The Art of Accompaniment A retreat on journeying with others in the adventure of life
No more shouting
David Wells is a well-known speaker in Catholic circles, having been all around the world giving inspiring talks to groups large and small, and we were recently blessed to have him at our retreat centre in Crewe.
This July, a group of 20 of us took part in a retreat on the “art of accompaniment”, called No More Shouting. It was to be an eight-session event, spread over four days, with plenty of time for quiet reflection, prayer and great food and company.
The theme of accompaniment has been one of the central focuses of Pope Francis’ pontificate, mentioned throughout his writings, speeches and encounters with others. It was an apt choice of topic for our retreat – and for the times we live in.
A place to relax and be a butterfly
From the outset, David emphasised the relaxed nature of the retreat. It would be a time for talks and group discussions, but also one of voluntary participation and personal prayer. With a calming voice and friendly demeanour, our speaker perfectly set the tone through his example.
A contrast was made between gnats and butterflies, with the former always being busy and the latter graceful and beautiful. Let us be butterflies, not gnats!
Indeed, a common theme can be found in the encyclicals of Pope Francis of the dangers of being in a hurry. We are less human when we’re rushing about, and, unfortunately, modern culture seems to exalt busyness. Too often we’re rushing from place to place, task to task, app to app.
Part of the reason for the retreat was to be an escape hatch from the sprint of everyday life, to reconnect with the Holy Spirit and try to simplify our lives.
Drop the “bags of worry” and choose joy
There’s a great joy to be had in living simply and, in St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, Pope Francis notes that if joy “becomes our way of life, the good news will enter many homes, helping individuals and families rediscover that, in Jesus, there is hope” (Homily, Gaudate Sunday, 14 December 2014).
Part of the way in which we reach that end is by dropping what David calls our “bags of worry”. Although I’m sure there are some people amongst the seven billion of us who are living blissful, worry-free lives, for the vast majority of us, we have a number of things – or carry a number of bags – which keep us preoccupied.
These can be little bags of worry, like wondering where our Amazon delivery went, or big bags of worry, like failing health or financial trouble. Indeed, we often live in a permanent state of worry to some extent. As a result, one of the things many of us try to do to alleviate our worries is to make lists.
David had a couple of questions for us at this point, the first of which being, “What baggage shall we put down for a few days?” It was thought-provoking, as it challenged us to go through our lives and look at those things which normally weigh us down, and to consider whether they’re really as heavy as we thought, or even worth carrying any longer.
The second question was, “Can what matter to us matter to someone else?” This felt like the beginning of the accompaniment discussion. To me, it could have been rephrased as, “Can I help carry someone else’s bag?”
The dark night of the soul
David moved on to point out that the most important lessons in life have to be learnt over and over again. In a similar way, our faith ebbs and flows; one only need look at the examples of the saints, such as Therese of Lisieux or Teresa of Calcutta, to see that even the best amongst us have our struggles.
We then turned to Saint John of the Cross’ ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. Our speaker suggested the aforementioned poem was made up of three parts:
- The night of the senses
- A time of proficiency
- The dark night of the spirit (which comes just before the dawn)
This breakdown was then transformed via the writings of Fr Ronald Rolheiser OMI, who came up with a modified version of the previous three-part list:
- Essential discipleship
- Generative discipleship
- Radical discipleship
Essential discipleship (or ‘night of the senses’)
David described essential discipleship as that part of your life when you’re trying to work out who you are. Questions like “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?” abound. It is often a stage of life common to young people, who are searching for meaning and understanding who they are, rendering them vulnerable and in need of help and accompaniment.
This stage of life is also a time of impatience, anxiety, insecurity and of the inclination to compare oneself to others. David used the example of the apostles, who were preoccupied with trivial things like wanting to know who was the “best” disciple, protecting Jesus, wondering who would get “best access” to Jesus in heaven, and keeping people away from Jesus because they didn’t want others bothering him.
Generative discipleship (or ‘time of proficiency’)
Upon starting part two of Rolheiser’s framework, David described generative discipleship as when the initial honeymoon of life begins to wane. It is when life starts to become mundane, where responsibility begins to kick in and one cannot simply be a free spirit doing whatever they want. It was said that you can’t stay in springtime forever; eventually, you have to grow up.
In this stage of life, one is no longer thinking primarily about their interior self, but about the things in life that they carry with them, such as family and work. Questions like “How do I improve?” are asked in this stage. People want to be a better father, wife, employee, priest, daughter, teacher and so on.
David said that in our striving to push on, our growth comes mainly from will power (as opposed to grace). During this time, there’s a danger that we can become resentful, of feeling undervalued given everything we have done. The parable of the Prodigal Son and the eldest son came to mind during this session.
