Saint Anne, by Maud Lynch

“What shall find a valiant woman? Far and from the utmost bounds is her price. The heart of her husband trusteth in her and she shall render him good, not evil, all the days of her life. . . . She hath considered a field, and bought it: with the fruit of her hands she hath planted a vineyard. She hath girded her loins with power and hath strengthened her arm. She hath put out her hand to strong things and her fingers have taken hold of the spindle. She hath opened her hand to the needy and stretched out her hands to the poor. . . . Strength and beauty are her clothing. . . . She hath opened her mouth to wisdom, and the law of clemency is on her tongue. . . . Her children have risen up and called her blessed; her husband, and he hath praised her. Many daughters have gathered riches, thou hast surpassed them all.” (Proverbs 31)

When we turn to the contemplation of Saint Anne and seek to find out authentic facts and information concerning her, we, naturally, examine the Scripture to find what we are seeking, and what do we find? In the Gospels and New Testament we find almost complete silence regarding her and, indeed, very little more of Our Lady herself. It is as if, in those brief accounts, the Evangelist’s whole mind and attention was bent on giving as much detail as possible of Our Lord’s life and words and activities and had little space for anything else.

The Gospels then are silent and to what source shall we go for information and enlightenment? Most of our knowledge and information concerning the Mother of Our Lady is handed down to us from the oldest and most reliable tradition, preserved largely in ancient Apocryphal works and the writings of the early fathers of the Church, such as Saint John Damascene, Saint Ambrose of Milan, and Saint Justin Martyr. The most complete account of her is given in the Protoevangelium of Saint James, this ancient book, which commanded the greatest reverence and authority in the East, from the earliest times, and was read out on the feasts of the Blessed Virgin.

The following is the narrative contained therein:

“In Nazareth there lived a rich and pious couple, Joachim and Anne. They were childless. When, on a feast day, Joachim presented himself to offer sacrifice in the temple, he was repulsed by a certain Ruben, under the pretext that men without offspring were unworthy to be admitted. Whereupon Joachim, bowed down with grief, did not return home, but went into the mountains to make his pleading with God, in solitude. Also, Anne, having learned the reason of the prolonged absence of her husband, cried to the Lord to take away from her the curse of sterility, promising to dedicate her child to the service of God. Their prayers were heard – an angel came to Anne and said: ‘Anne, the Lord has looked upon thy tears, thou shalt conceive and give birth and the fruit of thy womb shall be blessed by the whole world.’ The angel made the same promise to Joachim, who returned home to his wife. Anne gave birth to a daughter, whom she called Miriam (Mary).”

From this and other slight accounts we must build up the story of Saint Anne’s life. We can fill in the gaps, where the traditional narrative skitch leaves off, and deduce inevitable results, by the nature of her unique and exalted position as the Mother of the Mother of God and grandparent of Jesus, according to the flesh.

God, Who gave His Beloved Son into the care of Mary, gave Mary into the care of Saint Anne. What a glory, what a privilege for Saint Anne! Every mother is blessed when she brings forth a daughter, but Mary was not like other children, stained with original sin, she was the pure and spotless lily, beautiful and glorious, untainted, even in her mother’s womb, by the faintest stain, as was fitting for her, from whom would be born the Lamb of God, the God-man – Lord of the world.

Saint Anne was decreed by God to bring forth that spotless virgin, to watch over her, to guide her infant steps, to teach and educate her, to imbue her with every virtue by world and example and prepare her for the exalted part that God had chosen for her alone out of the vast universe, to be His Mother.

Mary’s virtue was not alone a miraculous privilege, it was also a deliberate act of voluntary sanctification, whereby, from her earliest youth, she consecrated herself by vow, to virginity and chastity.

