When your prayers seem unanswered, this is what it means to hope

Lately, I’ve been intellectually wrestling with the idea of hope. I want it to describe my frame of mind, but I suspect that saying “I hope ____ happens” does not fully grasp it. For me, this desire is to have another child. But what is the theological virtue of hope, and how can I live it while experiencing miscarriage and secondary infertility?

When I turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I find that hope is about what I ought to desire, where I place my trust and what I rely on: “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (No. 1817). This answer gives me a framework and the correct ends, but how do these take shape in my life?

St. Augustine offers guidance: “God withholds what you are not yet ready for. He wants you to have a lively desire for his greatest gifts.” As I read this, the phrase “a lively desire” springs out at me. I ask myself what my life would look like if I had “a lively desire.”

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A particular novel helps define a “lively desire” by illustrating precisely what it is not. Flannery O’Connor’s description of Rayber in her 1960 novel, “The Violent Bear It Away,” is chilling: “He did not look at anything too long, he denied his senses unnecessary satisfactions. He slept in a narrow iron bed, worked sitting in a straight-backed chair, ate frugally, spoke little, and cultivated the dullest for friends.” Taken out of context, this depiction of Rayber could describe saintly aestheticism — giving up comforts as sacrifices to God — but Rayber is no saint. Later O’Connor continues: “It seemed to him that this indifference was the most that human dignity could achieve. … To feel nothing was peace.” To Rayber indifference, a lack of desire, is human perfection. But he could not be more wrong.

This description of Rayber makes me pause. It brings to mind the gravity of the common statement, “I do not want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed.” I am often tempted to avoid feelings of disappointment, boredom, loneliness or sorrow. When I try to avoid these feelings, good things, such as hope, fall victim. Putting up an emotional wall keeps good things out.

Rayber embodies a lack of desire. What I need is a positive example of lively desire.

Then the woman with a hemorrhage in the Gospel of Mark steps forward seeking healing. To herself she says, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured” (Mk 5:28). Jesus says her faith has saved her. He highlights her faith, but she acts with hope, too. In her desire for healing, she places her trust in Christ’s promises and relies on his strength. She acts with hope and faith.

Living with a lively desire means I have real, deep desires while placing my trust in Christ. One of Christ’s promises is fitting to my experience. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are they who mourn, / for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4). What could this comfort look like for me? If I have my way, this comfort might be a successful pregnancy, but this is not necessarily God’s way of comforting me. I should not attempt to limit God to my will.

However, my desires are important. So, how do they fit into hope? I need to share my desires with God without trying to limit his creative power. The Bible reveals two ways of prayer relevant to this dilemma. The first is to share my desires with God. In the Gospel of Mark, speaking to the blind man Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man responds, “Master, I want to see” (cf. Mk 10:51). For me this prayer could be, “Lord, I want to bear another child.” This prayer names my desire.

The second prayer is a way for me to tell God about the obstacles I face. It comes from the Blessed Mother at the wedding feast at Cana in the Gospel of John. Mary tells Jesus the problem, but does not tell him how to fix it: “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3). For me this prayer could be, “I am struggling with infertility.” This prayer names the obstacle but leaves the solution up to God.

In the space between my desire, the perceived obstacle and myself lies the opportunity to receive the gift of hope.

Imagine for a moment a landscape of mountains, valleys and rugged terrain. It might be beautiful, but to hike through it presents real risks. Now label the pieces of this image. The horizon behind the mountains is what I desire. The mountains and valleys are the obstacles to these desires. How can this horizon, this desire, be reached?

St. Josemaría Escrivá provides an answer in “Women in Social Life and in the Life of the Church.” He says: “By making Christ the center of our lives, we discover the meaning of the mission he has entrusted to us. … New horizons of hope open up in our life and we come to the point of sacrificing … our whole life, thus giving it, paradoxically, its deepest fulfillment.”

Making Christ the center of my life clears the path to the horizon by lifting up the valleys and making the mountains low. It helps me put things into perspective. The immediate obstacles and my lesser desires, whatever they may be — health, time, even pregnancy — fade into the periphery as I set my gaze on the most distant and new horizon, the promise of eternal life, Christ himself. Each day I need to fix my eyes on Christ as my new horizon of hope. My desire to bear another child is natural and good, but my hope cannot lie here. This desire may fade away. Hope cannot fade until it carries me into eternal life.

Mary’s direction to the servants at the wedding feast is meant for me, too. She says, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). It is not for me to set perimeters around love. Living a generous love in my vocation as wife and mother is an act of heroic hope because it is the way that God has asked me to know, love and serve him. As I live my vocation, to the point of sacrificing my whole life, I show my trust that God will keep his promises. This may mean that my husband and I choose to be open to life in our marriage yet may never see the desire to bear another child fulfilled, but the Holy Spirit will act in my life as I live my vocation. I have learned that hope is a lively desire for God’s greatest gifts and a detachment from my own will. Now I pray for hope and with hope.

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