• Seeds of the Word

What spiritual accompaniment is not


Deacon Georges Bonneval

Spiritual accompaniment is not sacramental confession

Spiritual accompaniment is not confession, but does complement the sacrament of reconciliation. Your confessor (a priest) may also be your spiritual director, but it is certainly not mandatory. Through confession, however, the priest who hears confessions can, in ways, become a spiritual companion (or director of conscience) who helps someone discern the ways of the Lord.

With regard to seminarians, the Code of Canon Law states:

“Students are to become accustomed to approach the sacrament of penance frequently; it is also recommended that each have a director of his spiritual life whom he has freely chosen and to whom he can confidently open his conscience.” 1

The Ratio fundamentalis still insists that all seminarians have a spiritual director (also called a “moderator of spiritual life”).

It is undeniable that spiritual accompaniment fosters a yearning for regular and frequent sacramental confession, as it helps one identify more clearly and more deeply the flaws, tendencies and roots of sin which need to be worked on. In the same way, the sacramental graces of confession will be better developed and deepened in spiritual accompaniment. While distinct from each other, it can be said that the two roles of spiritual direction and sacramental confession are mutually beneficial.

In a religious community, just like in a Seminary, the Rector – or head of the community – practices prudence by not easily accepting to hear the confession of a seminarian, except in an emergency. This is because his role demands the freedom to make necessary decisions based on an external level (and not based on someone’s confessions or interior life).

In addition, with regards to “an educational community,” the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis of St. John Paul II specifies the need for “maintaining a suitable freedom in the choice of confessors.” 2

In the context of community life, the Code of Canon Law calls for the making of a list which designates ordinary confessors and extraordinary confessors 3. This list does not have to be long – it only needs to contain more than one confessor, so that community members have the freedom to choose.

It is possible to have a priest who is both our confessor and spiritual companion, but remember that a layperson can also be a spiritual companion. For example, in the 17th century, Gaston de Renty was a remarkable spiritual companion of Catholic Sisters. Women have also been remarkable spiritual companion, such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (who accompanied novices).

Let us distinguish, therefore, between two graces: that of sacramental confession and that of spiritual accompaniment.

In his book, “I want to see God,” Father Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus proposes a magnificent journey of the stages of spiritual life, synthesizing the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. He remarks:

“The confessor is a physician who heals and preserves the life of grace from sin, and the spiritual companion ensures the spiritual progress of the soul.” 4

This spiritual progress concerns all the growth required in the Christian life to which we are called, particularly in community life, as we live out the Christian virtues 5. It corresponds to the work that we are called to carry out by surrendering ourselves to God’s grace.

On the one hand, there is the gift of God’s grace. On the other, there is personal work, struggle, and the cooperation of my soul and faculties (will, intelligence and memory) with His grace. For this reason, personal accompaniment is needed so that one does not get lost on the journey.

The content of spiritual formation for candidates of the priesthood that are members of a community is defined by the Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis. It is a triple path to be covered: “a faithful meditation on the word of God, active participation in the Church’s holy mysteries and the service of charity to the ‘little ones’.” It is in this perspective of charity that the call to Evangelical Counsels is found, as the call to be formed in obedience, celibacy and poverty.

The daily celebration of the Eucharist should be the center of community life 6. The exercise of spiritual accompaniment is part of the permanent and mandatory service of spiritual formation for a seminarian as well as for any member of the community. In personal spiritual accompaniment, the person’s whole life and all of their actions can become opportunities for human and spiritual growth.

Let us remember that there is a major and essential difference between confession and spiritual accompaniment. The sacrament of confession is the disclosure of sins in the presence of a priest so that we may do penance and receive forgiveness from God. Conversely, spiritual accompaniment is the opening of the heart about how we live our Christian life and our inner state. In spiritual accompaniment, we work to manifest our thoughts so that we might be counselled and guided to advance on a spiritual path, in light of

our salvation.

If your confessor and spiritual companion are the same person (a priest), it is necessary to clearly distinguish between the two: the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and the opening of one’s conscience in spiritual accompaniment, which takes place outside of the sacrament.

Simply put: the confessor absolves; the spiritual companion counsels.

A spiritual companion is like “a bridge” who helps the one accompanied pass from a natural and psychological Christian life to a spiritual Christian life. They help others discern the Lord’s will, but the one accompained remains the ‘necessary and irreplaceable protagonist’ of their own formation: “No one can replace us in the responsible freedom that we have as individual persons.” 7

Spiritual accompaniment is not psychotherapy

It is, however, beneficial if the spiritual companion is reasonably trained in psychology, because they will often need a certain psychological tact, and at times psychological discernment, to assess certain benchmarks. If they lack psychological knowledge of human nature, they are likely to fall into spiritualism.

Moreover, spiritual accompaniment cannot be a substitute for the possible need of psychological therapy. When necessary, a psychologist may complete the “work” of a spiritual companion or vice versa, but one cannot substitute the other. Even if elements of psychology can permeate spiritual accompaniment, there should be no confusion between the two services, the two levels, and the two approaches.