Surely, in all this, Anne had her share. Anne gave to the world the Mother of Mercy, to plead for ever for poor mankind at the throne of Him, Who is the Way and the Life. Saint Ambrose, talking of Our Lady, says: “What more noble than the Mother of God! She was a virgin in body and mind, whose candour was incapable of deceit or disguise, humble in heart, grave in words, wise in her resolutions. She wrote seldom and little, read assiduously. Bring always employed with fervour, she would have no witness of her heart but God alone. She injured no one, was beneficent to all, honoured her superiors, envied not equals, shunned vain glory, followed reason and ardently loved virtue. Her looks were sweet, her discourse mild, her behaviour modest. Her actions had nothing unbecoming, her gait nothing of levity. Her exterior was so well regulated that in her body was seen a picture of her mind and an accomplished model of all virtues. Her charities knew no bounds, temperate in her diet, she prolonged her fasts several days and the most ordinary meats were her choice, not to least the taste, but to support nature. It was not her custom to go out of doors, except to the house of prayer and this, always in the company of her relations.

And Anne was the Mother of this child of perfection. Surely, then, she must, herself, have been imbued with those virtues in a marked degree. The Wisdom of God chose her as Our Lady’s Mother. We, then, must hold such a mother in the highest honour and veneration. No history of detailed accounts of Anne’s life can give us more idea of her holiness and sanctity, than this mere fact of the motherhood and parenthood of such a daughter. If she was so holy, before Mary’s conception, as to be thought worthy to be chosen by God to bring forth that child, how much more must God have strengthened and enriched her in virtue, to carry out the lofty duties of that parenthood? How Anne must have been sanctified by daily intercourse with the “Queen of Angels” and how enriched with wisdom, in the intimate union with her who is the “Seat of Wisdom” and “Queen of all Saints.”

* * *

At Sephoris, a town in Galilee, three miles north of Bethlehem, there dwelt a pious and respected couple – Joachim and Anne. Tradition asserts that they were born and lived there for some years. Under the reign of the Emperor Constantine a church was erected in that place, to commemorate their birthplace, and the Crusaders also built a church there, not far from Mount Carmel.

After some years they moved to Nazareth, a city in the same province, some time prior to the birth of Our Lord and, in Nazareth, they spent most of their lives – Nazareth, that hallowed spot that witnessed the conception and birth of Mary and the Incarnation of the Redeemer and His Life there, during thirty years. Nazareth, a little village, beautifully and picturesquely pendant on a rocky slope, surrounded on all sides by hills, hidden away in seclusion and obscurity, as were the lives of Our Lord and Our Lady, who dwelt there, but whose memory lifted it, for ever, unto undying fame and imperishable Christian veneration.

It was surrounded by fair and smiling fertility, ripe corn-fields, vineyards, fruit and palm trees. There lived the holy couple – Joachim and Anne, there, according to valuable tradition, was Mary born and there was Jesus conceived and man’s redemption begun. Oh, sacred, holy village! Oh, sweet and hallowed spot!

Anne and Joachim do not appear to have been poor, for Joachim was said to have been of some substance. He was of the royal house of David, and she a descendant of the priestly tribe of Aaron. They were, however, of lowly rank of the people, and dwelt in a little hillside house hollowed from the rock, with an inside chamber, and here we can see Blessed Anne presiding over her little household, busily and thriftily engaged with her daily cares and duties, meriting the commendation of the inspired writers: “She has sought wool and flax and hath wrought by the counsel of her hands. She hath put out her hands to strong things and her fingers have taken hold of the spindle. She hath looked well to the paths of her house and hath not eaten her bread idle.”

It was a humble home, a poor man’s house, but it held within its walls a rich abundance of trust and love and fidelity and a happiness that no earthly wealth can purchase. Anne worked and busied herself with faithful industry at her daily tasks. She spun and made the household clothes and linen and took her share in the world of the field, in sowing and reaping. In the time of harvest, she did not disdain to use the sickle and to bind and reap, as did all the women and children, at that time. We can see her, at her daily tasks, drawing the water from the fountain, where the olive and palms trees grew. Thither daily towards evening, came the maids and matrons to fill their tall pitchers and discuss the news of the day, for it was the great rendezvous of the village. We can see Saint Anne conspicuous among those other Hebrew women, famous for their beauty of face and figure, for she must have already borne in her appearance the future dignity and distinction of the mother of the most beautiful of women, the mother of the God-man. Then, in the evening, she helped her husband to grind the corn in their primitive little hand-mill and made the flour into cakes and later busied herself with her spindle, while she lovingly talked with her husband, as he dried his fruits or repaired his tools.

