The Family of the Little Flower
One of the most well-known saints of flowers may be Saint Thérèse of the Little Flower Jesus. She attained such a high degree of mystical union with Christ during her life with the humble spirituality that she imbued and wrote about, that she was named the thirty-third doctor of the Church on the centennial anniversary marking her death in 1997. To understand her spiritual formation, it is insightful to know about the aspirations of her very pious parents and sisters and the trials that marked their lives. Individually, her mother, Zélie Guérin and dad, Louis Martin wanted to become a sister and a priest, but they were each told that they didn’t have a vocation to the religious life. When they met each other, they recognized in one another those qualities of a holy love and agreed to marry.
Louis and Zélie Martin welcomed child after child into their beautiful family. Marie was the first-born, then Pauline, Léonie and Hélène. After Hélène was born, Mrs. Martin would start to undergo years of her own white martyrdom because of loss and illness. We only gain insight into the heart of Mrs. Martin from letters she wrote to her brother, a pharmacist and her sister, a Visitation nun. Mrs. Martin had a deep, heroic faith through which she experienced joys and sorrows making her a model of courage for all mothers.
Hélène was just a toddler when the Martin family had their first baby boy, Joseph Louis. Mrs. Martin wrote of her dreams for him: “…What a glorious day when he’ll ascend the altar, or preach from a pulpit!” Due to formation of a glandular breast tumor, Mrs. Martin couldn’t fully nurse the baby. In those days there was no infant formula to rely upon to nourish a newborn, parents had to find a nursing mother in their community to feed their baby. Mrs. Martin sought out a wet nurse for their son. The countrywoman, Mrs. Rose Taillé nursed Joseph Louis for almost five months; his health declined after a bacterial infection and he died.
Although she grieved, Mrs. Martin had to carry on with the important responsibilities to her family and her lace-making business. When Hélène was suffering from a painful ear infection, Mrs. Martin advised her to ask her little brother in heaven to intercede. The next morning, the infection and discharge were gone. Mrs. Martin yearned for another son to serve as a missionary priest and started a novena to Saint Joseph for that petition. Her prayers were answered almost to the day that the novena ended. Their little Joseph John Baptist was born December 19, 1867. When the baby was three months old, Mrs. Martin wrote, “He is as pretty as a little flower and laughs like a cherub…” The baby stayed at the cottage of the nursing woman, Rose Taillé. Bronchitis set in his lungs for three months and weakened him. Mrs. Martin traveled to Rose’s twice a day to visit the baby. The baby had a slight improvement so the Martins brought him home, but then he developed an intestinal disorder. Mrs. Martin wrote: “…it breaks my heart to see a baby suffer like this. He only utters a pitiful wail. He has not closed his eyes for forty-eight hours, and he is doubled up with the violence of the pain.” Their beloved Joseph John Baptist passed away August 24, 1868. When Mrs. Martin lost her father ten days later, she was numb with grief.
Life didn’t slow down for the Martins; they were completely advocating the proper upbringing of their daughters. Marie and Pauline stayed at the boarding school run by the Visitation nuns, one of whom was their aunt, Élise. Mrs. Martin was so grateful for the help of her sister in educating and rearing Marie and Pauline. She had hoped that her daughters would choose the religious life. The younger Martin daughters, Léonie and Hélène stayed with their parents where they would welcome another sister, Céline, on April 28, 1869. Due to the losses of her sons and father, for a time Mrs. Martin lived in fear and dread of another death, but being the courageous person she was, she resigned all to the will of God. Céline thrived and for a time the family enjoyed a respite from sorrow, but that too was short-lived. The next year after a short illness, five-year old Hélène died on February 22, 1870. Her passing tore at the hearts of her parents and sisters, especially Léonie, her close playmate in the family. The grief was heavier for the family than the deaths of the infant baby boys, but they carried on with a fresh blow to their hearts.
Mrs. Martin kept a space in their home as a shrine with a large statue of the Virgin Mary and a place to pray. Every May, Mrs. Martin would have a countrywoman bring in armloads of flowers, blossoms and white thorn from the country to decorate their shrine. The Martin daughters recall vases of flowers that
reached up to the ceiling. The statute of the Virgin Mary that the Martins venerated was well worn with the hands chipped from the girls saying their prayers before it and kissing it. While Mrs. Martin mourned the loss of Hélène, she recalled an untruth that Hélène had told. She remonstrated herself for not taking the child to confess and was distressed at that thought as she prayed in front of the statue. The next moment she heard a consoling beautiful voice say, “She is here with me.” In utter relief and elation, Mrs. Martin renewed her energy to carry the crosses that were asked of her. At this time, she was expecting their eighth child in August and was planning on bringing home Céline from the nurse out in the country after being weaned.
