On the spiritual accompaniment of souls.
What does this expression so used today mean? It means first of all helping to become aware that within each of us there is “the hidden man of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4.: as in the original Greek text; see note in the Jerusalem Bible). You can also spend a life without discovering this fundamental reality; taken from work, from eating-drinking-dressing etc., from what you see and touch, you can ignore that “what is essential is invisible to the eye”. There is an intimate life within us — the inner life — that moves and acts too often without our knowledge. It is our being the “children of God”, animated by the action of the Spirit which “is poured forth in our hearts” (Romans 5:5). It is the indwelling of the Three divine Persons promised by Jesus: “we will come to him, and will make our abode with him” (John 14:23). Our desire to live fully, to love and be loved, to spend our lives for something great, to sacrifice ourselves for love … somehow reflects this Presence. There is therefore an intimate life within us that presses and waits to be freed from the waste of selfishness, bad habits, a conditioning and sometimes deforming education; by the attraction of false ideals. Discovering and freeing “he hidden man of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) is the first step of the spiritual journey, and the companion is called to give his help.
To perform this role, it is necessary to welcome the person in all his reality: an attractive or not, a character so and so, feelings and ideas to decipher, a particular family, a social environment, an ecclesial context … The concrete person is everything this together. Welcoming the present reality is the first step on the part of the companion to help the other discover his or her basic wealth, to accept oneself in this way and to begin the journey starting from where it is. Not the ideal man, but the real man is the place of the incarnation of the promise of God. The whole Bible, and particularly the pages that make us more difficult, are a testimony that God intends to walk with this real man that we know well who, turning to him, says: “be not thou silent to me: lest thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit.” (Psalm 27:1). And the apostle Paul, when he says: “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1) highlights our historical existence, clearly visible in the concreteness of corporeity.
Find yourself located here and now. In the light of the word of God, various influences and the need for freedom from them to proceed begin to emerge. Here it is important to help the carer to give the right name to things, to discern where to start, to take the first steps. A too protective family? Too possessive affection? Too many unnecessary and unimportant things that surround you? Habits and interests that stifle the momentum of the heart? It is compelling to scrutinise whether the spiritual talks then translate into concrete steps of freedom, or simply remain just “articulations” which achieve nothing at all, games of fantasy or verbal exchanges with which one deludes himself to proceed. Doing what is said is a first point of verification. If nothing happens, the accompanying person must apprise, making himself a demanding guide as well, for the genuine benefit of the person, occasionally giving notice to pause in order not to waste the time of both.
Freedom from, expands when it becomes freedom to choose more and more on the basis of the Gospel criteria and less and less under the impulse of criteria suggested by one’s instinct, for personal advantage, familial or social gain. How do you get organised by putting your day in order, how to manage your ordinary free time, how to spend your holidays, how to orient yourself in the field of work, how to plan your future … these are all conclusive rationale’s in which to give scope to one’s freedom of choice, where instinctive spontaneity must gradually be replaced by a mature spontaneity animated by a criteria that is not selfish. The ministrations of the spiritual companion must be expressed in various forms: help in highlighting what is being lived, verification of inner consolidation, continuous comparison with the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, suggestion of contacts and meetings with significant ecclesial people and communities …
It is by means of this path of freedom, from freedom, that freedom is allowed to flourish. Man will be fully realised not by keeping his life to himself (for that would be the beginnings of a hellish solitude), but by learning to lose his life for the Lord, for the Gospel and for others. The full fulfilment of freedom lies in giving oneself up, in offering oneself unconditionally and wholeheartedly for love. Engaging totally, both within marriage and in a religious consecration or any another kind of service, man concretely lives for freedom. At this juncture man is fulfilled without reservation and will feel a unique and deep-rooted inner joyfulness; if truth be told, “Praising God means walking in truth, and this produces joy, because joy is the experience of accomplished truth” (Fr. Romano Guardini [1885–†1968]), the undeniable mark (one of the fruits of the Spirit) that has impassioned its own pervasive truthfulness.
