Accompaniment in Formation

The encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Vita Consacrata No. 65 states that “the primary aim of the formation process is to prepare people for total consecration of themselves to God in the following of Christ, at the service of the Church’s mission.” This is possible when one is transformed into Christ. It is partly the task of formation environment to facilitate human development, and growth in inner freedom of the vocationer and “fan into flame” the gift of Charism which God endows to those who are called to this way of life.[1] Conversion or growth into Christ as a celibate is a process of constant listening and experiencing the ways of the Lord in the life of a vocationer and this is also to be facilitated by the formators who accompany the individual and hence formation is an integrated human process. The formator needs to “tend the flame” and help the person to do the same. So formation is the process where the fire of the passion for Christ and the humanity is fanned and tended. As we have seen earlier, the aim of formation process is the transformation of the person into Christ. What, then, is transformation? “Transformation is a process of change into a mature relationship with God that has repercussions for human relationships and actions.”[2] And how this process takes place? According to Joyce Ridick, it is through internalization one is transformed. Internalization or transformation is “intellectual and emotional assent to a theocentrically transcendent good because of its intrinsic qualities and a conative (felt) urge and desire to live and become that good.”[3] In this process of internalization or transformation the role of the formator who accompanies is very important. To understand what happens in formation and how the accompaniment is done two images may help us. They are i) the fire in the ashes, and ii) the journey of Jesus with the disciples to Emmaus. Let us have a look at them.

Two Images of Formation and Accompaniment

Let us first look at “the fire in the ashes”. Joan Chittister while talking about the spirituality of the contemporary religious life uses this image taken from the Irish culture. The Irish have a word for the fire in the ashes: Grieshog. Grieshog is a process of burying warm coals in ashes at night in order to preserve the fire for the cold morning to come. Instead of cleaning out the cold hearth, people preserved the previous day’s glowing coals under beds of ash overnight in order to have fast-starting new fire the next day. The process is an extremely important one. Otherwise, if the coals go out, a whole new fire must be built and lit when morning comes. It would lead to waste of time and energy. So the important thing is that the old fire was not allowed to die. It kept its heat in order to be prepared to light the new one. It is a holy process, this preservation of purpose, or energy, or warmth and light in darkness.[4] If we take this image to understand what happens in the process of formation it gives a good insight. So the formation environment needs to help the vocationer or formandi to preserve this fire within: a passion for Christ and for humanity. As seen before, the role of the formator is to fan and tend this flame which was preserved by the process of formation with the cooperation and active involvement of the vocationer. This fanning and tending is done through the process of accompaniment. The next image from the life of Jesus would enlighten us to understand this process of accompaniment.

As Jesus in the episode of Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-32), the formator shares the journey and the “bread of the journey” with the young person in formation, who in turn lets himself be accompanied along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The purpose is to unburden the young person’s heart so as to grasp the Word that sets the heart aflame, in recognizing the Christ while he breaks the bread and thence run to the brethren to share the experience. Emmaus becomes an icon for both the formator and the young person in formation. The main condition is the capacity to open up, by letting the messy world often beating inside come out, with its ambitions and frustrations, hopes and fears, blockages and wounds, angels and demons. Jesus began the catechesis with the two disciples of Emmaus by asking them to confess the truth about their feelings, the depression and disappointment that broke their heart. In the same way formation works only if the young person opens up, unveils the state of his soul, positive and negative, tells the truth of his experience to whoever is beside him and who for this very reason can help him understand himself better. Next, the two disciples do not recognize Jesus, but they welcome the company of this stranger who joins them on the journey; they accept to dialogue, they listen even when the stranger’s words take a tone of reproach and condemnation of their hardness of heart; they vent their sadness and disappointment on him, they insist that he remain with them, in short they trust him. It is actually trust that allows walking together, at the human and spiritual level. In the same way in the process of accompaniment the trust the young person places on the formator remains fundamental. In this episode, then Jesus enables the disciples to discern what is the will of God and to accept the reality of the passion and death of Christ as part of the plan of God. The formator accompanies the young person to a precise point of arrival: discovering the project of God and choosing it, in freedom and responsibility, as a revelation of his or her own identity. The accompaniment is therefore not in function of programmes or of the institution. It aims at creating an obedient availability in respect of the divine vocational plan. [5] Once the disciples recognized Jesus he disappeared from their sight. It is valid also for accompaniment. The one who accompanies should be careful not to do the discerning in lieu of the vocationer and when the time comes the formator must be also able to disappear from the scene to allow the process to continue. Saint Ignatius, a master in the art of discernment, repeats strongly that the young person is to be prepared not to seek outside oneself the security that what he senses is really the will of God. He would not find such a certainty anywhere, and would unload upon others a precise responsibility of his. But he is formed so as to seek in God the certainty of making a good choice. Therefore the formator directs, supports, helps to purify motivations and to free the heart, brightens up and gives assurance; but he abstains from every form of authoritarian voluntarism and from everything that would make the decision for obedience in faith less autonomous and personal, and therefore less believing.[6]

[1] Cf. M. EUGENE, “Psychology and the Development of Human Personality in Formation” In J. F. SEQUEIRA (ed.), Transforming Formation (2002), 27.

[2] L. SPERRY, Transforming Self and Community (2002), 125.

[3] J. RIDICK, “Preparing Priests: The Road to Transformation” In F. IMODA (ed.), A Journey To Freedom (2000), 202.

[4] Cf. J. CHITTISTER, The Fire in These Ashes. A Spirituality of Contemporary Religious Life (1995), 36-37.

[5] Cf. A. CENCINI, Spiritual And Emotional Maturity (1998), 185-187.

[6] Cf. Ibid, 188-189.