At every birth Mr. and Mrs. Martin faced two primary worries. The first was that they had to find a nursing woman who could feed their baby and the second was seeing that their baby was baptized immediately in the event of death. The breastfeeding complication developed for the children born after Léonie because of the start of Mrs. Martin’s breast tumor. The cross of not being able to feed her newborns was a profound one for Mrs. Martin. During the sickness of the second baby Joseph, Mrs. Martin would make the five-mile trip to the nurse’s home in the country twice a day to visit her sick baby.
Out of sheer necessity and some humiliation, Mr. and Mrs. Martin always tried to find a nursing mother of good reputation to feed and take care of their infant. With anticipation growing over the birth of another little one, the Martins had hoped to find a nurse that could stay with them in their home, but they weren’t able to. When little Thérèse Mélanie was born August 17, 1870, Mrs. Martin tried to nurse her but at last they turned to someone in the community who promised to feed their baby. To their profound horror, the woman didn’t adequately feed the baby. When the Martins began to suspect starvation, they brought the baby home. Mr. Martin sought urgently for another nurse in the middle of the night. Sadly, Thérèse Mélanie returned to Our Lord on October 8, 1870. Mrs. Martin wrote: “…She was as pretty as a flower…Oh, I wish I could die also! I am utterly worn out these last two days. I have eaten practically nothing and been up all night in mortal anguish.”
Mrs. Martin’s blood sister, Sister Dosithee (Élise) shared in every sorrow. At each fresh bereavement, Sister Dosithee’s letters were filled with consoling passages and exhortations to trust, trust, and never stop trusting in God’s will. In the letter Sister Dosithee wrote after Therese Melanie’s death, she recalled one spiritual writer who said, “Some children belong only to God. They are those whom He takes from this world. They love their Mother in Heaven more than other children do. Those mothers are blessed who have such children, whom we call God’s spring flowers.”
The next year when Mrs. Martin’s sister-in-law suffered the loss of an infant after his birth, she wrote words of consolation to her: “…When I closed the eyes of my dear children and buried them, I felt the sorrow indeed, but it has always been resigned sorrow. I did not regret the pain and cares I had borne for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would have been better if you had never had them,’ but I could not endure this sort of language. I did not think that the sufferings and anxieties could be weighed in the same scale with the eternal happiness of my children. Then they were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find them again up yonder.”
The Martins prepared for a ninth child to join their family. Mrs. Martin was in high anticipation of her baby. In a letter to her sister-in-law she confided something that happened during this pregnancy that hadn’t happened during the other eight. She noticed that when she sang, the baby she was carrying sang with her! The ‘little winter flower,’ Marie Françoise Thérèse Martin was born January 2, 1872. Within a week, Mrs. Martin noticed that Thérèse smiled at her. She valiantly tried to breastfeed the baby, but when an intestinal malady appeared, the doctor recommended mother’s milk from a wet nurse. Of all the possibilities, the Martins returned to Little Rose Taillé, the countrywoman who had cared for both baby Josephs. It was trying for Mrs. Martin to maintain hope for the health of the new baby girl. She was showing the same symptoms that led to the deaths of the other babies. She appealed to Little Rose to stay with them at the Martin house to nurse Thérèse. There was resistance from Little Rose’s husband because they had four young children of their own. Little Rose agreed to try to nurse for a week at the Martins and then take the child to her house from then on. At her first sight of Thérèse, Little Rose was doubtful. “Too late!” Rose worried. Broken-hearted but never despairing, Mrs. Martin prayed the most ardent prayer to Saint Joseph before his statue for a cure. Prayers said, Mrs. Martin returned to find Thérèse nursing hungrily. There was encouragement until she stopped sucking and it seemed to all who were present that she stopped breathing. The realization that her baby had died fell like a thud on Mrs. Martin’s heart. Resigning herself, she said the prayer of Job, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” That resignation to the will of God spoken with her heroic faith was just the miracle it took to revive Thérèse. As Mrs. Martin relayed to her sister-in-law, “At last, after a quarter of an hour, my Thérèse opened her eyes and began to smile. From that moment she was completely cured.” Thérèse stayed with Rose and grew healthy and strong until she was 15 months old and then returned to her family. She had a firm attachment to Rose and even women she saw dressed like Rose at the market, just as she showed disdain for fancily dressed women who came to her mother’s lace-making business.
