The spiritual companion: a spiritual father!
WORD FROM THE FOUNDER
Deacon Georges Bonneval
“For though you might have ten thousand
guardians in Christ, you do not have many
fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became
your father through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4: 15)
In the care of souls, no one can improvise or fabricate being a spiritual companion The service of spiritual accompaniment cannot begin one day without the spiritual director first having also been spiritually accompanied well. Just as it is difficult to become a father if one has not learned how to become a son, in the Christian life one learns to spiritually accompany others only by first allowing themself to be accompanied, and for several years at that.
a) There exists no authentic spiritual companion who is not, in their own life and vocation, also an authentic Friend and Cooperator of Christ our Lord. That is why the spiritual companion prepares themself in prayer, seeking the Holy Spirit and asking for His gifts of prudence, wisdom, knowledge, discipline and discernment of spirits. To guide the souls entrusted to them, the spiritual companion’s natural gifts are not enough. Those who are pastors must submit to the Pastor of souls, Jesus the Good Shepherd, and accept being only the ‘second’ shepherd. “Feed MY sheep”, Jesus asks Peter. In the same way, a good spiritual companion must consider themself as being ‘second’ after the Holy Spirit, who is the True Father of our soul! This requires listening, a spirit of docility and constant submission to the Spirit of the Lord, within the hearts of both the spiritual companion and the person being accompanied.
b) The Word of God is central and powerful for inspiring and guiding spiritual accompaniment. God’s Word will likely act much more effectively than the spiritual companion’s own words. It is a two-edged sword, piercing until it discerns and separates what is from the flesh and what is from the spirit (cf. Heb 4: 12). The spiritual companion must rely on the Word of God as a shepherd relies on their staff. It must be their constant reference as they listen, guide and direct. This presupposes that the spiritual companion knows the Holy Scriptures well!
c) A good spiritual companion is someone who is available to others. Someone who is overloaded with preoccupations will never attract souls who are seeking advice or counsel. They are not available to listen to others, let alone to help them carry their problems. They have too many other things to do!
“The East in particular teaches that there are brothers
and sisters to whom the Spirit has granted the gift
of spiritual guidance. They are precious points of
reference, for they see things with the loving gaze
with which God looks at us. It is not a question of
renouncing one’s own freedom, in order to be looked
after by others. It is benefiting from the knowledge
of the heart, which is a true charism, in order to be
helped, gently and firmly, to find the way of truth.
Our world desperately needs such spiritual guides.
It has frequently rejected them, for they seemed to
lack credibility or their example appeared out of
date and scarcely attractive to current sensitivities.
Nevertheless, it is having a hard time finding new
ones, and so suffers in fear and uncertainty, without
models or reference points.” 1
d) The spiritual companion – as a testimony of the Church – agrees to look towards two mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of man. A spiritual companion seeks to read and contemplate the mystery of God in others. Above all, he or she must be a shining witness to God’s work, work which begets sons and daughters who are free in the Spirit.
The Western monastic tradition is rich in testimonies about the spiritual paternity of some of the following holy Abbots: Benedict, Bernard, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, Guerric of Igny and Guillaume de Saint-Thierry.
An Abbot is a ‘father of souls’ much more than he is the administrator of an institution. Or rather, his administration of souls precedes his exterior administration of the monastery. The master of novices is the Abbot’s representative for the novices, for whose formation he is responsible.
“Spiritual paternity is perhaps what is most
beautiful here below, but what purity it demands
from the father, and what humility from the sons. It
allows us to pass into the Kingdom of the Heavenly
Father, where we will only say, Abba Pater, with
and in the Son made man out of love for us!” 2
e)The spiritual companion must listen to others on a level that is both spiritual and profound, and not only on a psychological level. It is a type of listening that requires friendship and empathy for the other. Every human being needs to be taken seriously. A spiritual companion can later help discern gaps in sincerity, recognizing fabricated masks or the desire to please by the one accompanied, whether it be conscious or unconscious. But the spiritual companion must begin with a positive perspective. It is the basis of all pedagogy. The mere simplicity of being listened to builds confidence and eliminates aggression in the one accompanied.
