Vol. VI, May 2000


Man With the Angel in This World (cf. Tob 6:2-9)

Dear Brothers in the Priesthood!

Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:10) and is evidently different from a lack of faith or critical rationalism. When Tobit, the father, verified the origin and trustworthiness of the companion for his son, he showed a childlike faith. "Blessings on you, brother!" he replied the angel and to his son he said, "My child, prepare what you need for the journey, and set off with your brother. May God in heaven protect you ... may his angel go with you and protect you!" And he consoled his wife, who "burst into tears," with the words: "Do not worry on their account, my sister. A good angel will go with him ... Then she stopped weeping"(cf. 5:17.22; 6:1).

1. a) Such faith and confidence we find also in their son Tobias. He started out with this still unknown companion whom he had unexpectedly found before his house. "When the boy left home, accompanied by the angel, the dog followed Tobias out of the house and went with them." According to the Vulgate version, the dog will be also the one who runs ahead when they come back, thus announcing their arrival to the mother (cf. 11:4 or 9). This small observation surely intends to indicate in what a natural manner everything that followed occurred, in spite of the active presence and collaboration from heaven.

The text goes on: "The travelers walked till nightfall, and made camp beside the Tigris River. Now when the boy went down to wash his feet in the river," - a natural refreshment for anyone who has walked for hours -, "a large fish suddenly leaped out of the water and tried to swallow his foot." Tobias "shouted in alarm" out of surprise or fright. However, "the angel said to him, ‘Take hold of the fish and don’t let it get away!’" The boy overcame his fear and reacted quickly. He "seized the fish and hauled it up on the shore" (Tob 6:2-4). Then, the holy angel explained to him, how the fish can be useful in several ways! "Cut the fish open and take out its gall, heart, and liver, and keep them with you; but throw away the entrails. Its gall, heart, and liver make useful medicines ... The fish’s heart and liver, if you burn them so that the smoke surrounds a man or a woman who is afflicted by a demon or evil spirit ... And as for the gall, if you rub it on the eyes of a man who has cataracts, blowing into his eyes right on the cataracts, his sight will be restored" (vv. 5.8).

b) These few verses about the first day of the boy’s journey with the angel already give an idea why the book of Tobias enjoys great popularity and is incorporated among the inspired books of Divine Revelation. We may see three reasons:

1. The book deals with problems of daily life, and shows at the same time the nearness and presence of God in man’s life with his providence and attention, care and love.

2. Then, this book is of great doctrinal importance: this family stands for the entire family of God and shows their exemplary fidelity to the Law in small things, such as the burial of the dead and in important matters like the purity in faith by not getting married with someone of another religion, that is, a pagan.

3. Finally, the book is important because of its universality inasmuch as it embraces all creation, the purely spiritual creatures or the angels, the material world to which animals with their purely mortal existence belong, and between these two, man with his immortal soul. Following we will focus especially on this last dimension (cf. Circular II, 1).

2a) The story shows us Tobias, that is man, who is underway towards his goal, towards God, his creator. Man is the only creature who still has to decide his eternal destiny. Material creatures have no individual goal, in the strict sense, but are simply created for the greater glory of God in the very way they are and instinctively act. The purely spiritual creatures, the angels, already reached their goal: the good angels achieved the beatific vision of God, the bad spirits, in their irreversible rebellion against God, landed in the eternal inquietude of hell. That may explain why all the other creatures are gathered around Tobias (man) in the story, that is, the dog and fish, angel and demon! Man is at the center of history, man is "the summit of the Creator’s work" (CCC 343). "God willed the diversity of his creatures and their own particular goodness, their interdependence and their order. He destined all material creatures for the good of the human race. Man, and through him all creation, is destined for the glory of God" (CCC 353).

b) Seen in this light, it is of some significance that the dog accompanies the two travelers and that a fish leapt out of the water when Tobias washed his feet. The dog, as a domestic animal, had already become a ‘cultural figure’ in the history of man: aggressive towards strangers, but faithful to his master. As such, dogs appear in the lives of the saints as helpers and protectors even in a way similar to the guardian angels, as for instance, in the very special case of the dog, "Grigio," who miraculously defended the life of St. John Bosco on a few occasions.

