When Louis and Zélie Martin are canonized this October at the Synod on the Family, it will of course be recalled that all their five surviving daughters became nuns, four in the Carmelite order, including the youngest and most famous, who became known as St. Thérèse of Liseux. (The fifth, Leonie, became a Visitation sister). This suggests a strong strain of Carmelite spirituality in the family. But at the same time, St. Thérèse’s parents were devoted to St. Francis and the Franciscans, and Zélie was a member of the Third Order.
Zélie Guerin had longed for the religious life in her youth in Alençon, but her health was too poor. After her marriage to Louis Martin, Zélie spent much time with the Poor Clares of the rue de la Demi-Lune, a community founded by Bl. Marguerite de Lorraine in 1520. She would ask the nuns for their prayers on occasion, as when she asked them to pray for her brother Isidore, who was taking his final college exams. (1) She would visit the sisters several times a month, studying the teaching of St. Francis.
The website devoted to the Martins in Alençon says: “It seems that [Zélie] did not commit herself as a full member” of the Third Order, though she often attended their meetings. (2). In part this might have been because at that time, tertiaries were still bound to a fairly strict fast and abstinence, which Zélie might not have been able to engage in for health reasons. (The fast was greatly modified after her death, in the revised Rule of Leo XIII of 1883).
This love for St. Francis and the Franciscans was shared by other members of the family, including Zélie’s husband, Louis, who also used to go to the Poor Clares in Alençon for spiritual guidance. (3) And of course, it was passed on to their daughters.
According to the sisters of the Visitation, the third daughter, Léonie, “had accompanied Mme. Martin to the meeting of tertiaries of St. Francis of Assisi and, secretly, nourished the desire to consecrate herself to God through the Seraphic Order. On October 7, 1886, she obtained permission to attempt the religious life within the Monastery of the Reverend Mothers at Alençon. Alas, the austerity of the Rule got the better of her delicate health, and, on the following December 1st, she had to leave this most fervent Monastery.” (4) Léonie made several other tries at religious life before settling for good with the Visitation sisters, founded by another St. Francis, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. She took as her name in religion Sr. Françoise-Thérèse.
But it is the daughter who was baptized Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin who most people will be interested in. She too had a lively devotion to St. Francis, and shared his playful side, as shown in this delightful letter she wrote to a missionary, Fr. Roulland:
“Perhaps you want to know what our Mother thinks of my desire to go to Tonkin? She believes in my vocation (for really it has to be a special vocation, and every Carmelite does not feel called to go into exile), but she does not believe my vocation may ever be realized. For this it would be necessary that the sheath be as solid as the sword, and perhaps (our Mother believes) the sheath would be cast into the sea before reaching Tonkin. It is not really convenient to be composed of a body and a soul! This poor Brother Ass, as Saint Francis of Assisi called it, often embarrasses its noble Sister and prevents her from going where she would like…. However, I do not want to condemn him [Brother Ass] in spite of his faults; he is still good for something since he makes his companion win heaven and wins it for himself.” (5)
Everyone will probably agree that the virtue that most distinguished St. Thérèse was her humility. As this astonishing passage from her autobiography shows, she found a model of humility in St. Francis:
“To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus. I feel within my soul the courage of the Crusader, the Papal Guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church.
I feel in me the vocation of the PRIEST. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls! But alas! while desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.” (6)
Thérèse’s sister Pauline (in religion Sister Agnes of Jesus) recalled a significant incident July 1897, as Thérèse lay dying:
“In the afternoon, she felt the need of going out of herself, and she said to us with a sad and gentle look:
‘I need some food for my soul; read a life of a saint to me.’
‘Do you want the life of St. Francis of Assisi?’ the sisters asked. ‘This will distract you when he speaks of the little birds.’
“No, not to distract me,” Thérèse replied, “but to see some samples of humility.””(7)
No, Thérèse’s devotion to St. Francis was not superficial at all! We could all learn something from her.
I would recommend to anyone who wants to read more about St. Thérèse and her family to visit the website of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux, http://www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr (cited here as ACL). It has the whole of Thérèse’s original autobiographical manuscripts, all of the family correspondence, photos and much, much more!
(1) Letter from to Zélie to Isidore Guerin, November 12, 1863, ACL.
(3) Introduction to the newly translated English edition of the family correspondence of the parents of St.Thérèse, A Call to a Deeper Love, published by Alba House, ACL.
(4) Obituary of Sister Françoise-Thérèse (Léonie Martin), written by the Monastery of the Visitation at Caen, ACL.
(5) Letter of March 19, 1897, ACL.
(6) Thérèse’s autobiographical MS. B., 2v, lines 30-45, ACL.
(7) Pauline’s notebook, ACL.