I am grateful to Churl for asking me to expand a facebook post on the upcoming canonization of Bl. Zélie Guerin and Bl. Louis Martin into this short essay; it has been a welcome opportunity to further my research and my thoughts on the topic. Today, the 12th of July, is their wedding anniversary and the day the Catholic Church observes their feast.
My memories of traveling in Europe in the summer of 2013 are centered on the relative friendliness of manuscript librarians and the quality of Skype connections. Five months pregnant and traveling alone through Europe to finish manuscript research for my doctoral dissertation, I would call my husband online whenever possible, relying on the free wi-fi in visitor information centers to send e-mails when it was not. Alençon is particularly clear: I stayed at a business hotel and the connection was good, and I wept to be so far away from my husband when he shared bad news. An older couple to whom we were close had received two bad diagnoses in the same weeks— she cancer, he a neurological condition, and she was not expected to live long.
The next morning found me at a building I had been directed to by the guide at the town visitor center, but had not expected to visit: the shrine built at the childhood home of St. Thérèse. I am embarrassed to admit how surprised I was when I was directed to the shrine when I asked about things to see: I knew that Alençon was famous for lace, and I knew that her mother had been a lacemaker, but I had not connected the two. After all, she was “of Lisieux.”
My ignorance may be attributed to the fact that I find St. Thérèse discomforting. I read “Story of a Soul” as a college freshman, on a four-hour plane flight the week before my baptism, and the binge imparted a kind of spiritual indigestion and despair. I had not returned to it until this essay. I can intellectually appreciate the value of her focus on small sacrifices and the beauty of her devotion, but French spiritual writings of her era rarely help me and devotion to her always seemed saccharine and unchallenged in a way that did not touch upon the inner struggle that shapes my own way of belief. Much more for me, I thought, was my confirmation saint, St. Teresa of Avila, who arose from her chronic illness to become tough as nails and didn’t really start spiritually maturing until her thirties. (This is yet more comforting now that I am 30 and not very spiritually mature.)
Knowing Thérèse better does not help my anxiety: if you want to be disillusioned of the aspartame sweetness that accompanies so much talk about St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I recommend Heather King’s memoir of her time researching the life of St. Thérèse, Shirt of Flame: A Year with Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. An adult convert and former alcoholic, King doesn’t shy away from the traumas endured by someone who endured them with—as becomes clear— a remarkable faith, from losing her mother at a young age to her father’s later illness, ending with a young death from tuberculosis, without morphine but still able to look at a crucifix and declare her love. This doesn’t make me feel closer to St. Thérèse. It makes me scared. As St. Teresa is claimed to have said, “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
As a result, I had no real intention of visiting the childhood home of St. Thérèse in the limited time I had to see Alençon. Wandering about after seeing my manuscript on my first day, I had encountered a shrine to St. Thérèse in the Cathedral of Alençon, where she was baptized. More out of a sense of duty than devotion I had placed an intention to Thérèse, asking her intercession for me as an expectant mother, and that, I thought, was enough.
My conversation with my husband, however, sent me to the narrow chapel beside the house in an abject desperation that will be familiar to some— how do you leave a chapel when you are praying for someone’s life? A comfort to me, and a confirmation that it was the ‘proper’ place for my prayers, was that the shrine was not only devoted to Thérèse, but also to her parents, Zélie Guerin and Louis Martin, whose cause was then awaiting the final steps to move from beatification to canonization. A basket was out for requested prayers that would be offered to the couple, and in my grief I left my intentions there. It was only later I realized the confluence: Zélie, too, had died of cancer; he of a neurological condition. Against predictions, our friend’s wife is still living. It may not be miraculous, but it is a gift and a grace.
