• Seeds of the Word

Our generation needs spiritual companions: fathers and mothers in the Spirit!


Deacon Georges Bonneval

“How can I understand if no one explains it me?” (Cf. Acts 8: 31)

This was the cry of a pagan: an Ethiopian eunuch, an official of the Queen, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Following this cry, he was joined and helped by the deacon Philip, who interpreted a passage for him from the Book of Isaiah. He was then baptized, and his life certainly remained transformed.

The Latin root of the word “accompany” consists of “ad” (movement) and “cum panis” (with bread). Thus, it is the association of “the one who eats bread with another” which is also found in other words with the same origin, such as: companion, accompaniment, and company. It is company who walks alongside you, in movement, as evidenced by the deacon Philip whom we have just mentioned.

As we regularly witness, there is a challenge in our present age to respond to this vital necessity for true spiritual accompaniment, which helps individuals delve more deeply and refocus on what is essential in life, which is to be a child of God. We risk losing sight of this beautiful living tradition known as spiritual accompaniment (also called spiritual direction) that dates back to the third century and the beginnings of monastic life.

Pope St. John Paul II declared (in 1982) to French bishops: “More people than we think would be able to pray. But no one has taught them!”. The theme of spiritual accompaniment is as vast as it is deep because it covers several dimensions, not only of being, but also of the spiritual life. However, we must define what spiritual accompaniment is, including its purpose and what differentiates it from all other accompaniment programs. Spiritual accompaniment, let us remember, aims at our life of faith and growth as sons and daughters of the Father, in conformity to Christ and docility to the Holy Spirit, in one’s ecclesial and vocational life.

In the Eastern Church, spiritual paternity is still, to this day, a great treasure of that tradition. It is a paternity which aims at begetting, growing in reverence and conformity to Christ. This way of living the spiritual life, which has its source in the most primitive monasticism, has passed through the centuries. Its profound purpose is to open the way for filial adoption by the Heavenly Father and participation in the divine life.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name." (Eph 3: 14-15)

We must remember that if we speak of spiritual paternity and maternity, we affirm above all that “there is but one Father, our Father in heaven!” and that it is from Him that we receive every vocation of “father” and “mother”, whether this be biological or spiritual! We receive this gift from God!

“I understand more and more what ‘spiritual fatherhood’ can be and I am more and more cautious about my way of living this gift that is made to me. I always receive it in a different manner, more freely! I have nothing, I receive everything, and I must receive it more and more from my Father God! We always risk controlling others, taking them instead of liberating and releasing them to truly become sons and children of God.”

The tradition of the apophthegms of the Desert Fathers tells us of the wisdom and manner of spiritual exchange which took place between a monk and his disciple. It was, in fact, a very simple formula of “questions and answers”, through which a monk may say to an elder: “Abba, tell me a word, so that I may be saved”.

But today we ask ourselves a crucial question: to which man or woman of God, or to which priest or religious, can I go to for spiritual accompaniment? How can we honestly ask this very demanding service of our priests, who are already so overwhelmed by their own pastoral ministries?

In the traditional practice of spiritual accompaniment, the spiritual father was not necessarily a priest. St. Anthony of the desert (fourth century), who is considered to be the model of monastic life, was not a priest; Saint Silouane of Athos (twentieth century) was not either. There are many further examples in the seventeenth century, particularly Gaston de Renty (1611-1649) who himself, though a baptized layman, was a remarkable spiritual companion of religious women.

The spiritual companion must be a Christian who lives an authentic spiritual life, immersed in the study of the Holy Scriptures and living a true experience of listening and attending to souls while seeking the will of God in docility to the Holy Spirit, in communion with the Pastors of the Church.

St. Teresa of Avila, in the introduction to her “The way of Perfection” reveals her three sources of inspiration for her service of spiritual accompaniment for consecrated souls: “I speak only of what I experienced myself, or discovered in prayer, or from the lives of my sisters”.

