I dream of the day when each parish church will be a family in which everyone is receiving accompaniment and giving accompaniment. On that day, we will all be humble and vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to receive what we need, and will be thoughtful and generous enough to give accompaniment to others that God sends to us. On that day, it won’t just be the priests or the same couple of leaders in parish life trying to do the accompanying, but everyone, each according to his own calling and gifts. All will be accompanied and all will accompany.
There are various images that come to my heart when I think of this accompaniment: sharing bread, playing music, dancing, mentoring, coaching, walking along the path, sitting down next to someone, cultivating a garden, and mothering.
Accompaniment, at its best, is a committed relationship in which one is receiving the things he needs. Our needs are various: fellowship, listening, empathy, encouragement, affirmation, care, comfort, accountability, teaching, nurturing, guidance, and much more.
The first image that comes to mind is sharing bread together. That is literally what “accompany” means. Think of all the meals shared by Jesus and his twelve apostles – those to whom he provided consistent accompaniment, day in and day out. In the best meal experiences, all participants truly feel a sense of connection and belonging. In that spirit of openness, hearts are changed. We receive not only physical nourishment but a sense of community and belonging and purpose. Historically, those who share bread together were also those who walked the path together. They were part of a company travelling together, “companions” on a journey. Certainly our walk towards eternal life is a long journey, and we need companions.
Another image of “accompaniment” involves music. A musical accompanist is not the main attraction. Rather, his role is to be almost unnoticed in the background, boosting the confidence of the main performer(s). When the soloist or choir members make mistakes, the accompanist adjusts, helping them regain their composure and their rhythm. There is much more to accompanying than simply hitting the right notes – it’s a wonderful art of being interconnected with others and bringing out the best in them.
A related image of accompaniment is teaching someone to dance, or dancing with someone. I must say, this has NOT been a strong point for me. I think back to Homecoming my Junior year. My skills on the dance floor were duly noted by the football coach. He really enjoyed himself at the next practice, teasing me and another football player named “Bubba.” Something to the effect of filming a documentary entitled, “White Men Can’t Dance.” Anyway, those of you who love dancing know some of the skills needed – an intimate connection with your dancing partner, an overcoming of inhibitions, a willingness to make mistakes and adjust, attuning to each other and to the music, etc.
My football coach certainly knew how to tease, but we also revered him. He was an excellent mentor and coach. He knew how to give both criticism and praise, and had our undivided attention. He motivated us beyond what we originally thought was possible. I am still deeply grateful for the incredible discipline that our conditioning drills instilled in me. My internal “smoke alarm”goes off so frequently and so falsely, warning me that something is too much for me. Occasionally it’s right, but so often it’s wrong – I can actually handle it. Coaches are so good at helping us learn those lessons. Think of how many teens look up to their coaches. I encourage you to ask yourself – what would the equivalent look like in parish life?
One of my favorite images is sitting down next to someone. This image is especially helpful in those many moments of life when the shields of self-protection are up in full force. Most of us resist accompaniment, especially when we are feeling afraid or ashamed. When someone sits down next to us in a non-threatening way, it says so many things. It says, “I see you.” I see that you are hurting and afraid. I see that you feel ashamed, so I won’t look at you too forcefully or directly. It says, “I’m with you.” I am willing to sit on this dung heap with you and be sad with you. I’m not any better than you and I’m not trying to avoid your mess. It says, “You’re safe” – I won’t try to meddle and fix this. I’m just here at your side. If you want me to leave, I’ll go. If you want me to draw closer, I’ll draw closer. I respect you and your freedom. I notice you; I care about you; I am here for you.
Still another image is cultivating a garden. It’s a wonderful image because it involves both a consistent commitment AND incredible patience. On the one hand, the best gardeners show a marvelous awareness of what is affecting their plants: the soil, the water, the sun, the weeds, and unwanted pests. They vigilantly and diligently intervene to allow their crops to grow and flourish. On the other hand, they wisely understand that so much is out of their control, that growth is slow, and that they themselves do not provide any of it – not the seed, nor the plant, nor the growth, nor the fruit. They resist the urge to pull up the plant and check on its status.
Finally, and above all else, when I think of accompaniment in Church life, I think of motherhood. The Church is our Mother. Each of us, in our own way, shares in that mission of “mothering” others within the life of the Church. Jesus says that those who do his will become brother and sister and mother to him. New members come to birth and grow in His Church when we are willing to accompany. I’ll share more next time!