On free days we can picture them visiting their friends and relations in the village and the neighbouring towns of Cana and Naim, those towns which were to be consecrated later by those wonderful miracles of Mary’s Son, as He turned water into wine at her request; and Naim, where He met the funeral procession of the widow’s only son and have him back to his mother, immortalizing the little insignificant village for all time. Or they would climb the neighbouring hill and gaze forth on Carmel by the sea, or northward to Thabor’s heights, where Our Saviour would later be transfigured, where His face would shine as the sun and His garments become white as snow.

And this woman of the people, gazing with loving thoughts at this holy mountain, thinking only of its glory in the past, is to become the mother of the Virgin Queen, from whom will be born the Sun of all glory and Who will be proclaimed, for all time, the Son of the Eternal Father.

On these occasions we can see Saint Anne, a matron of dignified and queenly appearance, dressed in the style of the period, a pad resting on the head, as was then worn, trimmed with gold, or silver coins falling on the forehead. Over this was draped a long and flowing veil, which fell over the back and shoulders, almost to the feet. Beneath was a long gown, girdled at the waist with full and pointed sleeves and embroidered like the veil, in coloured silk. Sometimes a bright coloured jacket was added, stretching to the knees.

* * *

Yet in this happy, pious home of peace and love and mutual trust there was one dark shadow, one heavy cross, borne however with humility and resignation to the will of God – Anne and Joachim were childless, though well advanced in years. Tradition tells us that after twenty years of married life God had not blessed their union with offspring. Now this is at all times a severe and terrible trial, for all good spouses yearn for the fruits of Christian marriage, to bear children to be incorporated into the mystical body of Christ and, in a human way, to be the joy and comfort of their years. Sterility carries also, at all times, a certain reproach, but at the time of Anne and Joachim this was much more real and serious. Sterility had always been looked upon by the women of the Old Law, as a kind of curse, a punishment from heaven, a judgment of God on account of sin. Motherhood they regarded as a blessing and a promise, which God had long before given to Abraham, that He would send the Messiah, Who would be born of his seed to redeem the world. The prophecy further foretold that the Messiah would spring from the house of David and the root of Jesse. Anne and Joachim were of the Royal house of David and thus their heart-burnings were all the more painful and acute. Twenty years of childless marriage, to be longing for children, from whom the Messiah might be born and to have none; to be looked on with reproach and contempt by the Jewish men and matrons, more fortunate than herself; this was indeed a bitter trial, a heavy cross, but borne by both of them with perfect, trusting resignation and humility. Joachim, according to the law of the time, was legally entitled to put away his spouse, for this grave reason, but loving Anne dearly and sympathizing with her in her trial he imputed no reproach or blame to her, but prayed with her to God to remove the curse of sterility from them and send them a child to bless their union, even though, at this late hour of their marriage, it amounted almost ot a miracle. God heard their prayers and gave them a daughter, Mary, a precious deposit from God’s hands, which Anne must tend and care to be the mother of His Divine Son, the Saviour of the world. Anne must be the parent, the daily and hourly instructress and guide and confidant of that precious soul, conceived without stain, confirmed in grace, and filled with the Holy Ghost, from her conception. What then does this, reasonably, suppose in Anne? Is it not reasonable, even inevitable to presume that God endowed such a mother with signal virtues and graces to fit her for such a position. She was preparing a temple not for man, but for God. Anne gave her substance, her flesh and blood to construct that temple in which would later dwell the Eternal Wisdom, the Lamb without spot. She must then ornament this sanctuary with every care of watchful, holy education. We may be certain Mary obeyed and loved her mother, Anne, as Jesus, her own Son, obeyed and loved and was subject to her, in His own home, in Nazareth. So we must agree, indeed, that, after the mother of God herself, there is no more privileged person, no more exalted creature than Mary’s mother, Saint Anne.

