Peter Watkins began to learn faithfulness through his first experience with a spiritual director thirty years ago. Today he is himself a spiritual director and tells the story of the difference those conversations made in his life.
The Difference Spiritual Direction Can Make
I had never heard of spiritual direction until I joined the faith community of Covenant House in New York City, a crisis center for homeless and runaway youth. It was 1988, I was freshly graduated from Saint John’s University (Collegeville), and I had become a member of this lay Franciscan intentional community to work with impoverished teenagers in Times Square. While working full-time at the center (which sometimes hosted as many as 350 young people a night), the community also gathered three times a day for the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist.
During my orientation and before I began the work, I was advised to find a spiritual director. I didn’t, however, because I wasn’t sure what a spiritual director was (a bit scary). Besides, I was the one who would be “helping people.”
After three months of encountering destitution, brokenness and poverty in my daily case load of twenty people or more, I realized that my idea of trying to fix problems was unreal. I was exhausted, desolate, suffering from a dried-up prayer life and too much negative self-talk. I could see that I really wasn’t doing much good. I didn’t have the gifts that my colleagues seemed to have. Had I even helped a single young person?
I was contemplating leaving but unsure when a fellow community member suggested I talk with Sister Elsie before making any big decisions.
I did just that. Elsie proved a compassionate and wise spiritual director, and my times with her were a great consolation to me. I told her all about my difficulties and my sense of ineffectiveness. She told me something which changed everything for me: “Peter, God is not calling you to be effective, God is calling you to be faithful.”
Spiritual direction with Elsie made a dramatic difference for me. As a result, I ended up spending two more years at Covenant House. We nurtured my prayer life and practiced centering prayer together. I began letting go of my immature ambition and egotistical needs to be successful and admired as the fixer of others’ problems. Actually, I didn’t have a choice since this wasn’t me anyway. It was only through humility, I began to realize, and letting myself be vulnerable—it was only through encountering Christ crucified in me—that I had a chance of connecting to the residents and the crucified Christ in them. In this Mystery I glimpsed Resurrection.
It’s this paradoxical lesson that was offered to me from my spiritual director almost thirty years ago that I come back to again and again and again.
Now a spiritual director myself, I have learned, no—am still learning—that the only way to be “effective” in ministry (or in anything else of any real importance) is to be faithful to a God who loves me unconditionally: letting go, seeking a learner’s stance, and remembering that real faithfulness occurs only with God’s help.
Contact the Benedictine Center (651.777.7251) to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter or another member of the spiritual direction team.