Do any bride and groom fully understand what they are getting into when they say, “I do”? The answer is probably yes and no. Yes, if they come to the altar with an appreciation of God’s plan for marriage. And no, because it’s only by living marriage out that a couple comes to see what it means and learns how to love each other as husband and wife. For some, the learning curve is steep.
Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, are a prime example.
Here was a couple who needed conversion to the very vocation of marriage! But in their nineteen years together, the Martins found the Lord in each other and came to a deep appreciation of God’s plan for married life and love. Fully embracing their vocation, they became holy through it.
Next month, when Pope Francis officially declares them saints, Louis and Zélie will become the first spouses to be canonized as a couple—a sign that their relationship was at the center of their holiness. And a sign to us that wherever we may start on the path of marriage, however much we have to learn, God can work powerfully in any wife and husband who let him forge them into one.
A Shaky Start. Marriage was not this couple’s first choice. Each had tried and failed to enter a religious community. Louis was refused because he knew no Latin; Zélie was told she had no vocation to the religious life. So she set her sights on marriage and asked God to give her many children to nurture for heaven. To earn her dowry, she studied lace making and built up a good business. Louis, meanwhile, had set up shop as a watchmaker; he was leading a studious, prayerful life and had many friends but showed no inclination to marriage.
In April 1858, as Zélie was walking across a bridge in Alençon, France, she saw Louis and heard an interior voice: “This is the one I have chosen for you.” The two had never met, and thirty-four-year-old Louis was considered a confirmed bachelor. Yet on July 13, about three months after their “chance” encounter, Zélie and Louis were married.
They could have used a good marriage-preparation program. As their wedding night revealed, Zélie knew very little about sex. When Louis explained what it meant to consummate a marriage, she was so shocked that he suggested they live “as brother and sister.” The next morning, the celibate newlyweds visited Zélie’s sister, a Visitation nun, and Zélie cried her heart out.
Converting to Marriage. But Louis, eight years older than Zélie, was patient with his wife, and she came to trust him more and more. Growing up, she had never felt very much love. Her mother was severe, and her early years were “sad as a shroud,” she said. Marriage to Louis brought her the love and friendship she had missed. Ten months after their wedding, one of the two (no one knows which) consulted a confessor about their unusual situation. He advised them to begin a normal married life, and so they did.
Zélie’s letters in the next few years reveal a couple who had fallen very deeply in love. Writing to her brother, she said, “I’m always so happy with him. . . . What a holy man my husband is.” Away visiting relatives, she wrote, “I’m longing to be near you, my dear Louis. I love you with all my heart. . . . It would be impossible for me to live apart from you.” Louis felt the same way about her. “My dearest,” he wrote while on a business trip, “it seems like a long time to me, and I’m longing to be with you.”
Children began to appear: nine in all, though only five daughters survived to adulthood. Parenthood brought the couple something like a second conversion to the vocation of marriage. Reflecting on the experience years later, Zélie wrote, “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. We lived only for them. They were all our happiness.”
Louis, the would-be monk, found intense joy as a father. When he brought Marie to be baptized, the priest commented on how happy he looked. Louis answered, “This is the first time you’ve seen me here for a baptism, but it won’t be the last!” Even Zélie, who had prayed for many children, had not anticipated such joy. Writing about her fourth daughter, Hélène, she exulted, “I can’t imagine that I have the honor of being the mother of such a delightful creature. . . . Oh! I admit I don’t regret being married.”
The Little Way of Love. Building a home drew the couple closer together and closer to the Lord. They established patterns of family prayer and taught their daughters to know and love Jesus. Every weekday morning, Louis and Zélie themselves attended five-thirty Mass.
Zélie’s letters describe many good times at home—food, fun, outings, and celebrations of everyday joys and milestones. But she and Louis carried much responsibility, and their schedule was demanding. They were working parents, each with a business and obligations. Zélie was often up until midnight juggling her various responsibilities. Louis, besides being a watchmaker, owned considerable real estate and had tenants and properties to oversee. For several years, they cared for one another’s parents: they shared a home with Louis’ father and mother; later, Zélie’s widowed father joined them.
As they carried out their responsibilities, Zélie and Louis found ways to express their love and support for each other. She arranged the smallest details of the household with her husband’s happiness in mind. He was a hands-on dad, always looking for ways to make his wife’s life easier. In time, he gave up watchmaking to help her with the business end of her lace making enterprise.
Together, the couple set an example of reaching out beyond their family. They gave generously to persons in distress and stayed alert to the needs of their servants, tenants, employees, and neighbors. When they met an old man who was freezing in a barn, they clothed and fed him and found him a place to live. When they heard that two women who were pretending to be nuns were abusing a foster child, Zélie rescued the girl and took the women to court. Daughter Céline remembered how often she had seen people coming into her home to receive food and clothes, with tenderhearted Zélie crying over their stories of suffering.
In Good Times and Bad. Louis and Zélie also grew closer through their trials, and they always made it a point to encourage each other to trust in God’s love for them and their children. Within four years, they lost three infants and five-year-old Hélène. They kept anxious vigil at the bedside of Marie, who almost died of typhoid at age thirteen.
With their daughter Léonie, Louis and Zélie knew the suffering of parents confronted by their own flaws and failures. Léonie was a difficult child—unhappy and so disruptive that she was expelled from school. Zélie and Louis struggled to understand her and help her, but with little success. A breakthrough finally came when Léonie was in her early teens, and it came to light that she was being dominated and terrorized by the family maid. By then, Zélie had been diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer, and her greatest concern was what would happen to this “poor child.” (Léonie is being considered for beatification—but that’s another story!)
Although greatly distressed at Zélie’s illness, the couple faced the challenge with the trust in God and the mutual loving attention that had come to characterize their life together. They prayed for healing, and Louis held down the home front while Zélie and the oldest girls went to Lourdes. She came back unhealed in body but strengthened in spirit. Louis was “very surprised to see me return as cheerfully as if I’d received the much-desired grace,” Zélie wrote. “This renewed his courage and put everyone in a good mood again.”
Zélie died in August 1877 at forty-five years old, leaving Louis a single parent with five minor daughters; Thérèse, the youngest, was only four. He faithfully pursued their joint project of raising a family for God, making all his decisions with his daughters’ welfare in mind. For this reason, he left his friends and relatives and moved the family to Lisieux, where the girls could have the support of Zélie’s brother and his family. In time, all of them except Céline left him to enter the convent.
Throughout his seventeen years as a widower, Louis kept Zélie’s memory close. “The thought of your mother also follows me constantly,” he wrote his daughters. Finally, suffering from dementia but aware of what was going on, he was placed in a mental institution. He accepted the sacrifice and made it his mission to encourage the other residents and bring them back to God. He died in July 1894.
Two Made One in Christ. A priest friend of the Martins once observed, “In that family, the union was remarkable, both between the spouses and between the parents and children.” This outstanding unity, so fruitful for the Church and the world, flowed out of Louis and Zélie’s embrace of their vocation to marriage in Christ.
The Martins stand as an encouragement to spouses today, who come into marriage from many different starting points. We all have things we understand about marriage and things we don’t, things that are easy to accept and things that are hard. But if each spouse follows God into the unknown and meets the other there, God’s grace will transform them. If we enter into the heart of marriage, we will find that it