I have been reading the letters of St Zélie Martin, mother of the Little Flower. Zélie kept up a formidable correspondence with her sister, who was a Visitation nun in Le Mans, with her brother and sister-in-law in Lisieux, with her daughters Pauline and Marie when they went away to school, and with her husband Louis when either of them were travelling. More than 200 of her letters are published, giving a fascinating and compelling insight into her life and her faith, and a sometimes heart-rending testimony to her sufferings and joys.

Zélie’s letters recount in vivid detail her busy life spent child-rearing and running a successful business enterprise, for which she employed up to 18 piece-workers to help her manufacture Alençon lace. There is a modern ring to the way she describes trying to manage a child’s tantrums or sickness at the same time as meeting her employees on a Thursday to task and pay them.

She worked long hours, beginning her day with Mass at 5.30am (the normal Mass for manual labourers to attend). We hear often that she is still at her desk at 11pm. No wonder she sometimes speaks of exhaustion, though any such personal complaints are balanced to many references to how fortunate she is, how “God never gives his children more than they can bear”, and expressions of how indifferent she is to wealth, except that she knows she has a responsibility to help those less fortunate. (In fact, she and her husband both gave away large sums in alms, supporting various charities and individuals in need).

The correspondence is peppered with news of local happenings and hints of the turbulent times in contemporary France. War and revolution are in the background. But it is the first-hand accounts of her motherhood that reveal the hardest crosses she has to bear.

This woman who originally believed she was called to religious life reveals a later conviction that “I was born to be a mother, to bear children.” Yet the onset of the breast cancer that will eventually kill her at the age of 45 means that she cannot nurse most of her babies. This precipitates various crises as she tries to do so and fails, and then has to leave them in the care of wet nurses, at least one of whom appears to have been criminally negligent.

The joy of each new child’s birth is soon tempered with huge anxieties for their survival and health. “When misfortunes come,” she writes simply, “I try to resign myself, but the fear, for me, is torture. The best thing to do is to put everything into the hands of God and await the outcome in peace and abandonment to His will.” And then she says with complete authenticity: “That is what I am going to try very hard to do.” Not only did she lose four children in infancy but all of the surviving children, including Thérèse, suffered near-fatal crises.

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