By Beth Donze
Eight years ago, Sharon Brandt’s eyes were drawn to a brochure inside the vestibule of her home church of St. Matthew the Apostle in River Ridge.
Entitled “Faith Companioning,” Brandt assumed it would contain information on how she might find a friend with whom to discuss her spiritual journey. But upon closer inspection, Brandt discovered the contents were touting a course offered by the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center on how to become a good faith companion to others.
It was she who was being challenged to take the lead.
“I always say God tricked me. What I thought was, ‘Oh yeah, I need a spiritual companion,’ so I was hoping to go and get one,” recalled Brandt 56, a married mother of two adult children and part-time clerical worker. “But if you want a good friend, you’ve got to be a good friend.”
Resource is often overlooked
The faith companioning course was Brandt’s entrée into the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center in Metairie, the hub of a dizzying variety of stand-alone workshops, continuing classes and daytime retreats aimed at nurturing the spiritual growth of the clergy, religious and laity. Programs include how to deepen your prayer life, the connection between mind, body and spirit and how to find – or become – a spiritual director.
“I was like, ‘Where has this place been all my life?’” Brandt said. “I just enjoyed speaking about faith experiences with people, but I didn’t know a lot of people in the parish at that time. That changed dramatically (after becoming a faith companion).”
Discernment of gifts
Takers of the Faith Companioning course take the Myers-Briggs personality test, which determines where the individual falls on the introversion-extroversion spectrum, their strengths and weaknesses as communicators and what types of personalities they mesh with best.
“(Course instructors) teach you how to be comfortable with yourself – you learn a about yourself. There’s a lot of psychology in it,” said Brandt, noting that faith companions must commit to meeting with their partners at least twice a week.
Students practice practical measures, such as leaning in to listen, opening the eyes to indicate interest in what the other is saying, learning the art of not interrupting, and maintaining eye contact, which the introverted Brandt admits was initially difficult for her. Faith companions also learn helpful phrases that draw in their spiritual partners, including “I think I understand,” and “What do you mean?”
“We learn through a lot of prayer and practice,” Brandt said. “It’s not preaching or anything like that; it’s just sharing.”
Lay helpers in ministry
When they become certified, faith companions typically will alert their pastors to let them know how, when and where they might assist in ministry. This could mean being paired with an elderly person at a nursing home, doing home visits with the extraordinary minister of holy Communion, or even integrating the Faith Companioning course into the parish’s own adult faith formation program.
Brandt decided to bring her faith companioning skills to St. Matthew’s RCIA program, becoming one of the leaders of a team that includes a married couple and two teachers.
“If the RCIA team leaders hear someone say, ‘I need to talk to someone about my spiritual life,’ they know that I’m available for that,” said Brandt, who as an RCIA team member helps those who want to become Catholic “pray with” the upcoming weekend’s Gospel using the approach of “Lectio Divina” – in which catechumens read the Gospel together multiple times, share a particular word or image that strikes them, and place themselves into the given Gospel scene.
“I love seeing people who are coming into the church discovering the truth. You can almost see it!” Brandt said. “They’re learning, and there’s this delight coming into their eyes. People who have come into the church have enjoyed our RCIA program so much, they have asked to stay and help present the following year. We (currently) have two people like that, so it’s a big team. It was good before, but now it’s really deep!”
Spiritual direction explained
The Archdiocesan Spirituality Center, which has a Covington location at the Northshore Catholic Center, also has an impressive lending library of books, DVDs and other materials for those who want to enhance their understanding of Catholicism, prayer and spirituality.
Training future spiritual directors – and locating a spiritual director for those in search of one – is a major focus of the spirituality center. Spiritual direction strives to help a person to be more attentive to God, with the director helping the directee grow in his relationship with God by noticing how God is revealed through the unique circumstances of the directee’s everyday life and prayer. It is not the same as faith companioning, Brandt said.
“You need to have a prayer life (of some kind) before you go to a spiritual director – they help to develop it,” Brandt said. Ways to gauge this include questions like: How do you see God working in your life? Are you in consolation or desolation? How, when and where do you pray? How do you currently serve or want to serve?
“They get a picture of you and they can see, intuitively and through the Holy Spirit, how God is working in your life, and they can guide you with Scripture passages,” said Brandt, who is a directee herself. “They will say, ‘I suggest you pray with this; I suggest you pray with that.’”
The center offers mornings of reflection during Lent and Advent. Its ongoing programs, which cost $25 a person, include:
• “Finding God in Everyday Life.” Participants learn to reflect on God in everyday life experiences and a method of reflection on the action of God in their prayer.
• “Prayer: Real Soul Food.” A talk and discussion on prayer as an interpersonal relationship with God.
• “What is Spiritual Direction?” Learn how spiritual direction can help you grow in your prayer life.
The Archdiocesan Spirituality Center is located at 2501 Maine Ave., at the former St. Lawrence the Martyr campus in Metairie. In response to the 9th General Synod of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the center’s staff is available to come to parishes to do some of the programming, including faith companioning, at the pastor’s request. For more information, call 861-3254; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit asc.arch-no.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.