Zélie Guerin and Louis Martin will be canonized this coming October. They are justly popular among the young couples I know as a model for developing holiness in family life and a sign that lay couples, too, can achieve the heights of sanctity. Zélie leaves more surviving letters, and the fact that she ran a business has given her a fama among observant working mothers. Less is known about Louis, and unlike his wife, I have rarely seen him discussed without his spouse. He had wanted enter religious life as an Augustinian canon but had no Latin. He was a watchmaker and known for sanctity throughout his life. Beyond the welcome addition of a middle-class married couple to the canon of the saints, however, there is something to be said about the value of holding up Louis as a model of sanctity despite his struggles with mental illness near the end of his life.
Canonizations come with lag time, and it takes much longer for someone to be declared a saint than it does for our ideas of mental illness to change. (One may consider, from the perspective of intellectual history, that the short life of St. Thérèse (1873-1897) coincides with the training and early career of Sigmund Freud.) It will be many years before there is a saint with a substantial body of supporting evidence who has endured the challenges of the conditions we recognize today, and the traditional options like Saint Dymphna, while not without value for many, can be unsatisfying. A declaration of sanctity for public veneration comes with its own challenges— so much of our language and understanding of religious devotion and holiness is focused on intention, the will, as well as emotional experience. Mental illness makes clear—particularly to those who have experienced it—how unreliable these ideas can be. It also, for these reasons, makes it a challenge to decide whether someone’s life has approached the accepted ideals of sanctity.
Changing ideas of the mind and the reticence of the past have made it hard to determine what, exactly, Louis Martin experienced. In The Story of a Soul, Thérèse writes that they feared he would suffer a ‘cerebral paralysis,’ and that “words can’t describe our agony, so I shan’t try to write about it.” A 1949 edition of her letters refer only to “the family trial,” and paralysis. The only hint that his losses have been more than physical are a letter in which Thérèse asks her sister to have their father bless the wreath she will wear when she makes her vows, and says that her request “is not difficult to grasp, and if at moments he understood, he would be so happy!”
Once again, Heather King gives an evocative description of the bitter cup, explaining that Louis Martin suffered not only from paralysis, but from a mental decline that lead to him disappearing for days at a time, and eventually to his being admitted to a mental hospital for several years. It is not clear whether Thérèse, in the convent, was shielded from the rumors that her father had syphilis, or had been driven mad by her young entry into religious life. In her letters, she would declare this period a “family martyrdom.” Louis died in 1894, under the care of two of his daughters.
Rereading in preparation for this post, I discovered that the endpapers in the used copy of St. Thérèse’s letters I bought as a college freshman are covered in pencil notes, marking passages the previous owner found important. The first is from an early letter, and reveals a principle that underpins the spirituality of both St. Thérèse and her father, and one which may help free those of us more troubled than aided by Thérèse’s ability to embrace suffering: namely, the willingness to do so weakly: “Martyrs have suffered with joy, and the King of Martyrs suffered with sorrow.”
How to talk of souls? How discuss our being? It is common— but erroneous—to identify the soul with the mind, and focus entirely on the mental categories of religious experience. With a rising awareness of mental illnesses from depression to dementia, it becomes ever more important to clarify the position of mental illness in our understanding of the human person, and where God’s grace stands in relation to our weaknesses. Saint Thérèse was no stranger to the “spiritual dryness” familiar to mystics throughout the history of the Church, and this traditional acceptance of the dark night of the soul is a crucial reminder that—as a Carmelite once told me— grace is not conferred through emotion. But how can one patiently sustain one’s devotion when your dryness seems less a spiritual step than a problem within; when one’s swinging emotions make you distrust consolations; when abilites begin to fade?
Meditation on the life and sanctity of Louis Martin may be a consolation for those of us who endure such questions. He achieved recognizable sanctity in a very traditional model, despite his illness and the accompanying slander. His elevation to the altar is a validation of marital life, but should also stand as a reminder that we are not far from God, even when we are farthest from ourselves.
Alice is a postdoctoral researcher in Medieval History, working on conceptions of human rationality—and irrationality— in twelfth-century theology. She converted to Catholicism in 2004 and has herself suffered from depression and anxiety; her last (and first) post on A Christian Thing was about Miriam Ibrahim and Saint Perpetua. She’s recently returned to very intermittent blogging at The Accidental Philologist.