First we knew the fruit and then we found the tree (see Mt 7:16–20). If not for the Little Flower we would not have found her parents, but if not for Louis and Zélie, there would be no Saint Thérèse. Of course the latter is true in the same straightforward sense in which all parents are responsible for the existence of their children. But it is also true that the unique saintliness of this child would not have been possible without the unique saintliness of the parents. In enrolling the parents of this saint in its canon of saints, the Church celebrates the domestic culture that produced this blessed fruit.
Part of the allure of St. Thérèse is her witness to holiness by ordinary means. Like all saints, her holiness is a creative expression of divine love. It is enchanting to conceive of a saint like Thérèse as a miracle, imagining that God intervened in the normal course of history to create a holy exception within otherwise mundane humanity. What the witness of this saint reveals, however, is that her own innovation in holiness sprung from the ordinary life that Louis and Zélie intentionally fashioned. As their skills in their respective crafts were translated into parental care, as their discipline in virginity became the basis for their gift of progeny, and as the cultivation of one child necessarily meant the cultivation of the whole family, Louis and Zélie Martin labored as saints of the ordinary to produce extraordinary holiness.
Skilled Work and the Intricacies of Domestic Life
Louis Martin failed to advance in the first vocation he pursued: the vowed religious life. The well-schooled and well-mannered son of a soldier, Louis sought to apply the discipline that came naturally to him to the ideals practiced in the cloister, where punctilious works were oriented to perfect praise over long years of careful focus and habituation. Sincere and devout though he was, his ignorance of Latin precluded his entry to the mountain hermitage of the Great St. Bernard, and so he descended to fill in what he lacked. After months of tutored study he was forced to abandon Latin on account of illness and retreated back toward the active life of that other craft in which he apprenticed: clock-making.
Within the rhythm of the world, Louis allowed his workshop to become a form of the monastic retreat he once sought in the mountains outside the world’s movement. The central gear that moved all his work was the refrain from work that he practiced every Sabbath. Despite the best business practices of his day and the expectations of his patrons, Louis closed his shop every Sunday—a day on which he abstained from engaging in any commerce whatsoever, thereby imbibing the weekly antidote to the law of competition. He was free to call his work “good” because his work was given its place within a greater order. Because his leisure afforded him the ability to study the arrangements and movements of nature, the art he practiced in his workshop was truly creative because it combined discipline and freedom. His craft called for “close application, a long apprenticeship, and repeated experiments in practical workmanship,” through which he studied how the patient work of the craftsman, if undertaken with steady intention, can produce seemingly simple products that hide untold complexities (Stephane-Joseph Piat, Story of a Family, 14).
Zélie Guerin’s work of lace-making was perhaps even more precise and certainly no less complex. Not unlike Louis, Zélie herself had been denied from the religious life when she applied to the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul. Though the desire for the cloister remained with her—at least in latent form—for the rest of her life, she accepted this rejection and set out to prepare for her future by other means. After petitioning the Blessed Mother for guidance, she received a response on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1851, when she heard these words within her: “See to the making of Point d’Alençon,” (Family 33). In haste she entered lace-making school to refine the basic skills she had learned as a child. She trained her hands and nerves to create the exquisitely delicate and subtly varied designs of Alençon lace. Before long she was a master with her own shop, in which she not only exercised her own finely honed skills but orchestrated those of others.
As Piat describes: “The lace is a ‘collective’ masterpiece, but the makers do not all work simultaneously as a team. All that is needed is the initiative and diligent direction of a master of the craft, who deals with the customers, assigns the orders, procures everything requisite for each lacemaker to work at home at her specialty, sees that the ‘pieces’ are passed on from one to another, and coordinates and corrects it all so as to assure its final lucrative sale” (Family 35).
The wedding of Louis Martin to Zélie Guerin at midnight on July 13, 1858, united two skilled artisans who would create a home that bore the marks of their workshops. At the heart of all the work of this home was that leisure that the master clock-maker put at the center of his craft. In Louis’s play with his children, joy emerged. In the ways he spent himself in attending to them personally, personal love was communicated. During his customary long walks, Thérèse herself, like her sisters before her, learned to practice almsgiving (for Thérèse’s childhood reflections about her father, see especially Story of a Soul, chapter 2). In the kind of speech that he and Zélie made common in their home, their children received grammar lessons in the faith. They spoke of time in terms of liturgical feasts, where one child then the next became the central figure in the family’s celebration: first communions celebrated alongside birthdays and feast days alike. The liturgical cycle that preserves the dignity of creation within a world of competition, was observed as the basic rhythm of the household itself (see Family 87).