It is precisely the fundamental choices of life that offer the most precious opportunity to show what you are. But precisely on this stretch of road the man (the young man in particular) comes to terms with the calls of his selfishness towards a life lived for himself; he feels more insistent on the provocations of the family and the environment to which he belongs, often guided by criteria that are anything but evangelical, but well covered and fascinating; he feels all the charm of the spirit of the world: success, career, abundance of goods and comforts. The expert companion knows that in this stretch of road the temptation becomes more subtle, presents itself in an attractive form and elegantly moves away from God’s plan by using things that are good for themselves ‘a mediocre good life also has its attraction’! The Gospel narrative on the temptation of Christ in the desert denoting enticement to evil, played precisely on this register of the apparent charm of an easy messianism, will be an invigorating light for the journey and will help to unmask the pitfalls and to neutralise the power of suggestion.
Describing the spiritual path in the light of these three aspects — freedom from, freedom of, freedom for — we have done nothing but propose in other words the three traditional stages of the life of faith: purification, illumination and union. In each of them, in fact, the stakes are precisely the freedom of man, the freedom of children of God, which is fully realised when the same sentiments of Jesus are fulfilled in us, who gave himself up for love. Throughout this itinerary, the companion is called to a complex and delicate work: knowledge of the word of God and his saving plan; knowledge of the concrete person in front of him, with his ideal position and his real resources; harmonisation between the two poles, helping to verify step by step through a correct reading of the signs. The inner freedom of the companion (freedom from, –of, –to) is the most precious requirement in this whole journey. Without this freedom, he interferes in the work of another, the only one who never uses man for any other purpose than for his true good, since “For the Son of man also is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a redemption for many.” (Mark 10:45).
Jesus on the road to Emmaus model of spiritual accompaniment.
Jesus becomes the companion of the disciples who are disappointed and discouraged, in having to begin their journey from Jerusalem. The Biblical icon of the true spiritual companion.
On occasion over the years we’ve had a number of requests from people asking to be accompanied spiritually. This has been increasing phenomenally as have the request for guidance and formation to spiritual accompaniment.
The Hermits of Saint Bruno as many know, have absolutely no external Apostolate and therefore we tend to recommend the Society of Jesus to those who ask us for accompaniment. The Jesuits are experts in this field especially for an individual’s spiritual accompaniment. There are many centres today which offer excellent training courses on this subject. I believe that one of the best ways to learn spiritual accompaniment, without denying the usefulness of the courses that are available, is to contemplate Jesus and his method of interaction and his relationships with the people in the Gospels. The most beautiful lesson, in my humble opinion, is found in The Walk to Emmaus which we can read in the text of Luke 24:13-35, this is the history of the disciples of Emmaus. Here I would like to share this text so as to underscore some of the characteristic of spiritual accompaniment. It is not a systematic acquainting of the accompaniment, but my personal reflection beginning with the journey from Emmaus.
An accompaniment derived from one’s lived experiences.
“And it came to pass, that while they talked and reasoned with themselves, Jesus himself also drawing near, went with them” (v. 15). The two disciples had a difficult experience and left the community disappointed. The risen Jesus does not stay there waiting for them to return to him. He reaches them on the street and begins to accompany them precisely from that point of disappointment, sadness and alienation from the community. It is from there that the accompaniment starts: Jesus, approaching, walks with them and leads them to reflect on the experience they have just lived. Accompanying someone spiritually means just this: accepting to walk with him, to listen to the Spirit, who is the only true guide on the path toward God. One could say that the companion is the friend of whom the Anonymous writer speaks of when he says: “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” The spiritual companion is the one whom the Revd. Kenneth Leech (1939 – †12 September 2015) calls “soul friend”, “friend of the soul”. The companion is not one who is aware of the perfect path to follow with the person journeying toward God. He is not the one who gives advice or has ready made solutions, but he is the one whom walking like Jesus in this passage, humbly with the other, the other being the one who seeks accompaniment, walking along the path indicated by God, begins to discover. And this is accomplished by helping the accompanied person to discover and interpret the action of God with regard to his own lived experiences.
Fr. William Barry and Fr. William Connolly, in their classic book on spiritual accompaniment The Practice of Spiritual Direction thus define spiritual accompaniment: “We define Christian spiritual direction as the help that one Christian gives to another to make him attentive to God who he speaks to him personally, able to respond to him, capable of growing in intimacy with him and of assuming the consequences of this relationship. This type of spiritual direction is centred on experience, not on ideas, and particularly on the spiritual experience, that is, on the experience of this mysterious Other whom we call God. Furthermore, this experience is considered not as an isolated event, but as the expression of the permanent personal relationship established by God with each of us … Our conception of spiritual direction gives priority to the experience of God, which more often than not occurs in prayer”. And then they add: “Considering the religious experience (as this experience is the expression of the personal relationship with God) as the object of direction does not mean choosing, more or less arbitrarily, this or that type of direction. Rather, it is a matter of trying to identify the most central issue for management and allowing management to take shape around this issue.”