Those who allow themselves to be influenced by their prejudices will not be able to listen attentively. The spiritual companion must not try to bring the one accompanied into their own frame of mind, otherwise they will not be able to dialogue freely. This compels the spiritual companion to have a free, gratuitous and completely detached interior attitude. It is the opposite of a manipulative and narcissistic attitude, equivalent to that of the “hired hand” who is concerned only with himself. As Jesus states in the Gospel, “The hired hand does not care for the sheep.” (cf. Jn 10: 13)
“He should keep in mind that he has undertaken the
care of souls for whom he must give an account.” 3
“A senior chosen for his skill in winning souls
should be appointed to look after them [novices]
with careful attention.” 4
f) The spiritual companion must seek grace in order to understand the souls they accompany. To do this, they must agree to take time to listen carefully to the ‘replay’ that the person gives about their life, however they may do so. This aspect is essential and is at the heart of the spiritual companion meeting.
“I knew that he understood me and that God gave
him all he needed to help me.” 5
It is necessary that the person accompanied feels understood, so that their spiritual accompaniment can have continuity and constancy. This friendship in God with the accompanied is fundamental. Only in this condition of understanding is the spiritual companion able to become a useful tool in the Lord’s hand.
g) The spiritual companion is called to love each person that they accompany with respect and charity. Olivier Clément, an orthodox theologian, wrote: “I am because I am loved”. A true friendship that is born from regular spiritual accompaniment allows the other person to exist. The charity of understanding which we speak of is never about the spiritual companion ‘capturing the one accompanied for themself ’, but on the contrary, it is complete respect which favors the inner freedom of the one who has confided in them. The spiritual companion is not the target; they must know how to entrust their accompanied ones to Christ and the Church. With experience, they will learn how to receive the Lord's goodness, goodness of heart and goodness of intellect.
h) Spiritual accompaniment is a ministry of midwifery. Socrates, in his time (five centuries before Christ), had already discovered this pedagogy: “Maieutics” is a philosophy which consists of a “birthing” of the mind based on the belief that everyone carries a profound potential for knowledge within them, even if they don’t realize it. The Apostle Paul testifies to what marks the difference between a philosophical current and a journey of faith in Christ:
“My little children, for whom I am again in
the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed
in you.” (Gal 4: 19)
Pope Francis is another testimony, coming from his long experience as a Jesuit and spiritual companion:
“I always advised the nuns who came to ask
advice: ‘Tell me, in your community or in your
congregation, isn’t there a wise nun, a nun who
lives the charism well, a good nun with experience?
Do spiritual direction with her!” 6
The spiritual companion must listen constantly and often say nothing at all, sometimes agreeing to remain a mere useless servant. It is then that the Holy Spirit will show the spiritual companion if they should teach, correct, confirm, or encourage… The spiritual companion is often a ‘translator’ who must interpret both what they hear and also what is expressed through silences. But their basic attitude is that of prayerful listening. “In silence, we can hear many things!”
i) Spiritual companion requires a humble and ecclesial faith from the men and women who entrust themselves to it. The spiritual companion’s trueness and authenticity will be verified by their humility.
This humility contrasts the ‘manipulative guru’, who has an answer to everything and tries to form the other into their own mold or sometimes, unfortunately, into a trap. Some more insecure souls tend to look for a companion who seems to them ‘dogmatic and faultless’ and thus, they claim a preference for ‘spiritual guidance’ versus ‘spiritual direction’, which seems to them to be too ‘commonplace’!
Let us not forget that Christ Himself become vulnerable and poor to be united to us and redeem us. Thus, the inner quality of the spiritual companion must keep them from rigid tendencies, and rather, encourage them to cultivate a healthy evangelical humility.
The spiritual companion themself is a vulnerable being, someone with a wounded heart and who is also on a life journey.
j) The spiritual companion is a discreet person, a faithful disciple of Christ who has learned to deny themself. They are not responsible for or obliged to tell their accompanied one what they should do, but they must truly accompany the directee in their choices and decisions. A spiritual companion both knows and constantly recalls that it is the Father of Lights who knows and leads this person.
