A model for marriage

St. Luke in his Gospel gives us two insights into the hidden life of the Holy Family that no doubt most families would like to emulate. “And as the child grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was with him.” (Luke 2:40) and “He went down with them…and was obedient to them…. And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:51–52). Sadly the truth of our own childhood, even when we have only good memories of that time, is very often one of judging our parents, either consciously or subconsciously, for criticising us, disciplining us, not affirming us or not being there for us, and mostly we do not recall this as adults today. Maybe others have all too vivid memories of real cruelty by physical or sexual abuse from our parents, and feel we might well have good cause for judging them for our tormented and lost childhood. In either way, as Christians we are called not to judge, but to honour our parents. However in judging we reap the rewards of these judgments, and are wounded and damaged in consequence.

It is widely accepted that problems in marriage are mostly due to the “baggage” brought into the relationship from outside, and that this is mostly from the wounds received in the childhood of the spouses. We must learn from this that children need to receive plenty of love, affirmation, and encouragement from their parents, and see in them good role models to build from. Unfortunately with the devastating break up of marriage and family life, parents are increasingly becoming poor role models for their children, and fathers particularly so. All too frequently, too, failed marriages result in one-parent families, where usually the mother is struggling to bring up her family without the father. Sadly this can often result in second marriages or live-in boyfriends, or worse still a succession of live-in boyfriends. The wounding and damage to the children that these confused parental role models generate, has only really begun to be felt, as this generation experiences more and more relationship problems which will compound the damage into succeeding generations.

Healing in relationships and particularly in the marriage relationship is so desperately needed today, and is set to become increasingly so, it would seem. No doubt this is why the Lord appears to be leading so many to healing ministries in the churches today, particularly into the healing of memories—this baggage from the wounded childhood. The Catholic Marriage Centre is largely such a ministry, and we firmly believe that if both spouses want their marriage to be healed, with the Lord’s help it can be healed. A thought, or more correctly a challenge, we leave with the married couples who attend our courses is, “see Our Lady and St. Joseph as role models for your marriage, and you in turn will be good role models for your children”!

Most will accept that St. Joseph would be a good role model, but Our Lady, who was without sin, would seem more difficult. So many of us probably just cannot imagine Our Lady doing anything that we do. As Caryll Houselander puts it in ‘The Reed of God’, her beautiful meditation on Mary, “To many she is the Madonna of the Christmas card, immobile, seated forever in the immaculately clean stable of golden straw and shining snow. She is not real; nothing about her is real, not even the stable in which Love was born”. Perhaps we would do well to consider more deeply the life that Joseph and Mary must have lived, and realise the traumas, fears, anxieties, confusions and the responsibilities they had to face as a married couple, and importantly, how they dealt with them.

Consider the fears which no doubt would flood Mary’s mind, when the initial surprise and joys of learning she was to be the mother of Jesus were over: the fears of telling Joseph she was pregnant, her fears of his reaction, the fears of having a child outside of marriage with the likely consequence of being stoned to death. Joseph seems not to have believed Mary until he was reassured in a dream, and it is not difficult to imagine the confusion, sadness and lack of trust that must have passed through his mind, only to be replaced perhaps with awe and fear at the responsibilities he would have in helping to bring up Jesus. Clearly both Mary and Joseph were able to deal with these potential traumas in their relationship by simply trusting implicitly in God, and reaching out in love to each other.

Once they were given in marriage, they were more or less thrust straight away into a long, unpleasant journey to Jerusalem to register for a census. Mary being near full term in her pregnancy must have had a very difficult and uncomfortable journey. Joseph would have been worried and concerned about the child perhaps being born before they arrived at their destination, about where to stay, what amenities there were, and countless other concerns. Mary would probably have echoed all these concerns too. Joseph could well have felt inadequate wanting, but being unable, to do the best for Mary and the child to be. The birth eventually in a stable, with the filth and smells and lack of comfort and the indignity of it all, must have been extremely difficult for them both, and when they considered the puzzling paradox of this very special child being born in such a place, it could well have crossed their minds that this surely was not what was intended! If we transferred these situations, thoughts and fears into a marriage situation in this present time, it would surely be a recipe for disaster and probably break up! Mary and Joseph were again both able to trust in God and accept what was happening as his will for them, and they were able to reach out in love and acceptance to each other.

Perhaps after a few months of settling down to family life, they had to flee to Egypt for safety. We can imagine the hassle of leaving everything in a rush: their home, work and livelihood, and friends, all for the safety of their baby. Fleeing at night, uncertain of how and where to go, and whether any help was at hand. Suddenly, without notice, they were plunged into all the agonies, hardships and uncertainties of being refugees, and having to travel a great distance, to live in a foreign country and culture. The length of their exile is not known, but must have presented great difficulties in all kinds of ways. They would have had the problem of a different language and culture, Joseph finding work, and a home to live in, and all the problems that foreigners encounter in another country. This was certainly no easy situation for parents with a very young child.

Even after their return, and having lived in Nazareth for some years, always with that enigmatic prophesy of Simeon like a weight in their hearts, they suffered more. When Jesus was twelve years old, and they had all been up to Jerusalem for the Passover, they realised that they had lost Jesus on the journey home. Could this be the sword that would pierce the heart of Mary? It was not, but the anguish and worry it caused the parents of Jesus is recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Today, many parents will identify with this pain, as so often teenagers are “lost” to them through drugs, wrong relationships or just disappearing. Despite the joy they must have felt on finding Jesus in the Temple, Mary admonished him and received a puzzling and hurtful sounding reply. No doubt forgiveness was sought and given from both sides. The love and care of Mary and Joseph must surely have impacted the humanity of the young Jesus, “He then went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority. His mother stored all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom, in Stature, and in favour with God and men.”

We can see clearly, even from the limited number of events recorded in the Bible, that Mary and Joseph experienced traumas way and above those that the average family in this country would normally come across. So seeing Mary and Joseph as role models should prove both inspiring and challenging. Their answer to the myriad of traumas and anxieties in their relationship was prayer, trust in God and a loving acceptance of each other and the situations in which they found themselves. This too, is the answer to the problems in all marriages and is the basis of the ministry in which we are engaged, at the Catholic Marriage Centre, in Porthmadog.

At the Centre, we would look first to the healing of the wounds of childhood in the individual spouses, and this very often is the major problem, as unhealed and unforgiven hurts, preclude intimate relationship, and are as we have said the major cause of problems in marriage. The key to the healing of memories is to lead the person to forgive those who have caused the hurts; this is done through prayer individually. The effects of the impact of the spouses’ past wounds on the marriage itself are then examined. Teachings, workshops and counselling all help to highlight these, and again the need for forgiveness is the key to healing; and this helps the couple to a conversion of heart. We encourage couples to pray and trust in God, the third member of their marriage covenant, accept each other as they are, and reach out in love to one another, just as Mary and Joseph did.