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Embrace the Unexpected

First seen on the Behold Visio Divina Blog - July 2023

We’ve all heard the call to action, “expect the unexpected”. A familiar adage that aims to remind us of the many ways life can shift on a moment’s notice- for better or for worse. What’s less common is perhaps “embrace the unexpected”. This call to action requires a whole other level of response- one of active activity versus passive activity. You can expect the unexpected via your thoughts and when it comes to be, experience an ego stroke for not being taken completely by surprise. However, you can only embrace the unexpected through the action of opening your arms and either propelling yourself forward or steadying yourself to receive.

On July 12th, we celebrated the feast day of a couple that embodied living this “embrace” out: Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, otherwise known as the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Since last September I’ve been learning more about the lives of the first married couple to be canonized together. With that came a front row seat of how to not only expect the unexpected but to embrace it.

From both strongly desiring to enter religious life, thinking it to be the holier path, to eventually crossing paths on a bridge and Zélie hearing God say, “This is he whom I have prepared for you”, their love story began with the unexpected for each of them. While embracing this new calling, they still tried to bring aspects of their desires for religious life into their Vocation by living a Josephite marriage for a time (abstaining from consummating the relationship). It was through the fostering of a young child and God revealing His desire for them to add to His disciples on earth by having and raising children that they chose to embrace one another intimately. 

By following God’s prompting, Louis and Zélie came to see their marriage, in contrast to the cloister, as a “School of Love” and a place where holiness could be fostered in the commitment of loving your spouse wholeheartedly, utilizing your gifts by means of running a business, and even in the noise of raising children. 

Through this openness to children, they faced both unexpected joy and sorrow. Of the nine children that Zélie bore, three tragically died in infancy and another died of an illness at five years old. This pain nearly caused them both to desire death themselves and yet they found solace in the intercession of their little saints in Heaven. Their remaining five daughters cultivated in them, and vice versa, a relationship with Christ like they had never experienced before. It was a true honor for them to be able to offer all nine children to God, regardless of the paths those children’s lives took to be united with Him.

Death unfortunately followed this family with Zélie eventually succumbing to breast cancer. While Zélie desired deeply to see her children grow and Louis found himself fraught with grief at the thought of losing his beloved wife, they both gave themselves in total abandonment to the will of their good God.

Their story continues with a move from Alençon to Lisieux to be closer to family after Zélie’s passing. It was at Les Buissonnets (their new home) where Louis found himself embracing the many challenges and gifts of single fatherhood through the lens of grief and gratitude. He saw each of his daughters enter the convent, a fulfillment of his and Zélie’s longings to raise children deeply in love with the Lord. The littlest of them all, Thérèse, even became one of the greatest Saints of the modern Church and one of the four female Doctors of the Church at that! In his last years, while suffering terribly from a stroke, memory loss, disorientation and eventually being placed in a psychiatric ward, Louis and his daughters never ceased to embrace the unexpected turns and “humiliations,” as he called these experiences in particular, all for the glory of God.

So what do their lives teach us? Life wasn’t just a series of unexpected events that they had mentally prepared for the possibility of happening. It doesn’t even seem possible to me to do such a thing. Rather, it was a radical opening of their arms and hearts to whatever and whoever God placed in their paths at whichever time He willed. It wasn’t always a warm embrace filled with cheerful unity.  Sometimes it was a crumbling into the arms of another clinging for support and hope. Either way, there was always another person on the giving or receiving end of this embrace. To be more specific, the Person of Christ Jesus. 

To embrace the Cross is to embrace Jesus on the Cross.

To embrace your Vocation is to embrace a fruitful relationship with the three Persons of the Trinity.

To embrace surrender is to embrace the Good Shepherd. 

To embrace love is to embrace God Himself.

These holy saints teach us that to embrace is holy and is truly the only way to live.

What can you embrace today in order that tomorrow’s unexpected may find open arms greeting it as well?

To learn more about their stories listen to the series entitled “Louis and Zélie” on the Hallow App or read The Story of A Family: The Home of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, by Fr. Stephene-Joseph Piat.

*First published on Behold Visio Divina:

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