Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Zelie's Death

Blessed Zelie Martin’s former maid Louise Marais wrote of Zelie several years after Zelie’s death, “She had a great many trials during her life, and she accepted them all with resignation.  And how eager she was to sacrifice herself constantly!” (The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin, TAN Books)
Eternal Love granted Blessed Zelie Martin one last opportunity to sacrifice herself to Him with complete loving abandon, as she was so accustomed to doing. In July of 1877, a cancerous tumor which had been long developing in her breast finally manifested itself with great inflammation and discomfort.  In the weeks to follow, it would spread, sending violent pains throughout her body.  In the final days, only short snatches of sleep could provide Zelie with any relief.  The slightest noise would wake her up, sending horrible cries throughout the house.  In the end, she was too weak even to moan in pain.
Throughout the terrible suffering, Zelie never lost trust in the loving providence of God.  In times of anguish she would cry out, “Oh! Thou Who hast created me, have mercy on me!”
On August 28, 1877 at age 45, Zelie finally succumbed to the illness, going on to her heavenly reward, at last reunited her four little ones lost in infancy.  Her dear husband Louis and five other daughters were tremendously grieved, though consoled in grace knowing that their saintly wife and mother was finally with He whom she had so longed for and loved.
Celine writes of her mother, “In a word, always active, always devoted, constantly smiling, our mother never appeared to be doing anything extraordinary, but with remarkable simplicity and humility, she tirelessly spent herself for others, and lived always for the good God.
“In listening to these eulogies,” Celine continues, “and recalling what I had seen myself, I have often said to myself, that our Therese inherited those fundamental dispositions which were to make her: THE APOSTLE OF THE LITTLE WAY.”
“I loved my mother’s gentle smile,
Her thoughtful glance that said, the while:
‘Eternity doth me, from you, beguile.
I go to Heaven, my God, to be with Thee.’

‘I go to find, in realms above,
My angel-band in Mary’s love.
The children whom I leave below.  Ah prove
Jesus, to them, their guide and stay, always!’”
-St. Therese of the Child Jesus

Dear Blessed Zelie, pray for us mothers today and always!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Discomfort of Zelie

It was a slow, cold wave rolling over my tummy and trickling into my toes.  As I read page after page of the endless tasks in Blessed Zelie Martin’s life in The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin, TAN Books, from her exacting work in the lace business, to the daily tasks of running a household, her diligent prayer life, and constant efforts to relieve the poor and suffering around her, I felt the air escaping from my lungs like a punctured bike tire.  Chilled all over, I gripped my coffee cup and stared unblinkingly at the pages. It was clear: Zelie had made herself uncomfortable for Christ every day.  And far from easing her burden, He had allowed her to continue in her endless toil, which was finally ended by a brutally painful bout of breast cancer.
I suddenly didn’t want to want to be at Starbucks.  I looked at my coffee with a mix of love and contempt.  Zelie’s example had proven the point: it’s impossible to be comfortably holy, which, upon two seconds’ reflection, I realized had been the sole aim of my spiritual life.  How many times during the day did I ask myself—knowingly or not—just how little do I have to do to keep myself in sanctifying grace?       
Oh, man, this was bad.  Very bad.  I suspected this would begin a new, more difficult chapter in my life.  And if I did it right, it wouldn’t get any easier, and it might just result in a slow, painful death.  Yikes.  I rubbed my temples in distress, and a few people glanced at me, puzzled.  
Jesus was inviting me to wear myself out for Him as Zelie had, to reserve nothing for myself, to run on all cylinders, not for comfort but out of love for Him.  Could I do it?  Would I?  The full implication of His invitation was quickly adding up in my mind as I thought about all the suffering Zelie had experienced while on this earth.  She, however, was not concerned about the cost of loving Him, which undoubtedly led St. Therese to write later, “True love doesn’t calculate.”  Indeed, Celine shows time and again that her mother simply offered herself to Jesus, day in and day out, keeping nothing from Him:

Celine writes that her mother Zelie was “activity personified”, writing, “She was constantly busy with her lace-making, housekeeping, working for her children, and her correspondence.  Father endeavored as far as he could to relieve her, persuading her to accept helpers.  But she never thought of herself—she forgot herself entirely.  Her former housemaid, Louise, wrote to the Carmel many long years afterwards, ‘How many details have come to my mind since her death!  For herself, anything was good enough, but for others, it was quite the reverse!’”

Celine recalls, “I myself can still remember her distinctly, preparing every morning an excellent breakfast for all in the house; whereas she was satisfied to snatch a little soup for herself which she swallowed hastily, as she was going about.”

“Always the last to retire, around 11 p.m., she often rose at 5:30 a.m.,” writes Celine, so that she and Louis could attend the early morning Mass together daily.

Regarding fasting and mortification Celine writes, “Despite her poor opinion of herself, however, she led a very mortified life, and was rigorously faithful to the laws of fasting and abstinence (which were then much more strict than they are now), perhaps even to the detriment of her health and observed them even in her last illness.” 

