As I first read the letters of Zélie Martin, I was grateful for modern advances in medical science.

And then I realised that technological progress alone does not liberate man; it makes him more risk-averse when it comes to death and dying.

I don’t know what the rate of infant mortality was in 19th-century France, but it sounds pretty high. Zélie lost four children and her brother lost at least one child. Her letters are full of the accounts of sudden and youthful deaths in their circle. A helpful footnote from the translator says that the greatest cause of infant mortality was enteritis (inflammation of the intestine).

Until it is at its most advanced stage, Zélie is remarkably silent on the sufferings occasioned by the breast cancer that eventually killed her at the age of 45. There are details in the letters to her pharmacist brother in Lisieux about the state of the tumour which are frankly not for the squeamish, but at no point does she complain about the illness as being somehow unfair. Nor does she ever question God’s will. Another footnote to the English edition of her letters quotes a book which bears the expressive title Purgatory on Earth: an Account of Breast Cancer from 19th-century France. There is no mention of the pain until the last weeks of her life, only expressions of regret that she will not be able to care for her husband or children, combined with declarations of faith in God. These alway sound profoundly real, never sentimental or expressive of something you sense she is trying to make herself feel.

With the cancer at an advanced stage, she goes to Lourdes in hope of a cure. But as can often happen, this itself becomes part of a trial of faith when she has a fall that causes more damage to the tumour site. The journey is beset with mishaps, and she returns home exhausted and worse than when she went. Even so, she continues to hope for a miracle, applying Lourdes water to the tumour, which by now is all down the side of her neck, so that the slightest movement causes her agony. Her last letter shows that she has drained the chalice of suffering to find at the bottom a perfect obedience: “What can you do? If the Blessed Mother doesn’t cure me, it’s because my time is at an end and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth.” This letter, the last she writes, is dated a fortnight before her death.

Letters from her daughter, Marie, narrate Zélie’s last days. Ten days before her mother’s death, Marie tells her aunt the truth about Zélie’s condition: “Yesterday evening she was suffering so much that she kept saying out loud: ‘Ah! My God, you see that I have no longer any strength left to suffer. Have pity on me! Since I must remain here on this bed of pain, I beg you not to abandon me.’” Even at this very advanced stage of illness, Marie reports, Zélie continued to try to go to Mass: “Last Friday morning she went to the seven o’clock Mass, because it was the first Friday of the month. Papa helped her along, for without him she could not have gone at all. On arriving at the church, she admitted that if someone were not with her, she would never have been able to push open the door of the church.”

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