Under the masterful direction of Zélie, the children of this union learned and practiced their crafts of holiness in distinctive but coordinated ways. In Zélie’s home, skills were cultivated in order to contribute to the great masterpiece of the family’s life: a single work of praise made of many charitable deeds. In this school of artistry, Thérèse and her sisters “learned to sympathize with the sufferings of the lowly, to grieve over their humiliations, and appreciate the eminent dignity of the children of God” (Family 170). Zélie’s letters to her correspondents are full of details of the careful attention she paid to each child in correcting faults and strengthening virtues. Through the habits she introduced and guided, she oriented the children’s upbringing to an intentional end. Ever the master lace-maker, Zélie knew the pattern and saw the whole work in advance. “To these stalwart Catholics,” Piat explains:
“Life was something like those pieces of lace, the perfection of which is the result of long and patient asceticism. From all eternity, the divine Artist had traced out the design. Grace, like an invisible thread, had, with its inspirations, pricked out the pattern. It remained only to follow out the smallest details closely, and avoid breakages and knots. The simple worker toils at the piece from day to day, resigned to take care of a detail, without understanding the whole development of the design. The master worker repairs, adds finishing touches, regroups, assembles, and the marvel results; the outcome of obscure labor wholly informed by love” (Family 144).
The Discipline of Virginity and the Gift of Progeny
In a letter written to her eldest daughter, Zélie confessed that, “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat” (Family 48). For years before their wedding each sought the ideals of the cloistered religious life, where a routine of prayer and work intertwines with ascetical practices designed to train one in the lifelong art of sacrificing unto praise. When Louis could not enter the hermitage, he transferred these ideals to his workshop; when Zélie could not expend herself in the precise maneuvers of religious life, she began to perfect that most delicate of secular crafts. When they wed, these ideals did not relent; in fact, the two continued to pursue them within the home they shared, not only in terms of the intentionality of their religious practices but even in terms of living celibately. For ten months they embraced sexual abstinence until a confessor instructed them to carry out the pursuit of their pious ideals in another way—in and through childrearing. In opening themselves to the vocation of seeking holiness in the children they would train and form, their ideas did indeed change somewhat. Their progeny would be the fruit of their religious discipline. As Zélie’s letter to her daughter Pauline continues:
“Thenceforward we lived only for them; they made all our happiness and we would never have found it save in them. In fact, nothing any longer cost us anything; the world was no longer a burden to us. As for me, my children were my great compensation, so that I wished to have many in order to bring them up for heaven” (Family 48).
Looking back in light of the family they created—and especially in view of their ninth and last child, Thérèse—that first period of abstinence strikes an odd chord. Perhaps it is best considered as the waning days of impractical wishes or an exercise in nonsensical, even unnatural religious fervor. Without question, their conjugal celibacy may seem like unenlightened prudery to sophisticated moderns. But we might need to pause to consider if our own sophistication is sometimes the sophistry our own egos spin, sophistry that catches us in the designs of our own assumed certainty, our own presumed correctness. Our biases blind us. What we chance missing in our sophistication is the possibility that the intentionality of the life they ventured to embrace proposes another pattern altogether.
From the start the couple conceived of their marriage in continuity with the religious formation they had previously desired. What changed after ten months amounts to a variation on this theme, such that the willful embrace of parenthood became the particular way in which they each, through their union, pursued their long-tenured spiritual desire. What is novel here is not so much that their marriage included a period of celibacy as it is that the marriage was, from the start, set to innovating from within their religious discipline. They did not give themselves over to the “natural course of things” because their affections or conventions recommended they do so; they joined in sexual union because they came to understand it as a religious practice that elevates nature.
The family into which Thérèse was eventually born was a family that loved much because it suffered much. The thread running between their love and their suffering is the set of disciplines they cultivated, all of which were intended for a definite end. Because they had long labored to allow their own lives to becomes a work pleasing to the Lord and because they had each innovated in terms of the manner in which that work would be accomplished, they were predisposed to seek the same for the family they created. In the intentional way they lived their familial life, the disciplines they cultivated kept them attuned to their ideal. When suffering visited them, they bore it as the cost of love. This did not mean the suffering was any less acute, but it did mean the suffering was not in vain. Zélie held the dead bodies of four of the fruits of her own womb, and she gave the kind of testimony that only a mother of sorrows can speak:
“When I closed the eyes of my dear children and buried them, I felt the sorrow indeed, but it has always been resigned sorrow. I did not regret the pain and cares I had borne for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would have been better if you had never had them,’ but I could not endure this sort of language. I did not think that the sufferings and anxieties could be weighed in the same scale with the eternal happiness of my children. Then they were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find them again up yonder” (Family 98).
