I might get run out of the blogosphere, chased by pitchforks and brown scapulars for saying so, but I don’t really like St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I’ve read her. I’ve tried praying to her to understand and appreciate her, and the warm fuzzy love just isn’t there. I acknowledge that she is a saint, and a great saint at that– even a Doctor of the Church. All these things I’m very happy to admit and I heartily recommend her to others I think would get along well with her personality. But I am not one of those people. Please don’t unfriend me.
I do have a special devotion to her mother, St. Zélie Martin, and have had such devotion ever since I learned that she was not only a loving wife and mother, but she was a working, loving wife and mother. My own call has led (and continues to lead) me outside the home on a regular basis, so when I found out that she, too, suffered from migraines, was rejected from a religious community where she thought she had a vocation, AND was member of a Third Order (in her case, the Franciscans), I realized I needed to find out more about this woman.
While I was perusing the book selections at the Portsmouth Institute Conference a couple of weekends ago, I saw a (relatively) new book about Zélie and her husband, Louis. The two are the first married persons to be canonized as a couple, so naturally their literature tends to go together. After being a little disappointed in Piat’s presentation of the Martins in “The Story of a Family,” I decided to give this new one a try. That was a very good choice. Should you be interested in learning more about Louis and Zélie, here are my few recommending thoughts on the book:
The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin
by: Hélène Mongin (trans. Marsha Daigle-Williamson, Ph.D)
Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division (2015)
Despite the title, the narrative of this book does not suffer from the same hyper-fixation on Thérèse as I felt with Piat. In many presentations, it can be a struggle to get to know and love Louis and Zélie if you aren’t already a fan of their esteemed daughter; however, I felt Mongin did a wonderful job of showing how Thérèse was inspired by the witness of her parents, rather than treating the parents as secondary to their daughter. She emphasizes the grace of marriage as a source and fruit of their holiness, rather than seeing the Martin parents’ devotion as displacement for lost religious vocations that trickled down to be fulfilled in their children. Louis and Zélie did not “settle” for marriage: they are saints because of it. And so are their children. As Mongin notes: “The canonization of Louis and Zélie underscores that the family can be a place of love so strong that it testifies to the whole world of God’s love and that an ordinary life lived with God can bear extraordinary fruit.” (pg 159)
“The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth”- St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The book is not so much a biography as it is a thematic look into the earthly lives of a wife and husband, mother and father, whom we now know to be saints. This format can make it a little difficult for the reader to piece together a firm timeline, though this deficiency can be aided by even a simple perusal on Wikipedia. In this thematic approach, topics such as marriage, children and enterprise are all discussed through the lens of Louis and Zélie’s great holiness, showing that no matter what the situation, God always came first in their lives. Mongin manages to walk a fine line in her story-telling: showing the incredible virtue displayed by the married couple, while avoiding the hagiographical trap of painting Louis and Zélie as faultless in their earthly life, or perfect in their piety. She acknowledges that Zélie found it difficult to juggle her prayer life with work and the children (pg. 43)– something every parent can relate to. She also describes ways in which both Louis and Zélie were aware of their own faults of temperament and sought to correct them– a lesson we would all do well to imitate.
One feature of the narrative that I did not particularly like is the modern tendency to psychologize everything or go out of our way to situate certain attitudes in history. A fault is a fault and from the standpoint of a fault-filled person, deflecting personal failings with phrases like “one must not interpret this action…” or “this would be much less traumatizing…” doesn’t quite accomplish the goal of making these saints feel like “real people.” Yet Mongin manages to do much less of this than Piat and perhaps such explanations may actually prove beneficial to readers who are tempted to imitate the saints in every aspect.
Overall, I found this book to be a quick, enjoyable and edifying read. Louis and Zélie are given their proper place as heads of this holy family, a much-needed example for parents who struggle with living out their vocation in the secular world. Furthermore, their active involvement in their communities serve as models for all Christians today. Perhaps the owners of Chik-Fil-A would find a kindred spirit in Louis, who refused to open shop on Sundays despite loss of revenue. The students placing crosses on the quad in memory of lives lost to abortion may find solace in the ridicule which the Martins sometimes faced from their neighbors for speaking so openly of God. The young mother facing cancer may be strengthened by Zélie’s firm acceptance of God’s will when all the prayers had not elicited a miracle.
We all have much to learn and love about this holy couple. Mongin’s text is a fabulous way to aid in that endeavor.