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Zelie (part 1)


Helene, Zelie's daughter who died in 1870 at five years old.

St. Zelie Martin lost four infants, one five-year-old daughter, and her father, within five years. Oh, and she developed breast cancer at the same time.


Last year, after my first miscarriage, I wanted to know more about how she got through this suffering, so I started reading The Story of a Family: The Home of St. Therese of Lisieux. The book offers the usual awe-struck treatment of saints: she always bore everything heroically and didn't let herself be disturbed by such-and-such a thought. (So great, so beyond our understanding! How did she do it??) The author praises the way that Zelie carried on with her lace-making business and her day-to-day activities as though nothing had happened, because her peace in God was so great. She seems to never let herself be bothered by her grief.


I call bullshit.


I mean, okay. She's a saint. She did bear her suffering heroically, or else she wouldn't be canonized. And her peace, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding," ran deeper than her feelings of grief, and was a consolation for her. She never rejected God, or truly doubted his goodness, or lost her faith. She did a better job dealing with her sorrow than most. And she was tough as nails! But that heroism, that holiness, doesn't mean that she didn't feel deeply. Her letters, available online, will sound familiar to many mothers who have lost babies. I want to share some of her normal, human grief with you.


First of all, she is a pretty intense lady. She seems to say that she used her business and day-to-day activities to cope with her pain. She once worked on her lace until 9:30 p.m., put her toddler to bed, and then gave birth to a new baby before 11:00. She writes to her sister in law in 1871, who is on bed rest:


Some of Zelie's lace patterns

"I’m very sorry to hear that you need to stay in bed all day and that you’re dying of boredom. No one understands better than I, since I can’t stand spending two days in bed. How much I admire your patience! You tell me, however, that I have courage. It’s true I don’t pamper myself, but if I knew I had to be inactive for several months, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t believe God would allow me to have such a calamity. It would be too much for me. So you see, my dear sister, I don’t have as much courage as you think."


After the death of her father and two baby boys, she felt totally numb, depressed, worn out, and in denial:


"I preach to others, and I’m hardly reasonable myself. Saturday I looked everywhere for my father, it seemed to me that I was going to find him. I couldn’t imagine that I was going to be separated from him forever. Yesterday, I went to the cemetery. To see me, one would have said, 'Here is the most indifferent person in the world.' I was kneeling at the foot of his grave, and I couldn’t pray. A few steps away I knelt by that of my two little angels, the same apparent indifference….

I walked along a path I had taken five weeks ago with my little baby and my father. I couldn’t tell you all I was feeling. I didn’t pay attention to anything happening around me. I looked at the places where my father had sat, and I stood there, almost without thinking. Never in my life had I felt such heartache. When I arrived home, I couldn’t eat. It seemed as if I would now be indifferent to any misfortune that happened to me." (September 1868)


The next month, she writes to her sister-in-law that she has made "the heroic promise," meaning that she offers all her suffering on Earth for the souls of people in purgatory, especially her father. She asked to suffer on his behalf during life, and take his place in purgatory. But alongside this willingness to suffer, she feels mundane anger and frustration, and even, hilariously, boredom:


"So, I think the violent toothache that I’ve been suffering from for several days is going to relieve him. My God! Yet I’m so bored with suffering! I don’t have a penny’s worth of courage. I get impatient with everybody. So much for my beautiful sacrificial acts for my dear father!" (October 1868)


One of the Martins' two baby Josephs

Shortly after burying her second little boy and her father, she was pregnant again, with Celine. Any mother who has been pregnant after loss knows the unbearable anxiety that expecting a new child brings. This was no different for her:


"So, you can’t imagine how frightened I am of the future, about this little person that I’m expecting (Céline). It seems to me that the fate of the last two children will be his fate, and it’s a never-ending nightmare for me. I believe the dread is worse than the misfortune. When misfortunes come, I resign myself well enough, but the fear, for me, is torture. This morning, during Mass, I had such dark thoughts about this that I was very deeply moved. The best thing to do is to put everything in the hands of God and await the outcome in peace and abandonment to His will. That’s what I’m going to try very hard to do." (August 1869)


When Celine was born and had to be sent to a wet nurse, she writes:


"I’ve already gone through many ordeals with this child (Celine). I feel I’m wearing myself out, and I have the impression that I won’t live long. During the six days I was taking care of the little one, I had a fever every day. This was not so much from fatigue as from anxiety. I feared what did, in fact, happen, that she would have to go back to the wet nurse."


Zelie felt her pain just as intensely as any other grieving mother; and there was worse to come. Her heroic endurance did not come from her emotions being all in a row, trained to act up less than yours or mine. So, what made her a saint?


(Stay tuned for part 2!)


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