They say that saints often befriend us, that they find us rather than the other way around. I’ve found it to be true in my own life, particularly in regard to two saints: a Carmelite nun and Doctor of the Church, Thérèse of Lisieux, and her mother, Zélie.
St. Thérèse found me when I was 13 years old and preparing for my Confirmation. I’d already picked my Confirmation saint, or so I thought, but that changed when I read an adaptation of Thèrése’s autobiography “Story of a Soul” — and later the actual autobiography. It was just the right moment for me to discover Thérèse. The way she wrote so passionately about her love of Jesus, her spouse, captured my romantic teenage imagination. I wanted to love God that much, and almost 19 years later, I’m still working on it. But I believe that reading “Story of a Soul” kept me Catholic in my early 20s, when I wasn’t actively practicing but kept enough of my Catholic identity to fully reembrace my faith by the end of my 20s.
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St. Thérèse was also the person who introduced me to the Catholic approach to suffering. The year I was confirmed, I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a disorder that involves chronic pain and chronic fatigue. The idea that suffering could be redemptive — that I could offer it up for others and that it could help sanctify me — was life-changing. As she wrote, “Love lives only by sacrifice and the more we would surrender ourselves to Love, the more we must surrender ourselves to suffering.”
Thérèse has stayed an inspiration and friend to me over the years. In fact, after my husband and I found out we were pregnant the day before her feast day last year, it was to her I prayed a novena for a safe pregnancy and healthy baby. And now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, she’s bringing me deeper into her “Little Way,” reminding me that the small, often more difficult acts of service and sacrifice I can make every day are a path to sanctity — challenging my desire to make big gestures and change the world, which I’ve learned is often rooted in pride.
Thérèse talks about her parents in her autobiography, but I didn’t give much thought to Zélie Martin until the last couple of years as I was anticipating becoming a wife and (I hoped) mother. Last year, leading up to my wedding, I read “Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.” The book mostly consists of letters from Zélie, along with a few from her husband, Louis. It made me think, it made me laugh, and it made me better understand my vocation.
My husband’s and my pandemic wedding was quickly followed by a pandemic pregnancy and the birth of our daughter, who was born this summer. Soon after we brought her home, I started experiencing the fruits of praying for St. Zélie’s intercession and considering her approach to motherhood as I shaped my own.
Zélie was a successful business owner and mother of nine, five of whom survived childhood and became nuns. Her youngest, Thérèse, is now a Doctor of the Church, and her middle daughter, Léonie, has been named a Servant of God. In his homily at the Mass where Zélie and Louis were canonized, Pope Francis said, “The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters, among whom was Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus.”
It is that environment of faith and love that my husband and I want to nurture in our own home, and when we talk about ways to do so, I always come back to the Martin family. Zélie attended Mass as often as she could, was a member of numerous religious societies (she was even a secular Franciscan), dove into the lives of the saints in her spiritual reading, and was known in her community for her charitable works.
Zélie’s business was so successful that her husband closed his own business to work with her. Still, her priority was her vocation as a wife and mother, and she and Louis made their mission in life bringing their family to heaven. While they suffered a great deal (they lost four children, and Zélie died when she was only 45), they knew that suffering would bring them closer to Christ, and they always trusted in God’s providence. When I am afraid to trust God, Zélie reminds me that while he will give me crosses, he will also give me the strength to carry them.
“The good Lord does not do things by halves,” she wrote. “He always gives what we need. Let us then carry on bravely.”