St. Thérèse, Jane Austen, and Raising Saints
I have been thinking a lot lately about raising a holy family and what it takes to do so, especially when there are so many negative influences in our society. I want to keep my little girls safe in their Catholic world forever, though I know that I cannot. I want to preserve the innocence of their minds and hearts, so that they do not know about great evils committed by others. I don’t want anyone to tell them that things that are wrong are perfectly normal. Most of all, I just want them to love God, to grow up loving Him, and to continue to love Him always as faithful Catholics.
Since I was pregnant with my first daughter, there have been many things that have made me worried about the way society is tending. The current extremely liberal and anti-Christian value regime is the first of my concerns, and then the “normalizing” of non-traditional “marriages.” Everyday there is an extreme amount of hate towards those who stand up for the truths of the Catholic Church, and my children are going to experience it more than I am. I wonder, what is the secret to raising my sweet girls into faith-filled, loving women?
The answer seems to be to have a tight-knit, loving family with a solid prayer life. When one has a close family life, where everyone is on the same page, one has an irreplaceable foundation. I have two examples of family life among sisters. My first example is the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And the second is the really existing family of Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
For those of you who have not read Pride and Prejudice (and no, the five hour movie does not count, but it will help a little), the story centers around the Bennet family of five daughters, a cynical, phlegmatic father, and an oblivious, anxious mother. When discussing her and her four sisters’ education without a governess to a new acquaintance, the wealthy Lady Catherine Dubourg, Elizabeth Bennet explains, “Compared with some families, I believe we were [neglected]; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary. Those who chose to be idle, certainly might.” The Bennet sisters, being left to form themselves in virtue and with a poor example from their parents turn out a variety of ways. The eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, are virtuous, educated, and socially aware. They know how to act, and do it well. The middle sister, Mary, spends her time disapproving of her younger sisters and reading Forsyth’s sermons. The youngest sister, Lydia has no sense of decency and leads her older sister Kitty along in her thoughtless and eventually vicious ways. The Bennet family, while always around each other, is not a loving family, and the less virtuous members give into their desires at the expense of the virtuous members. The lack of discipline and formation lead to an unfortunate turn of events for the family, which could only be corrected by those who were well formed. Austen shows clearly how one’s natural virtues guide one in life, for better or for worse. But she does not look at the work of supernatural virtues in the life of Christians.
The summer my husband and I married we went to a series of talks on Blesseds Louis and Zélie Martin at the Carmelite monastery in Buffalo, NY. We were inspired by the holiness of their lives and how they raised their family in prayer and virtue, giving up their own hopes for religious vocations. For a more detailed description of their family check out this article by Christopher J. Lane. I would quote the whole thing just to show you how beautiful the family was, but you can go and read it! What makes the success of their saintly family life so powerful for Catholic families today is that they lived in an increasingly secularizing society. The Church had been under persecution, and the Martin family preserved traditions in their family life. Lane explains, “The Martin family’s devotional practices were nourished both by the long tradition of Catholic spirituality and the newer fruits of the Catholic revival. Early morning daily mass was standard, as were prayers in the intimacy of the home,” and “The family enjoyed themselves at home and in the community.” And as a result of a deep prayer life and family community is that the five daughters who grew to adulthood all entered religious life.
We learn from the Martin family that to raise saints, one must be a saint, but even without the sanctity, which merits canonization, we can still seek to imitate them. We can commit to a devotional family prayer life, create a structured, tight-knit community, and raise our children to love God and to seek virtue. We learn from Austen, that even when parents fail, some children could turn out virtuous, but that discipline is necessary for the formation of virtue. I imagine that the character of Elizabeth and our beloved St. Thérèse had some things in common as they both learned to overcome their vices and become better. But unlike Austen’s characters, the Martin family had the benefit of seeking supernatural virtue, which helped them to overcome their natural weaknesses. Catholic families today cannot survive without supernatural grace, which comes through reception of the Sacraments, devotional prayer, and good works.
And while I sometimes worry that our little family is surrounded by an increasingly evil society, I also remember the many beautiful Catholic families, raising devout, virtuous children. I encounter these families in my local parish, in mother’s groups (virtual and real life), and in the extensive Catholic blogosphere. There are real live holy people raising little saints right now. Let us hold tight to each other and encourage each other in virtue and protect the intimacy of family life, which is so essential for the formation of our children.