“Whoever wants to speak to a man so as to reach
him deeply, where the real decisions are made, must
go through Christ. He must purify his thoughts
by integrating them into that of Christ, and must
make his word true by subordinating it to that of
Jesus. Then he will think and speak correctly and
his thoughts and words will endure. His intention
must be that of Christ Himself, and his will be
imbued with His love. It is Christ who must speak
through him, not his own self. It is Jesus whom he
must give to souls instead of himself. If he does this,
then the depth of the soul who knows Christ will
listen to his voice and give his answer.” 7
This attentive listening requires detachment on the part of the spiritual companion and renunciation of any desire to please others, because the objective is not themself, but the other person – to help bring them to where Christ is waiting for them. It is therefore a great responsibility, such that the person being accompanied should be able to recognize the very voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, through their spiritual director.
k) The spiritual companion is both close and distant. Close to their accompanied one because they journey with them, but also distant in order to respect them and leave them free in their choices and final decisions. Being at a distance means that they accept holding no dominion over the person they are accompanying. It is precisely for this reason that, before anything else, the spiritual companion must be a person who listens and dialogues with sincerity.
“The spirit of dialogue is friendship.” 8
This friendship should be strong and sweet, holy, sacred, divine and completely spiritual. St. Francis de Sales had the genius of dialogue. Everyone had the impression that they were completely understood by him, for he brought such humility to the dialogue, forgetting himself with patience. As a result, his spiritual accompaniment meetings frequently ended with the conversion of the one accompanied.
The spiritual companion must be discreet. They have the duty of utmost confidentiality to that which has been entrusted to them through the other opening their heart, just as a priest does in confession. Spiritual companion who are lay persons must be doubly vigilant on this point.
If something comes up in spiritual accompaniment that is important for another person to know, the companion must either ask the one accompanied for permission to share it, or ask themself to tell the third party. Without this permission, the spiritual companion will not be able or allowed in good conscience to share what has been entrusted to them. The exception today however is in regard to questions of sexual abuse, especially in relation to
minors or vulnerable persons. In these cases, the duty of declaration is demanded.
Often, the spiritual companion must know how to fade away in order to better guide the souls entrusted to them.
“Because you are a little girl, the Lord has given you
a little staff. Let us take care, I beg you, that this
little stick does not seem so necessary, that we place
too much emphasis on it. It is better to bring souls
to this reform by themselves, not by constraint or
endless explanation, but by attraction.” 9
l) The spiritual companion may be used by the Lord as a physician of souls, helping to promote inner healing and liberation. Guiding someone to open their soul, when before then they were silent and wallowing in distress, is already an indispensable milestone on the path of healing. The spiritual companion is not a healer, and it is only through Christ and because of Him that they are at the service of souls, as a bright witness of God’s grace.
m) The spiritual companion must never make themself indispensable, nor make the other person dependent on their way of accompaniment. Still, they must provide a wide vision, without ever forcing or weighing on the will of the other person, who must always remain free.
St. Francis de Sales used this method of ‘advice by attraction’ and opposed any method that could act as ‘pressure.’ This is why St. Jeanne de Chantal declared: “I have often had difficulty because he did not command me enough”.
The Holy Bishop of Geneva, who became a Doctor of the Church, said: “We must bring souls to reform themselves and avoid authoritarian emphasis that awakens the instinct of rebellion”.
n) The spiritual companion must know how to ask questions, in order to help the person to externalize their thoughts and to put the right words to the situations or experiences which they wish to disclose. The spiritual companion must be carefully guarded against any unnecessary curiosity. My own spiritual companion often repeated, “The Holy Spirit is not curious”.
o) The spiritual companion must be vigilant and trained regarding the risks of psychological transfers, especially when it comes to those who are very sensitive, those with emotional immaturity or those who tend to place certain impositions on the spiritual companion. We will explain the danger of transfers in more detail in one of the upcoming reflections.
p) The spiritual companion must learn to place everything at the feet of Jesus, going before the altar or tabernacle and giving Him all those that have been entrusted to their care; all those burdensome situations that have been shared with them. They require a strong prayer life to entrust to the Lord l that they hear, and to receive from the Lord the correct and discreet way in which to react. The spiritual companion must constantly remember not to take too much upon themself, never forgetting that they are neither “the Lamb of God” nor “the Savior of the world”.
