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.

Gradualness: Lessons from Paul

Wise preachers and teachers in every age understand that growth in faith happens gradually, one step at a time. Today we turn to the apostle Paul, the most successful Christian preacher of all time.

Paul’s life and message can be summed up in one word: conversion. He experienced a profound conversion to Jesus, not only once on the road to Damascus, but each and every day of his life.

Paul boldly proclaims, “I have been crucified with Christ; I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20-21). For Paul, every day was a dying and rising with Jesus: Christ living in him and he living in Christ. Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He took on a new name and new identity, and his life would never be the same.

This new identity is not simply a “me-and-Jesus” existence. We become fellow members of the one Body of Christ. Notice what Jesus says to Saul on the road: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). He does not say “my followers” or “my friends”  but me. To be a disciple of Jesus is to co-exist in Christ as one whole person.

We exist organically as members of the one risen and ascended Body of Christ. Little by little, we become fully alive as members of that Body. It is a gradual and lifelong process. Paul understood that point. His primary task was always his own conversion: “It is not that I have received it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may receive it, since I have indeed been received by Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12).

The Letter to the Ephesians speaks often of the “fullness” of Christ. There is a gradual and dynamic growth into that fullness, until at last God’s plan of salvation comes to perfect completion. The entire human race (those willing anyway) and the whole cosmos will be brought into perfect unity under the headship of Christ. He will become all in all.

In the meantime, conversion is all about growing reception and receptivity. We earnestly strive to receive more and more from on high. We receive and give help from and to each other. And most importantly, we are received, taken up into this heavenly Body of Christ that is always beyond us, beckoning us daily to come further up and further in.

At any given moment, each of us receives and is received into this fullness as much as we can. But our capacity for reception depends upon our depth of desire, our freedom, and our willingness to cut out the things that are blocking our receptivity.

That means that we need different kinds of care and different moments. Paul explains the gentle nurturing that is so often needed in the early stages of conversion. While we are still spiritual infants, we need milk rather than solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). And hopefully we remember the same when it is our turn to nurture the faith of others, whether our own children or the adult members of our churches who are only just beginning to relate to Jesus as a real person. Paul explains to the Corinthians that he guided them, not “with a stick,” but “with love in a spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21), for he is their father in Christ Jesus through his preaching of the Gospel to them.

But notice the next point. As Paul proceeds in a spirit of love and gentleness, he urges them to use a stick – figuratively anyway – by casting out from their midst the man who is living with his father’s wife. And he urges them not to associate with the sexually immoral, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or robbers. He concludes pointedly, “Drive out the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13).

This whole “gradualness” thing is complex! On the one hand, our shared membership in Christ constantly impels us to receive one another as Christ has received us (Romans 15:7),  and to be receptive to those who are weak (Romans 14:1, 15:1). Yet there are also moments when we have a duty to hold others accountable and impose consequences.

Remember the lessons learned from Gregory the Great regarding the evangelization of Kent: some attitudes and practices (idols, idolatrous prayers) must be cut off at once; others are to be tolerated patiently with a view to full maturity. Discernment is key.

Paul often draws a distinction. Some Christians are “mature” or “spiritual” while others are “immature” or “fleshly.” We need patient tolerance for those who are immature or still in the flesh – but we also need to keep nourishing and caring for them so that they do not get stuck there!

We can ask an obvious question: What distinguishes a “mature” from an “immature” Christian? For Paul, it is simple: the mature Christian has embraced Christ Crucified, and is willing to sacrifice himself with Jesus. Paul warns strenuously against those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “minds are set on earthly things” (Phil 3:18-19).

Sadly, some of the approaches to gradualness by some Church leaders today have become the equivalent of avoiding the Cross.  Yes, patience and gradualness are important, but so is finishing the journey, fighting the fight, running the race to the end! We are wise to begin with gentleness, sweetness, and patience. But in due time, full conversion is the goal. We must never forget that! With Paul, may we all truly take on this attitude of constant conversion and inspire others to embrace the same: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).

Gradualness: More Lessons from Alcuin

At the end of the 8th Century, Alcuin of York wrote three fascinating letters in response to King Charlemagne’s efforts to “convert” the Saxons by the sword. Alcuin had learned much from the highly successful evangelization of his homeland of Northumbria.

Last time we learned the essential role of human freedom and holy desires . Today we learn in more detail what that gradual growth and conversion looks like. Alcuin offers a few metaphors to illustrate his point.