Zelie once wrote, “We are in the full period of penance.  Fortunately, it will soon be over, for I suffer so much from fasting and abstinence.  It is not, however, such a hard mortification, but I feel my stomach so weak, and especially I feel so cowardly that if I listened to myself, I would not want to do anything at all.”

Regarding her lace business Zelie wrote, “My poor Marie feels the whole situation very much also.  She has not a good word for the Point d’Alencon.  She repeats that she would rather live in an attic than to earn her living at what it costs me.  I admit that she is not wrong.  If I were free and alone, and if I had to go through all I have suffered for the past 25 years, I would prefer to starve; the very thought of it gives me the ‘creeps’.”

And, “I often say that if I endeavored half of all this in order to gain Heaven, I would be a canonizable saint!  I think of my brother, also; if he has the same worries as I, I pity him with all my heart, for I know well what is the price per yard.”

On Zelie’s immense charity Celine writes, “She preferred to exercise charity in the most direct, immediate way; that is, to give daily help to those who seemed to be in need around her, and her faith made her think first of all of souls.  Hence she urged us to pray for sinners, for those in the neighborhood who were in danger of death.  These she visited, and helped materially, if they needed it; she would tactfully direct their thoughts to God, and call in the priest when there was need of the last Sacraments.  Her letters contain many instances of this spiritual form of charity.”

Louise testified, “I alone know how many two franc pieces (of money) as well as the many dishes of stew she sent through me to poor persons around Alencon.”

And Celine, “I frequently saw [the poor] coming to the house and receiving food and clothing.  Mother often shed tears when she heard their tales of distress.” 

I stopped reading.  What a beautiful life.  I fantasized about what Jesus could do through me if I stopped cutting corners, stopped giving up when the going got tough, and stopped calculating the cost of loving Him.  What could He do through me if I kept loving Him even when it was no longer comfortable to do so?  I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to find out.

I checked my coffee cup.  It was empty.  That was okay.  My heart was full. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

4 Tips for Effective Mothering from Blessed Zelie Martin

1.    Desire your kids’ holiness more than anything else in the world, and keep after them like shine on glass rosary beads. (a.k.a. Monica-style):  Blessed Zelie knew, much like St. Monica, that nothing else works for the formation and conversion of children quite like the prayers of their doggedly determined mother.  So clear from Celine Martin’s account of Zelie’s life in The Mother of the Little Flower, TAN Books, is that her mother’s one desire for this world was her children’s holiness.  She wasted no time; she prayed for her precious children from the moment she knew she was pregnant. Celine writes, “Her union with God and the fervor of her prayers, during her months of pregnancy, were so great that she was astonished not to see these pious dispositions manifesting themselves in her children from the dawn of their intelligence.”  In fact, just before Zelie’s oldest Marie was four and her sister Pauline was not quite two, Zelie’s sister wrote to their brother, “Zelie is already distressed that her children show no signs of piety.”  (This has been most consoling to me as a mother of a four-year-old.)
Despite this apparent set-back in holiness in Zelie’s mind, she persevered in prayer and with great care and patience taught her children the faith and “gradually and methodically” got her children to “overcome” themselves.
In the Beatification Process for St. Therese, her sisters Marie and Pauline said, “We were never spoiled.  Mother watched very carefully over the souls of her children; even the slightest fault was pointed out to be corrected.  It was a kind and loving education, but always vigilant and careful.”
2.     Teach your children to pray and pray with them.  Celine writes, “Mother took an active part in our education. I recollect how she always made us say our morning and evening prayers, and taught us the following formula for the offering of the day:  My God, I give You my heart; please accept it that no creature, but You alone, my good Jesus, may possess it.”

3.     Teach your children the value of sacrifice.  Zelie used to tell her daughter whose sisters were begging for her things, “Give it away, my little girl, and you’ll have another pearl in your crown!”  This type of training can transform a household.  Much like fasting for adults, nothing drives home the reality of our faith for little people than choosing to give up a most favorite stuffed bunny to a little brother who doesn’t deserve nor appreciate the gesture in exchange for heavenly glory.  I am often surprised by how happy the child is who gives away his toy after he had fought so hard to keep it.  And even if it’s done with clenched teeth and someone hissing something about getting a pearl, it’s still in the family vocabulary. 

Zelie also encouraged her children to keep track of their sacrifices.  Celine writes, “She accustomed us to obey through love, to please the dear Jesus, to make small sacrifices for Him.  We had a kind of ‘rosary’ to count these acts (‘a rosary of acts’); it was composed of movable beads which one could slide on a string.”      

Feeling insignificant in the world?  A fun exercise is keeping track of your own loving sacrifices as a mom on any given day.  Out of curiosity, I counted one morning and stopped when I hit 25 by 7 a.m.  How powerful our work must be to Our Lord. 

