Living in Hope: Saints Joachim and Anne
Nothing disappoints more than misplaced hope. And maybe nothing is easier to misplace than our hope. St Josemaria even considers that “perhaps there is no greater tragedy for man than the sense of disillusionment he suffers when he has corrupted or falsified his hope, by placing it in something other than the one Love which satisfies without ever satiating” (Friends of God, no. 208)
From time to time we are all tempted to put our hopes for happiness, even for a kind of salvation, in people whom we idealize or future circumstances we imagine will be perfect. Maybe, we think, this relationship or set of circumstances will be different from all others and finally provide the fulfillment for which we long. Perhaps this friend will never fail me or this career path always gratify and affirm me.
The error lies not in wishing for better things to come, but in making people and things do what they were never meant to do: save us from the world and ourselves, from loneliness and fear, and give us a lasting sense of security. Once I restrict my hopes to what I can see or imagine, I sell God short, and set myself up for a string of disappointments.
These are easy mistakes to make. “After all,” as St Josemaria observes, “the world has many good things to offer that attract our hearts, which crave happiness and anxiously run in search of love” (Ibid, no. 209). To desire happiness and hurry after love is, at root, holy. God Himself sparks the search in creating us as restless and incomplete beings without Him.
Yet the search forks in basically two directions: either a prolonged trial-and-error type quest, rife with let-downs, or the narrow way of trust in the Lord, hoping for fulfillment in Him.
The way of false hope may lead to a destructive tendency to build up and then tear down the very people and situations that we had initially looked to as ‘the answer.’ When they disappoint, they may end up as objects of our resentment, somewhat like the about-face of the disgraceful Amnon against Tamar: “The hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her” (2 Sam 13:15).
Jesus describes a far more complex reality in a potentially unnerving parable (see Mt 13:24-30). But it illustrates how hope operates practically in the midst of adversity, especially when we are tempted to rely on short-term solutions.
A man who sows good seed in his field awakens to find weeds mixed in among his wheat. An enemy has tampered with this little paradise, attempting not only to undermine the good crops but also to ruin the farmer himself—who, wisely, refuses his farmhands’ offer to uproot the weeds, “lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”
“Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’.”
This, says the Lord, is what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus does not hide the fact that sometimes He will allow apparently unfitting things to exist side by side with good things in our lives. And it is precisely these weeds—whether they crop up as interference or as a lack of something—that often drive us to misplace our hope in some form of salvation other than that promised by Christ.
God can remove the weeds at any time. But if He leaves certain faults, trials, or hard circumstances with us indefinitely, He must want them to achieve something for us that nothing else will. If nothing else, hardship can create fertile ground for hope in the Lord. And since true hope has nothing in common with wishful thinking, it will truly unite us to God in a way that transforms all of our waiting into preparation.
Saints Joachim and Anne, our Lady’s parents, had to live most of their married lives with an obvious void: they had no offspring. But the absence of something good was the preparation for something better. The lack of the expected, normal good was the preparation for the extraordinary. They, along with Abraham and Sara, Zachary and Elizabeth, could claim God as their only hope. As they advanced in age, and the prospects for childbearing were naturally impossible, they yet hoped that God would somehow fulfill His promise.
Saint Paul says of Abraham: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:18-21).
These holy couples waited their entire lives for the fulfillment of a promise. The grace of the fulfillment justified an entire lifetime of waiting, of hoping. In the meantime, if they had substituted short-term compensations for their hope in God, they would have been too full of lesser things to receive the surpassing gift.
What do we learn from all of this? Many things seem not to belong in our lives, some very personal and private, others quite public—from physical ailments to medications we must take to childhood problems that still haunt us as adults, and so on.
A wise maxim of the spiritual life says that happiness does not consist in getting what I want, but in wanting what I have, what God has placed squarely in my life. In other words, being able to see Providence behind things in our lives that we might wish were not there. If “eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” then we must allow the Lord to do the preparatory work in us so that we can receive such an unimaginable good (cf. 1 Cor 2:9).
He works out our salvation in a fallen world using parts of that fallen world in the process: sickness, moral failure, mental and emotional trials, family problems, childlessness—all of which, without exception, are difficulties that people would not choose for themselves. But could it be that these apparent “weeds,” instead of choking off the wheat, are really making it stronger, more fruitful, even more beautiful? Even preparing the wheat for glory?
Placing all of our hope in God creates an undeniable void of expectation in us akin to hunger and thirst. When our Lady sings in her Magnificat “He has filled the hungry with good things,” she speaks of those who, like herself, have waited for God to bring His promises to fulfillment in His own time. She gives voice to her own holy parents’ joy, she sings on behalf of all who can say with the Psalmist, “And now, Lord, what is there to wait for? In you rests all my hope,” and “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”
After the weeds and wheat have had time to grow together, after our preparation is complete, then we shall see Him in whom we have hoped here below, and receive not a promise or a pledge, but the God of love Himself.