March 22, 2017

What the Martin family teaches us about tremendous suffering

By Cassandra Hackstock *
Louis and Zelie Martin. Public Domain image.
Louis and Zelie Martin. Public Domain image.

Abuse, terminal illness, the death of a child, emotional torment: each an astounding difficulty in its own right. But did you know that the Martin family – the parents and siblings of St. Therese of Lisiuex – experienced all of these things?  

The Martins are an exceptional model for family life today. They include Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, Sister Francoise-Therese (Leonie Martin), and three devout religious sisters – Marie, Pauline, and Celine, who may also one day advance along the path of canonization. 

But while their faith in God was strong, they experienced an incredible amount of pain, struggle, and hardship mentally and physically. In this crucible of suffering, their acceptance of God's will led them to heroic virtue and saintly lives. Their example is an exemplary one to those who suffer, as can be seen from a closer look into their struggles.

Louis and Zelie Martin had nine children, including the five daughters mentioned above, but tragically lost four of their children. Three passed away as infants, and one, named Helene, suddenly, at age five. 

“I didn't expect such a sudden end, nor did my husband. When he came home and saw his poor little daughter dead, he began to sob, crying, 'My little Helene! My little Helene!' Then, together, we offered her to God,” Zelie wrote in a letter, according to the National Catholic Register.  

Christ was the center of their family life, and they doted on their living children, yet suffered horribly from the loss of their other little ones. How many people long to have a child but cannot, or suffer from repeated miscarriages, or even the death of their children? Burying one's heart in the suffering Christ, as the Martin family did, and offering pain to Him who suffered for humanity, can be redemptive, sanctifying one's own life and the lives of others.

Zelie contracted breast cancer, and died of it after a twelve year struggle. Her death broke her husband's and daughters' hearts, and changed the family forever. Zelie bore the physical scourge of cancer, but also suffered greatly knowing full well how much sorrow it would cause her family to lose her. She kept true to her faith in God's will, and died a saint for Him.

Marie and Pauline mothered the younger girls for a time, but then entered the cloistered convent of Carmel in Lisieux. The family experienced more loss, offering their daughters and sisters to God, but losing them from their daily lives.

Leonie Martin, declared a Servant of God in 2015, had intense trials throughout her life. She is described as having a difficult temperament, and not being as naturally talented as the rest of the family. This caused a great deal of grief to her parents and siblings. Leonie was also abused by a servant, both physically and emotionally, without her mother's knowledge. She entered several convents numerous times, but was rejected again and again. Despite her supposed lack of giftedness and the trauma that she suffered, she never gave up. She kept trying until she was accepted among the Visitation nuns, and kept pursuing Jesus until death. For survivors of abuse and trauma, and the lifelong struggle to overcome obstacles, Leonie is an incredible patron – she knows exactly how hard that battle is.

St. Therese knew trauma, too. Her mother could not nurse her, so Therese went to live with a wet nurse. She did get to see her mother from time to time, but became confused by the constant meetings and partings. As she grew, she had very sensitive feelings and was easily hurt. Her mother died when she was four, and this further disrupted her emotional balance. Although she lived a very virtuous life, she was emotionally hurt and traumatized. 

When she was thirteen, she describes in her writings a “conversion” that took place within her soul. According to Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, this may have been an emotional healing that freed her from co-dependence and the trauma of loss, and freed her to live totally for Christ. He writes in his book Walking the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux, “Only the inner strength of union with God would allow her to bear in peace the distressing, lingering primary feelings of having been abandoned, of separation and loss that were at the core of her excessive neediness and sensitivity.” Christ did heal her and she was able to rely only on Him, instead of on the good opinion and approval of her family. After entering Carmel, she contracted tuberculosis and suffered horribly until her death at age 24. Her “Little Way,” of growing in holiness through offering every pain or sacrifice to God, and remaining as humble as a child, caused her to be named as a Doctor of the Church.

Celine was the last sister to enter the convent. She remained at home to take care of her father until his death. She worried for a time about the nature of her vocation, since she felt a call to Carmel, but was proposed to by a good man. She wrote, “My sisters never had to choose formally between the two lives; doubtless, God wanted them for himself, and he does not want me…my anguish kept mounting and mounting.” 

She also suffered terribly from the decline of her father into an illness that may have been cerebral arteriosclerosis, according to the biography of Celine by Stephane-Joseph Piat, O.F.M. Her father was at one time put into a mental hospital. Celine was at his side through it all, and her unceasing faith did lead her to the Carmelite convent after his death. She is a model for those who question their vocations, who don't understand God’s plan for their lives, and also for caregivers who witness intense pain of their loved ones.

Louis, as already mentioned, lost his wife to breast cancer. Then he began to lose his daughters one by one to the cloister of Carmel. While he was thankful for their religious vocations, he had to give his family to God as a sacrifice. He accepted God's will even as it broke his heart to lose his wife and daughters. As his health declined, he suffered many mental and physical difficulties. Yet he persisted in holiness, offered all to God, and was canonized together with his wife on Oct. 18, 2015.

Despite the litany of struggles and losses they endured, the Martins were a joyful and happy family. They accepted the pain as God's will, and this acceptance allowed God to work in their hearts to purify them and make them saintly. Not only will they provide help and intercession from heaven, their story can bring relief and acceptance to those in the world who are hurt, grieving, and traumatized. St. Therese herself said that she would spend her heaven doing good on earth, and let fall a shower of roses from heaven to help those who suffer and yet cling to God. Humanity is blessed by the wondrous writings and example of this saintly family.

Cassandra has spent 11 years as an Environmentalist for Wayne County, Michigan and Program Instructor for Michigan State University. She is currently a freelance writer while living with and recovering from disability.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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