Dear friends, our summer pilgrimage to France has taken us on a path of holiness, in the footsteps of the saints! Here is what we found on our pilgrimage to Lisieux, and then a reflection on how the encounter with St. Therese and her family led us to reflect on the universal call to holiness as each of us young pilgrims seeks the Lord’s call for our lives.
Lisieux is a city in Northern France that is home to the famous St. Therese of Lisieux, whose “Little Way” has shown millions to holiness by doing “little things with great love.” Her holy parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, are also both canonized Saints. It was their profound example of love and devotion that taught little Therese to love Jesus above all else, and gave her the desire to be His spouse forever. Louis and Zelie inspired such saintly aspirations in their five daughters that all of them sought Christ in religious life. It was the life of this incredible family that we got to explore in Lisieux.
At Les Buissonnets, Therese’s childhood home that is hosted by the Beatitudes laywomen, we were able to step into the life of the Martin family. Because of the success of Louis’ watchmaking business and Zelie’s fine Alencon lace the family lived in comfort. Their two-story house is decorated with fine furniture and dining ware. The girls’ bedrooms are small but ornate, and Therese has plenty of toys. We were able to spend time in their beautiful garden, whose flowers were an important part of her childhood and inspired many of her writings.
Therese’s Spiritual Homes
Not far from Les Buissonnets is St. Peter’s Cathedral, where the Martins frequented mass on Sundays and during the week. Zelie insisted on attending daily mass there even while fighting the debilitating cancer that took her life at age forty-five. The beautiful cathedral was a restful place of prayer throughout our time in Lisieux. We felt very close to Therese and her family as we prayed in the place that was the center of their lives.
Another site of special grace was the Carmel, the cloistered monastery where Therese spent the last nine years of her life as a Carmelite nun. It was within the walls of this humble cloister that she wrote her memoir, L’Histoire d’un Amé (The Story of a Soul). We were blessed to attend mass twice in the chapel where her remains are reposed. The plain monastery and difficult life of the Carmelites is very different from the world Therese grew up in. Yet her delight was in Jesus, not in material comforts. Even in the face of the greatest trials, both in the community and in her soul, little Therese was radiant with joy, immersed in the merciful love of Jesus.
Though she never left the monastery, Therese had an overwhelming desire to be a missionary; to preach, visit the sick and bring souls to the Church. With the utmost confidence that her Father, who doesn’t inspire desires He doesn’t wish to fulfill, would accomplish her wishes, she said, “I wish to spend my Heaven in doing good upon the earth.” Her faith was well rewarded. Shortly after she succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, her manuscript was published. Her practice of the Little Way of abandonment to God’s mercy gained popularity almost immediately. Thanks to her writings and the numerous miracles attributed to her intercession her path to canonization was very short. Not only was she declared a saint in only twenty-eight years, Pope John Paul II named her Doctor of the Church in 1997, making her the youngest person to receive this lofty title.
Two years after her canonization in 1925 a basilica was built in Lisieux to honor the Little Flower who had already begun changing the world by her prayers. During our visit to the basilica we got to reflect on the enormous impact this young Carmelite has had on the world without ever having left the cloister. We saw that God truly can do great things with little souls that abandon themselves to His love.
In the crypt of the basilica is the tomb of her parents Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin. Their inspiring presence reminded us that without their example of love for God and neighbor, Therese may never have known the love of God and become the great Saint we honor today. It brought us back to the universal call to holiness. Yes, Therese was a remarkable Carmelite sister, a typical standard material for holiness. But her parents, a humble watchmaker and lacemaker with five daughters, were in no way inherently extraordinary.
Nothing about their comfortable lifestyle demanded them to rise above worldly pleasures and seek higher things. It was not their situation that sanctified them, but their choice to place God at the very center of their lives, to love Him with all their heart, with all their mind, and with all their strength. They were compelled by an unshakeable faith to, “use this world as if they used it not,” knowing that, “the fashion of this world passes away.”
How can We Follow in the Footsteps of the Martins?
Each of us young Americans are coming from different places in the discernment of our vocation. While some know they desire married life, others are confident in the call to give their lives fully to Christ as religious brothers or sisters. For others, the question of vocation is one they’re just beginning to consider as they grow in knowledge of God’s love for them and in desire to do His will.
No matter how one feels called to serve the Lord, the first thing to remember when pursuing one’s vocation is the universal call to holiness. God, who is Love, created us for love, and He calls us to let that love transform us in a radical gift of self. In short, he calls us all to be saints. So vocation is a question of, “How does God want to make me a saint?” While most follow the sanctifying path of family life, some choose to leave the comforts of the world, "for the sake of the Gospel," knowing that they will, “receive a hundred times as much” (Mark 10:30). Sadly, it’s all too common to think that sainthood is reserved for austere monks and nuns from hundreds of years ago, and that extreme acts of love and self sacrifice for Christ aren’t necessary for “normal people.” But Jesus tells us all that, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24). Whether it is through marriage, priesthood, or religious life, we are all called to lay down our lives with Christ.
Though we all come from different places in discerning God’s will for ourselves, the witness of Sts. Therese, Louis and Zelie gave us certainty that no matter what our state in life will be, we can become saints. From Therese’s teaching, we know that we don’t need to trust in ourselves, but to have confidence in Jesus, who tells us, “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible," (Matthew 19:26).