The first rule of spiritual accompaniment

Photo by Marta Kulesza, Pixabay

As part of the Spiritual Direction Certificate program at Divine Mercy University, I needed to find a person I could meet with for spiritual accompaniment. The purpose was not to do spiritual direction but to practice my listening skills. I chose an 89-year-old retired Protestant minister I’ll call Ed. After a lifetime of being the pastor of a church in the heart of a tightly-knit Southern community, he had some stories to tell. Each visit was an intense but satisfying workout in listening.

One of the first rules in spiritual accompaniment is to let the other person set the agenda. In other words, go where the other wants to go. Little did I realize that this might mean literally going on an adventure, but one that illustrated a few important lessons.

When I arrived at Ed’s house, he greeted me and said, “Before we start, I have an errand to run. Will you join me?” He explained that while the yard man was blowing the leaves, he uncovered an injured bird. Ed placed the bird in a plastic coffee can and set the can on the front seat of his old Ford pickup truck. He then called a vet, who referred them to another that rehabs injured wild animals.

I agreed to go and sat in the passenger seat with the bird resting on my lap. Ed did the driving. In spiritual accompaniment, I sort of do the same. Let the other do the driving while I cradle the wounds he or she is most concerned about.

He only had a vague idea of where the vet was. Fortunately for Ed, he was going to the vet I’ve been to many times, so I helped him navigate through the lane changes and intersections. In a similar vein, many times in spiritual accompaniment, the other also starts talking without being sure of the destination. I likewise suggest a few timely ‘lane changes’ and redirections. I’ve often been there before.

The waiting room was crowded so Ed stood in the middle of the floor. One person finally asked, “What’s in the can?” With his lilting Georgia accent and a voice filled with heartfelt concern, he relayed the story of the injured bird. All stopped to listen. A staff person immediately paged the vet that specialized in birds. The vet emerged from the back room and gently received the bird into her hands. She promised to call Ed with her findings. Mission accomplished.

On the drive home, Ed for some reason started talking about his early ministry in Alcoholics Anonymous. I asked how he got involved. He said when he was a young pastor, a member of his new congregation asked him to accompany him to his first meeting. Again, more similarities. The ‘bird’ in his congregation was wounded by alcoholism and buried in the leaves of a broken life. Just like the bird in the can, Ed accompanied this man to a place of healing.

The trip to the vet filled up the hour. Ed apologized. I said, “No need. In spiritual accompaniment, I’ve been told I need to go where the other wants to go, and that is exactly what I did.” We laughed. Like many other people I’ve accompanied, I did indeed provide a little support and direction. But also realized this was Ed’s journey, not mine.

May the LORD send you a fitting spiritual companion for your journey!

“The Church will have to ini­tiate everyone into the ‘art of accompaniment’
which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 169