‘Walang forever’ is fake news
ISN’T it ironic that on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph—family man par excellence who chose not to divorce Mary, the mother of Jesus—the divorce bill was approved on its third and final reading by Congress? Officially known as House Bill 7303 or “An Act Instituting Absolute Divorce and Dissolution of Marriage in the Philippines”, the bill was voted on 134-57. To date, the Philippines and the Vatican are the only states where divorce is illegal, and Filipino Catholics take pride in that. But with a vote of 134 vs. 57… who knows what Senate will say?
Filipinos are a family-loving people, we celebrate births and birthdays, we respect life, we love wedding anniversaries and happily-ever-after movies, and we truly believe that “walang forever” is fake news, manufactured by the broken hearted. There is forever, and with the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux in our midst (since January 12) until May 2018, we may yet be inspired to imitate her parents, St. Zelie and St. Louis, to help us form virtuous spouses who would love their children enough to rule out divorce as an escape from marital trials—and yes, stay together, forever.
The Church did not make Louis and Zelie Saints because their daughter is a Saint; rather, the Church acknowledges that their daughter became a Saint because she was raised by saintly parents. When Therese wrote “Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what God wants us to be”, she must have had her parents in mind.
Before they met, both Zelie and Louis had wanted the religious life—he as a monk and she as a nun—but God wanted something else. So they met (curiously, on a bridge) and barely four months later got married on July 12, 1858; he was 34, she was 26. Still, with their consuming desire for sanctity, Louis and Zelie decided they would, while married, live a “celibate” life together—but God didn’t allow that either. A priest soon advised them to do as married people normally do, have children, and raise them for God. They obeyed the priest, but prayed for sons with the noble intention of offering them to the Lord as priests—but again, God had other plans. They had nine children, and the only two boys God took back in their infancy, along with two girls in their childhood, leaving the couple five girls who grew up into adulthood and became nuns, all of them. For decimating all of their dreams, did Zelie and Louis balk at God’s alternatives? No, they would go with the flow.
Although their respective crafts and businesses kept Louis and Zelie busy, they were never too busy for their children. Zelie would set aside her lace-making for two hours to “have a dinner party” with the girls and their dolls, and Louis would likewise play along, saying “I am a big child with my children.” Unlike the other businessmen of their day, Louis and Zelie refused to open shop on Sundays, a day reserved exclusively for worship and enjoyment with the family. The Martins’ devotional practices included early morning Mass daily, family prayers said regularly, and spiritual reading of favorites like “The Imitation of Christ” and biographies of French Saints. In May, they would surround the statue of Our Lady of the Smile with plants and flowers in keeping with the Catholic tradition of devoting the month to Mary. They would also go on pilgrimages—Louis visiting local churches and shrines on foot, and Zelie to Lourdes by train when she suffered from breast cancer.
The death of four of their nine children, while painful for the God-fearing parents, were to become tragedies that intensified their love for each other. Instead of wallowing in their shared grief, Louis and Zelie poured out their affection on the surviving children, all girls: Marie, 12; Pauline, 11; Leonie, 9; Celine, 3; and the new-born, blonde and blue-eyed Marie Therese Francoise, who would after a hundred years come to be known as St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus.
About the pain of losing her children to death, Zelie would write in one of her letters: “When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and when I buried them, I felt great pain, but it was always with resignation. I didn’t regret the sorrows and the problems I had endured for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would be better to never have had them.’ I can’t bear that kind of talk. I don’t think the sorrows and problems could be weighed against the eternal happiness of my children. So they weren’t lost forever. Life is short and full of misery. We’ll see them again in Heaven.” And in another letter, Zelie summed up the essence of parenthood: “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. We lived only for them. They were all our happiness, and we never found any except in them. In short, nothing was too difficult, and the world was no longer a burden for us. For me, our children were a great compensation, so I wanted to have a lot of them in order to raise them for Heaven.”
Perhaps this is one value to be learned from the fourth visit of the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus in the Philippines. Returning to our shores at a time when we are losing our children due to disasters, human traffickers, war, or a contentious vaccine, could Therese be hinting that we befriend and imitate her parents so that we may also cherish and raise our children as gifts from a loving God?
Relics bring the presence of Saints in our midst. No doubt there will be more stories of miracles or favors granted during the six-month duration of St. Therese’s relics’ visit in our country; churches again will overflow with people pleading for succor, even those who hardly go to church. As we queue up to kiss or touch these holy remains and pray for favors through the Saints’ intercession, may we realize that our Church presents Saints to us not only for our edification or comfort but more so for our imitation. But what if we do not receive the miracle we pray for? Again, we take a cue from St. Zelie Martin who, dying of cancer, went on pilgrimage to Lourdes (France), praying to be cured. Denied her request, she wrote in a letter: “The Blessed Mother didn’t cure me in Lourdes. What can you do, my time is at an end, and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth.”
A faith that does not hinge on miracles but aims for surrender to God’s will—we can bring ourselves to ask that from God through Sts. Zelie and Louis. Besides lobbying against divorce, perhaps there is little or nothing else we can do to sway our pro-divorce lawmakers’ thinking to ours. We do not want divorce, but if worse comes to worst and it is passed into law we will in complete trust continue to be docile to God’s, persevering in marriage and parenthood, and like Zelie and Louis Martin, focused on “raising children for heaven”. Because we know that deep within our hearts, God has planted the seed of forever. And that’s the truth.