Editor’s Note: The Protoevangelium (“first Gospel”) of St. James is an apocryphal text. The Church doesn’t recognize it to be inspired in the way the Gospels, Epistles and other books are, so it’s not included in the canon of Scripture. It is, however, part of the Tradition, and readers will recognize many of its stories and the feasts we celebrate (like the Presentation of Mary in the Temple) that aren’t found in the Gospels.
I was 3 years into this season of secondary infertility when I found the protogospel of St. James thanks to a suggestion from my dad. If you haven’t read it, and you are facing infertility, you should definitely read it, at least the first few chapters.
St. James begins with the story of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the patrons of the Springs in the Desert ministry and grandparents of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Reading it provides many things to think and pray about, but for today, I want to focus on St. Anne and St. Joachim and what we can learn about marriage and navigating infertility.
At the opening of the gospel, Joachim is on his way to the temple to make an offering. We are told he is “a man rich exceedingly; and he brought his offerings double.” But then he is stopped by Rubim because he hasn’t “made seed” in Israel. Joachim is ashamed and goes to check the books for surely, he isn’t the only one who hasn’t made seed in all of Israel. But the books confirm that he is.
Much distressed, he flees into the desert, sets up a tent, and says that prayer shall be his food and drink for 40 days. But… he doesn’t let Anne know his plans. So she thinks he has died. And she calls out that she will “mourn two mournings and lament two lamentations. I shall bewail my widowhood. I shall bewail my childlessness.”
After some time (and a beautifully painful prayer under the Laurel tree), Anne is visited by an angel and told that God has heard her prayer. Joachim is not dead, and they will be blessed with a child who “shall be spoken of in all the world.” Joachim, too, is visited by an angel and told that God heard his prayers and Anne shall conceive.
If you’ve ever seen an icon of Sts. Anne and Joachim, it was likely one that portrayed the following scene. Anne waits for Joachim at the gate. When she sees him coming, she runs to him, hangs from his neck, and boldly proclaims “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive.”
They meet at the gate.
What struck me most is the unintentional separation Anne and Joachim experience and then their subsequent reunion. In reaction to the humiliation he experienced at the temple, Joachim flees into the desert to fast and pray for the blessing of a child. But what if, instead, he ran to Anne to pour out the sorrow and humiliation that he had faced that morning? If St. Anne is anything like me, she would have loved to have shared in the sorrow Joachim felt from his experience. Husbands, letting your wife know that they are not the only spouse unexpectedly struck by feelings of sadness, emptiness, or embarrassment because of your shared situation eases the weight of this cross. Of course, timing and the manner in which this is shared is important, but not sharing can lead to your wife experiencing additional feelings of self-loathing and shame because she believes she’s the only one not handling it all “well.”
I am not knocking a decision to pray and fast for this particular struggle, but what gets to me is that St. Joachim fails to fill Anne in on his plans, leading her to believe he is dead. Without communicating to your spouse your plans to undertake fasting and giving additional time to prayer, it could easily appear that this is a ‘dead issue’ to you, furthering the emotional isolation your wife may be feeling. From the outside, nothing is happening, making it easy to assume you’ve stopped caring, that you have “checked out of the cyclical struggle.”
And as a woman, your wife can’t ‘check out.’ She is the one who has to notice and track signs of ‘fertility.’ She is the one getting her blood drawn (again) or having an invasive and uncomfortable ultrasound (again, helloooo ‘Wanda’). She is the one keeping track of what supplements to take, when to start post peak hormone support, having those follow up calls with her NAPRO doctor. Husbands have to choose to be involved and informed about all this. Wives have no choice.
All this to say, throughout the mess of trying to conceive, discerning treatment options or alternative ways of bringing children into your family, it’s important to find ways to ‘meet at the gate.’ The internal experience of husband and wife while baring this cross is different and silence can lead to untrue or uncharitable assumptions and resentment.
How can you meet your spouse at the gate today?
Katie is a wife and mother living in Virginia. She’s also co-founder of The Joyful Leap, which “aims to spread awareness of Christ’s presence in the everyday mundane.” Find Katie’s booklet, “Waiting with Mary: A Seven Sorrows Devotional for Catholic Women Facing Infertility” here.