Marriage Preparation: An Experience of Being Theological

Joanna Bogle FAITH Magazine March-April 2009

Invited to give talks to young couples preparing for marriage, it was easy enough to know what to avoid. "Marriage Preparation" is one of those topics like "School Masses" where you expect to hear some horror-stories. I had had plenty of reports, over the years, from intelligent young couples whose sense of humour and commitment to good manners had been sorely tested by the vacuities thrown at them on these occasions.

One couple - he a Catholic, she a German Lutheran, both of average intelligence and holding responsible jobs and in their middle 30s - had had to endure a game in which they were told to take an object out of a box and "say what it meant to them". (He had drawn out a teabag). Another couple found themselves wriggling with embarrassment as older team members spoke sentimentally about the joys of matrimony, with coy hints about the delights of its intimacies.

Almost all these couples whom I had encountered were serious about marriage preparation, genuinely concerned to put thought, prayer and effort into the approach to this great sacrament. Most were "mixed marriages", a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic, and in virtually every case the non-Catholic was open to and interested in the Catholic Church's message on marriage, expecting something large and inspiring - and was disappointed.

Easy enough, then, to recognise what to avoid. And the priest who had invited me to participate in the programme of talks was fairly specific. There would be, in the course of an organised programme of talks, separate sessions on various matters ranging from the liturgy of the Nuptial Mass to the message of Humanae Vitae and knowledge of NFR My task was simply to speak as a Catholic married woman about the reality of the Church's teaching, with the thought that this could include such things as the importance of prayer and Sunday Mass, creating a Christian home together, facing the events of life together, and so on. It should also include clear references to the value of confession, the need to understand the nature of the Church's understanding of marriage as a lifelong bond - and somereferences as to why cohabitation before marriage was not the right way to start.

From the beginning, I knew that I wouldn't do the "sharing my own story" thing that many (probably most?) young people find both uncomfortable and boring. Such testimonies are rarely applicable to most listeners and rarely convincing. We can hardly be expected to reveal the full truth about our family lives - quarrels and money worries and muddles and worse. And jolly stories about the joys and absurdities, tender moments and sad ones, etc etc, easily crowd out clear teaching and turn the thing into a soap opera. Also: why tempt Satan into thinking that here would be a delightful opportunity to encourage preening and boasting, followed by some hideous public humiliation and divorce? No, thanks.

So I started by just sticking to the basics. I used the words of the Nuptial Mass, and the sections on Marriage, Prayer, and the Eucharist from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as my initial study-guide. I read up relevant Papal encyclicals and a range of Catholic writing on marriage. And I found myself

drawing from long-stored mental material on marriage: well-observed human realities noted by Jane Austen, things said by my parents and grandparents, commonsense spoken by elderly people (as a reporter on local newspapers, it was my job - for years - to interview Golden Wedding couples: one often got unexpected wisdom).

One can be amusing, genuine, honest and even mildly entertaining without slithering into bogus showing-off. There are great depths of wisdom in the centuries of Christian teaching on this subject- and most especially in the distillation given by Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. You can introduce a sufficiency of personal insights and anecdotes to ensure that the thing doesn't resemble either a sermon (which no one wants from a laywoman) or a hearty evangelistic rallying-call.

But what I hadn't expected was that I would find the process so deepening - so demanding in its insistence that I really study this whole matter of matrimony in depth, so, well, theological.

The Great Marriage

I found myself meditating on the idea of matrimony as linked not just to Christ and his Church, but to the essence of the whole Christian mystery: the Word made flesh.

Initially, I was simply struck by the way in which, in the marriage liturgy, we are reminded that the union between a man and his bride is like that of Christ and his Church. I hadn't noticed the order before - that Christ and his Church came first.

There was already a great Marriage, a union planned in the mind and heart of God, before human beings were even created. It's not that we begin things ourselves - a boy and girl standing before the altar - but rather than we unite ourselves with this much bigger reality which has already taken place, is already taking place: Christ and his Bride, the Church. The male/female imagery is no mere poetry, something nice to be said at weddings because Scripture provides us with some pleasant words to fit in with the flowers and pretty dresses and general sense of agreeable festivity. It's actually a statement of truth. For Catholics, this whole male/female business is terribly important - crucial, central to the way we see things. Marriage matters. It's not just a convenient arrangement, aremedy for concupiscence. It's a sacrament which images God and his Church. It's a human reality living out a Divine plan. And at the end of all things, when we meet God face to face, we'll see the fullness of all this is the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb in Heaven.

Now, when I had discovered all this I thought I had hit upon a great mystery (doesn't St Paul say much the same?), and I got very excited and talked about it all to my husband at supper and he looked up languidly and said yes, of course, stupid, we all know that anyway, it's all there in the teaching of the Church, he'd read about it years before, typical that I'd only just discovered it, did I have any other brain-shattering wisdom to impart? And of course he had a point. But there's more.

The Incarnation didn't happen silently. It was the Word, spoken to Mary at Nazareth, and eliciting a verbal response from her, that was central to the Incarnation. I don't believe that Mary sensed a silent voice within her, or had a mysterious feeling of an angelic presence. I believe that it was exactly as the Gospel of St Luke describes it: it was verbal, she was literally startled by the voice of an angel.

