Marriage as a path to holiness
I have already written about this from different angles. In this post, I want to offer a married couple as a model for holiness. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese, are often referred to, and when I was researching for the recent Faith Matters talk, I came across this inspiring, French-Canadian couple (not yet beatified) who were in the diplomatic service: Georges and Pauline Vanier.
This couple shows us that holiness means fulfilling the duties of your state in life and your profession to the best of your ability. Georges Vanier went into the diplomatic service after the First World War in which he had served. During the War, he had had his right leg amputated and suffered pain from the wound for the rest of his life. When he was invited to become the Governor-General of Canada, he accepted this appointment despite his constant pain. One friend commented: “Good heavens, Vanier, you’ve already got one foot in the grave,” to which Georges replied, “I know, but it’s been there 41 years.” He said, “If God wants me to do this job, he will give me the strength.” This sense of service marked the Vaniers’ public and private lives. Recognising the importance of family life and discovering great joy in it themselves, they established the Vanier Institute for the Family, to give aid to families in need.
The Vaniers lived a life of entertaining prime ministers and dining with royalty and when, in the 30s, they lost much of their wealth, they had to continue to keep up appearances within all of these duties. Pauline Vanier stated that the hardship of these years had in fact been the best thing that happened to the children. She suffered from her own personal problems, tending to be highly strung and suffering from depression. Yet, without being overly pious, the couple quietly devoted time each day to prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. In relation to prayer Georges told his daughter: “We can all find time to do what we want.”
In the 50s, most of the Vanier children had grown up and left home – one became a doctor, one became a Cistercian monk, and one became a painter. Their fourth son, Jean, who had studied philosophy in Paris, later found his own vocation – he bought a house near Paris and took two men with mental disabilities to live with him – this was the beginning of the L’Arche community, where Pauline Vanier herself would go to live towards the end of her life.
There is nothing remarkable in the Vaniers’ life, which I think should be encouraging for us. As husband and wife, they were faithful in carrying out their duties both within their family and professional life. In this faithfulness, we can see what the kingly aspect of our baptismal vocation looks like – to govern and bring order within our lives and the field in which we work. Lumen Gentium explains this by saying, “it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG 31).
Finally, it could be said of the Vaniers that they grew in holiness together. Georges experienced a spiritual awakening in 1938, after which he resolved to accompany Pauline to Mass each day and did so until his last days. Their friends said of them, “We always think of them together”. It is true of all of us – whether married or single – that we grow in God’s life with others. In relationship with others we are in the image of God because that is who God is – an eternal relationship of three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a life of endless joy we are invited to share.