The origins of this reflection go back nearly twenty years. I wrote it for presenting in the final stages of ‘The Art of Spiritual Accompaniment’ in Sheffield. What began as a fairly straight presentation I discovered was actually a meditation. I recently revived it for presenting on the final day of Sarum College’s spiritual direction programme. I drew in a few extra perspectives that make it an articulation of my understanding of this profound ministry.
Andre Louf in his preface to his book ‘Grace can do more’ describes how when he was made abbot of his community he had chosen this reading from ‘Fenelon’ on the Spiritual Director:
‘A director, if he is full of the Spirit of God, never goes before grace in anything. He only follows it patiently, step by step, after testing it with many precautions… The things that God makes us do for love of him are usually prepared by a gentle and imperceptible providence which leads things so naturally that they seem to come as if of themselves. There must be nothing forced or irregular… We should ask only in the measure in which God gives.’
He goes on to describe how the Bishop present for the ceremony said to him ‘Dear Father Abbot, that is indeed what you will have to do from now on. Never try to impose yourself on your brothers. Of course, you would do very well, but grace can do more!’ Louf comments ‘There no doubt is the secret of all spiritual accompaniment: never impose yourself on another person, even if you would do ‘very well’, because ‘grace can do more’.
Teilhard de Chardin, while serving as a medical orderly in the first world war, writes in a letter to his cousin Marguerite:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. …
… Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you surely through the obscurity and the ‘becoming’, and accept, for love of him, the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”**
Ignatius of Loyola identifies three ways of living humbly in the Spiritual Exercises [165-168]
To never consciously do anything against God’s will.
To positively seek to do God’s will
To seek the truth of Jesus’ life to be mine – willing to be with Christ in suffering and death as well as in life and resurrection.
Max Warren, while General Secretary of the Church Mission Society wrote challengingly about the task of the missionary:
“Our first task in approaching another person, another people, another culture, another faith, is to take off our shoes for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”
Thomas Merton, in a letter to Jim Forest in 1966 writes:
Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
A meditation on the role of the Spiritual Accompanier in the light of these perspectives:
Take off your shoes…
What a task! To truly sit alongside another, and listen, invites faith and trust, again and again, and again…
To trust that God was there before us and so to have expectancy, listening to discern..,
To trust that God holds this person’s life and they don’t depend on your support, protection, help, saving, teaching and so to let them be…
To trust that your presence may be used and be useful… even when we feel useless, overwhelmed, confused, lost for words, awed, …
To let go of our own agendas, again and again as we listen, as we respond…
To let go of our shock or fears that emerge as we listen (as they speak of their adultery, of their suicidal feelings and attempts…), to seek to remain poised and present.
To let go of the need to have some significant impact in a session, see results, and have them to feel it was worth seeing you…
To be prepared to travel with them on their journey… not at the pace we would like, but at the pace they are travelling, trusting that God will be stepping alongside
To trust the slow work of God, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
And in so doing, cling …
to the value and truth of this apostolic ministry, in itself
to the God who, by grace comes to us, in our brokenness, inadequacy, vulnerability
to Christ in the way of the third way of living humbly – companioning Christ in the other. Sitting alongside them as they carry their cross, crying out as if totally abandoned. Sitting alongside them as they soar with the angels in profound consolation.
to the Holy Spirit, listening for the gentle breath, the fleeting inspiration, the flow of life
Remembering, even if in our own abilities we may do very well,‘grace can do more’
Nick Helm (October 2020)
The Slow Work of God
Teilhard de Chardin in a letter to his cousin, Marguerite writes:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that may take a very long time.
Thus, we have been through a whole year’s suspense, not knowing what the future holds for civilization.
And so, I think, it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to ‘ force’ them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you
surely through the obscurity and the ‘becoming’, and accept, for love of him, the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Excerpt From: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.