The words of the salutation were certainly startling - Mary was hailed as "full of grace" - and the news they conveyed more startling yet. Mary was to be the mother of the world's saviour and redeemer.

And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us - initially, in Mary's womb, and later in a manger in Bethlehem.

In the Mass, we have the spoken word, which is made flesh - and Christ is present on the altar. In marriage, too, we have the word - actual, crucial, verbal, spoken words, the marriage vows - that will become flesh. Through these words, we provide the proper, accepting, committed context in which a child can come and dwell and grow among us.

The Confusion About Sex

The problem today is that we've lost all this. Marriage is denigrated. Instead of word becoming flesh, we have the uniting of bodies followed - sometimes - by some words of promise. Wrong way round.

It was after thinking all this through that I began to realise how deficient some older marriage-manuals were - those produced in the early part of the 20th century, for instance, which while denouncing contraception and urging chastity, saw all this in prescriptive terms and essentially as a series of rules. I came to grasp how extraordinarily different, as well as differently-presented, was the approach taken by Pope John Paul, and to recognise the truth blurted out, on a TV programme recalling his life, by a Polish woman of his generation who first encountered his teaching as a young woman in his diocese of Krakow in the 1960s. "No one had ever written about sex in this way in the Catholic Church in Poland before!"

Because of recent abandonment of Catholic teaching on sex, love, marriage, and fruitfulness on a huge scale, the reality of the Church's message is seen, even today, 40 years after the massive dissent from Humanae Vitae was first vocalised, as being something bleak. For this reason, it is often simply not taught at all, and of course there are those who seek to water it down or rob it of all authority. Among others, it is too often still taught in a prescriptive way. Pioneering work in promoting Natural Family Planning, or fertility awareness as many now prefer to call it, has started to change this - I've learned a great deal from the excellent presentations I have seen on this subject, and the human and dignified way in which it speaks of man and woman - but we still have along way to go.

Because most of the young couples arriving for a marriage preparation talk are already living together- "living in sin" as it used to be called - it really is very difficult for them to grasp much of the Church's message all at once. Their minds are clouded (darkened?) and they are muddled and confused. Sometimes they almost demand a prescriptive tone so that they can shout against it. Sometimes they simply want to express their own sense of hurt and frustration about the break-up of their parents' marriages, and seek some sort of instant formula for ensuring that they can make a better go of things. Almost invariably, they are bringing to their own marriage a whole complicated package of previous sexual relationships, confusion, contraception, and dishonesty as well as hopes, fears,wishes,

and (unknown to them) the awesome God-given possibilities associated with their baptism and the power of Christ.

Prescriptive messages do not work: honest theology can. So can prayer, solidarity, and a sense of hope.

It isn't daft to recommend confession to engaged couples -one of the questions most often asked is "Should you tell your spouse about all your previous relationships?" to which the only sane answer is "Not necessarily. There may be some things we need to tell, but is it right to burden a spouse with detailed knowledge to which he or she has no real right and which can serve no purpose? But we must tell it all to God, through the ministry of the Church, and this is what the Sacrament of Penance is all about." (Talk about confession should incidentally in my view usually be done as a "we" and not as a "you". By ensuring that it is clear that this is a Sacrament of which the speaker makes personal use, it can be approached on a real level).

It isn't daft to suggest that they read through the words of the Nuptial Blessing - and indeed the whole of the marriage service - together. It isn't daft to suggest praying together, visiting the church where the wedding is to take place and perhaps finding some special meaning in the life of the saint to whom it is dedicated, going to Mass together, talking about the things of God together. It isn't impossible to suggest that the decision to marry is one that should be rooted in prayer, or that as we pray we may find God making suggestions to us about a change of lifestyle. It isn't lunatic to hope that when given interesting information, young people may talk about it and think about it.

Finally: it has been my experience that in discussing marriage at this fairly deep level, and relating this to the practicalities of married life, sessions really can actually result in precisely the sort of genuine communication to which the trendier "look-in-the-box-and-find-a-teabag" version aspires. This is especially the case when they have had several sessions, including real teaching - from a priest - about some basics on God, prayer, the Church, and the Sacraments. In discussion, we don't get lots of personal fluff and stories. We do get some genuine questions - especially about confession (sometimes rather moving-along the lines of " a person...urn...hadn't been to confession for....urn...years and it going to be difficult?"). We do get thoughtful privatecomments when the session has ended. And we do get a sense that the whole room has engaged in a subject of real importance - something for which it was worth giving up time, something that respects the minds and intelligences of the young people gathered there.

What has been worrying is that it has all challenged this writer beyond her expectations. I thought I was just talking about marriage, from the perspective of one who's reached the Silver Wedding stage and is committed to the full stretch. I found instead that I had opened a book and discovered a whole library. I now want to know more. If all that about matrimony and Christ and the Bride is at the heart of it all, and is relevant to our understanding of the Eucharist, then it's all obviously bound up with our understanding of a great deal more. I want to know about that "more". I want to study further.

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