Radical discipleship (or ‘dark night of the spirit’)
It is at this point in life’s journey that, as David says, we surrender and stop fighting. We stop trying to be in control of everything and let God’s grace work within us. As David reminded us, there’s a freedom and dignity in surrendering to God. Sometimes life gets hard, the road unbearable to travel on, but by giving it all to Him, we liberate ourselves from the chains that hold us down. Misery and doom no longer have their grip on us and are instead replaced by hope and joy. As Pope Francis puts it, “Holiness is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace” (Gaudete et Exsultate 34).
To the untrained eye, this “sacrifice of self” could look like weakness. Indeed, some might have thought that the last few days of Jesus’ life looked like weakness. But, in fact, the crucifixion gave way to the resurrection – the triumph of joy over suffering and death. We share in Jesus’ passion, so that we may share in his resurrection. As it is said in John 3:30, “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
So how do we let go of our bags of woe and allow God’s peace to work within our souls? Well, one suggestion from David, via advice from his father, was that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Indeed, life is too short, too amusing, too miraculous and too wonderful to be taken too seriously. And accept your limitations; this will be unsatisfying for the ambitious, but a lightness of touch and openness to surprises may, in the end, yield the better result for your wellbeing.
Understanding the types of accompaniment
The next part of our four-day programme was an exploration of some research that looked into the different ways in which people understand what is meant by ‘accompaniment.’ Four types were identified:
- Directive – the “I’ve been there… I can show you the way” approach. The image of a leader giving a presentation to his colleagues was used to visually represent this approach to accompaniment. The Church is naturally partially directive in its approach to accompaniment, in that it has a responsibility to teach the truth to us.
- Passive – the “Let’s sit together and look at the view” approach. The image used to visually represent this approach was of two people having a beer in the sunset. The idea is that this is more of a ‘fellowship’ approach, of being together with no agenda or plan.
- Purposeful – the “We are going on a pilgrimage” approach. Imagine the image of a group of young people on pilgrimage with backpacks for this one. This approach has a defined destination and we’re journeying together towards it.
- Adventurous – the “I’ll join you on this adventure” approach. The image of two people walking together in conversation is used here. This differs from the passive approach in that it is companionship with a purpose, rather than purposelessness.
All four types of accompaniment are good and important in their own way. But, as David articulated, the fourth – ‘adventurous’ – is the accompaniment for the West.
As Pope Francis puts it in Evangelii Gaudium, “the Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’, which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.”
“Our hearts are made for joy… A yearning for joy lurks within the heart of every man and woman. Far more than immediate and fleeting feelings of satisfaction, our hearts seek a perfect, full and lasting joy capable of giving ‘flavour’ to our existence.”
These words were given by Pope Benedict at World Youth Day in 2012. The joy that we seek sits deeper than merely having a good time. We were made for a greater, lasting experience and the purpose of the Church is to bring that lasting joy to the world.
But Pope Francis warns of the dangers of having more in common with a pickled pepper than the joy of having a beautiful life. Our hearts risk growing old and wrinkled, and our faces no longer transmitting that great joy of our youth. We mustn’t lose the young person inside us, who is ever joyful.
Time is greater than space
David proceeded to list some threats to our joy and ability to accompany others, beginning by talking about time being greater than space. It is this principle that enables us to work slowly but surely, without being obsessed with immediate results. It helps us to patiently endure difficult and adverse situations, or inevitable changes in our plans.
It was pointed out that the greatest threat to the faith isn’t atheism, but being busy. David went on to say that we shouldn’t view the interruptions in our lives as intrusive and objectionable, but rather that the interruptions are what constitute our real lives. As CS Lewis puts it, “The truth is, of course, that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer also puts it well when he says that “we must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied without more important tasks.”
It is in these interruptions that we may find our best moments of accompaniment with others. You may be busy with some work, but perhaps that five-minute interruption by your daughter was an important moment of subtle accompaniment that you never realised. Don’t timetable accompaniment; it can be three random minutes, not necessarily two prescribed hours.
Realities are more important than ideas
The second danger to joy and accompaniment was that of ideas dominating reality. There exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. The difference between the two would be that ‘realities’ simply are, whereas ‘ideas’ are worked out. There must be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric.
With this concept in mind, David offered some points of advice, beginning with the importance of not distancing oneself from the people one serves. The people we serve in our daily lives remind us of what we’re here for. We must also avoid the danger of being overly tidy. Keep mud on your boots, so to speak. Accompaniment doesn’t come from a course or a programme, but from walking alongside the other. Jesus on the road to Emmaus with the two other people comes to mind.