As a true companion, Jesus does not have a structured plan which he intends to have the two disciples follow. He makes his way along with them and sees step by step how the situation develops, focusing on their real and current relationship with God, to identify the central question. He lets himself be guided by them, by their experience, by agreeing to follow. He begins by asking them what they are discussing: “What are these discourses that you hold one with another as you walk, and are sad?” (v. 17). He shows interest in what they are experiencing at that moment and tells them, indirectly, that they are important to him, that they have value in his estimation.
It is difficult to accompany someone if we are not able to make them feel that he is important to us, that he has value in our view. This helps the accompanied person to feel accepted, making them feel at ease and creating within them the confidence necessary to open up, to reveal themselves. More than with words, this is transmitted with our willingness to walk with people, to listen to them, to give them all the time they need. This is what the sequel also reveals to us.
Extensive empathic listening, taking heed, is a far more important requirement than speaking “They stopped, their faces sad; And the one of them, whose name was Cleophas, answering, said to him: “Art thou only a stranger to Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that have been done there in these days?” To whom he said: “What things?” (vv. 17-19). If there was anyone who knew what had happened in Jerusalem, it would have been Jesus, precisely because it had happened to Him. Yet they, shocked and somewhat disappointed, berate Him. Yet He understands, He does not speak to them with contempt, nor does not take their words as a personal affront. He is completely unencumbered interiorly and does not really take things personally.
With these kind of condemnations and bellicosity, Jesus, who knows how to listen beyond the spoken words, has the ability to feel all of the suffering and disappointments of these two disciples. Yet being able to listen deeply first of all means being able to keep silent. Perhaps the best example that Jesus has left us regarding this can be found in the Pericope Adulteræ or the woman caught in adultery (John ch. 8) The scribes and Pharisees had brought him a woman in the act of adultery, and, placed her among the people in the temple, they asked Him if they had to take action in obedience to the law of Moses. They did this to challenge Him. But Jesus bowed and remains silent. That silence is full of respect for the person being judged, denigrated and injured by others, at the same time this is an invitation for all to listen, give ear to the other person and to oneself. As Dom Bernardo Olivera o.c.s.o says: “Be silent to begin to hear; that which is evident, but which is often forgotten. Remain silent to collect yourself, to pay attention and to focus upon the other. …Let them speak, express, explain the situation, seek solutions. Feel what the other feels”.
Speaking of listening and understanding, Dom. Bernardo says: “But listening and understanding are not purely intellectual attitudes, they also belong to the emotional field. This is where empathy comes into play, that is, harmony and the interpenetration of feelings and experiences. Empathy is understanding through the experience, especially affective, of the emotional experience of the other. It is the main key to enter the world of experience of the one we accompany. With empathy we understand what the other lives and what he feels and we can thus help him understand himself.” Listening attentively, deeply and empathically, helps to express the feelings and attitudes that accompany the lived experience. That question of Jesus, “What things?”, Is not a mockery, but a sincere invitation to express how they themselves had lived that experience. Jesus offers them the opportunity to talk about their disappointment, their sadness, and they take that opportunity. “Everything concerning Jesus of Nazareth … We hoped that he was the one who freed Israel; with all this three days have passed since these things happened … Some of our people went to the sepulchre and found what the women had said, but they didn’t see him” (vv. 19-24).
Spiritual accompaniment starts from the experience that the accompanied person is experiencing, an experience of God, of the community, of himself and of the world. It is therefore important to also help you understand and express the attitudes and feelings that accompanied this experience. This is exactly what Jesus does by giving the two disciples the opportunity to speak of hopes and disappointments, of disbelief, of upheaval.
