The Value of Marriage: Tobias and Sarah (Tobit 8: 4 – 8)

As part of the preparation for the next phase of the Synod on Marriage and Family, the bishops left Rome after the first phase last October, with the instruction to hear more from their people about their actual experience of family and marriage. In the UK, the bishops of England and Wales have chosen to do this, with a three – pronged strategy: a program to be administered within parishes, based on a series of (possible) bible reflections, with questions on each for personal reflection and sharing; a questionnaire for parish priests, on their assessment of their own parishes; and a further questionnaire, for individual Catholics to complete themselves,

In my local parish, earlier this week I  participated in our contribution to this process. The material provided by the English bishops includes some background material, and some proposed bible passages, for praying over in lectio divina, complemented by some questions proposed by the bishops.The passage we chose to reflect on in my group was from the book of Tobit, in which Tobias and Sarah pray together about their marriage.

Overall, I thought it a useful exercise, which could lend itself to adoption by local Quest regions – but make sure that there is provision for the outcome of such reflections to be recorded, and sent back to the bishops. At a parish level this was done by our parish priest. For Quest regions, it would be helpful to have those outcomes summarized and submitted to the bishops, by a local chaplain – where such exists. In my own case, I very explicitly gave from responses from my perspective as a gay Catholic – and was encouraged to see my parish priest making careful notes of my contribution (as of others), so that my thoughts will form part of his submission to the process.

.The text, the bishops’ questions for reflection, and my responses follow, together with this link to the bishops’ consultation document.

The lectio divina process begins by reading the selected scripture passage, reflecting on it, and noting the specific word or phrase in the text which specifically speaks to us, in that moment of prayer.

The passage, from Tobit  8: 4 – 8:

When Sarah’s parents left the bedroom and closed the door behind them, Tobiah rose from bed and said to his wife, “My sister, come, let us pray and beg our Lord to grant us mercy and protection.” She got up, and they started to pray and beg that they might be protected. He began with these words:

“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors;
    blessed be your name forever and ever!
Let the heavens and all your creation bless you forever.
You made Adam, and you made his wife Eve
    to be his helper and support;
    and from these two the human race has come.
You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
    let us make him a helper like himself.’
Now, not with lust,
    but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife.
Send down your mercy on me and on her,
    ‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
    let us make him a helper like himself.’

Bless us with children.”

They said together, “Amen, amen!”

So, what was the specific phrase or sentence that spoke to me, directly? That was these words, directly repeating similar words in Genesis 2:

‘It is not good for the man to be alone;
    let us make him a helper like himself.’

Another member of our group chose these words, which also resonated with me:

and grant that we may grow old together.

The questions for reflection:

(In practice, our group considered only the first group. For reflection by Quest or any lgbt group, the second group could be even more useful):

  • How might Sarah and Tobias have felt on their wedding night, knowing Sarah’s history?
  • How do you think Sarah’s parents felt leaving their daughter in the bridal chamber again? Can you describe a time when you felt something similar?
  • What does it mean to walk in trust with the Lord?
  • When have you and/or your family had an experience of God’s mercy?
  • What part does prayer play in your daily life?
  • How has prayer helped you and/or your family?

The key questions to draw the conversation together might be:

  • How does this story ‘speak’ to us about our ‘call’ to be a family?
  • How does it speak to our ‘journey’?
  • How does it speak to us about our ‘purpose’ or ‘mission’ as a family?
  • What support do we need from the Church?
  • What is already available? What needs to be developed?
  • From our family life experience, what do we offer that could enrich the life of the Church?

My response:

Initially, I found it difficult to connect the questions to the text. The breakthrough for me, came when I considered the biblical words, and the bishops’ questions, simultaneously. I then shared on the two passages that particularly spoke to me, why they did so, and what that meant in terms of the questions.

I noted first, how I agreed very strongly, that “it is not good for man to be alone”, and how I valued over many years having a “helper” to share in the daily tasks and routines, in the joys of family celebrations (such as my daughters’ weddings), and for support in times of trial – career difficulties, and family bereavements. ( I did not share publicly, but noted privately, that the text refers to a helper “like himself”. Is this an endorsement of same – sex partners?). I also noted that in my experience, the joy and support of having just such a life – partner and “helper” had come from a same – sex partner.

Moving on to the questions posed, I noted first that this delight and support from a same – sex partner had put me into direct conflict with Church teaching, and had for years  been an obstacle preventing my return to any participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The breakthrough, for me, had come with the words once spoken to me by a Jesuit priest that brought me back into the Church, and active parish life: “walk in trust with the Lord”. When I had asked him about an approach to resolving the apparent conflict between my loving partnership with a man, and conventional Church teaching, he advised me not to anticipate anything, but to “put my trust in the Lord”. I had taken that advice, placing my trust in God, rather than the Vatican rules, and had never looked back since.

Thinking also of the last three questions, and in particular of the two concerning prayer, I shared further on my experience of taking to prayer this question of reconciling the truth of my sexual identity and what God expects of me. I told how, even after an early conviction that the apparent conflict does not in fact exist, I had regularly taken up the issue again, in prayer, The last occasion that I did this  was during a six day silent, directed Ignatian retreat in which the question was a major focus of the retreat. The outcome, I shared last night in the group, was an experience of such spiritual intensity, described by both my retreat director and later by my regular spiritual director as “a genuine mystical experience”, left me so completely reassured that I have never again been in any serious doubt. To accept and embrace my God – given sexual and affectional orientation is no more than a simple acceptance of truth – and so cannot be in conflict with God’s desire – no matter what Vatican theorist might want to say about it.