Spiritual Director Profile: Peter Watkins
by Peter Watkins
“Imagine that you have ninety seconds to explain to someone what spiritual direction is,” I say to the class. I have been teaching in a local formation program for adult learners preparing to become spiritual directors. “Write no more than a couple of short paragraphs for next week and be ready to share.” We call it the elevator speech. The reason we give this exercise to future spiritual directors is to encourage them to both articulate to others and to clarify for themselves what spiritual direction is.
I confess right here and now that when I give the assignment that we call the elevator speech there’s a small voice in the back of my head that says, “Whew, better them than me! I’m glad I don’t have to write it.” Defining spiritual direction is tough and the attempt can humble even the most veteran among us. However, if someone actually forced me to write my own elevator speech now, I do know that it would be quite different from what I wrote back in 2008 when I was just beginning, because my understanding of spiritual direction is constantly evolving. And I also know that somewhere in my present description I would use one key and vital adjective: sacramental.
Sacramental moments in our lives, whether they take place in a church or under a star-filled sky by a lake, help to deepen our awareness of the presence of the Sacred all around us. God comes to us. Spiritual direction is sacramental because the director and directee mutually reflect upon and seek to recognize God’s presence in the directee’s life. Spiritual direction is ritual space. We both enter into the set-aside sacred space and time together. It is often surprising and wonderful and full of joy because neither of us quite know what the outcome will be. It requires courage and honesty and often involves some pain.
Using the word sacramental to describe spiritual direction is important to me personally because it is a sign to stay on the right path. It first reminds me that as a spiritual director I cannot actually really “help” anyone, as I used to believe. What I can attempt to do however, with God’s help, is to “hold space” and be with the person by practicing “deep listening.” God does the work, not me.
Secondly, I realize that as a spiritual director I am not called to be effective or successful as I also used to assume. Rather, I am simply called to be faithful. This is counter-intuitive, but essential. This understanding really helps me to live into the sacramental nature of spiritual direction. God’s presence is always there—what I am invited to do is let go of preconceived notions of what I believe God is supposed to be doing. God is free to act as God will. I cannot control the process. Attempts at control are where I have run into trouble in the past.
Finally, through guided self-reflection, spiritual direction can help initiate the directee into a deeper inner freedom. This freedom is foundational to our abilities to both give and receive life and love in new and richer ways.
Most of the time, spiritual direction is a fairly messy process. In fact, messiness, I have discovered, is one of the signs that the Spirit is at work. Like a labyrinth, it is not a straight path: sometimes when we feel far away from the Center we are closer to it than we thought, and when we presume we are close, in reality we still have a long journey ahead. There is no neat and tidy prescribed formula we can plug into, only the challenge to again and again and again enter prayerfully and humbly into the Mystery, and trust that God is with us.