As was noted, Mrs. Martin had a lump in her breast for eleven years that restricted her ability to breastfeed. After Thérèse was born, cancer set in. Through all the stages of the ravages of the disease, Mrs. Martin displayed dignity and resignation to the will of God. The whole family prayed for her cure and while quite ill, Mrs. Martin and her daughter Marie undertook a pilgrimage to Lourdes for healing, but it was not to be. Our Lord took Zélie Martin to Himself at the age of forty-five on August 28, 1877. Her entire married life had been one of self-donation and oblation.
With the loss of their mother, the mourning family moved from Alençon to Lisiuex to be closer to Mrs. Martin’s brother and sister-in-law. Mr. Martin, Marie and Pauline took up the responsibilities of the household. Thérèse’s main playmates were her sister, Céline and a cousin close in age, Marie Guerin. Sometimes they would pretend to be Anchorite hermits who gave up all comforts to follow Christ. Sometimes they would challenge each other to a friendly rivalry where they would try to gain triumphs throughout the day by overcoming impulses or making up for failings. These virtuous games laid the groundwork for Therese’s spiritual “little way.”
Even as a very young girl, Thérèse’s sisters gently formed her conscience. She began to overcome her impulses starting as early as four to please her family and to please Jesus. Thérèse had always loved flowers for their beauty. One day she ran to the fields and gathered flowers to make a garland for her altar. Her grandmother saw the bunch and requested them for her own. Without hesitation, Thérèse politely relinquished the bouquet. It was only the presence of big tears in her eyes that gave away the effort of this sacrifice to her sisters.
Thérèse made careful spiritual preparations for her First Holy Communion. It seemed like an endless wait to her because she had to wait almost a whole additional year since diocesan regulations were that only nine-year olds by December 31 could receive and as her birthday was two days later, January 2 the wait of another year seemed extra-long. The delay only heightened her thirst to receive the living God. Her sister, Pauline gave Thérèse a booklet that explained the value of the little garland of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Every page had a flower on it with the words, “I have gathered some…” followed by a short prayer. Therese entered the number of “flowers” she had gathered each day into her preparation book. At the end of three months, Thérèse joyfully noted that she had made 2,773 acts of love and made 818 sacrifices. It was sweet joy for Thérèse by the time she received Our Lord in the Eucharist.
Some years later Thérèse’s eldest sisters, Marie and Pauline, entered the Carmelite Monastery in Lisiuex. Living as a cloistered Carmelite sister necessitated adherence to living by the Rule that was established during the Middle Ages. Among the sixteen articles of the Rule, are poverty, chastity and obedience. Silence has to be kept from early evening until morning of every day. There are dietary restrictions and fasts that also are strictly adhered to. Life as a Carmelite was demanding, but those chosen as flowers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel are magnificently graced for their sacrifices and prayers. Thérèse longed to become a Carmelite, too. As soon as she began receiving Holy Communion, a desire grew and grew in her to become a Carmelite.
By the age of fourteen her calling to Carmel became more pronounced. She felt it necessary to act upon her calling by trying to enter the cloister as soon as possible. This desire presented a problem. Most Carmelite aspirants had to be twenty-one to be accepted into the community life and to keep up with the rigors of living the Rule. Would the Superior of the Carmel at Lisiuex allow her to begin as a postulant as a teenager? How would her loving father react to her desire to leave the family and become a Carmelite even after so many of his loves had left his world? Would her Uncle Guerin who was her legal guardian give his permission for her to enter Carmel? There were many hurdles to overcome and Thérèse began to face them.
