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from issue no. 06/07 - 2008

“I had only to look at him to know how the saints pray”


So Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus spoke of her father, Louis Martin who will soon be beatified along with his wife, Zelia Guérin, on their 150th wedding anniversary


by Paolo Mattei


Louis Martin

Louis Martin

The watchmaker and the lacemaker. It sounds like the title of a late nineteenth century novelette. Whereas it is a true story. The story of a married couple who will soon be elevated to the honor of the altars. It will be the second case after that of the Beltrame Quattrocchi husband and wife, beatified in 2001 by John Paul II. But for Louis and Zelia Martin resonance of the event may be much louder. They are the parents of the woman whom Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern times”, little Theresa of the Child Jesus. Their case was opened in 1957, and today is close to its concluding moment. As early as 1994 Pope Wojtyla declared the heroic virtues of father and mother “more worthy of heaven than earth,” as Teresa had written in one of her last letters. But only two months ago the Medical Consultants recognized the first miracle attributed to their intercession: the sudden healing in June 2002 at the San Gerardo Hospital in Monza of little Pietro Schilirò, born with a severe form of pulmonary insufficiency judged irreversible. On 3 July the Pope approved the miracle and only a short time later, on 12 July, Cardinal Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in a conference held in the parish of Notre Dame in Alençon, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of their marriage, announced that the beatification of the Martin spouses will take place on 19 October, World Missionary Day, in Lisieux Basilica, in whose surroundings the parents of Teresa are buried.
Louis Martin, by profession a watchmaker and jeweler, conceived in his youth the idea of becoming a monk, but in 1845 he was not allowed to enter the monastery of the Grand St. Bernard because he would first have had to learn Latin. For an unknown reason, analogous permission had been denied to Zelia who wanted to enter the Sisters of Charity who ran the New Hospital in Alençon, her home town. So she then directed herself toward marriage. The first meeting with Luigi took place on the bridge of Saint Leonard. As Luigi passed her the young maker of elegant “point of Alençon” lace distinctly heard an inner voice saying: “This is the man whom I have prepared for you.” It was the very period of grace during which the Immaculate Conception, to whom Zelia had turned, was smiling in the grotto of Massabielle on little Bernadette Soubirous. The marriage took place in the parish church of Alençon, after a few months of engagement, three days before the last apparition of Lourdes, 16 July 1858.
Apart from this prelude, the lives of the couple passed for nineteen years – the length of time their marriage lasted – immersed in the everyday life of an ordinary well-off family where work and childrearing absorbed almost the whole day. Only that the couple lived the duties of their state as Christians, beginning the day with Mass, practicing respect for the laws of the Church, participating in the life of the parish, placing a particular emphasis on Sunday rest, confessing frequently, praying to the “Good God”, in the expression always on Zelia’s lips, to send them children so they might “rear them for Heaven”. They had nine, four times experienced the pain of premature death, which unfortunately was not an exception in those days, and reared in love the five daughters who reached adulthood. The last to be born, in January 1873, was Theresa. They did not regret that they were willing to accept the children that God had decided to give. Writing to her sister-in-law, also suffering for the loss of a newborn child, Zelia said: “I am sorry, my heart is wrung as when I lost my own children, and yet God has given a great grace, since the little one had time to receive baptism. When you see a creature in danger it’s always there that you start. When I closed the eyes of my dear little children, I felt great pain, but I did not regret the pain and toil borne for them. Many people told me: ‘It would have been better not to have ever had them’. I couldn’t tolerate that language. I didn’t find that my pain and toils could be measured against the eternal happiness of my children”.
The greatest testimony to their saintliness comes from the writings of Theresa, who had the grace to soon learn trust in God from watching her parents. Of Zelia she had few memories: her mother died from breast cancer in 1877 when Teresa was still very small. But her mother’s letters are full of references to her lively and merry childhood: “Little Theresa is sometimes really amusing,” she wrote in 1876 to her secondborn, Pauline, then in college: “The other day she asked me whether she will go to Heaven. I said yes, if she was very good. She replied: ‘Yes, and if I weren’t nice I’d go to hell… but I know what I would do: I would fly away with you who would be in Heaven, then you would hold me tight in your arms. How would the Good Lord take me?’ I saw in his eyes that she was convinced that the Good Lord couldn’t do anything to her if she were in the arms of her mother…”
In this family prayer and trust in God were not only recommended. They were experienced daily, and the five daughters breathed an air in which “the extraordinary instructive power of prayer” was the method naturally learned at every step. “In our house”, Celine, the penultimate, playmate and boon friend of Theresa, recalled in old age, “the main lever of education was piety. There was a whole liturgy of the home: evening prayer in the family, month of Mary, Sunday services, devout readings on the Vigil. My mother would take me in her lap to help me prepare my confession, and it was precisely to the trust of her little daughters that she constantly turned.”
How quickly Theresa learned with this method! When she began to take her first steps, says the mother, she found it difficult to climb the house stairs. Then she would stand at the bottom of the first step and shout: “Mummy!” And she would not move from there until her mother replied: “Yes, my little girl”. Only then did she lift her foot and get over the obstacle. “There was need for a call and an answer of encouragement for each step”, says Father Antonio Sicari commenting on the episode. He adds: “Later, Theresa, then an instructor of young novices, was to teach them that there is no better way to learn to climb towards God than by calling to Him at every step.”
Zelia Guérin

