Accompaniment: The Missing Piece in Church Life

Last week I discussed the need for accompaniment. By God’s design we all need ongoing accompaniment throughout our life. In return, we are all called to make a gift of ourselves in accompanying others. That need that has always been there in the human heart has only multiplied as we watch healthy family life unravel before our eyes.

Marriage and family life are a privileged context for accompaniment. How beautiful it is when husband and wife are truly present to each other, united intimately as one flesh within the marriage covenant. How beautiful it is when that love is extended fruitfully into the lives of their children. The blessings can be even greater when extended family live in close proximity with each other, and are able to provide ongoing mutual support. The past few centuries introduced new pressures that placed a great strain on marriage and family life: emigration to new lands, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, massive worldwide wars (and their aftermath in family life), the sexual revolution, the rise of the internet, the rise of the smart phone – I could go on and on.

I am NOT arguing in favor of turning back the clock. Not all these changes are bad, and you certainly can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. I am just pointing out the present painful reality: very few children are growing up in a context of a happy marriage and a healthy family. That means that the need for accompaniment is even more painfully felt.

I know that some of you pine for “the good old days” and wonder why so many things keep changing. I find that most parishes today contain all the classic signs of a grieving process: denial, anger, blame, and bargaining. Unfortunately, many stay stuck.

There is cause to grieve. Whatever your views are about the changes of the last few centuries, I hope that we can all agree that marriage and family life are seriously struggling. It’s a devastating loss. Whenever there is a grave loss, the healthy human response is to grieve and to mourn. The prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Yes, it’s normal to experience denial – to pretend like it’s really not all that bad. It’s normal to experience anger – looking for a scapegoat. It’s normal to engage in bargaining and fantasize falsely “if only…If only…” Yet in the end we need to grieve and lament.

Once again God’s house lies in ruins. We need not lose hope. He will raise up children of Abraham from her very stones, will turn those children into living stones, and will rebuild his Church. Whatever that renewal looks like, one thing is certain: Those God calls to be part of that rebuilding will need to be accompanied and to accompany.

The need for accompaniment in parish life today is glaring. Just in my two parishes, I am aware of hundreds of individuals who are suffering deeply for lack of accompaniment: the sick, the aging, the dying, the lonely, the afflicted, the addicted, widows, widowers, abused children, neglected children, anxious adolescents, overwhelmed young adults, and exhausted caregivers.

I have met many a spouse who is beyond burnt out after years of trying to hold it together with a struggling spouse. They are trying to do all the accompanying themselves – not asking for help or knowing how to ask for help, and forgetting their own need of accompaniment.

The same risk is enormous for us priests. In Catholic parish life, people instinctively turn to the priest whenever there is a need for accompaniment that family cannot meet. Most of us have skills in that area and enjoy doing it. But we are fools if we think we can accompany every hurting person we meet – especially now that family life has largely broken down. I’ve been learning to teach other people how to accompany rather than try to do it all myself. That is actually how Jesus did it. He spent most of his time accompanying a chose twelve from among his disciples.

Most people today will NOT find themselves sufficiently accompanied by their own families. They will need to find support from other Christians – from the whole faith community, not just a few ordained ministers. This is how it was in the apostolic Church, and it is how it needs to be today. By God’s design, the Church is meant to be the living Body of Christ, in which we all receive and give love in communion with God and with each other.

When I ponder the enormous need for accompaniment in Church life today, three images come to my heart: (1) a missing puzzle piece; (2) a breach in our defenses; and (3) a blockage in our arteries.

Accompaniment is like a puzzle piece that is missing. For example, I have met many good Catholics who are struggling painfully with habits of sin or addictions. They try and try to break free. They pray hard, go to Confession, fast, or put filters on their phones. They might do well for a while, but they keep falling. All too often are trying to fight the battle alone. They do not know how to let themselves be walked with by a group of companions. Things really start changing when we seek and find that communal support!

