Old Ideas and New Words

painting of Jesus talking to the Rich Young Man

What is “Accompaniment?” by Fr. Frederick Edlefsen

Ever since 2014, Pope Francis has been using a word unfamiliar to American ears.  The word is “accompaniment.”   Though new to us, the word conveys an ancient idea known to the saints and desert monks of old.  

“Accompaniment” is an awkward mouthful to native English speakers.  In poetry and prose, it falters.  In the USA, if the word doesn’t provoke blank stares, it provokes memories of 1970s pop-psychology.  Is there a good idea behind the bad English?

Perhaps by some twist of Providence, I’ve been reading, reflecting, and experimenting on accompaniment for about fifteen years, thanks to a late Cistercian abbot, Father Andre Louf.  He wrote two in-depth books on the subject, namely, Tuning Into Grace: The Quest for God, and Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment and Spiritual Growth (Cistercian Publications).   More recently, Into the Silent Land and An Ocean of Light (Oxford Press) by Father Martin Laird, O.S.A., are, in my opinion, excellent books that are not strictly about accompaniment but are nonetheless helpful in understanding it.  

I was struck when Pope Francis proposed accompaniment in his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”  Moreover, there was reference to accompaniment during the Synod on the Family and other occasions.  Recently, accompaniment has been associated with the Synodal Process, which the Pope is introducing to the Church this year.  

Though it’s likely that I missed something (I’m far too busy to catch everything), I have not seen a clear, concise explanation of what the Pope means by accompaniment.  Of course, one could guess.  English speakers know what “accompany” means, so we might suppose that “accompaniment” implies something similar: “to go somewhere with someone” or “to be present with someone.” 

But the Pope must mean something more specific.  As the head of the Catholic Church, it must have something to do with being a “missionary disciple” of Jesus Christ.   The Pope’s meaning might be gleaned from contexts in which he has used the term.  At this article’s end, I give examples of this from his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”  As I read it, the Pope paints a picture of what he means by Christian accompaniment.  Moreover, in light of my reading of Louf, Laird, and Francis, this is what I see.  


What is Accompaniment?


In short, accompaniment is impartial – non-judgmental – listening to another person while, at the same time, prayerfully “listening” for how the Holy Spirit might be breaking through the person’s issues to give new life.   Accompaniment is about digesting what a person says rather than playing referee.  While refraining from directives (at least at first), the listener is prayerfully attentive to potential movements of grace within themselves that may inspire a “good word” or “good gesture” that helps the other discover new life or a new path to which God may be calling them.   The Holy Spirit may in fact inspire the listener to say nothing for the time being.  While the listener may know the “right answer” to the other person’s quest, his or her role is not to jump right to the punchline.   Rather, the listener, guided by the Holy Spirit, accompanies the seeker in a way that helps them to discover a truth about themselves – or God’s will for them – and to act on their own.      


Accompaniment takes time.  It’s an open-ended and inductive process led by the Holy Spirit.  “You hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes…” (John 3:8).   In a sense, it’s a bit free and amateurish, not inclined to prefabricated, calculated comments or ideas.  Its purpose is not to diagnose or explain.  Deductive thinkers and planners may have a tougher time accompanying another.  On the other hand, accompaniment may come more naturally to people inclined to inductive thinking and “following their nose.”


The one who accompanies another becomes a spiritual “father” or “mother” who, in the process, births the other into new and life-giving paths and familiarity with God.  The Holy Spirit is the principal actor in the encounter.  The one who accompanies another is known as an “accompanist” (another awkward mouthful).  The accompanist prays and listens attentively for God’s prompting through the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Counsel – one of the seven Gifts – to say the “right word” peacefully and gently at the “right time.”  Spiritual masters have traditionally called this “the grace of the word.”  St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Dominic famously had this grace, as did many saints.  It’s a spiritual gift given, latently, in the Sacrament of Confirmation.


To be sure, accompaniment is not primarily about drawing upon the virtue of Prudence, as important as this is at times.  Accompaniment may not be about saying the “right thing” even when we know what it is.  Withholding the punchline may be the wisest path, at least for the time being.  More precisely, accompaniment is about saying the “right thing” at the “right time,” through the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Counsel.  Of course, the prudent person knows the “good to be done” and the “evil to be avoided.”  But the timing – when to say it – is often beyond Prudence and human reckoning.  


Furthermore, the “right thing” may not be the “right thing to say” if the accompanist is seeking to have a positive impact.  As G.K. Chesterton said, one may be right without being right-minded.   But the Holy Spirit infallibly knows the “what” and “when.”  “Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  “How unsearchable are his judgments” (Romans 11:33).  Ultimately, good words come not “from us” but from the Holy Spirit “through us.”  The good word comes not from the ego but from grace.  Therefore, the accompanist must be spiritually attentive.   This flows from the grace of Confirmation.   It’s a spiritual gift that must be unwrapped in humble patience and maturity.  The ego must be downplayed.


Accompaniment is not non-directive counseling.  Nor is it a technique.  It doesn’t try to accomplish a defined end.   It’s more open-ended than directive.  It’s not up to the accompanist to establish goals.  Rather, one accompanies a “conversion of heart” (metanoia) that is, per se, holiness or the perfection of the Theological Virtue of Charity (agape).   No one can appoint themselves an accompanist.  On the contrary, the disciple chooses their master.  The wand chooses the wizard, per Harry Potter. “Jesus turned, and saw them following, and he said to them, ‘What do you seek?’  And they said to him, ‘Teacher, where are you staying?’  He said to them, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:38-39).