When her daughter was born, Anne gave her the name Miriam, or Mary, which means sovereign mistress and star of the sea. Anne’s own name means grace, precious – full of grace, indeed, and precious vessel for the holding of the life, and the enfolding of that priceless treasure, who was to be the instrument of the Incarnation and Redemption. Let us then say, with Saint John Damascene: “Blessed art thou, and thrice blessed, who hath begotten Mary, from whom Christ was born. We rejoice with thee, O most blessed lady, for thou hast become the mother of the child of promise, the fulfillment of our hope. Thou art truly blessed and blessed is the fruit of they womb. Fitting is it, indeed, to praise her to whom it was given to bring forth that benign Virgin, from who Sweet Jesus came.”

* * *

In due course, after eight day, Anne presented her child to the temple, offering her gift of two turtle doves, as the law prescribed. She laid the holy babe at the feet of the Most High and solemnly promised to bring her daughter again to the temple and consecrate her to the service of God. Joachim ratified her holy vow, and returning home they took up the duties of their sacred trust and surrounded their beloved child with wise and loving care, during every moment of her childhood and girlhood. We can easily imagine what wisdom and sanctity shone forth in Mary even from her earlier years, in her who was born without stain. The early Fathers of the Church have written much on this subject. Anne then, who was her constant companion, had to minister to that precocious wisdom and piety and foster and nourish it by precept and example. What a mother she must have been! How specially endowed by God to qualify her to be the instructor and mentor of such a child, and to meet the mental requirements in one in whom reason must have shone forth, so eminently, at such an early age!

We can, then, picture that happy home at Nazareth – Joachim, Anne and Mary – second only to that of the Holy Family itself. The loving parents, whose faith and trust carried them through their tragedy of childlessness and gave them Mary, the fruit of their loving tears and prayers. How they must have loved her, how tenderly watched over her and guarded her baby footsteps, through the days of babyhood and childhood, until girlhood was reached. And Mary, what a child! Can we not picture her, the smiling baby, the loving child. What an example for all children, for all daughters? We can well imagine how she loved her parents, how she sought to please them and obey their every wish, and, as she grew to girlhood, how she strove to help them, to show them every thoughtfulness and consideration, to be a comfort to them always. Thus the holy, happy days slip by and the time for the fulfillment of Anne’s vows draws near. Then one day they prepare to depart for Jerusalem, for the temple, where Mary is to take up residence among the young virgins, to be brought up in the shadow of the altar. The temple of Sion, at Jerusalem, was the second temple, not the original gorgeous edifice built by Solomon and destroyed by Nebuchodonosor, five hundred years before, and restored by Lorobabel, a few years later. It was a magnificent edifice of the rarest beauty, built on a platform of six hundred feet square, on Mount Moria’s heights. Here then Mary and her parents enter into the Court of the Women and the priest (probably Anne’s nephew-in-law, Elizabeth’s husband, Zachary, who was one of the priests about that time and whose old age, like Joachim’s, was rewarded by a child of promise, the prophet and precursor of Our Lord) came down, and received the sacred deposit of their daughter, from the holy couple. We can see with what tearful tenderness they embrace their child and take leave of her, resigning her willingly, into the hands of the Most High, to serve Him at His very altar. They make the sacrifice joyfully, gladly, but being human, too, they must feel the separation, the bitter loneliness, as they turn their backs of Jerusalem and wend their weary way back to Nazareth, to that little house, desolate and lonely once more, deprived of the sunshine of Mary’s presence. But their thoughts and hears are united with their child, and how longingly Anne’s time will be occupied in making Mary’s clothes and preparing gifts to present to her on each visit that they will make to her. This, they frequently do, and many a long and tiring journey is undertaken to visit their beloved daughter. We can see Anne and Joachim on these occasions – the Blessed Virgin comes down to the Court of the Women, where her parents have come to pray and visit her. What a joyful meeting! What a glad re-union! How their prayers ascend, like incense from these three holy hearts to the Throne of God! And then the parting once more, with hope and courage renewed by the sight of their beloved child.

* * *

Anne and Joachim are now growing old in years and less active. They find the frequent journey from Nazareth beyond their strength, and, according to tradition, they moved to Jerusalem to be near their child, and took up residence in a little house quite near the Pool of Bethsaida, where the Church of Saint Anne was later erected to mark the spot. Anne could now visit the temple, close by, more frequently, and see her child; and Mary, very probably, was often allowed to visit her parents. We can picture those visit of the Blessed Virgin to her home, how she would relate to her mother all the details of her life at the Temple, with all its various duties, secular and religious. And Anne, on her part, would have much to tell her daughter, much loving help and advice to give her in all her difficulties. What happiness these visit must have been to both, and how they must have looked forward to them.

