Sarah and Hannah knew that pain. In a culture that valued children for carrying on the husband's lineage and reputation, not being able to have children was an incredible pain and shame. Sarah and Hannah probably both cried themselves to sleep at night, wondering, "What's wrong with me?"
Sarah was old by the time the promise of offspring was given to her. "Too little, too late!" She probably snorted out in a teary huff. "What kind of sick joke is this?"
Hannah was tormented by her husband's other wife. "Look at my children, they shall inherit your husband's name and fortune!" Hannah was deeply loved by Elkanah her husband. He would give her a double serving of the offering because he loved her.
For cultures that placed a high premium on offspring, imagine the tears that would flow for being loved deeply by a husband even if the wife were unable to have children. "What good am I at all? Why would you love me?"
We often put our worth in terms of our usefulness. I'm worthwhile because I am a devoted husband / a caring father / a brilliant writer / a great something. We have to bear some kind of fruit in order to be worth anything, so we think.
While our culture doesn't focus as much on having children, it does see singleness as an incredible problem. Can you be truly happy as a single person? Our culture would assume that you would be having meaningless, random sex or be crying at home, longing for someone to hold you, tubs of Ben and Jerry's ice cream on the coffee table. To be single has become a sign that you are a failure.
For me, it's been tough facing the real possibility of living a life of celibacy, without the intimacy of marriage. Admittedly, I'm not old yet, and, if I am accepted as a postulant for the priesthood, then I am not bound by vows of celibacy (though I must be chaste until marriage), but it's still very possible that I won't find someone 'special' to share my life with. Being gay and finding someone is tough, and now add in the fact that religion is an extraordinarily important part of my life, and the odds seem to get slimmer.
You can be told that you're wonderful, kind, sweet, all those things, but does it mean much if you're still single? As in there is some deep-rooted flaw that keeps me from being loved in that way, something that keeps me from being seen as a friend AND a lover. It takes a lot of trust to even believe that maybe, just maybe, in a different situation maybe you'll find the right person. Maybe.
But that trust can't hinge upon a delayed happiness. I can't just accept that I'll be unhappy until, as in romantic comedies, the right guy just walks in, our eyes lock, and we have a series of comic mishaps until marriage. That leaves me miserable today, and tomorrow, and every day until that magic event happens.
But to be truly happy today as a single human is odd. To be happy as a single person means facing the fact that happiness comes in many forms and that singleness is not necessarily loneliness. Christian saints through the centuries have shown themselves to be single and happy, and no one would call the Dalai Lama a "lonely old man"!
But now it comes to the next problem: what's the meaning of a single life? By having children or at least a partner, there's this sense of fruitfulness. A life has been made or a life has been enriched with love through partnership. But a single person?
That's where I start to feel sad. Will my life be barren if it doesn't have sexual and emotional intimacy as in marriage?
The answer is definitely no.
My life already has been fruitful in some of the relationships and friendships I've had. In some small measure I have made a positive impact in some lives already; that's definitely fruitful! By God's grace some of the things I have done will have continue long after me in some way, much as the works of my ancestors (both my ancestors in the family and my ancestors in the faith) continue to resound today even if the saint responsible is unknown.
The Society of St John the Evangelist uses the language of 'co-creating' with God. From their chapter on Celibate Life:
I may not be completely responsible for the work done (God is doing most of the work in helping, guiding, sustaining others), but I have my part. A small part, a big part, whatever part God gives me.
Each of us will pass through different phases in our lives of celibate chastity. At times we will be glad of our inner solitude, which fosters prayer, and the diversity of relationships we enjoy in community and with friends; at other times we will feel loneliness. While others are enjoying the consolations of community life, some brothers may be missing the solace of partnership, the joys of sex and the satisfaction of having a home of their own. There will be seasons of contentment in our singleness; there may be days of testing and confusion if we fall in love, or become strongly attracted to another.
Struggles will come at different stages as we break through to new levels of integration; the challenges faced by young religious will not be the same as those that come with the onset of middle age. Old age may bring its own trials of doubt. Only if we share these different experiences in candor and trust can we offer one another genuine support.
At times many of us will miss having fathered children. We shall need to open the poignancy of this loss to Christ in prayer. He will show us that in union with him our lives have been far from barren. As we nurture others in Christ, and bring them to maturity, we shall discover that fatherhood has found expression in our lives. In prayer, meditation, our thought, our work and our friendships, we are called to fulfill our deep human urge to be creators with God of new life, and to bear fruit that lasts.
And God is with me every step of the way. He who knows my heart, my every emotion, who loves me more purely and thoroughly than anyone else could ever. He knows my pains and every longing sigh. Nothing is hidden from him.
Though I may be single, God can make wonderful things spring forth from me. How wonderful and amazing! How glorious is our God!