I just heard that at their plenary meeting in Baltimore last week, the National Council of Catholic Bishops in America had discussed what they termed, theologically, as the Art (yes Art) of Accompaniment—a pastoral strategy designed to listen more intently to people and to walk with them pastorally through their quest for faith. Please note: I have not read their document but I have read one reaction to it which questioned the strategy as it was suggested in the title of the document.
From what I understand, the bishops’ title of the document starts with the word, “Art”…but recently I have come across the idea in Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Creation and the Cross and she calls the theory, “The Act of Accompaniment.” I prefer this title. I believe ‘accompaniment’ is an act, not really an art. It means walking with, journeying with, coming to a decision on behalf and with the person we are accompanying. It takes something from us to walk with someone. We give up time; we might be unsure ourselves of the direction. We are shrouding our eyes looking into the storm or sunlight or anything that could blind us as we walk together. We hold hands. We try to help the faltering footsteps of the person we walk with. This person might be trying to learn more of faith or they might be discerning an important decision. And, yes, they could be on a sickbed reaching for comfort and consolation. Or, the act of accompaniment could mean holding someone wracked with grief, or someone totally unsure of their worthiness in the eyes of God. The act of accompaniment ends in a decisive action, a choice for the better.
Which brings me to Advent. Yesterday Advent began in the Christian calendar. What is advent but the time we should reflect on the truth that God came to ‘accompany’ us in this life’s journey. God did it through action. Jesus, God’s Son, was brought into the world to connect with all of us stragglers who, despite our shortcomings, really are loved by God and welcomed at the table of salvation. Jesus came to ‘accompany’ us.
Much of our liturgical readings in Advent come from Second Isaiah, the portion of the Book of Isaiah from chapters 40 to 66. This very poetic and affectionate narration of God for the Jewish people is at the heart of the redemption story which takes flesh in the conception and birth of Jesus. When reading Isaiah 41:14, I imagine God’s face as a human face that’s tearful, kind, welcoming with an encouraging smile saying: “Do not fear…I will help you.” The future may seem terrifying but God’s love is crying out like a woman in labor, panting to deliver new life, to paraphrase both the scripture and Elizabeth Johnson. Whatever obstacles you will face: “…raging rivers or burning flames, you will make it through for…I am with you…and you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Isaiah 43:3-4. God spoke these words to Isaiah for the Jewish people in exile who were moving, through unspeakable hardships, to the Promised Land.
What is my Promised Land? I may have let it go dry and windswept; I ignored it fearful of the commitment it might take. Deep inside me exists this promised land, a holy longing, a place where only God resides, a place God wants me to acknowledge and cultivate and some day arrive there. It is my promised land. Maybe it is a deeper spirituality, or a commitment to act on something I should do. Whatever it is, when I arrive in this promised land, I will flourish in God’s love. More than likely, I will need someone to ‘accompany’ me to this promised land, to assist me in the quest.
Sometimes we find that corner of the heart, our promised land where God is waiting for us, when we ‘accompany’ another person. This is the fruit of a good marriage or faithful friendship or companionship to strangers, or spiritual direction from a dependable guide.
For this Advent I might want to go deeper, deeper into my heart and soul seeking a greater meaning in my life by finding more of the God who accompanies me. Mary did just that when she said ‘yes’ to God’s request that she be the Mother of God. Perhaps I will find that promised land by also offering to ‘accompany’ others in the quests to know God better and to enlarge their souls in love.
So why not resolve:
1. To read our friend Isaiah from chapters 40 to 66 and reflect on what the message could mean for you.
2. During the days ahead, turn off the clamor of commercialism and sit for periods of silence reflecting on how God’s love accompanies you in particular and all of the human race in general.
3. Think of someone you may be called to ‘accompany’—someone who will know God better, be less fearful and feel more joyful in coming to a decision because you walked with them to their promised land.
Can you share insights that may encourage other readers and Anonymous Angels who read this blog faithfully? All of you are in my Advent prayers.