Pope Francis is calling the Church to be a field hospital for the wounded rather than simply a sanctuary for the saved. A crucial aspect of his vision is “accompaniment”. I’ve recently reflected on how authentic accompaniment works.
This Sunday’s gospel was about the walk to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). It is a wonderful example of authentic accompaniment. Two disciples are walking towards Emmaus from Jerusalem. It is the first Easter. Jesus was crucified two short days ago. They’ve just heard that some of the women from their group have seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus has risen from the dead. The disciples are bewildered, sad, and almost hopeless. Then Jesus himself joins them, although they are prevented from recognizing him.
Authentic accompaniment first means hearing the other’s story before telling my own. I have to find out where others are, before I can walk with them to where they need to be. Jesus does this. He asks the disciples, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” (24:17). He’s God. He knows their story. But he wants to hear it from their lips.
Authentic accompaniment respects the other’s questions and pain before offering counsel and healing. Jesus listens as the disciples pour out their anguish and shattered hopes. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). Only then does Jesus point them toward the Word of Life, the Scriptures. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). He helps them to see how even their sorrow is meant for joy, in God’s glorious plan. Their hearts burn within them. He acts as if he’s going farther. But they beg him,“Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent” (24:29) They crave the hope and reassurance his company brings. They don’t want this time to end.
Years ago, a friend was having serious marriage problems. “Jerry” had had several affairs. I’d had no idea, because his persona with me was more altar boy than adulterer. But things broke open, and he was on the point of divorcing his wife.
The affairs hadn’t come out of nowhere. Jerry and his wife had had a long history of deep disagreements. His wife’s serious boundary issues had made their lives chaotic. Her helicopter parenting style had greatly hampered their children’s development. She had a number of controlling standards that she insisted he live by. Arguments on these and other issues had led nowhere.
Authentic accompaniment may be uncomfortable. It may stretch me. When the affair became known, Jerry at first avoided my calls. It was awkward for me to keep offering what seemed to be unwanted help. Eventually, however, he agreed to meet with me at a coffee shop. It was a difficult conversation. But once he realized I was coming out of compassion rather than judgment, it got easier.
As I tried to accompany Jerry, it was abundantly clear that Jesus was accompanying me. I began by thanking Jerry for being willing to meet despite his embarrassment. “That took guts.” Jerry openly admitted he had a divided heart – not just about his wife, but about his relationship with Jesus. He was a chameleon, and he knew it. With worldly friends, he was worldly. With Christian friends, he was Christian. He longed to be fully committed to the Lord. But he was afraid of whom and what he’d be giving up.
With God’s leading, I was bold with Jerry. Jerry likes poker and plays it well. I urged him, “Jerry – you know a good hand when you see one. Stop hedging your bets. You’ve admitted that you’re leading this divided life. You know that Jesus is the real thing. BET THE POT on him. Put all the chips in the middle. Hold nothing back. God wants ALL of you. He also wants your marriage to work infinitely more than you do. Give God everything, and give your marriage whatever it takes.”
Jerry listened. He worked things out with his wife. I believe that it was the Lord’s words, not mine, that persuaded him. I was the instrument. Authentic accompaniment has to be done by the Lord’s leading and with his power. We have to love with his heart. He will accompany us as we do so.
Authentic accompaniment accompanies the person in the right direction. It leads people from slavery to freedom, darkness to light, sin to conversion, and despair to hope. The journey on that Easter road wasn’t just from Jerusalem to Emmaus. It was from despair to hope. It was from feeling abandoned and lost to recognizing Jesus’ presence. “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35). Likewise, Jerry’s journey was from a divided heart to a whole one, from infidelity to recommitment.
False accompaniment, on the other hand, accompanies the person in the wrong direction. Often, that’s along the path of least resistance. I may act out of misplaced compassion. I may fear offending the person, in cases where authentic accompaniment involves calling a committed Christian to the next level of holiness and sacrifice.
Stanley Hauerwas, Mennonite theologian, talks about such false accompaniment in the contexts of divorce and abortion. In Resident Aliens, he observes how the Christian community is all too likely to say to people divorcing, “We feel so sorry that you two are splitting up. But you know, people grow apart/things get too difficult/there’s no way you can forgive him for that.” We offer sympathy, and not much else. We take sides. We choose which one to accompany through the “necessary evil” of divorcing.
How refreshing it would be, says Hauerwas, if the Christian community instead said, “We are here for you. What do we need to do to help you stay married? Name it.” Or with someone considering abortion, “How can we make it easier for you to keep your baby rather than abort it? We’ll do whatever it takes.” The same could be said of helping the homeless, the imprisoned, those caught in the sex trade, those trapped in the inner-city cycle of violence and poverty, or those without faith.
It’s far easier to throw money or social programs at difficult people and situations. Or church programs. I’ve done it myself. But authentic accompaniment means face-to-face contact. It means getting in the trenches. It means encountering the other when the other may be very different from me. It’s risky. It’s difficult. But it brings hope, and life, and freedom.