The whole is greater than the parts
The third threat mentioned was that of getting bogged down too much in the little picture (whilst also avoiding getting too ‘bogged up’ in the big picture).
As Pope Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, “An innate tension exists between globalization and localization. We need to pay attention to the global so as to avoid narrowness and banality. Yet we also need to look to the local, which keeps our feet on the ground. Together, the two prevent us from falling into one of two extremes. In the first, people get caught up in an abstract, globalized universe, falling into step behind everyone else, admiring the glitter of other people’s world, gaping and applauding at all the right times. At the other extreme, they turn into a museum of local folklore, a world apart, doomed to doing the same things over and over, and incapable of being challenged by novelty or appreciating the beauty which God bestows beyond their borders.”
It’s important that we don’t get caught up in ourselves, which is easy to do. In our own little corner of the world, we can forget to look up and see the broad horizons.
Everyone is ready to accompany others
After identifying some dangers, David then reminded us of an important message: It is who you are that changes people, not what you know – and what you know affects you. People meet your love of the Lord through your example, through your virtue.
Our speaker then added that everyone is ready to accompany others. Often people can feel hesitant; they feel the need to have perfect knowledge or virtue, to be able to control the outcomes and journey. But as it is said, the greatest teacher is “have a go”, not “wait until you’re ready”.
An interesting observation that David made was that the “geography of accompaniment”, i.e. the situation in which you accompany a person, matters. Men, it turns out, prefer to talk in places like a car or on a walk, where there is little-to-no eye contact, assessment or judgement. Women, on the other hand, prefer face-to-face, direct communication.
A way of being
Referring to an October 2021 homily from Pope Francis, David explored three verbs that the Holy Father said characterise the journey of accompaniment: ‘encounter’, ‘listen’ and ‘discern’.
- Encounter (presence) – this is the willingness to be available and give total attention to another person. You can’t accompany if you’re not present and paying full attention. The question was asked, “What does it mean to be ‘present’ to another person?”
- Listen – with the heart and without judgement. Asking people questions and listening properly to their answers fits here. Sometimes the Church can offer people a rich feast that people don’t need or want at that time; they just want to be heard first. When listening to other people, three common distractions can crop up:
- Our preconceived plans, goals and judgements: “Let me tell you what worked for me – and then it will work for you!”
- Inclination to obsess on our own words, advice and performance: “How am I doing – could have some feedback?”
- Inclination to indulge our own experiences: “I had the flu and it’s much worse than what you have.”
- Discernment – “Encounter and listening are not ends in themselves, leaving everything just as it was before. On the contrary, whenever we enter into dialogue, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to advance on a journey. And in the end, we are no longer the same; we are changed.” Pope Francis’ words in his homily point to us going beyond the present realities of our lives, to one a new one of human flourishing.
Accompaniment in our own lives
We were then challenged by David to think of instances in our own lives when we were accompanied, or when we accompanied others. At first it was a bit difficult to recall moments in the past that could have, on reflection, constituted accompaniment. But a few eventually came to mind.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, to whom Pope Francis has a particular devotion, once said that “a word or a smile is often enough to put fresh life in a despondent soul.” And indeed, I recall a number of instances in which a simple smile raised someone’s spirits, inviting them into dialogue and friendship. The joy found in a smile is sometimes an invitation to joy for others.
Other instances come to mind of when the faith of others served as a means of accompaniment. Simply witnessing the love radiating out of other people can be a powerful means of drawing others into a life of joy.
Build a culture, not a strategy
Accompaniment isn’t catechesis or teaching, nor is it a strategy – it’s a culture. This was one of the closing remarks of David from our illuminating retreat. We can’t ‘programme’ our way to a society in which everyone knows the love of God for them. It must be built, slowly and patiently, by accompaniment with each other over the course of our lives.
At the end of our time together, our group, who shared so many wonderful stories and insights, came up with a list of what we thought constituted the ‘Art of Accompaniment’:
- We begin by letting go of our pre-conceived agendas and anxieties
- We have to think consciously about how we are – what is our spirit?
- We can only be authentic if we are honest with ourselves
- We have to begin with the question, “What is it that you need?”
- We need to listen intentionally – to the very end of what is said and what is not said
- We move slowly – there is no hurry
- We are discerning, “Are we moving towards human flourishing?”
- We are in the hands of the accompanied, moving with them at their pace and in their direction truly (Luke 24)
- We find ourselves accompanying, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unknowing
Great thanks and gratitude go to David Wells for giving so much of his precious time and energy to our group. We all left the retreat for the better, rejuvenated and full of desire to accompany more effectively those whose paths in life cross with our own; that we may all be closer to He who is the source of our joy.
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