First, there is the image of a seedling plant in the vulnerable stages of its early growth: “We must ponder profoundly in what fashion a new plant must be cultivated, such that the first flowerings of faith are gradually brought to fruition: lest they be embittered by a harsh frost, and fail to grow to the sweetness of the hoped-for fruit.”

The “frost” that particularly concerned Alcuin was Charlemagne’s immediate demand for tithing among the converts. Not only were they forced into baptism, but were promptly giving new bishops who fleeced them with a ten-percent tax. Alcuin acknowledges to Charlemagne that tithing is a marvelous spiritual practice that is encouraged in Scripture. But it is not the best way to begin your effort of evangelizing. In his witty use of Latin, Alcuin describes the tithe [decimus] as a decimation of the faith of these poor people. He emphasizes the need for preachers [praedicatores] rather than predators [praedatores].

Faith is a fragile gift, easily lost in the early stages. The preacher should start with the sweeter and more pleasant things and work towards the harder ones. Alcuin appeals to Paul’s evangelizing of the Corinthians, in which he viewed himself as giving milk to spiritual infants, slowly nursing them toward solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).

Alcuin next considers Jesus’ metaphor of not putting new wine into old wineskins (Mt 9:17). Alcuin interprets the cryptic image: “Who are the old wineskins, if not those who have been hardened in the errors of heathenism? If you pass down to them the more austere precepts of new preaching while they are still in the beginning of faith, they will be broken, and will go back to the old comforts of falsehood.” Just as with winemaking, maturing in faith takes patience and time: “The soul that is fortified by the fermentation of sacred faith over a long period of time is stronger than in the initial vintage of fresh preaching.” As an example, Alcuin describes Peter, filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit, which empowers him to bear bold witness before Nero in the Roman palace as a martyr – quite the contrast with Peter in the house of Caiaphas on Holy Thursday – too terrified to witness even to a slave woman. “Earlier he was more timid, later more constant; earlier an example of fragility, later of fortitude.”

Alcuin adds the example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), pointing out that Jesus did not rush to censure her, but rather bowed down in a gesture of humility and wrote in the ground, in order to show teachers how they should acknowledge their own weakness, first looking at their own hearts and writing their sins in the dust that they find there. In doing so, they will find themselves much more gentle when it comes time to confronting the sin of others.

Alcuin then maps out a structured “order” of gradual conversion through faith. He quotes the wisdom of St. Jerome, who is himself commenting on the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “A precise order: He bade the apostles that they should first teach all nations, then immerse with the baptism of faith, and after faith and baptism should command those things that must be observed. And lest we judge those things that were commanded to be light and few, He adds: all things whatsoever that I have commanded you.”  

Notice the order. First comes the hearing of the Gospel, which stirs up in our hearts the first beginnings of faith. Without that foundation of faith in the heart, baptism and the other sacraments will not grow and bear fruit in us.  Then comes incremental instruction designed to help the neophytes grow in faith and bear fruit, as they learn to live Christ’s precepts in all their fullness. Finally comes the fullness of truth and love in Christ. Alcuin frequently suggests that the earlier preaching should focus on “sweetness” and nurturing growth, and only later in the process, when disciples are strong enough, to bring in the “harshness” or “bitterness” that is required for a full observance of Christ’s precepts.

Those who preach the Good News and teach the faith play a crucial role.  Alcuin calls for “pious preachers, of honest morals, educated in the knowledge of the holy faith, and imbued with the evangelical precepts.” He warns against two evils – on the one hand, greedy and ambitious shepherds who prefer wealth, honors, and privileges to heavenly rewards; on the other hand, the damage that is caused when Churches go for a long period of time with no shepherd at all. Alcuin reminds of the need to pray and work to provide suitable shepherds for the “dangerous times of this age, which has fewer helpers in the Lord’s work than are necessary.”

Alcuin articulates the qualities that a preacher and teacher of the faith should have: “He must glow with all the lanterns of the virtues in God’s house, but must be capable in a knowledge of the most sagacious discretion, so that he can know what suits each person, sex, age, time, and place.” A good preacher is a good listener, tuning into what the needs of the person are at this particular time. With an attentive heart and wise mind, he nurtures the gradual growth of faith in the heart, until total conversion takes root.

In so many ways, heathenism is alive and well today. Faith is withering and dying in the hearts of our people. Those of us who preach and teach the faith can learn a lot from Alcuin’s wisdom!

Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…