4.      Talk about heaven with your children and make it clear that getting there is your family’s number one priority.  Zelie wrote of her daughter Leonie, “She hears so much talk about the next life, that she often refers to it, herself, also."
Our family still has a long way to go in this regard, but the little guys at the moment are at least excited to see those big crowns we’ve been talking about and ride down the slides (in the hugest waterpark ever) with Mary and their patron saints.  I need to remember in the thick of a crummy afternoon that imagining with the children what heaven will be like’s a good game-changer.  For myself, picturing melting into Jesus’s arms and snuggling with Mary’s mantle while everyone else is safe and eternally blissfully happy at the waterpark should be enough to see me through to dinnertime.

With Zelie’s prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit, some day our kids could write about us:  “My parents always seemed to me to be saints.  We were filled with respect and admiration for them.  I sometimes asked myself if it were possible to find their equals on earth.  Around me I could see nothing like them.”
At our house at the moment, this is at least good for a laugh.  But St. Luke reminds us, “With God, nothing is impossible.”  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Part 2: Louis and Zelie

This was my kind of wilderness.  Snug upstairs in a cozy loft of a simply enormous chalet, I sipped coffee on a couch that had been upholstered in a woodsy fabric and watched with great contentment as the autumn leaves outside fluttered lazily in the breeze.  The baby was asleep in a huge, also woodsy bedroom, while my husband had taken the older two to the woodsy waterpark.  Thank you, God, for having prepared this piece of wilderness heaven just for me. 
I glanced at my maroon copy of The Mother of the Little Flower by Celine Martin, TAN Books and smiled at St. Therese’s mom Zelie and her sister Celine on the cover—now my dear friends and confidantes—and opened to section two in the book on the Martins’ family life.
Zelie and Louis Martin were married on July 13, 1858, ages 27 and 36, and lived in Alencon, France.  Zelie noted in written correspondence that prior to getting married she had been completely unaware of the nature of marital relations and had been “troubled to tears” upon finding it out.  Her most faithful and pious Louis took the opportunity to suggest that they instead live as brother and sister.  Zelie agreed, despite her earlier desire for children, and they lived this way for several months, even taking a needy boy into their home during this time.  Later, however, upon the counsel of their confessor, they both agreed instead to have many children and offer them to God.  Celine writes, “It is right, then that our saintly Therese, when writing the story of her life, should render thanks to the Lord, who allowed her to see the light in a holy soil fragrant with the odor of purity”.
I thought about that for a minute—about how parents’ holiness has a real effect on their children, even if their actions aren’t seen by them.  A realization that had been years in formation finally hit home:  I could not shield my children from the damaging effects of my sins by simply doing them in secret.  If I decide to greedily finish the brownies in the pan when I’m supposed to be doing the dishes after dinner [even if a.) it wouldn’t be good for the children to have any more that night or b.) no one likes them anyway—including me—because they’re gluten-free  or c.)  they’re in a pan that needs to be washed immediately in order to free up more counter space or d.) finishing them off would help sustain me through the next day’s Friday fast, which would actually make me holier…the next day, anyway], crouching behind the counter in the kitchen as I do so, making sure to stand next to the running dishwasher so that no one hears the chewing, stills hurts my kids, even if I can’t see the negative effects.  I pictured myself hiding in the kitchen.  Yes, very unZelie-like: must be stopped immediately.  I wondered if I’d see an uptick in general holiness in the family by cutting out the dessert-sneaking.  It was worth a try.  I settled back with the Martins again.
Someone who most definitely did not eat excessive amounts of brownies in the shadows of his kitchen was Louis Martin, a profoundly faithful and devout man, who held equally Zelie’s love and admiration.  Zelie “allowed him to exercise an authority which was really patriarchal”.  Celine writes, “My sisters have affirmed many times that their union was never clouded by any misunderstanding; my mother’s correspondence is filled with this testimony.”
This is one detail of Zelie’s life that I have found myself thinking about time and again.  After having had nine children together, Zelie and Louis—as attested to by their girls—never once had a true misunderstanding. The first time I had read this, I had felt the air get knocked out of my lungs.  How was that even possible, I thought.  And, yet, the beauty and fruit of their union was so abundant, I knew it had to be the truth, and it’s been a good reminder to me to better focus on, respect, and protect the true union I have with my husband.   
Celine notes that her mother often signed letters to Louis, “Your wife who loves you more than her own life.” And Canon Dumaine, Vicar General of Seez who baptised Therese in Alencon, once said of the Martins, “In their family life, the union was remarkable, both between the husband and wife, and between the parents and the children.”
Awesome.  What a couple, what a family.  Blessed Louis and Zelie, pray for all us married couples, that our unions become strong like yours so that our married love might be clear reflections of our heavenly Father’s unending love for and fidelity to His children, for His Glory forever.  Oh, and please pray for me, especially by the dishwasher.  Amen.
“The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth.” –St. Therese