The lack of accompaniment today is like a breach in our defenses. The devil is a bully who doesn’t fight fair. He loves to attack us when we are weakest and most vulnerable. He divides and conquers, thriving when we are isolated and alone and in the shadows. But if we are well-accompanied, loved, encouraged, understood, affirmed, strengthened, and held accountable, we can resist the devil, and he will indeed take to flight. He is powerless against the communal love of the Body of Christ.

The lack of accompaniment is like a blockage in our arteries. The love of the Body of Christ is meant by God to flow in and flow out of us, freely received and freely given, circulating to all the members and making us fully alive in Him. When we do not know how to receive, we find ourselves incapable of giving in any meaningful way. When we selfishly resist giving, we become stifled and sterile.

It is time for us to accept the hard truth. Marriage and family life largely lie in ruins. Many parish institutions lie in ruins. There is no going back to some golden age (if there ever was one); the only path is forward. We may for a time battle with the usual denial and bargaining and anger. We certainly need to lament and shed tears. But if we are serious about the rebuilding, we need to learn the lessons of accompaniment that Jesus taught to his disciples.

The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Gradualness: Conclusion

It saddens me that there are some Church leaders who are appealing to “gradualness” and “accompaniment” in a confusing way, as a means of pushing their own agenda. They prefer to avoid difficult conversations about what is objectively true or good, particularly in areas such as marriage or sexuality or gender.

While I wholeheartedly agree that it is often unwise to broach such topics in the first or second (or even tenth) conversation, it is unjust and unloving to avoid them indefinitely. Christian life is all about conversion. Conversion is all about an ever-increasing surrender to the truth and goodness and beauty of God. If we hold back parts of our life in that process, our conversion will falter or fail.

Remember the example of Jesus in John’s Gospel. He always begins with encounter and dialogue. He first sees the people in front of him. He gazes upon them with understanding, empathy, and love. He awakens holy desires in their heart. And then he challenges them with the deeper truth.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a marvelous example. She feels truly noticed, understood, cared for, wanted, accepted, and loved in a way she has perhaps never felt before. As her heart awakens to love, she begins to ache with a deep and intense spiritual thirst. Jesus is accompanying her step-by-step through this awakening and growth. Then, when she shows a strong readiness to follow him, he broaches the difficult subject: “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). She admits the truth. The man she is with is not her husband, for she has had five husbands.

Had Jesus started the conversation there, the woman would likely have felt judged and shamed. She would have entrenched herself even more deeply in her misery, loneliness, and self-protection. But Jesus did not begin there. He began with seeing and loving the person in front of him. Indeed, it was precisely because he loved her so much that he also chose to discuss the difficult questions with her – when she was ready.

The apostle Paul, too, understood the fullness of conversion that must take place. His whole life was one relentless desire to belong freely and wholeheartedly to Christ. If anything was ever hindering his love, he desired to be rid of it. How could he truly claim to love Jesus otherwise? To love someone is to grow ever more intimate in the relationship, willing to overcome barriers and obstacles. The growth is gradual and not without much bumbling and stumbling. But when the commitment to growth is unflinching, the progress will continue steadily.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against those who are “enemies of the Cross of Christ.” They do not want self-denial or suffering. By contrast, the Cross of Jesus is an invitation to pour out our love in free and wholehearted sacrifice.

I truthfully admit that I fear the Cross, that I struggle to trust God and surrender, and that I avoid dying to self on a daily basis. But when I search the depths of my heart, I also see that it is my deepest desire to lay down my life for others! It is my true calling and my true destiny.  I have come to learn that I cannot short-change the receiving of love from God and others. If I do not learn to be vulnerable and dependent and receptive, I will never be capable of sacrificing freely and fully.

God made us to love and be loved. Receiving love means trusting, lowering our defenses, becoming vulnerable, and learning to depend upon God and others. Giving love means sacrifice and (yes) the Cross. Every single disciple of Jesus is called, ultimately, to learn how to love and be loved in this way.