Zelia Guérin

And so did Zelia faced with the difficulties of work, the sicknesses of the children, daily setbacks, the problems given her over many years by her third born Leonie, a closed, introverted, disobedient girl and slow learner, with whom Zelia had some success only at the end of her life. In the joys and sorrows of life she knew she was protected and loved, and that certainty transmitted itself as by osmosis to the hearts of her daughters: “Miss X”, she wrote to Pauline, “came to give me your news, and she said you’ve grown so much and I’m happy. She is a very good person this lady, a pity that she has such liberal ideas. I believe that one day she’ll change because she is too charitable for the Good Lord to allow her always to have such a thick veil over her eyes. The other day her brother told us that “God is not concerned with us”: he’ll see if the Good Lord is concerned, and very soon I think. I’m sad that such good friends have similar feelings. Well I know that the Good Lord is concerned for me: I’ve noticed already many times in my life and I’ve many memories in this regard that will never be wiped from my memory”.
This attitude was to lead Zelia to accept the news of her serious illness, at 45 and with five daughters to rear, without falling into despair: “The Good Lord gives me the grace not to be frightened; I’m tranquil, I feel almost happy, I wouldn’t change my fate for another. If the Good Lord wants to heal me, I will be very happy, because basically I want to live: I’m sorry to leave my husband and my daughters. But on the other hand I say to myself: ‘If I don’t get better it’s perhaps because it will be more useful for them if I go away…’. Meanwhile, I will do everything possible to obtain a miracle: I’m counting on the pilgrimage to Lourdes, but if I’m not cured, I’ll try to sing just the same on the way back”.
Zelia did not obtain the longed-for grace. At 54 Louis found himself facing the task of running a house, when his firstborn daughter Marie was 17 and Theresa just four and a half. It was then he decided to move to Lisieux, where Zelia’s brother, Isidore, lived and offer his daughters the maternal support of his sister-in-law Celina Fournet, friend and confidant of his wife. The memory of those years remained extraordinarily alive with Theresa, who, being the youngest of the family was surrounded by very special love from her father. The evening stroll with a visit to the Blessed Sacrament was devoted to her; the afternoon spent fishing on the river; the last kiss, after the evening prayer before the statue of Our Lady so dear to Zelia and Louis, which had been brought from Alençon. It was thus that Theresa’s heart burgeoned again. Gradually she got over the pain for the death of her mother, which had initially made her fragile, prone to tears and melancholy, and discovered in the eyes of her father a love that naturally referred to God and spread into charity: “During our walks with father, he liked me to offer alms to the poor we met; one day we saw one dragging himself with difficulty on crutches, I approached him with a coin, but he did not consider himself poor enough to receive the alms; he looked at me smiling with sadness, and refused to take what I was offering. I can’t say what happened in me, I would have liked to be of help to him, console him. Father had bought me a cake, I had a great desire to give it to him, but I didn’t dare, but I wanted to give him something he couldn’t refuse, because I felt such liking for him. Then I remembered having heard that on the day of one’s First Communion one gets everything one asks: that thought consoled me and, although I was not yet six, I said to myself: ‘I shall pray for my poor man on the day of my First Communion’. I kept the promise five years later, and I hope that the Lord heard the prayer that I turned to Him for one of His suffering members”.
We cannot in these few pages not mention Story of a soul, seeing reflected in it the stature of Louis, the grace that allowed him to shape, without many words but by example, that spirit of trust in God that so characterized Theresa: “The feastdays! How many memories in that word! The feastdays, I loved them so much! I especially loved the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. The feastdays! Ah, if the big ones were rare, every week brought one very dear to my heart: Sunday! What a day was Sunday! It was the feast of God, the feast of rest. The whole family started out for mass. Along the way, and even in church, Daddy’s little queen held his hand, and was placed next to him. When we sat down for the sermon, it was necessary to find two chairs beside one another. That was not difficult because everyone found it so pleasant to see a fine old man with such a tiny little daughter that people went out of their way to offer a place. When the preacher spoke of St Theresa, Daddy would bend down to me, and say: ‘Listen hard, my little queen, he’s speaking of your patron saint’. I listened, really, but looking at Daddy more often than at the preacher, his beautiful face told me so many things! Sometimes, his eyes would fill with tears, that he vainly strove to hold back….”.
Theresa insists especially on the verb look, when referring to her father: “What can I say about the vigils in winter, especially of the Sunday ones? How sweet it was for me after the game of draughts, to sit with Celine on Daddy’s lap. Then, we would go up to say our prayers together, and the tiny queen was alone beside her king: she had only to look to know how the saints pray...”.
It should be said that Theresa, who never felt a saint, always felt herself the daughter of saints. And so could express herself in a letter to her father when she was already at the Carmel: “When I think of you, I naturally think of the Good God.”
Between 1882 and 1887 it was Louis’ task to accompany three of his five daughters to the door of the Carmel of Lisieux: Pauline, the foster mother of Theresa, went there first; Marie, the firstborn, four years later; Theresa, which for her father was the greatest sacrifice, a year later, when she had received special permission to take the Carmelite veil at 15. On that occasion one of his friends said to him: “Abraham has nothing to teach you. You would have done like him if the Good Lord had asked you to sacrifice your little queen...”. He immediately replied: “Yes, but I confess, I would have raised my sword slowly, waiting for the angel and the ram”.
Theresa, last of nine children, at the age of three and a half, in a photo of July  1876