Thérèse prayed for the strength to ask her father’s blessing. She asked him in their garden as he returned from evening Vespers on Pentecost Sunday, 1887. She couldn’t manage not to cry and there he was searching for the source of her tears. “What troubles you, my little queen? Confide in me,” he spoke. With such tenderness, Thérèse told him her heart’s desire. At first he sat down from the surprise and expressed some doubt. Then discerning how deeply she wanted this vocation, he promised to help her achieve it. At that moment he picked a white flower that was growing in between the bricks of the low part of the garden wall and gave it to Thérèse. She described the scene: “I received this flower as a relic and noticed that in gathering it, my father had pulled it up by the roots without breaking them; it seemed destined to live on, but in other and more fertile soil. Papa had just done the same thing for me. He allowed me to leave the sweet valley, where I had passed the first years of my life, for the mountain of Carmel.” Thérèse pressed the plant between the pages of The Imitation of Christ book she kept with her until her death.
Initially her guardian, Uncle Guerin flatly refused his permission for her to enter the Carmel. After a period of fervent intercessory prayer on Thérèse’s part, he consented. However, the Superior of the Carmel, Father Delatroëtte, sternly refused her request saying that only the consent of the Bishop of Bayeux could change his mind. A meeting between the Martins with the Bishop was inconclusive. Previous to meeting with the Bishop, Mr. Martin, Céline and Thérèse had intentions of going on a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome. After their reception with the Bishop, Mr. Martin counseled Thérèse to ask the Pope for his permission to enter Carmel and that is what she did.
The pilgrimage was enriching for the Martins; they toured Venice, Bologna, and finally Rome! They were pilgrims to the Catacombs, the Basilica of Saint Agnes, the Colosseum, and Saint Peter’s Basilica. Thérèse tried to be relaxed, but overarching all the wonderful sightseeing was the anxiety she harbored about the impending Papal audience. That is where she needed to ask Pope Leo XIII for his dispensation so she could be admitted into the Carmel at Lisiuex
The Martin’s turn came to meet the Pope. The priest that led the pilgrimage warned his group not to initiate talk with the Holy Father in the receiving line. As the priest announced Mr. Martin, he mentioned that he was the father of two Carmelites. Pope Leo rested his hand on Mr. Martin in blessing. When it was Thérèse’s turn, she was expressive as teenagers are. She knelt down to kiss his foot and then pleaded by clasping her hands at the level of his knee and implored, “Most Holy Father, in honor of your Jubilee, permit me to enter Carmel at fifteen.”
Somewhat surprised, the Pontiff replied, “Come, come, you will enter if it be God’s will.” He then blessed her. Thérèse couldn’t hide her disappointment, she was led away in tears. The fact that her intention was still unresolved was another step of the heavy cross she bore of not yet attaining the vocation that consumed her.
However, her sincere desire stirred the empathy of the priest that led the pilgrimage. In his communication to the diocese about the pilgrimage, he wrote, “Among the pilgrims was a girl of fifteen, who begged the Holy Father to be allowed to enter a convent immediately in order to be a nun.” Word began to spread throughout the clergy of Lisiuex of Thérèse’s intention and sentiment built in her favor. Letters were written and within two months Thérèse received permission to enter Carmel after Easter in 1888 at the age of fifteen.
Thérèse completed her postulancy on January 10, 1889, an occasion marked by accepting the Carmelite habit. This grand event was to be the last joyful occasion that she and her father would share on earth. At the beginning of the ceremony, Therese came out of the cloistered enclosure wearing a white velvet dress, which was trimmed with Point d’Alençon lace, the specialty lace made renown by her mother, and swans down. She wore a long flowing veil with a wreath of lilies while her long lovely curls hung on her shoulders. It was one of Mr. Martin’s proudest moments. Thérèse processed on his arm to the sanctuary of the chapel just as a father gives away the bride, in this case, a bride to Christ. Then the ceremony commenced with the Eucharist and prayers. Thérèse then put on the Carmelite habit and said the last painful good-bye to her father.
Cloistered community life had great joys and great trials of soul. Matters were not necessarily easier for Thérèse even with three of her blood sisters and a first cousin in the community. She was misunderstood by the Prioress and the Novice Mistress and also by other sisters. One illustrative example was when Thérèse had the task of arranging the flowers around the coffin of an aged nun who had died. She performed this with great joy because she had always loved flowers. Within earshot she heard one sister remark to another, “Look how she gives prominence to the flowers sent in by her family and hides the others underneath.”
Showing no denial or indignation to the false accusation, Thérèse smilingly replied, “You are quite right, Sister. I thank you for the hint.” Thérèse proceeded to rearrange all the flowers according to her critic’s suggestions. The display was not as beautiful, but once again Jesus accepted her spiritual bouquets of charity and humility as sweetest smelling blossoms for His throne.