The enemies of the Cross of Christ want a Christianity that does not ask for heroic love. There is no such thing. We are all called, to borrow the image of Gregory the Great, to climb to the top of God’s mountain. It is a rugged and relentless climb, attained only by patience and gradualness. Although we all need to rest and relax, it is utterly unhelpful to settle on a permanent plateau and deny the need to climb any further. If we have sin in our life, we will ultimately need to repent of it. To refuse to repent is to refuse to love.

We in affluent nations are especially susceptible to avoidance of the Cross. We are often unaware of just how anesthetized we have become. We falsely believe that we are entitled to so many comforts and delights (luxuries which billions of others in the human race do not enjoy and never will enjoy). We live with the illusion that we shouldn’t have to suffer. We forget the fall, and the wages of sin, justly deserved. Jesus has paid our ransom and offers us a healing path, but not one that avoids the Way of the Cross. As Paul explains to the Philippians, those who are “mature” understand these things. “Mature” (teleoi) means that one is focused on the telos (the “goal” or the “summit”). No permanent plateaus. Further up and Further in.

It is a grave error to try to separate love and truth. Some focus so much on the truth that they forget to love the person in front of them unconditionally. Others, in the name of love, are willing to ignore or abandon the truth. In the words of Paul, “Love rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

Gradualness is so important – NOT as a means of avoiding difficult truths, but as a means of training us, one step at a time, to embrace the truth in all its fullness.

Gradualness: Lessons from John

Some Scripture passages make conversion sound so simple, like a one-and-done deal: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). Would that it were so easy! John’s Gospel, by contrast, is filled with encounters and dialogues that tell the story of a gradual and lifelong conversion in the heart of the disciple.

The encounters are many: Andrew (John 1:35-41), Nathanael (John 1:45-51), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-26), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course Simon Peter (John 21:15-19).

Each encounter is unique, yet there is a common pattern. We might called it the S.A.L.A.D. method: (1) See, (2) Attune, (3) Love, (4) Awaken, and (5) a Difficulty Directly addressed, or even a Dart thrown by Jesus.

There are also opposite encounters and dialogues – interactions that evoke a hardness of heart, diminishing receptivity, and ultimately a rejection of Christ. Consider the disciples who cease following Jesus when he declares himself to be the Bread of Life and urges them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-66), or the Jewish leaders who gradually turn against him (John 8:12-59), or the intriguing Good Friday dialogue with Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-40).

Let’s now take a look at the S.A.L.A.D. acronym and the gradualness that Jesus models for us.

See. First, Jesus sees. He looks attentively at the person in front of him. I hope that we have all experienced this kind of seeing. We all need it, especially in our younger years, but throughout our life. It’s a look of love, one that says “I am interested in getting to know you.” It’s a look that desires to understand, to accept, and to encourage. It is a look that is free from expectations or demands. We just get to be ourselves in the presence of that gaze.

Think of what that look must have been like, for example, to the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery. There were many other looks that they knew quite well: looks of judgment or condemnation, looks of leering or lust – or perhaps all of these at the same time! Jesus begins just by seeing the person in front of him, as one made by God, worth getting to know.

Attune. Secondly, Jesus attunes. He looks deeply into the heart of the individuals in front of him. He gets to know their story, their deepest desires and needs, their greatest joys and most painful heartaches, and so forth. You can tell from each of these encounters that each person felt profoundly understood by Jesus.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters in John’s Gospel are interested in being understood in this way. Some put up defenses. Others insist on wearing a mask and pretending. The same is true of many of us. Not all of us allow ourselves to be understood, even though we all desire it in the depths of our being. It is so easy to feel threatened. Then comes the pride, self-reliance, self-protection, control, power, anger, or blame. I am personally familiar with all of them! Thankfully, God has given me plenty of chances, and in his mercy has allowed my defenses to crack and crumble and collapse.

Love. Jesus loves the person in front of him. It is not a superficial or sentimental love. It is a love that sees right through people – and loves them anyway. Just one experience of love in this way can change one’s whole life. Shame is such an oppressive burden. Many of us are convinced that if others really got to know us, they would want nothing to do with us. The love of Jesus truly proclaims Good News in these dark places of the human heart.