Fish also appear positively in symbolism. Our Lord compares the souls with fish in the parables of the Kingdom of God (Mt 13:47ss). He worked miracles with them. For example, Peter was sent to catch a fish with the drachma in its mouth in order to pay his taxes (cf. Mt 17:27). Similarly, Christ fed the multitude by multiplying the loaves and fishes (cf. Mt 14:17 and 15:36). But in the life of the prophet Jonas the fish appeared like a part of the threatening deep sea which served the prophet as deathbed, from which, however, God, via the fish, helped him back to life and to his mission (cf. Jonas 2:1ss.). Similar seems the role of the fish here: first it threatened the boy, then, through the light and orientation of the good angel the boy overcame the danger and the fish turned out to be the source of life and cure instead of death.

c) Since the fish only "tried to swallow the foot of the boy," we need not to join the speculation about the size or type of the fish. It is just important that we see the material world incorporated within the one great economy of salvation. In the way chosen by God and used by the angels, they contribute either as support or temptation. In fact, behind these animals we have to see the spiritual creatures, the faithful and fallen angels, both interested in man and trying to win him for their part. In the final analysis man should grow strong through the encounter with the help of the angels.

3. This situation of man on this earth is the reason, why God sent one of his faithful angels, St. Raphael, to accompany the boy during the trip and why God gives to each and every human being a guardian angel for his entire journey through this earthly life (cf. CCC 336). It is also the reason why the fallen angels try to interfere in the life of man, as possibly here through the fish; they want to hinder the success and to cause problems for the boy, indeed, for every man on his way to his eternal goal!

a) The boy did overcome the danger with the good angel’s help, as the holy angel offers sufficient understanding so that man knows what is right and wrong and the moral strength, so that man can decide in favor of what is good. But the angels offer just so much help as is necessary in accordance with Christ’s words to St. Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness!" (2 Cor 12:9). For man himself has to make his decisions mindful of God, who is present to him and who is his goal. Therefore, the holy angel alerted Tobias to the actual danger, he taught him how to react and encouraged him to react quickly.

b) Though the boy’s fright at the big fish is certainly natural enough, let us profit from the occasion to note that fear is the principal weapon and stratagem of the enemy, for fear paralyzes man’s will and arrests his attention. The devil acts quickly and with vehemence because he knows too well his limits before God; whatever he is able to do in the life of man, it is just by permission of God, the Almighty (cf. CCC 395).

c) Then, God’s sovereignty becomes evident when the angel explained to the boy how he could find, precisely in this attacking fish, the remedies for his father’s blindness and for someone "afflicted by an evil spirit," whom, of course, he is soon to meet. It is the marvelous truth with which Joseph consoled his brothers at the death of their father Jacob: "The evil you planned to do me has by God’s design been turned to good" (Gn 50:20). This is the great lesson of this book and of this little event during the journey: All contributes to the good for those who really love God and who want to serve him alone (cf. Rom 8:28). No matter how hard the devil may try to entangle man, in the end the angel will win and disentangle man.

4. Dear Brothers in the Priesthood, this gives us confidence in God and in his holy angels, and the courage to go ahead in our mission.

On the one hand, the example of Tobias tells us to listen more carefully to the voice of the holy angel in our conscience and to learn discernment together with quick "obedience."

On the other hand, we become convinced anew that we have a Father in heaven, who sends his servants, the holy angels, to our help! Because of his omniscient providence nothing happens by chance. We only have to surrender ourselves to him every morning and call for the angels’ help and care again and again.

Living this way, we will have motive only to give thanks to God and to his angels all the day and all the life long.

Fr. Titus Kieninger, ORC