Resistance and confrontation
In the words of the disciples Jesus feels, for the second time, a certain resistance. The first was a resistance to his question, the second was a resistance to what he is, to his way of being the Son of Man, who instead of being the deliverer of Israel lets himself be arrested, insulted and put on the cross, and “with all this three days have passed …”. Resistance also to believe in his Resurrection, reported in the experience of women. It is known that women have a fertile imagination! Jesus lets the first resistance pass, which concerns him as a companion. But here he reacts and confronts the disciples. Because here it is a question of understanding the profound meaning of what happened in Jerusalem. It’s about helping them understand who God really is. His words are hard and direct. “And he said to them:” Foolish and heartfelt in believing the word of the prophets! … “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he explained to them in all the Scriptures what referred to him” (vv. 25- 27). Once again the right distance between him and the disciples allows him to confront each other without fear of losing their friendship. It can’t help them get to the truth if it doesn’t tell them the truth. It pushes them to confront their hardness of heart and slowness in believing, but it does so with respect and again showing their willingness to give them all the time it takes to resume the experience of what had happened and re-read it in the light of the Scriptures.
Acceptance and comparison
In spiritual accompaniment, the accompanied person must be accepted with great respect and esteem, with interest and affection. This means accepting it as it is, and not as we would like it to be. It must be accepted with its originality and welcomed with all the respect due to that sacred mystery which is the human person. Dom Bernardo Olivera reminds us that “Acceptance is a form of love that does not attack and does not possess, but affectionately welcomes”.
Jesus accepts the disciples with their hardness and slowness, and continues the journey with them. He would like them to be less hard and slow, but he accepts them as they are, with their shortcomings, with their weaknesses. At the same time he wants to help them grow in their relationship with God, the true God, and with the community, with others. And then he chooses to push them to confront themselves, to challenge them to get out of their blindness and to recognise him as the One of whom the Scriptures had spoken.
It is not easy to deal with the resistance of the accompanied person, but it is a reality that sooner or later every companion must do. The reasons for resistance are different and there is no need to go into detail here. Suffice it to say that the companion must be able to recognise it and to judge whether or not to face it. Everything depends on its importance and the effect it can have on the person’s spiritual and human growth.
In the comparison, as Dom Bernardo Olivera says again, “the companion does not limit himself to responding, but precedes his interlocutor and invites him to confront himself with his own reality, with the needs of the Gospel …”.
If the accompaniment we make is a spiritual accompaniment, we cannot ignore the role of the Word of God, the light it sheds on everything we live, we and the people who come to us to be accompanied. As this text reminds us, God speaks to us through his Word in the Scriptures and through others (in this case women) and the events of daily life. One of the duties of the companion is to help find God in all things: in the scriptures, in people, in daily events.
Willingness and inner freedom to know how to continue or end a relationship
Even if they are his disciples, the companion knows how to keep the necessary distance to be able to help them see things more objectively and clearly. He must find the right balance between distance and proximity, which allows you to have an objective look without being cold at the same time. It is clear that it is not possible to accompany people who open up to us with great transparency without having a certain affection for them. Yet this affection must always allow us to remain objective and not fully identify with their problems. In this field you can make mistakes both by default and by excess. In the first case, too great a distance can be found, indifference, or even worse, coldness. The consequences of this are: a feeling of abandonment, of insecurity, little motivation to progress and, finally, the interruption of the relationship of spiritual accompaniment itself.
In the second case we find an excessive affective charge, which generates bitter fruits in the relationship. The most common is affective addiction. The lack of the right and necessary distance also leads to identify with the other and pushes to become too involved, thus losing all objectivity. Mutual affection can finally bring the initial affection to move from sympathy to passion, a complex phenomenon that is very different from the one desired at the beginning.
“As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther.” But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over. So he went in to stay with them”. (vv . 28-29). Jesus could think that by now he had done what he had to do, he had helped them understand what had happened, and therefore he was ready to let them continue their journey alone. But they asked him, indeed insisted that he stay with them. They still needed him, even if they don’t say it clearly. And then Jesus agrees to stay. He had started a journey with them and was willing to go all the way. Although he may have heard that the time had come to end the relationship, he accepts their request and once again lets them guide them. He is there to serve, to help shed light on that night that is coming down. Once again, he is ready to give them all the time they need. He is in no hurry. This availability is the basis of that empathic listening that we talked about and which presupposes an affectivity centred on the other and motivated by values of oblativity or gift to others. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, With that their eyes were opened and they recognised him, but he vanished from their sight”. (vv. 30-31). Jesus repeats with them that gesture he had made before dying, that gesture which, according to John, shows that “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It brings them once again to that key to understanding everything that has happened. And now, after having reread the scriptures with him, starting with Moses and all the prophets, they could understand the meaning of what had happened and recognize it. By now they have grown and can continue the journey alone. And Jesus can leave. End that accompanying relationship, even if, according to his promise, he will always be with them, until the end of the world. If before he was free enough to accept their request and stay, now he is free enough to disappear from their sight. They no longer need his service and then he can leave.