“In Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel” (cf. 1 Cor 4: 15). Our contemporaries often have a profound desire to confide in a spiritual guide, brother, father or mother. Paul designates this ministry indeed as “a father, who begets in Christ”. One can indeed be edified and formed by many preachers and instruments of God, but the one who

has been given the duty to accompany someone spiritually must become a clear, obvious and faithful ecclesial reference. It is indeed a matter of knowing the difference between the experience of “spiritual help” that has brief and temporal value, and spiritual accompaniment which orients and engages someone’s whole life.

To define what spiritual accompaniment is today, we can say that it means walking beside a brother or sister on the path of their Christian life, without pretending to be their superior, without deceiving or deluding them by leading them to believe that one holds divinely inspired recipes or answers to all their questions. As we will see, spiritual accompaniment must not make anyone dependent on the other, neither the spiritual companion nor the one accompanied. On the contrary, faithful and patient accompaniment should help each person become who God is calling them to be!

To be a spiritual companion is to be available and attentive, ready to share the anxieties and fatigue of another disciple of Christ, and to help them grow towards human and spiritual maturity without desisting, “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4: 13).

Jesus is: the “I am,” the “Way,” the “Truth” and the “Life”

(Cf. Jn 14: 6)

This journey cannot be brief, but must be traveled with the same patience and perseverance that one would use to climb a steep ascent. It is the conquest of oneself, and it’s often a lifelong process.

Who should receive spiritual accompaniment? Is it only for those who have interior problems? The answer: All Christians must be accompanied, especially those who have a prominent service or ministry. For the more a ministry is visible and engaged in the new evangelization, the more it is “exposed” and therefore the more it requires guidance, discernment and spiritual protection.

We must be well aware that in the current day and age, vocabulary proper to the spiritual life is being seen as more and more incomprehensible, and is even considered to be backwards.

Expressions which have a positive meaning in the tradition of religious life, such as “spiritual direction” and “spiritual fatherhood”, are considered by today’s society to be problematic and in opposition to “freedom of conscience” and the “right of choosing what you desire.” There are several other evangelical phrases which share this reality, including: “self-denial or self-forgetfulness, the consciousness of sin, the mortification of self-will”, etc. They are regarded today as “shocking” and as belonging to a backwards mindset, or at the very least to one that is rather doubtful!

Other “values” today receive more acclaim: the promotion of individualistic happiness, the right to affirm one’s own will over others, the primacy of profitability, efficiency and performance... Moreover, there is a (more or less) conscious incitement to rebellion against authority, traditions and dogmas, which appear as belonging to an older time. Often, it is a question of preferring to have everything, versus being open to receive everything with the inner freedom of a child’s heart.

As we have already mentioned, let us be prudent not to confuse or intermingle spiritual accompaniment with any other sort of accompaniment that exalts “my individual self” with assertions of greater well being and personal success. Many of these assertions, often seductive and deceptive, are the antithesis of evangelical life. Spiritual accompaniment is, by definition, of another nature.

As Pope Francis states about “psychological ideologization”:

“Here we have to do with an elitist hermeneutics that ultimately reduces the ‘encounter with Jesus Christ’ and its development to a process of growing self-awareness. It is ordinarily found in spirituality classes, spiritual retreats, etc. It ends up being an immanent, self-centred approach. It has nothing to do with transcendence and consequently, missionary spirit."

Finally, to understand the importance and necessity of spiritual accompaniment, our hearts must first be touched with compassion by the urgent need of “wandering souls.” According to Scripture: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” (Is 53: 6). We must ask Christ for the grace of a heart that, like His own, is touched by compassion:

“When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9: 36)

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus:

“We must take care of souls. Often we do not think about them and we wound them. Many souls are sick, many are weak, all are suffering. What tenderness we should have for them!"

The Lord can often do His Work without our help, but it seems that when it comes to accompanying our brothers and sisters, He doesn’t want to do it without us!

Here I am, Lord; use me today as You wish, to reach out, to serve and to accompany my brothers and sisters who wander without direction on the journey of their lives!