Accompaniment and The Sacrament of Mere Presence

Today, we are ever so excited and honored to bring you a guest blog by Richard Beck, who hosts his own blog, Experimental Theology. Be sure to give it a visit regularly. When you form relationships with the working poor and homeless you can quickly become overwhelmed. The weight of need and the scope of the brokenness present you with no easy solutions. I think a lot of us harbor a bit of a Messiah complex, feeling that we can save the world all by ourselves. Reality quickly puts an end to such illusions.

The truth is that poverty isn’t pretty. There is addiction, mental illness, laziness, dishonesty, impulse control problems, personality disorders, criminality, and mental retardation. And trying to “fix” any or all of this, as if you could, can make you cynical or despairing.

And yet, in the midst of this ugliness there are inspiring acts of heroism and courage. There are stunning acts of generosity, redemption, love and grace. Thus, to remove yourself from the struggles of the poor is to cut yourself off from wellsprings of life, to remove yourself from the arena of God’s working in the world.

So how are we to find a “middle way” in being with the disenfranchised and the marginalized? Is there a way to be in relationship with the poor without the Messiah complex and the eventual despair and cynicism it produces?

A great help to me in this regard has been the work of Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche community. Many might recall that L'Arche is the community Henri Nouwen joined.

In his book Community and Growth Vanier describes a notion he calls “accompaniment.” In the L'Arche community accompaniment takes the form of caretakers living with the mentally handicapped. But the notion is general. Accompaniment is simply “being with” in the dailiness of life. William Stringfellow calls this the sacrament of mere presence. Accompaniment is not rescuing or saving. Accompaniment is simply being with, among, and in relationship with the poor. Accompaniment is extending the sacrament of friendship.

True, on the surface nothing much looks “fixed” by accompaniment. But something deeper is being healed and restored. When Mary ends up back in jail you visit her. You pray over John as he goes back to rehab, sending him off with tears and hugs. And when William and Sandy have their baby taken away because of mental incompetence you are there to share their grief and loss.

To accompany is to protect the humanity of others, sheltering them with your presence from the humiliations and degradations of life. Even when these wounds are self-inflicted.

But to get to this place you have to trade in the Messiah complex you started with. In describing accompaniment in the L'Arche communities Vanier talks about how we have move from heroism to dailiness. In Community and Growth he writes:

It is quite easy to found a community. There are always plenty of courageous people who want to be heroes, are ready to sleep on the floor, to work hard hours each day, to live in dilapidated houses. It's not hard to camp—anyone can rough it for a time. So the problem is not in getting the community started—there's always enough energy for take-off. The problem comes when we are in orbit and going round and round the same circuit...

A community which is just an explosion of heroism is not a true community. True community implies a way of life, a way of living and seeing reality; it implies above all fidelity in the daily round. And this is made up of simple things—getting meals, using and washing the dishes and using them again, going to meetings—as well as gift, joy and celebration; and it is made up of forgiving seventy times seventy-seven.

 A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of humanity lies in the acceptance of our insignificance, our human condition and our earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of people is in the fidelity to the wonder of each day.

There are plenty of heroes out there. But fewer, I think, are those willing to embrace the disciplines of accompaniment expressed in “fidelity to the daily round.” We cannot withdraw from the poor, to do so would be to cut ourselves off from the One who is found among “the least of these.” But must also lose the illusion that we are heroes and that we will accomplish great things. There is only burnout and disillusionment waiting for us on the other side. The antidote is learning to accept the insignificance of our contributions. Learning to experience resurrection—the “seeds of eternity”—through “daily gestures of love and forgiveness.” This is accompaniment. This is the sacrament of mere presence. This is the beauty of people found in fidelity to the wonder of each day.

Richard Beck is Professor and Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality and The Authenticity of Faith. As an experimental psychologist Richard has also published extensively in the empirical literature examining the intersection of Christianity and psychology. Richard also writes regularly about the interface of theology and psychology at his popular and award-winning blog Experimental Theology. Richard is married to Jana, who is a high-school theater teacher, and they have two sons—Brenden and Aidan.