This the years slipped by. Tradition tells us that when Our Lady was about twelve years old her father, Joachim, was stricken with his last illness. What grief for Saint Anne to see that beloved spouse about to depart from her side, he who had been the prop and support of her life, who had treated her ever with such loving care and sympathy, and consideration. With what loving care she nursed and tended him in his last illness. As death draws near Our Lady is summoned from the Temple, close by, and hastens to his bedside to take leave of her dear father and receive his last blessing. We can picture the scene – Joachim resigned and trustful, heart and eyes uplifted to heaven, in joyful union with the divine Will, saddened only at the thought of leaving his dear spouse and loving child, deprived of his faithful support and guardianship; Mary and Anne stand on either side of his death-bed, joining their prayers with his to the end. How it reminds us of that other perfect death-bed, of Saint Joseph, in the arms of Jesus, with Mary at his side.

* * *

Thus Joachim passes away and leaves a lonely and saddened widow and an orphaned daughter to mourn him deeply and sincerely. But Anne’s time of mourning is hardly ended, when she too falls seriously ill. Knowing she has not long to live, she sends for Zachary, the husband of her niece Elizabeth, and hands her child over to his guardianship, knowing she will be perfectly safe in his priestly care.

Mary comes frequently to visit her mother in her last illness. We can imagine those visits. What consolation to the dying mother to have her last hours gladdened and sweetened by the presence of her dear child. How Mary consoled and cheered and soothed her mother with loving converse and inspired her with courage, hope and consolation.

Then, one evening, she comes for the last time, Anne is dying, the end is near. Mary and her relatives kneel round the bed and join in prayers for the departing soul and Anne, with a last effort of her fast-failing strength, raises herself up to impart her last fond blessing to her beloved child and then, in a last fond embrace, she passes away and Mary lays her gently down.

What grief for that loving daughter, now left orphaned, at such a tender age; what tears of sorrow did she shed, as she already entered on her Via Dolorosa.

All good children love their parents and grieve at their death, and the holier they are the greater their love. The love of the heart is not stifled by being dedicated to God; on the contrary, it is thereby purified and strengthened and thus rendered more delicate and more energetic. “When the heart is pure,” said the Curé of Ars, “it cannot help loving, because it has rediscovered the source of love, which is God.”

Mary, then, that perfect soul, loved her mother with a two-fold love, a perfect love, and her grief at parting was intense, but she was comforted with the thought that she had ever been a loving daughter, her mother’s unfailing joy and comfort. May all our partings be sanctified by Mary’s, and attended by the same consolation.

Mary followed her holy mother to her grave, accompanied by her relatives, who did their best to cheer and console her. Some say Anne with buried quite close to the Temple, on the northern side, and there is, today, a crypt to mark the spot. Others, however, maintain that Joachim and Anne were laid to rest in the Valley of Cedron, outside the city gates. Here in this valley there is the chapel of Virgin’s tomb and within the precincts of this chapel there is a smaller chapel, wherein is the tomb which contain the bodies of Our Lady’s parents. It may be that the Crusaders, in their time, transferred the bodies of Joachim and Anne from the crypt, near the Temple, to the spot close to the tomb of Mary and Joseph.

The procession wended its way to the place of burial, amidst the canticles of the priest and mourners. The sepulchre is opened and Anne’s body placed within. Mary takes a last fond adieu, the tomb is closed, and all withdraw. Joachim, of the Royal House of David, and Anne, of the priestly line of Aaron, parents of the Virgin Queen of Heaven, are laid to rest in death’s long peaceful sleep. Mary and her beloved parents are separated, but for a time only; they will meet again before God’s holy throne, when their daughter Mary will be crowned Queen of Heaven, and Jesus, the Redeemer of mankind, sitting on the right hand of the Father, will proclaim Anne his holy grandparent, according to the flesh.