Zélie’s sister had once written her in a letter that “the measure of your joy will be that of your sorrow” (Family 79). Both Zélie and her husband initially sought the pain of ascetical training in order to bear the fruit of holiness; in their marriage the path to this desire was translated into suffering out of love for their children. They suffered in loving the four they lost, and they suffered in loving the five they raised. Though the kind of pain they bore for each child varied, through loving them they learned that no love is without cost. They also learned that the cost paid in love is never in vain. For the firstborn son who died as an infant but whom Louis had hoped to offer to the Lord as a missionary priest, he received a daughter in Thérèse who took all priests and missionaries as her own brothers, ultimately dedicating her religious vocation for the intention of their wellbeing and success. In his daughter, Louis’s own frustrated desires were fulfilled, both in terms of living out the form of religious ideals that he and his wife had once pursued and in terms of accepting a mission that revived the mission he had hoped for his son.
The peculiar discipline with which they began their marriage is noteworthy, in the end, not for its peculiarity but for its wisdom. They were intentional about making their ordinary ways conducive to their deepest desires. Their dispositions of obedience created a home that absorbed pain and grew love. They sought to account for everything—no cost was in vain, no pain accidental.
The Sanctification of the Whole
To Louis and Zélie Martin, each child was a covenant between themselves and God. Each child was God’s calling upon them to labor in love: to till, to tend, to prune, and to share the fruit that was given within the home of their union. To them, “a child was not a plaything […] nor a creature that has become an object of dread because no one knows how to train it. It was a trust received from the Creator’s hands” (Family 182). They were responsible for these children—not just for their health and cleanliness but for their joy and salvation.
The Martin home was a communion of holiness. The master clock-maker set the schedule to the liturgical cycle and tuned all the gears of familial life to this standard measure. Fasting and feasting were both observed, and leisure was routine. The master lace-maker orchestrated the work according to the final design: tutoring her work force, coordinating their labors, securing supplies, and offering the good works they produced in the market of charity. In caring for each member of the household the couple cared for the whole, and in arranging the whole in an intentional way they prepared this workshop to produce its good works, this tree to produce its good fruits.
The whole mystery of salvation turned within the subtleties of the home. From the moment their first child was conceived, the turning of their lives was set to the movements of divine love:
“They were to experience the joyful stage, marked out by four cradles; the laborious stage: five more births, six deaths [including aunts], sorrows mingled with smiles; the sorrowful stage: the calvary and the sublime sacrifice of parents; to end at last with the glorious stage—the day when Thérèse, the last conquest of love, would carry their name to the altars” (Family 49).
The depth of insight of their family’s chief biographer is on full display in this passage. He names the dimensions of their life together according to the mysteries of the rosary. The obvious ones are the joyful, the sorrowful, and the glorious, while the truly ingenious one is the laborious. Written more than fiftyyears before John Paul II proposed the luminous mysteries, Fr. Piat recognizes those mysteries in the witness of Louis, Zélie, and their family. As one becomes habituated to a way of being, the logic of that way is illuminated. In the oscillations of sorrows and smiles, the labors of love—in season and out of season—slowly lit up the true meaning of the life Louis and Zélie were called to craft and which came to be in their home. The rosary meditates on Mary’s contemplation of her blessed child, while the Martins contemplated their children in the likeness of Mary’s.
And the glory of it all came in their blessed fruit. On the sixty-ninth anniversary of the day Louis and Zélie were joined in matrimony, their last child—the work of two masters who had perfected their craft—was enrolled in the canon of the Church’s saints. Upon the altar of the Universal Church their child was united to the Son of the Father, the Son of Mary. In her holiness is hidden the discipline and the innovation of two failed religious, two skilled artisans, a husband and a wife who created a home in which saints grew. Thérèse’s holiness redounds to their holiness: the blessed fruit blesses the tree that bore her.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, PhD, teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame where he also directs Notre Dame Vision, the Notre Dame Catechist Academy, and the Notre Dame Character Project within the Institute for Church Life. He has two books forthcoming: one on the theology of the communion of saints and one on the mystery of grace and the practice of storytelling.