The feast of the Presentation of Mary is also the baptism anniversary of my oldest daughter. I remember taking her to Mass on that feast day when she was a toddler, about the same age that Mary was when she was presented in the Temple, and struggling to imagine what it must have been like for Sts. Joachim and Anne to leave her at the Temple at that age.
The Story of Mary’s Parents
Tradition tells us that St. Anne and St. Joachim, the mother and father of Mary, suffered from infertility for many years. Pious tradition tells the story of Joachim going out to the desert to pray, and Anne and him both being given a message from God that they would conceive a child. Joachim rushes home to Anne, and Mary is (immaculately) conceived. Icons of St. Anne and St. Joachim typically feature the moment when they are reunited at the city gates, overjoyed by the promise that God has made them.
My husband and I have only experienced relatively short (less that two years) times of infertility, but I know all too well what a gift a long awaited child feels like. St. Anne must have experienced such incredible joy, the first time that she held baby Mary in her arms. Joachim, like all good fathers of daughters, must have delighted in having a little girl of his own.
Anne and Joachim’s Gift
To have hoped and prayed for a child for so long, and then to give her up…it is a scenario that it hard to imagine. Pious tradition says that when Mary was three years old, her parents brought her to the Temple. Having had three year old girls, I imagine Mary clinging to her parents and sobbing, not wanting to be separated from them. But Mary wasn’t like that. In icons she is alternately pictured as dancing or happily walking up the Temple steps, not looking back at her parents. Mary, already full of grace, was delighted to go and live in the Temple.
This detail adds another layer to the sacrifice of Anne and Joachim. They were not only offering God their greatest gift, but they were affirming and supporting Mary’s own vocation.
Supporting the Vocations of Our Children
I have three daughters, and my husband and I pray for their vocations daily. They are still young but I know that the seeds of their vocations are being planted even now.
But, also being a worrier and a planner, I tend to mentally prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I don’t know what their vocations will be, but I often remind myself that they could be called to a cloistered convent halfway around the world. And, if they were called to such a vocation, I would be called to support and accept that.
Although we know that our children ultimately are not ours, it’s easy to forget that they really belong to God. It’s easy to forget that, as delightful as they may be, they don’t actually exist to bring us delight. They exist to delight Him.
Our family is very affectionate, and we give lots of hugs. I’ve often wondered what it would be like if one of my daughters was called to a cloistered convent and I were never able to hug her again? (A seminarian friend of mine has a sister who is a cloistered nun, and he jokingly told me that hugs through the bars of the grail of a cloister are possible but awkward.) Even if one of my daughters is called to marriage, or consecrated virginity, or life in an active order, she will no longer be in my home. If we are successful in our parenting, our daughters will feel free to fly from our nest and live out their vocations.
Having such small children, it’s hard to imagine being separated from them in that way, but I know that that is the purpose of our parenthood. We aren’t raising them for ourselves, but rather for God.
Letting Go of a Child
When we lost our Gabriel to miscarriage a couple of years ago, it made this even more of a reality. Up until this point, I understood that our children were, ultimately, not ours. When we lost Gabriel, we experienced a little one leaving our nest far too soon. We don’t know what God’s plan is for him, but we know that our prayers can help him.
During Gabriel’s too short life and immediately following his death, we gave him every spiritual advantage that we possibly could. We found out that we were expecting him at the beginning of Holy Week, and I very intentionally prayed with and for him during that week. (Holy Week will always be a special time for me, because it was the most joyous time that I experienced with him.) When our pastor gave me the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (because I was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum), we also had him bless Gabriel. (In retrospect, the day that I was given Anointing of the Sick may have been the day that Gabriel died, although we didn’t know about it for another week. I sometimes wonder if that blessing that our pastor gave him was given in his final moments on this earth.) Every night we prayed with him, and my husband would pray for him to be blessed before we went to sleep.
He was with us for such a short period of time, but he was loved and prayed for the whole time, and we brought him to Mass often. It still felt like it wasn’t enough.
I imagine that Anne and Joachim felt similarly. Three years is not a very long time to have with a child. Presumably, Mary was smothered with love in that time. Her parents probably prayed with her every chance they had. But still, when they brought her to those Temple steps, I’m sure that their time with her felt altogether too short.
When we lost Gabriel, though, I realized that even when we are physically apart from our children, our love and prayers continue to go with him. My husband and I still pray for our Gabriel, all the time. We still love him. No matter what part Gabriel is currently playing in God’s plan, he is still loved and prayed for by us.
And ultimately, that is what we are called to do. We, as parents, are called to love and pray for our children, no matter what their vocations may be.
Parenting with Heaven in Mind
As parents, we are called to point our children toward heaven. If we want to truly love them, we are called to be willing to let them go.
Most likely, this letting go won’t be anything dramatic. Most likely, we won’t have to leave them on the steps of a convent or monastery at the age of three (even if most parents of three year olds may be tempted to, at times). But we are called to love them enough that are always pointing them towards God. We are called to love them enough that we are willing to put His will for them before our parental goals and ideals.
Hopefully, like Anne and Joachim, we will get to see our children run to God in their lives, with joy.
image: Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple by Giotto di Bondone / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)