Theresa, last of nine children, at the age of three and a half, in a photo of July 1876

But it was from him that they had learned how to find in life “the best part, which will not be taken away. In 1885 he left for what would be one of his last pilgrimages, destined for the Holy Land, continuing a tradition that was dear to him. Often his wife and daughters had seen him set off staff in hand for Chartres, or go to Paris to pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Victories. On that occasion he wrote to Marie from Constantinople: “Finally, my Marie, my big one, my first, continue to lead your small battalion as best you can and be more reasonable than your old father, who has had enough of all the beauty around him and dreams of Heaven and the infinite”. So echoing the words that Zelia had written to her sister-in-law when she was already aware of the seriousness of her illness: “So yet another year has passed… For me, I have no regrets, I look forward impatiently to the end of the next: however, I haven’t many reasons to rejoice at seeing time hurrying by, but I’m like children who do not worry about the future: I always expect happiness.”
In the last years of his life, having offered to God all his daughters – even Leonie and Celine entered the convent after his death – he had to face his most trying ordeal: a painful disease that led slowly to the loss of his mental faculties and internment in the sanatorium at Caen. Alternating between moments of lucidity and long crises, he tried to offer everything to the Good God, accepting out of love, he who had always been very active and enterprising, this painful condition: “I have always been accustomed to commanding and I find myself reduced to obeying, it is hard. But I know why the Good Lord has given me this trial: I had never had humiliations in my life, I needed one”.
When he died in 1894, Theresa wrote: “The death of Father does not affect me like a death, but a true life. I find him again after six years absence, I feel him around me, watching over and protecting me”.
Perhaps their sanctity may not have the extraordinary character of Theresa’s. But to show how much Theresa owed to her parents the testimony of a friend of Louis, Christopher Desroziers, is enough. In 1899, after reading the first edition of the Story of a soul, he wrote: “It is not without deep emotion that I have found the physical and moral portrait of that dear Louis, one of the men that I have most loved on earth. I never met a larger heart nor a soul more generous, and it is certainly from him that the nobility of the sentiments of Sister Theresa of the Child Jesus comes”.


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