These first three steps of seeing, attuning, and loving are far from a “Pollyanna” approach. Jesus is well aware of the faults of every person he encounters. Just as we have seen in Gregory, Alcuin, and Paul, Jesus chooses to tolerate the evils that still need reforming. The relationship comes first. Unconditional love comes first. First we must be free to be who we are; then we can become free in our acting and doing. Repentance and conversion will come in due time.

Awaken. Jesus awakens desire in the heart of his hearers. Now that they have experienced understanding and love, they once again dare to hope, and the real growth begins. Once desire is awakened, it can catch fire quickly. The Greek word is eros (cf. “erotic”) and it is not uncommon for a convert to “fall in love” with the Lord and show all the eagerness of a lover in a romance. Not only does a lover do anything and everything he can to get to know the beloved and to fall more and more in love, he also feels the urge to proclaim to all the world the wonders of his beloved. I have seen the same when people have a genuine conversion experience. Certainly we see it in John’s Gospel: Andrew rushes off to tell the Good News to his brother Simon. The woman at the well tells anyone who will hear about this man who unlocked the mystery of her entire life.

Difficulties Addressed. Finally – and this point is crucial in John’s Gospel – Jesus addresses difficulties. He waits until the right moment, when he knows the person is ready. Then he hurls a dart or a real zinger. It happens every time.

With the woman at the well, Jesus invites her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). He first saw her, attuned to her, loved her, and awakened her spiritual thirst. Then he confronts her with the truth. She is ready. She confesses the truth. She has no husband. The man she is with is not her husband because she has been married five times. Note that Jesus does not make concessions to the hard life and harsh treatment that she has almost certainly endured, leading her to the point of making these choices. He does not rationalize or downplay her sin. Nor does she! He has gently and gradually brought her to a moment of conversion, so that she can receive the spiritual water for which she so desperately thirsts.

There are other examples of darts and zingers, of confronting the difficulty head on. Jesus exhorts the woman caught in adultery, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). He jabs at Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). He reminds Pilate that he would have no authority whatsoever if it were not granted him from on high (John 19:11).

With Nathanael it is a bit different. When Jesus “sees” Nathanael, he perceives one who is ready right away. Jesus is immediately blunt, in an almost playful way: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit … I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:47-48). We never know what Jesus “saw” under the fig tree, but can assume it was something deeply personal and not entirely edifying. Yet Jesus affectionately accepts Nathanael for who he is, promising him much greater things. Nathanael eagerly follows.

Then there is Simon Peter, the ultimate example of gradual conversion. Peter is the epitome of two steps forward, one step back. The interesting thing in John’s Gospel is that the “dart” comes at the very end, after the Resurrection, when Peter encounters Jesus on the seashore, after the catch of 153 fish.

First there is the gentle invitation to Peter to admit and repent of his threefold denial. He who warmed himself and three times denied his master by a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday is now allowed to affirm his love three times by a charcoal fire, drawing near to true warmth.

But there is more. In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – the ultimate gift of self in sacrifice (which Jesus had just shown in his Passion). Peter sheepishly responds that he “loves” Jesus with philia – brotherly love – and is told to feed Christ’s sheep. Peter has come so far, and still has so far to go. Jesus gently but painfully invites him to tell the full truth about his conversion. He truly loves Jesus, but is not yet ready to lay his life down for Jesus. One day he will be. He will grow stronger in due time, and will truly become the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For now, Peter’s love of Jesus is still a work in progress.  It is enough. Jesus invites him, “Follow me.”

Thus in John’s Gospel we see the human capacity to go either direction in an encounter with Jesus. Some of the characters allow themselves to be seen and understood and loved; they grow gradually in their desire and respond step by step. Others react or resist or retreat. In every case John leaves “the rest of the story” untold. We remain free to go in either direction. One thing is certain: We are either drawing closer or distancing ourselves. In such encounters with the God’s love and truth in the flesh, there is no standing still.