the form of raising your children to be the hands and feet of Christ.
There is great wisdom contained in the title of St. Thérèse: “The Little Flower.” Much is said with just the word “little.” People often speak about how it’s the little things in life that matter most, yet I’m not convinced that most who hear this phrase and give their assent to it, ever think deeper than the surface level truth it presents. So much of what makes Louis and Zélie the saints they are is their attention to those seemingly basic and “little” things, like routinely attending Mass, participating in both the fasts and feasts of the Church, and following the goads of their consciences. Perhaps they could hear a silent harmony within themselves that hummed into place at their adherence to these “little” things.
During Lent, the Church exhorts us to a re-ordering of our lives, a re-orientation of our wills and souls to true north: a spirit of humility, charity, and love in preparation for the resurrection of Christ. Look to the example of the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis and Zélie Martin, and you will find a family who lived a continual Lent with heroic simplicity and love — who saw the home as a school for eternity. In the words of Fr. Piat: “The key to the puzzle was that they loved one another as it behooves Christians to do.”
- - -