At the same time we can say that in his role as companion, Jesus prays with the disciples and reveals the centrality of the sacraments and above all of the Eucharist for spiritual growth. It is important to pray at certain times with the accompanied person or to propose the reading of a biblical passage. Some companions begin each meeting with a prayer to the Holy Spirit to ask for his light. Others end with a prayer made by the accompanied person to express the experience lived in the meeting. To each to choose the one that seems most appropriate to the situation.
The spiritual companion and the Word
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (v. 32). Even if it is not the role of the companion to give interpretations and advice, especially when these interpretations and these advice come at the beginning of a relationship and offer quick solutions, the spiritual companion practices a certain ministry of the Word.
The danger of the interpretations in the accompaniment is that, in expressing what the other could or should understand in the situation he is experiencing, there is a risk that one may only understand what we want to understand, of making explicit and underlining an aspect of what the other says, an aspect that seems essential to us, but not necessarily so in the eyes of the other. With this, the companion puts himself in a position where he is at variance (I understand what you are going through … even better than you do!). The risk of misunderstanding and dialogue between deaf people can be quite substantial!
Whilst the danger of giving advice and providing immediate solutions consists in the fact that the companion reacts with action and pushes for an immediate reaction. He believes that he knows the immediate solution the one that he himself would have chosen. It could be that he is not patient enough to try and find a real solution with the other and to help him embrace it. Not that the other necessarily would react as we would. Hence the feeling in the person who is accompanied that his guide wants to see the back of the problem, and therefore also of them, as soon as possible!
Instead, Jesus takes the time to journey with the disciples, without resorting to quick solutions and fast interpretations. Like Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, a companion sometimes finds himself having to explaining the Scriptures, “whilst conversing along the way” with the accompanied person. This is not to make a show of his knowledge, but to help clarify points and shed light on the experience lived and on the relationship of the person accompanied with God, with others and with himself.
Jesus does not preach or moralise, but comes back to the Scriptures to help the disciples to understand their true meaning and thereby helps them to conquer their resistance and their fears, he empowers them freeing them to open their hearts.
Conversion and mission
Jesus as companion on the road to Emmaus which eventually leads the two disciples to a spiritual rebirth and to joyfully undertake their mission. After having made this journey with Jesus as a companion, they conquer their sadness and achieve happiness, to a heart which burns in the bosom, from the escape from the community to the return to the brothers to announce the resurrection, from not believing in believing and becoming announcers of the Good News. Spiritual direction, especially listening with empathy, with the intention of realising within the accompanied person the possibilities of self-transcendence within their life, encouraging a radical transformation within his permanent development, that is, animating their conversion.
Father Adrien Demoustier s.j., is a pre-eminent authority on spiritual exercises and spiritual accompaniment, Fr. Demoustier tells us that: “In listening to me, he (the companion) refers to my abilities to relate, how I relate to others and how I relate to myself, which finds me somewhat different from what I thought I would be …The elements of lucidity come to light. A dialogue arises between what I accept and what I reject, the group constraints impressed upon me and which I supposed to have been the very foundation of my personality”.
Conversion is a life-long undertaking. The renewal is never complete; each season of life is an opportunity for a conversion that has its own form and particular meaning. Conversion also means above all the inner transformation that can be experienced by a person who is Christian from birth or even for someone having recently converted.
“So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread”. (vv. 33-35). This inner transformation, within the disciples, leads them to completely change direction and resume their journey towards Jerusalem and towards the communities that they had abandoned. Discovered the truth and discovered the true meaning of their life, they left without procrastinating to proclaim the Good News and give an account of “what had happened”. They lived through an experience that changed them and their lives most profoundly, inflaming their hearts, feeling a desire and need to share it with their brothers and to proclaim the Risen Lord who had given them succour in the midst of despair.
On the path of Christian growth, the role of the companion is to help the other who seeks his help to joyfully assume his mission of announcing the Good News, of making the consoling God known. After all, this is what Ignatius of Loyola tries to do with his Spiritual Exercises, where, following his own experience of conversion and revealed mission, wants to accompany others so that they might also have a personal experience of God, of the Risen Christ, the Comforter, to love him more, to follow him and to serve him.