Katie Evans spoke about her experiences of spiritual accompaniment as part of Bath Quakers ongoing online conversation series about our spiritual journeys. Here’s an abridged version of Katie’s talk.
Spiritual accompaniment is a cumbersome phrase. ‘Spiritual’ suggests something ethereal, the opposite of material, and ‘accompaniment’ makes me think of someone playing the piano! Neither of which are what I mean by spiritual accompaniment, but I haven’t got a better phrase. I hope by sharing some stories you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
The first time I sought out spiritual accompaniment was about 10 years ago. I’d gotten as far as accepting that I am, by nature, a religious person but it felt like the ground was shifting under my feet faith wise. I felt frustrated because this was important to me yet I couldn’t articulate it, even to myself.
I asked a friend if they’d be willing to try a spiritual friendship practice with me. We met roughly once a month to talk about what was going on in our spiritual lives and to listen to each other.
This brought home to me how powerful it is to be really listened to. Here was a space where I could talk about spirituality without fear of ridicule; where I could tentatively articulate things that were on the edge of my grasp, that I didn’t understand yet; where it was okay not to talk in coherent sentences, where I could bring what I was grappling with and also share those moments of grace and insight that are nothing original in the grand scheme of things but are personally moving and meaningful.
The feminist theologian Nelle Morton coined the phrase ‘hearing into speech’ to describe women’s experiences of finding that being deeply listened to enabled them to claim and inhabit their identities. This is a good description of my experience in spiritual friendship: I was heard into a grounded, quiet confidence in my faith; drawn to pray again even though I had thought that giving up my childhood image of God had rendered prayer untenable; and heard into a growing sense of purpose in life, of what in Quaker jargon we might call ministry or being led.
Last year I was responsible for coordinating pastoral care at Yearly Meeting. One of my tasks was to speak in Yearly Meeting about the connection between seeking to be a trustworthy, inclusive community and our ability to discern together God’s call, to be inspired and transformed – which is at the heart of what Yearly Meeting is about.
I’d written down what I was going to say months in advance, but it still had the feel of offering spoken ministry in meeting for worship – that sense that I had been given something to say and tasked to say it.
I was paired up with Alison, a Friend from the planning committee, for support. Alison was in contact with me before Yearly Meeting to offer moral support. She’d read what I was going to say. She sat with me in the session I spoke in and I knew she was upholding me. When I sat down again after speaking she gave me a hug. From the outside that doesn’t sound like much, but it made a huge difference to me.
As I sat waiting for it to be time for me to speak I felt waves of nervousness sweeping through me. But with Alison sat next to me, it was as if I’d outsourced dealing with my anxiety. I knew she was caring for me, so I didn’t need to worry about myself. Instead, I was aware of a deeper peace underneath. I knew that even if I felt sick and shaky, I would be able to speak calmly and clearly, without feeling self-conscious.
I see this as an example of accompanying eldership – a practice that goes back to the early Quakers travelling in the ministry. Often they went in pairs: one friend who felt called to minister, and another going with them as an elder to support them in their ministry and discernment.
I have an inkling that God is always ready to uphold us like this if we allow it, but I find it easier to connect to this when a friend steps into the role of accompanying elder and embodies that support for me.
Recently I’ve been seeing a spiritual director. It’s a lot like spiritual friendship, having a conversation every couple of months about my spiritual life with someone who listens deeply. But unlike spiritual friendship, it’s one-way rather than mutual. The focus is on what’s going on for me, on my spiritual journey. My spiritual director will in turn have her own director that she talks with about her spiritual life.
The phase ‘spiritual director’ is even more troublesome than ‘spiritual accompaniment’. It sounds hierarchical, as if your director will tell you what to do, which isn’t the case. Like in spiritual friendship, a spiritual director offers their presence and deep, prayerful listening, to support the person they’re accompanying to discern their own path.
I find having a spiritual direction appointment in the calendar means that I make the time to attend to that dimension of life. There’s usually something rumbling away below the surface and if I make the space to allow that to come forward, I know what I need to attend to.
Often I take to spiritual direction something I’m stuck with or puzzling over. It’s cathartic to acknowledge whatever it is, to be witnessed, even if I don’t immediately see a way of getting unstuck. Sometimes a question or an observation from my spiritual director gives me a new perspective, liberating me in some way.
In my spiritual life, I am very slow. I can see what, for want of a better word, we might call ‘growth’, but it’s over a span of years not days, with lots of looping round again and again over the same ground. Having these conversations with a spiritual friend or director regularly helps me to recognise the narrative that is unfolding slowly conversation to conversation. Being heard by someone else helps me keep faith in the times when I wonder if it’s all nonsense.
How are you accompanied?
These three stories are all about being accompanied one-to-one by people who have listened to me and listened with me and upheld me. We can also be accompanied in our spiritual journeys by people we’ve never met, perhaps people long dead, whose writing or music or art speaks to us. And there’s the companionship of meeting for worship, and I’m sure lots more forms of accompaniment.
How are you accompanied on your spiritual journey?