When St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus was the novice mistress, she declared to her Mother Superior:
“When I was given the office of entering into the
sanctuary of souls, I saw immediately that the task
was beyond my strength. I threw myself into the
arms of God as a little child and, hiding my face
in His hair, I said: ‘Lord, I am too little to nourish
Your children; if You wish to give through me what
is suitable for each, fill my little hand and without
leaving Your arms or turning my head I shall give
Your treasures to the soul who will come and ask for
nourishment. If she finds it according to her taste,
I shall know it is not to me but to You she owes it;
on the contrary, if she complains and finds bitter
what I present, my peace will not be disturbed, and
I shall try to convince her this nourishment comes
from You and be very careful not to seek any other
for her.” 10
q) The spiritual companion must know how to keep track of the passing time. This is necessary to help the person being accompanied to consider the passing time and the journey of each of them. Ask for the virtues of patience and prudence to work with this time which is God’s.
“Every true direction is governed by the Holy Spirit.
This direction waits for the opportune hour; it does
not cling to Providence and asks neither too much,
nor too soon, nor too much at once, guarding itself
from giving an ant the food of an elephant.” 11
“Virtues of patience and mercy. He must know how
to wait and let the other wait.” 12
r) The spiritual companion must be prepared to welcome and understand all persons without exception, in particular, the most fragile and the suffering. To understand someone who is sick, it is necessary that the healthy person has a large dose of charity. It is necessary to always be gracious and merciful, which is almost holiness itself!
A French Dominican priest (Fr. Ambroise-Marie Carré) was asked one day what qualities he looked for in the election of the future Prior of his Dominican convent. He replied, “First of all, that he doesn’t have too good of health”!
He knew, realistically, that the new Prior should be able to understand the sickest individual of his convent, where several elderly and sick brothers lived.
Following his night of conversion at Pennuel, the great Patriarch Jacob gives us a lesson in humility by declaring:
“Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant,
and I will lead on slowly, according to the
pace of the cattle that are before me and
according to the pace of the children, until I
come to my lord in Seir.” (Gen 33: 14)
Finally, the spiritual companion, as a friend of Jesus and a person of prayer, must continue to pray for those whom he or she accompanies, often entrusting them to the protection of the Virgin Mary, she who is Mother of all the sons and daughters of God.
Let us conclude by reading about how St. Vincent de Paul (17th century) prepared himself to receive a new person in spiritual accompaniment:
“When the Superior or someone else asks us to
accompany someone, we must turn our hearts to
the Lord and say to Him, ‘My God, it is you who
sends me this person; give me the grace’. And before
you go elsewhere, humbly prostrate yourself before
the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and say to the
Lord: ‘My God, you send me a soul redeemed by
your Precious Blood, and you want me to help them
benefit from your Blood poured out for them, that
they may say at the Final Judgment that I am their
co-redeemer, just like you are, my God. I thank you
Afterwards, we should go to the retreatant, praying
to God, offering him to the Lord, praying to his
Guardian Angel, filling ourselves with the spirit
of humility and not of knowledge, authority or
superiority. Oh my God, no! And pray the Veni
Sancte Spiritus with him. After asking him how
he has been, tell him that the Lord has blessed him
with the desire He gave him to do this retreat.
Finally, let us be disinterested; let us not say
anything that might testify to our desire to have
him in our Company, even if we would like to do
so. But know that if God gave some graces to this
little Company, it was always through the altruism
it always had.” 13
1. St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Orientale Lumen, No. 13.
2. Words of a monk, as quoted by Father Daniel-Angel.
3. St. Benedict, Rule of Saint Benedict, No. 2, 33-36.
4. Ibid., Chapter 58, No. 6.
5. A religious superior accompanied by the layperson Gaston de Renty, in the 17th century.
6. Pope Francis, Address to consecrated men and women of the diocese of Rome, May 16th, 2015.
7. Romano Guardini, German theologian, 1885-1968.
8. St. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam Suam, 1964, No. 49.
9. Gaston de Renty, 17th century.
10. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Manuscript C, 22.
11. St. Francis de Sales.
12. Blessed Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus.
13. St. Vincent de Paul, Spiritual Colloquiums.