I've got a treat for you! As we approach Holy Week, I am thinking about how best to use this sacred time to grow closer to the suffering Christ. I’ve been unbelievably inspired by the example of a lady who was dealt incredible suffering in her life time, yet she allowed it to transform her into a saint. Above all, she jumps off the page as a REAL, honest, struggling person, just like each of us. She has taught me so much and I am thrilled to introduce you to her…
But first, let me introduce you to my brand new baby girl, Azelie Celeste, born March 12! We are overjoyed she is here, and she is already lighting up our lives with her calm sweetness.
Like most people, you might be thinking “I’ve never heard the name Azelie before.” It’s unusual for sure, and that brings me to her namesake, the saint I’m pumped to tell you about. St. Marie-Azelie (most often known by her nickname Zelie,) was the mother of the greatest modern saint and my patron, St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Zelie and her husband Louis were canonized in 2015, becoming the first married couple to be made saints together. My husband gave me a book of their letters as a gift when we were engaged, called A Call to a Deeper Love. When our little Azelie was merely a twinkle in our eyes, we began to fall in love with this beautiful couple and to ask for their patronage over our marriage.
So who is St. Zelie, why do I love her, and what can we learn from her about suffering?
She dealt with incredible loss, but she stuck to Jesus and her faith loyally. Zelie had nine children and four of them tragically died in infancy or childhood. I cannot even imagine burying one of my children, let alone four. Her remaining five daughters all came close to dying in childhood as well. Her eight-month-old son Joseph died in 1868, and Zelie wrote to her sister-in-law:
“As you see, I’m in great pain. This is a sad week for me. My dear little angel, who was so beautiful, had to leave us.”
Then just five days later she watched her father die, and wrote:
“I have the hope, and even the conviction, that our dear father was well received by God. I want my death to be like his. We’ve already had three masses said for him. We intend to request a great number of them so that, if he has anything to atone for, he’ll quickly be delivered from Purgatory.”
She is a real person who struggled to be holy. Shortly after she lost her father, Zelie wrote to her brother:
“My father follows me everywhere; I seem to see him suffering. I offered up all the sacrifices I could make during my life and all my sufferings for him…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!”
It reassures me that a saint didn’t feel holy either, and that she had to face all the small daily annoyances that I do. Even saints become impatient!
She submitted to God’s will, trusting in his plan. How many times have I prayed the prayer “God I want what you want…but only as long as it’s what I want too??” Two months before her death, Zelie went to Lourdes hoping for a miraculous cure. She prayed endlessly, yet her prayers were not answered and her illness continued to progress. Throughout her life, Zelie watched her children die and her own plans be frustrated. Her truly heroic virtue led her to say often in her letters, as Jesus did in Gethsemane, “not my will but yours be done.” Shortly before her death she wrote to her daughter Pauline:
“I need time to finish the work that God has put in my hands. So, I’m sure he’ll give it to me, although I know it’s a lot to ask him to disregard the laws of nature to prolong one wretched life. Oh well, what’s certain is that he does it often through pure goodness and mercy, and, if he does it for me, I’ll try to make him not regret it.”
In the midst of trial she spoke words of love to her family. Zelie’s letters are full of expressions of affection. I particularly love how she signed this letter to Louis when they were apart for a short time:
"I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection so much more when you're not here with me. It would be impossible for me to live apart from you. I kiss you with all my love."
She was a busy mom, homemaker and business owner, but still made time to pray. This struggle I really relate to. I ALWAYS have more on my to do list. Most days I don’t even get the basics done! In addition to caring for her children and house, Zelie ran a lacemaking business and would stay up late making commissions of Alencon lace. Yet in her letters it is clear that she and her husband prioritized going to daily mass (sometimes she even went 3 times a day!) and instilling in their children a love of their Catholic faith. In short, she was all in no matter what the circumstances of her life. I feel that Zelie is like a sister to me, struggling to find a balance between work, family life and prayer (and who doesn’t struggle with that?)
She offered her physical pain up to God. Zelie was ill for years before succumbing to cancer at age 45. At the time there were no sophisticated methods of pain management available. As I read about Zelie while I was going through the aches and exhaustion of pregnancy, I was both wowed and inspired. She had cancer while pregnant several times over! How many times have I allowed tiredness, small annoyances, or sickness to totally derail my efforts to speak and act with love? If you’re like me, you would rather choose to give up chocolate than put up with the unsolicited aches and pains of the flu. I find that when God allows suffering in my life that I don't invite in I’m inclined to get upset with him rather than to understand it as an opportunity to be united to Christ. St. Zelie’s letters opened up to me a new understanding of how to suffer well.
She lived with worry and uncertainty yet kept moving forward. I often want to throw up my hands when I'm riding the strugglebus hard. Zelie questioned her own business skills many times. She worried about her family members’ health too. In this passage she is concerned after seeing her sister deathly ill with bronchitis:
“I see this with the greatest pain. In losing her, I’ll lose everything. She is so dear to me and so helpful to my children. My heart is broken thinking about it.”
How many times have I questioned where I am going and what I’m doing? If you’re like me, you sometimes feel like you question everything constantly. I like to think of St. Zelie as a sister on the journey with me. She gets it- the worry and uncertainty- but she is an example of bravely doing what you can and leaving the rest up to God.
There's lots to unpack and meditate on here. Now I have a question for you. Let me know in the comments below:
Which of the seven points in this post are you most inspired to take action on in your spiritual life, and why?
Sts. Marie-Azelie and Louis, pray for us!