The idea of non-judgmental listening might raise questions. What about the Commandments?  Do the Church’s moral teaching have something to do with accompaniment?  The short answer is “yes” — but not necessarily as a “directive” coming from the accompanist.  


Look at it this way.  It’s often ineffective to tell someone, “You should do this…”, or “You should not do that….”, or “You should not have done that.”   As correct that counsel may be, it may not be helpful, healing, or life-giving.  Why?  It’s only appealing to the person on a psychological level. It’s appealing to the superego – the “inner-policeman” – perhaps at a time when a person may be lost in a psychological or emotional jungle.   In other words, saying the “right thing” at the “wrong time” would be at least fruitless and at worst harmful.  Shining a bright light in a dark cave does not show the way out.


On the flip side, undue approval of another’s actions is not helpful either.  For example, saying things like, “That’s OK….”, or “That’s not a sin….”, or “You’re not really doing anything wrong….”, or “do whatever you want”, may be just as unhelpful as saying, “Don’t do that.”   In other words, “all is cool” is also fruitless.  Why?  Again, that’s talking only on a psychological level.   Approving or disapproving a person’s actions or comments is nothing more than being another parent, teacher, policeman or some authority figure issuing “happy faces” and “sad faces.”  The one seeking guidance is back to being either punished or patted on the head.


Of course, parents must be directive at times, saying things like, “Don’t lie”, or “Clean your room”, or “Do your homework.”  A teacher must say things like, “Don’t cheat”, or “Don’t bully”, or “Pay attention.”  A parent may have to intervene if a child gets into harmful friendships or self-destructive behavior.  A priest may have to say, “Go to Mass”, or “Stop gossiping”, or “Follow the Commandments.”   That’s in their job description.  At a most basic level, civilization depends on directives. 


However, accompaniment is a different thing on a different level.   A parent, teacher, friend, or priest may have to put on the “accompaniment hat” at times.   This is especially true when a person needs not a strictly human word but rather needs (perhaps without realizing it) to be touched by the “gentle whisper” of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of Life.” Accompaniment has a supernatural dimension.   


Going easy on approvals and disapprovals, the accompanist listens to both the other person and the Holy Spirit – and thereby mediates grace.   Accompaniment helps people encounter the Holy Spirit, whose ways are infallibly life-giving but cannot be discovered on a purely human level.   This is both a human and a supernatural encounter. 


When a person encounters the Holy Spirit, they discover a new and unforeseen peace, joy, courage, and freedom that takes them in a new path toward light and truth.  They re-discover themselves as God has always known them. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(Jeremiah 1:5).  The one accompanied grows in self-knowledge and knowledge of God.  He or she discovers an inner Light that was always there but hidden.  “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   This Light is not something “new age,” “gnostic,” or anything egotistical.  It’s not weird.  Rather, it’s a divine “Light from Light” that produces a fresh new openness and generosity toward God and man.  One becomes more human.  


Accompaniment does not have a fast-track.  Observable results are rare.  The Holy Spirit rarely reveals himself on the surface of anything.  “Most of his works are concealed” (Sirach 16:21). Being an accompanist is not necessarily “satisfying” work, especially in the short run.   Rather, it requires plenty of patience and a willingness to deny one’s own sense of control, possessiveness, or need for resolution or sense of accomplishment.  The accompanist must avoid the “I know best” syndrome, unless an imminent danger requires it.   Like a midwife, the accompanist instrumentally delivers knowledge of the Holy Spirit’s work in another’s life, and yet the accompanist gets out of the way at the right time. 


The accompanist is willing to let go when it’s for the best, even if it hurts.  The right time to let go is usually determined by the one accompanied, not the accompanist.   Moreover, the accompanist’s role may end long before the other person’s issues are resolved.  The accompanist’s role is provisional and not about seeing things to their glorious end.   It’s not the accompanist’s job to give another the golden key to life.   But it may be the accompanist’s job to point it out so that the other may claim it. 


Accompaniment is not necessarily something we do for a long time, and it’s not about spending long hours with another.  The accompanist must avoid becoming the object of the encounter.  Rather, accompaniment is about the other person’s growth and relationship to God.  After Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery, he didn’t say, “Now let’s go to Starbucks.”  He said, “Go, and sin no more.”   In short, he set her free.


What does Pope Francis say about accompaniment?
Here are some quotes from Pope Francis’ letter “The Joy of the Gospel.”


“In our world, ordained ministers and other pastoral workers can make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze. 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 (see Exodus 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.”  (Joy of the Gospel, 169)


“Although it sounds obvious, spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God, in whom we attain true freedom. Some people think they are free if they can avoid God; they fail to see that they remain existentially orphaned, helpless, homeless. They cease being pilgrims and become drifters, flitting around themselves and never getting anywhere. To accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.” (Joy of the Gospel, 170)


“Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock.”  (Joy of the Gospel, 171)


“We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives.”  (Joy of the Gospel, 171)


“Someone good at such accompaniment does not give in to frustrations or fears. He or she invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel. Our personal experience of being accompanied and assisted, and of openness to those who accompany us, will teach us to be patient and compassionate with others, and to find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow.”  (Joy of the Gospel, 172)

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