Zelie and Me

Sometimes, an encounter between two souls results in an instant friendship; a spark fueled by a recognition of like souls, kindred spirits if you will; a binding friendship that is immediately for life.

‘Twas not so with St Zelie and I. I seem to recall our first encounter occurring behind the great basilica in Lisieux of St Therese, where lay the graves of the Venerable Martins (parents of St Therese) at that time. My only thought was “Oh how nice that people saw fit to honouring her parents enough to bring them here”.  And that was that.

Later I remember  semi-swooning at the story of how she first encountered St Louis on a bridge in Alencon and ‘knew at once’ that he would be her husband. They married at midnight, by candlelight. Who would not revel in such romance?

My awareness of and friendship with this 19th century French working mother of nine children has grown since then, thanks to the collections of  St Zelie’s letters. Consider how you would feel if nearly every email and text message that you had ever sent, often written in the depths of sleep deprivation and frustration, were eventually compiled and published for the world to see, long after you had any chance of editing them. The idea makes me quiver; there is certainly no way my compendium of correspondence would be compatible with my canonization. However,  the letters of St Zelie are a delectable read, virtuous yet entertaining. Not because they contain descriptions of spiritual ecstacies, theological treatises or instructions on achieving holiness.  In fact, at first glance they are downright mundane.  However, delving into her letters – often written to her children at boarding school, or her sister-in-law in a relatively removed town – reveals the heartbeat of a family, quietly and persistently forging a path to Heaven. Through the very ordinary descriptions of her daily life, we begin to learn so much of what it means to find sanctity in the ordinary moments of married life, of motherhood, of running a business, of being a neighbour, of being part of a community. Zelie Martin makes sanctity seem possible because in the face of the difficulties and wounds of her life as wife and mother, she constantly lays her salvation at the feet of Our Lord and His Mother. She worries as we all do – about her husband, her children, her brother’s family, her lace-making business, her neighbours. She paints no rosy picture. She complains about her physical afflictions, her endless fatigue. She wonders what her life would have been like had she been a religious sister. She acknowledges her fears. She frets about money and providing for her family. She is deeply anxious about her daughters’ education, their temperaments, even their clothing. She wonders if her children in Heaven ever pray for her. Yet with each sentence, she hands all these things over to Christ, entrusting him with the deepest fears of her heart.

And through it all emerges a picture of a beautiful, struggling, bereaved family. A family where four children passed so early to Heaven, leaving just five to grow to adulthood. A family whose mother died with young children still to be raised. A family so real, it could be any of ours. As women, we can see little aspects of our own families woven into the Martin family; the behaviorally difficult child; the struggle to balance being a working mother; the breastfeeding difficulties; the child who is constantly sick; the endless fatigue; the grief.

It is no exaggeration when I say that the woman I now consider my dear friend St Zelie helped me through the hardest time of my life. Last year, my robust eight month old son Theodore, slipped quietly from this life into eternal bliss. In my paralysis, I began receiving quotations from St Zelie from several different sources, quotations about her experience of losing four earthly children.  Although I had read them all before, never had these words struck me as they did in those early days of grief. With her words, brought to me on the countless prayers being said for my family, St Zelie took me gently by the hand, told me she knew the agony of my heart, and helped me to lay it all at the Christ’s feet. Her friendship, prayer and example in my darkest times, have shown me what it means to simultaneously grieve for and live for one’s children; what it is to live this life while yearning so earnestly for Heaven.

St Zelie is a friend who can walk with us through all seasons of our lives. Right now, she is helping me to realise that Catholic motherhood is not a prototype into which we all fit neatly; that Catholic mothers can look very different to one another and Catholic sanctity is not mass produced into millions of identical lives. Struggling to breastfeed and having to concoct a formula to feed your child? You can still be a saint. Send your children to boarding school and have hired help to do your housework? You can still be a saint. Fall asleep several times during Mass? You can still be a saint.

Thank you St Zelie. May you continue to be a friend to all Catholic wives and mothers stumbling towards Heaven.

~ By Jovina James

Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus (1864-1885) is the book if you would like to read the letters of St Zelie and her husband St Louis.

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