These same small acts of love, self-abnegation, oblation were carried out by Thérèse day and night in multitudes of diverse ways and described in an autobiography she was under obedience to write called, The Story of a Soul. It is the story of her life from spiritual infancy to religious life and the “little way” of spirituality. The little way is that in all the incidents of our life we react best when we react with extraordinary love, God receives these small gifts as great spiritual offerings. Some examples may be remaining positive in difficult circumstances, suffering in silence, offering a smile or encouraging words. Thérèse wrote, “We must offer Jesus the flowers of little sacrifices and win Him by a caress.” The essential key is to remain humble in our acts so that God’s grace can rush in and fill up all the areas according to His will.
Thérèse compared the life of souls to flowers. She wrote, “Jesus set before me the book of nature. I understand how all the flowers God has created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understand that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be adorned with little wild flowers. So it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden. He has created smaller ones and those must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when He looks down at His feet. Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.”
Thérèse garnered every possible grace at the Carmel to scatter fresh flowers at the feet of the Savior. She asked that He use the graces she labored for to be applied to priests, in particular, missionary priests. The apostolate of mission work strongly appealed to her. As was noted in Chapter 20, French Catholics began the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, which was a favorite charity of her mother and father and one which they had generously supported. One day in 1895, the Prioress, Mother Agnes (her sister Pauline) mentioned to Thérèse that she had received a letter from a seminarian who would serving in Africa as a missionary. He asked the Carmel for a spiritual helper, a sister who would consecrate all her good works for the salvation of his soul and the souls of the people he would be ministering to. Thérèse accepted this request with great joy. Now she could assign a name to where she wanted all the graces from her good works to go. In 1896 she was given another missionary priest as a spiritual brother. Thérèse embraced being a “virtual missionary” with unbounded zeal. The Carmel of Hanoi, Vietnam invited Thérèse to transfer to their community, a thought that filled her with longing, but by that time, Thérèse was in poor health. She had been suffering fevers for two years and on the day when she expectorated blood, she knew that eternity was closer at hand.
Pneumonia weakened her condition and then tuberculosis set in. There were no cures available. The prospect of her death was, in a sense, joyful to her. Contemplating eternity, Thérèse didn’t entertain thoughts of resting in peace as most do after a destructive illness, rather she promised to “teach souls my little way and spend eternity doing good upon earth.” Furthermore, she foretold the miraculous sign of roses that would come to be associated with her powerful intercession, saying, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses.” Thérèse underwent ghastly struggles in the final stages of her illness and died September 30, 1897 at the age of twenty-four.
In addition to the notice of her death, the Carmel distributed the manuscript she wrote, The Story of a Soul to all the convents of the Order of Carmelites. It soon became widely acclaimed. The Carmel obtained an Imprimatur and in October of 1898, the book was more widely distributed. The Story of a Soul went on to be read by millions and was published in more than thirty languages. Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse on May 17, 1925. Airplanes circled over the square of Saint Peter’s dispersing rose petals over the enormous crowd. She was proclaimed patron of all missions on December 14, 1927 and proclaimed the second patron of France (Saint Joan of Arc is the first patron of France) on May 3, 1944. On the 100th anniversary of her death in October 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Therese the 33rd Doctor of the Church and only the third woman to be given that distinction in the company of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena. Saint Thérèse was also named co-patroness of Missions, a distinction she shares with Saint Frances de Sales. Finally, Saint Thérèse is a powerful intercessor. Many, many Catholics call upon her for intercessory graces, sometimes using the quick prayer, “Little flower, in this hour, show us your power.”
Very recently, Zélie Martin and her husband Louis Martin have been recognized by their valor in maintaining strong Catholic identity in their family struggles. As a couple they were declared “Venerable” by Pope John Paul II on March 25, 1994. Pope Benedict XVI declared Mr. and Mrs. Martin “Blessed” on October 19, 2008 at a beatification Mass at the Basilica dedicated to their daughter, Saint Thérèse, in Lisiuex, France. Pope Francis canonized the couple on October 18, 2015 as the first husband and wife to be canonized together in Church history. They are now known as Saint Louis Martin and Saint Marie Zélie Guerin Martin whose feast day is July 12th .