Editor’s Note: On this eighth day of our Advent blog series “Hidden Joys,” Kim Smolik, Ed.D reflects on what the pandemic taught her about accompaniment. Kim serves as Executive Partner at Leadership Roundtable, an international Catholic organization based in Washington, DC. Prior to her current role, she served as Executive Director of FMS from 2009-2016, after serving overseas in both Ecuador and Mexico. Kim is also a professional artist whose work is inspired by her spiritual life and love of nature.

Finding Connection in Separation: What the pandemic taught me about accompaniment 

One of the unique and distinguishing characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic is that every human on the planet has felt its impact. And while no two people have experienced it in the same way, what has connected us is a common experience of separation, isolation, and fear of the unknown like we have never known before. 

Personally, I contracted Covid on my way home from Australia in March 2020. Within 10 days of my return, I developed severe symptoms that lasted through June. During the next three and a half months, I was completely isolated. At times, I would wake up gasping for air in the middle of the night.

“Embracing Hope” by Kim Smolik. A representation of the embrace between Elizabeth and Mary at the visitation.

While the fear of not knowing how long I would be sick and that I could even die was real, the most challenging part of this time in my life was the separation from other people. To not be in the presence of someone else’s energy, to not receive a hug, to not share a meal, to not see the spark in someone’s eye, to not feel their joy or pain, to not be able to do something helpful to another human being all felt like deep poverty.

While I was physically alone at that time, I was not emotionally or spiritually alone. Our collective longing to be in communion with, and service to, one another inspired loved ones and strangers alike to accompany me through singing messages, homemade love notes, poems, flowers, meals, care packages, music playlists, prayer chains, and at one point, a “check in on Kim” phone chain where people called me every hour during the worst of my symptoms. 

Our faith teaches us that we are built to live and love in community, in service to one another. Our connection to one another is beautifully evidenced every hour of every day through the sacrament that calls us to the most sacred act of communion, recalling the greatest act of service. 

My sickness taught me that the desire, even the need to, accompany one another flows from the deepest part of our humanity.

Accompaniment is a way of being with, and being for, one another that softens our hearts and ego so that we can see and know ourselves, and know God more intimately through the person with whom we are walking. I believe this is why Pope Francis is so emphatic in his commitment to invite and teach us to be a synodal Church — a people who come together in circles more often than hierarchies, with more questions than answers, through prayer that mirrors the open arms of the cross less the closed clasp of the hands.

In Evangelii Gaudium (169), Pope Francis said, “The Church will have to ini­tiate everyone—priests, religious and laity—into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5).”

As we begin to walk out into the world again, my prayer is that we do not forget the lessons learned in our time apart. I pray that we remain aware of the sacred ground upon which we walk together as people of God, and that we experience the joy, connection, and energy that flows from our journey together. It is only in communion that we will emerge from this pandemic a stronger, healthier body of Christ.