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  • Helen Hawersaat

Zelie (Part 2)

I came here hoping to answer the question I asked at the end of Part 1: what set Zelie Martin's suffering apart? What makes us in awe of her enormous strength, when we hear about her life? What was it about the way that she suffered that made her holy?


I thought about it for a couple of weeks, because I thought I knew the answer, and I discovered that I don't, of course. I can't wrap up the secret to sainthood into a small, satisfying paragraph. I can't adequately explain the peace of God to other people, much less understand it myself.


Zelie herself offers a little explanation in a letter to her sister-in-law, who has just undergone a stillbirth.



October 17, 1871

The tragedy you’ve just suffered saddens me deeply. You are truly being tested. This is one of your first sorrows, my poor dear sister! May God grant you resignation to His holy will. Your dear little baby is at His side. He sees you, he loves you, and you will see him again one day. That is a great consolation I’ve felt and still feel.


An image in memory of baby Paul Guerin, Zelie's stillborn nephew

When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems that I had endured for them. Several people said to me, “It would be much better never to have had them.” I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven.

Above all, it was on the death of my first child that I felt more deeply the happiness of having a child in Heaven, for God showed me in a noticeable way that he accepted my sacrifice. Through the intercession of my little angel, I received a very extraordinary grace.


My little Hélène, who, since then, has gone to join him, was suffering from an earache for six months, and this illness kept getting worse. I had consulted several doctors and other people who, supposedly, were very knowledgeable, but nothing was working. It got to the point that she was wearing a bandage, and the pus that gave off an unbearable odor would seep through the bandage in less than two hours. Finally, the poor little girl couldn’t hear any more on the side she had the earache.


One day, while returning from taking her to the doctor, who didn’t have anything good to say, and seeing the helplessness of everyone, the inspiration came to me to turn to my little Joseph, who had died five weeks earlier. So I took the child and asked her to say a prayer to her little brother. The next morning her ear was completely cured. The discharge had stopped all of a sudden, and the little one never again felt any pain. I’ve also received several other graces, but less notable than this one.


You see, my dear sister, it’s a very good thing to have little angels in Heaven, but it’s no less painful to lose them. These are the great sorrows of our life.



So, resignation. That is her answer, and it is infuriatingly simple.


Resignation, after all, is giving up. It's not apathy; nor does it imply any particular emotion. It does not mean that she reached an understanding of why these things were happening to her; in fact, we rather suspect the opposite. It implies stillness, not action. It satisfies none of our instincts as doers and truth seekers. It offers no catharsis in the moment of surrender.


God did console her, and show her his love and his joy. And in the end, he gave her and her children what is worth everything, and more than everything.


But on earth, resignation to the will of God implies both trust and holy terror. Zelie dared to stare into the face of God, like that proverbial owl, blinded in the sunlight. To fall into an abyss she would never reach the end of. To love the God who made her and made her children.


What else can we do but give up, when we are faced with something so large, so near that it remains invisible, and so far away that it is untouchable?


So small that it can be swallowed in a single bite?

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