In his mind a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.
In today’s first reading, we draw near the end of the story of Joseph the dreamer, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers. What followed—a life spent in exile, filled with heartache, loneliness, and imprisonment—could not have been further from the dreams his parents had for their beloved son. Still, Joseph surrendered to the will of God, took the adventures that befell him, and eventually guided the entire country through a seven-year famine. As he tearfully told his brothers upon their reunion, “It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). After years of suffering, the family was healed, countless lives were preserved, and God’s saving power was revealed. What a story!
Much like Joseph, Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, whose feast we celebrate today, totally abandoned themselves to divine providence and freely undertook the adventures God presented to them. Both had deeply desired to enter religious life in their youth, but those desires remained unfulfilled. Louis had been refused entry to the Great Saint Bernard Monastery in the Swiss Alps, and Zélie had been turned away from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Faced with living in the world, each then trained to enter an artistic profession. He became a jeweler and watchmaker, and she became a lacemaker. Yet, they were still filled with grief and an aching desire for holiness—Zélie especially, for her older sister did have a vocation and entered the Visitation Monastery in Le Mans. For a young woman already filled with anguish and who truly viewed life as an exile, the additional separation from her sister was particularly painful.
But, not long after her sister entered religious life, Zélie found a kindred spirit in Louis—a gentle yet energetic man living a quasi-monastic life in the world—while crossing the St. Leonard Bridge in Alençon. They were married three months later at midnight on July 13, 1858, each vowing to be “an angel in each other’s life, radiating the face of Christ to each other and committed to bringing each other closer to God” (Renda, xxiii). When the two visited her sister on their wedding day, Zélie writes, “I cried all my tears, more than I’d ever cried in my life, and more than I would ever cry again. My poor sister didn’t know how to console me… [Louis] understood me and consoled me as best he could because his inclinations were similar to mine. I even think our mutual affection grew through it. Our feelings were always in accord, and he was always a comfort and support to me” (Renda, 288).
Marriage was not a consolation prize for Sts. Louis and Zélie, as they soon learned. It was a true calling, and one meant to be lived out fully. During a time where consecrating your life to God, performing miracles, or dying as a martyr were considered the best ways to achieve holiness, this couple was instead led to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way, a little way. Their fiat was embedded into every aspect of their marriage—they put God first and loved him more than they loved each other or their children, and they loved each other and their children very much indeed. One only needs to look at how they signed their letters when away from each other: “Your wife who loves you more than her own life” and “Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life” (Renda). Their daughter, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, called them “a father and mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”
Sts. Louis and Zélie lived lives seeped in prayer, the sacraments, and charitable works and raised their children to love God. Their spirituality was characterized by humility, trust, living in the present moment, love, and gratitude. Zélie was a Third Order Franciscan, and Louis had a particular affinity for Eucharistic adoration. They were devoted to Our Lady, received Communion as often as was acceptable at the time, and continuously gave of themselves to each other, their children, their extended family, and their whole community. Zélie was both a brilliant businesswoman and a dynamic mom; Louis was both eager to run to someone’s rescue and dedicate himself to study in his monastic-style cell in the family attic. They adored their children, accepted all the joys and sorrows of family life, and leaned on Christ in all circumstances, knowing they were not perfect people or parents.
Their story of crossing a bridge may seem like nothing but a charming tale, just as their daughter may seem like nothing more than a little flower. But there is much more to their marriage. St. Catherine of Siena describes Christ as a bridge reaching from Heaven to Earth in her Dialogues. For the rest of Louis and Zélie’s marriage, crossing a bridge meant uniting their sufferings to Christ, carrying their crosses, and “enduring to the end.” They had nine children, but four died at a young age, including the sons Zélie hoped to see celebrate Mass as priests. They faced many sicknesses in their family. Zélie valiantly endured an excruciatingly painful death in Louis’s arms at the age of 45 from breast cancer. Louis lost his wife too soon, gave his daughters to Christ one by one as they entered religious life, and quietly suffered from severe physical and mental illnesses before dying at an old age.
Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin are not saints because their daughter Thérèse is a saint and Doctor of the Church. They aren’t even saints because all their children entered religious life, or because they suffered greatly. Sts. Louis and Zélie are saints because they did the will of God, and they did it with all their hearts. They lived lives of astounding holiness and simplicity, offering their sufferings to God with courage, living in the grace of the present moment, and trusting in his love unconditionally. As the first spouses to be canonized as a couple, let us pray for their intercession for the healing of families around the world and for us to let God love us and lead us—even if we are led, one shaking step at a time, to somewhere different than we originally dreamed, like Sts. Louis and Zélie, like Joseph the dreamer, both sent ahead of us to help point the way to Christ, the bridge “walled and roofed with Mercy.” May God’s saving power be revealed through our lives, and may he make us saints and bring us home. Amen.
Reading & Listening Suggestions
Original composition: A Rose From Our Lady
Mongin, The Extraordinary Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Renda (ed.), A Call to a Deeper Love
Martin, The Father of the Little Flower
Martin, The Mother of the Little Flower