Have you ever had anyone listen to you? I don’t just mean hear you, I mean listen to you? I did once – and I have never forgotten it.
I came to someone laden with my very real concerns. I was young, at a crossroads and my journey could have gone any direction at all. I remember the priest concerned listened, he left spaces for silence which gave me room to think, he spoke sparingly as though he was treading on sacred ground, he asked the odd question which enabled me to speak further into my pain and finally he made a life-changing remark: “You don’t want to carry that for the rest of your life like extra baggage, do you?”
Indeed I did not. This spiritual companion, in everything he was before me, his gentle acceptance, told me that I, in my lostness, mattered to God; that God was close, even though I could not feel Him. He gave me to understand that there was a future and left me with the distinct sense of a compassionate God.
I shall never forget that night so long ago now, or the morning that followed, or the days that followed after that. Darkness lifted. This spiritual companion did not map out a way of life for me or indicate a future; he did not give me a prescription to take to a spiritual chemist; he did not recommend a book to read; he did not tell me what to do; he did not tell me how to live life; he simply heard me and because he was a man of the Spirit, he could not help but work with the Spirit in restoring my life. He did God’s work and I knew that night that God had come and got me, that He had lifted me out of the mire of my pain and shone His light into my heart. My spiritual companion left me to claim life for myself and here I am telling the story almost 50 years later. That is the essence of spiritual accompaniment.
It is a calling. It is not something one takes upon oneself; to do that is so very often to mar the work of God. How often I have found in my own ministry as a spiritual companion the damage done by undoubtedly well-meaning yet uncalled spiritual companions, who in their neediness were only able to listen to their own echoes not the souls. St Benedict tells us that the spiritual companion must be someone who knows how to heal their own wounds.
I cannot stress too strongly the need for a spiritual companion to have a healthy, transparent, consistent prayer life. As St John of the Cross points out, the spiritual companion must be firmly in touch with their own spiritual journey and be actively pursuing it. This is the sure indicator that he or she will authentically “hear” God speaking when another comes looking for Him. They will also leave the “other” free to come and go without personal ties.
People ask: “How does one accompany another?” The first prerequisite has been stated. Then God will show you. You will do what, and be who, my first spiritual companion did and was for me. You will pray for the person who has come across your path. You will listen and you will find the appropriate direction emerging within you, according to the uniqueness of the soul in front of you.
As truly as God provides absolutely everything, perhaps we need to remember that while spiritual companioning so often does involve another person, “No man is an island entire of itself”, as the poet John Donne said. God does find other ways to accompany us — through the events of our life, a stray remark from another, a homily, whatever. God has a myriad of ways at His disposal for the seeking heart.
Thomas Merton the famous Cistercian monk found this so on a street corner, looking at a crowd of people. “There is no way of telling people,” he said “that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is, in God’s eyes”. The same vision is there for the true spiritual companion.
Mother Hilda Scott OSB is the Abbess at Jamberoo Abbey, New South Wales.
This article first appeared in the October 2020 edition of The Bridge, the newsletter of the National Centre for Evangelisation. Reproduced with permission.