How do families negotiate life these days when so many demands seem to absorb each one's time? What is important and what can be let go? Decisions are being made all the time even though often enough it means following conventional standards without any real discernment or question. Thus, people work long hours to meet the standard of success, buy the brand names in clothing that even the children covet, run off in a thousand directions each day to make sure that activities mark one's identity. Where does it all end?
Nineteenth-century France is not an answer to today's issues. Yet the Martin family does provide a scenario of life-giving relationships that suggests some alternative living. St Therese inherited a family environment marked by an identity, a sense of direction, a way of life. Zelie and Louis Martin, the parents, manifested a faith commitment that took on concrete shape. Both attended daily mass at the parish church, they supported each other in their work, they shared their faith with their children.
Zelie organized and owned a lace business in Alençon and Louis was a jeweler. Their work commitments did not disturb their primary focus: raising their children in ways that showed respect for God and a love for each other. Zelie taught her five daughters how to love God through prayer, self-discipline, and a generous love. The daughters learned about life especially by observing their parents' love for each other and their commitment to family life. Zelie was probably more the disciplinarian than Louis but they were not afraid to set limits to behavior, to demand excellence from the children. The family structure gave way to a good deal of entertainment, story-telling, games, feast day celebrations. Louis would read to his daughters from Dom Gueranger's Liturgical Year. In the Martin family a child could express herself without fear of judgment. Correction might come but a sense of freedom prevailed.
While each of the five daughters did enter religious life, the story of the family clearly indicates that all decisions were made freely and personally. Leonie was one daughter who had difficulty in coming to terms with her own inner anxiety. She did succeed in finding her place and purpose in the Visitation Order. St Therese grew up knowing that her own life was given freely and fully to Jesus Christ. She had received strong support from her father throughout her life. His love enabled her to take risks and to make decisions that only an affirming relationship could engender.
Family life needs to have a concrete way of expressing faith in Jesus Christ; the example of parents needs to be consistent and authentic; the family relationships born of love require affirmation, challenge, correction and a generous spirit.
Rev. John Russell, O.Carm.
Seton Hall University
South Orange, N.J. 07079
Sicut Parvuli, July 1999
Vol LXI No. 2