In the same way, psychotherapeutic science alone cannot take into account the whole vision and spiritual discernment which belong to the order of faith.

Likewise, spiritual accompaniment cannot resolve questions where psychotherapy is required.

It is sometimes common to hear the argument, “but my psychologist is a Christian”. This is not the question, however, but rather: “How does your psychotherapist, as a professional, view your problems?”

The psychological life and spiritual life are very often merged because the human being is one. However, the spiritual companion considers the spiritual life of their accompanied ones: their relationship with God, their faith, their personal struggles and even areas of sin.

There may be specific situations in the life of the one accompanied that require psychological therapy. A psychologist may be asked to identify a specific juncture in the person’s past that requires healing. When certain problems hinder the clarity and freedom of an individual, the spiritual companion may look to other disciplines for therapeutic support.

In other cases, the psychologist and spiritual companion may work together in a complementary and reciprocal way. The human being is one, and our psyche is an integral part of our life – as is our spiritual life. Our psyche is also mobilized by our spiritual life. For example, our relationships play a role on a psychological level, but also concern our spiritual life. Due to this crossover, a psychological counselling session can help someone take great steps forward, allowing them to grow and progress in the spiritual life.

However, this psychological work is completely different and separate from the regular work of a spiritual companion. A psychologist is not charged with the work of spiritually accompanying another!

Spiritual accompaniment is not aimed only at relief for the soul on a human level, but is aimed at a greater Good: the progression of the Kingdom of Heaven in that person’s life.

“It is in the light of God that man learns to know himself.” 8

Whether it be the science of psychology or the science of souls, the two complement each other and require a profound knowledge of the human being. According to St. Paul:

“For what human being knows what is

truly human except the human spirit that is

within? So also no one comprehends what is

truly God’s except the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 2: 11)

St. Teresa of Avila was undoubtedly a remarkable companion of souls, gifted with an extraordinary psychological understanding, and she was able to communicate with others with a tone of serenity and composure. “Self-knowledge,” she says, “is the bread that must always be eaten with food of every kind.”

“In a purely psychological approach, the notion of sin does not occur. The relationship with good and bad is viewed from the angle of guilt, bad conscience, or a sense of failure.

Psychological analysis wants to be situated ahead of sin. And this knot between the psychological life, psychic man and spiritual life is undoubtedly one of the most difficult areas to unravel, all the while respecting the individual domains without dividing the human being. The spiritual life can only be lived in faith to God who by various ways reveals Himself and gives Himself. The light to discern His authenticity and His ways is not to be sought in the obscure and difficult path of the unconscious, but in that of faith.” 9

Spiritual accompaniment is not simply fellowship and fraternal sharing

Naturally, fraternal sharing and dialogue are part of every spiritual accompaniment. But we want to clarify that an exchange of confidences, fellowship amongst friends with a cup of tea, or even deep conversations can in no way be considered times of spiritual accompaniment.

Today, many people have a strong need to confide in someone, to express their feelings, to share their hearts… This can of course have a healing aspect, but it’s not necessarily complete and whole. It often happens that this way of talking about oneself, even

if it’s not deliberate, can feed a toxicity that damages rather than restores.

“Certain psychotherapeutic cures can lead to

a hypertrophic cult of the ego, by an overdose of

introspection.” 10

Contrarily, receiving a certain “spiritual welcome,” from someone, whether it be during a mission of evangelization, a retreat or an outreach, can be the beginning of an authentic spiritual accompaniment journey.

Spiritual accompaniment (or spiritual direction) is always a ‘walking with’; it is a spiritual exercise duly chosen and decided upon, not something temporary or improvised. It is a journey with a specific person whom we have received from the Lord and who was chosen by Him for this service.

“The Kingdom is not of this world yet is in the

world; its virtue comes from above, to descend

into the intimacy of our lives and of our hearts of

flesh. This virtue delivers us from sin. We are not

talking about the guilt complex that psychiatrists

are dealing with, we are talking about real sin,

about the catastrophe of the inner man who has

devastated himself by rejecting Love.

I speak of this nothingness of which I myself am

the cause and which ravages my being and kills my

God - as Jacques Maritain says - and before whom

all the remedies of men are a derision. It draws us,

this virtue of the Kingdom, not from trial but from

despair, it fulfills not our mere natural capacity for

human happiness, but a much more mysterious

ability to become members of the Body of Christ

and dwellings of the Holy Spirit.

It takes us through the mud and makes us children

of God. As St. Paul said, ‘For once you were

darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.

Live as children of light’ (Eph 5: 8).” 11


1 Code of Canon Law, Can. 246 § 4.

2 St. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 66.

3 Code of Canon Law, Can. 240 § 1.

4 Fr. Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, I want to see God.

5 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1803s.

6 Code of Canon Law, Can. 246 § 1.

7 St. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, No. 69.

8 Fr. Marie-Eugène of the Child Jesus.

9 Bishop Albert-Marie de Monléon, article Psychology and Faith.

10 Cardinal Suenens, Worship of Self and Christian Faith.

11 Cardinal Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate.