At times the biographies about St. Louis IX, King of France, make it sound like he had an overbearing mother. And it seems very likely that he did. However, it also seems that the care and formation that his mother provided also is what contributed greatly to his personal holiness.
St. Louis’ mother, Queen Blanche, knew that her young boy would one day become king, and she did all within her power to make sure that he would be prepared as best as possible. She personally saw to it that he was trained in all the things a king-in-waiting should, including Latin, military arts, oration and government. But first and foremost, she raised him to desire holiness above all. She drilled into him: “I love you, my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should ever commit a mortal sin.”
This aversion to sin defined St. Louis’ life and directed his own quest for holiness. He knew that in order to be a good king, husband and father he needed to be a good Christian first. To aid him in this quest he adopted a spirituality that included a strict regimen of mortification and penitence.
As a king, he enacted a series of laws by which he forbade sinful and illicit behavior in his realm. And he reformed the French judicial system to be thoroughly more merciful and just. For those reforms, he is memorialized throughout the world — even in the U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court buildings.
All of this adds up to the fact that the saintly king was a pious man marked by charity in thought, word and deed. St. Louis modeled this charity in a very tangible way by his care of and service to the poor and underprivileged. He attended to the construction of institutions for their care and even publicly washed the feet of the poor on Holy Thursdays in imitation of Christ.
In 1234, St. Louis married Princess Margaret of Provence. Their marriage was tested thoroughly, however, by the saint’s meddlesome and overbearing mother who became very jealous of the attention her son gave his wife. Despite the difficulties, their marriage appeared a success, and together they had 11 children.
St. Louis’ reign was marked as a golden age of French culture and prominence on the global stage. A man of courage and action, he also supported the intellectual life of the Church and supported the establishment of a theological school in Paris that would be later known as the Sorbonne. He even was joined once at court by the great St. Thomas Aquinas, a preeminent theologian and philosopher of the day.
A motto in life for St. Louis comes from the mission with which he was entrusted at his coronation: to serve as “God’s lieutenant on Earth.” His life’s highest aim was to give his all for the glory of God and the good of his people. This was evident in leading two of the Crusades, at which time he took possession of a relic of Christ’s crown of thorns. St. Louis built a magnificent chapel in Paris to house the relic. Known as Sainte Chappelle, it remains one of the most visited places in France.
He died in 1270 in Tunisia after contracting dysentery en route to the Holy Land during the eighth Crusade. In his spiritual testament to his eldest son, he passed along the guiding wisdom he learned from his mother years before: “My dearest son, you should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.” St. Louis was canonized in 1295.
Feast day is August 25.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of Simply Catholic. Follow him on Twitter at @HeinleinMichael.