Building a better prayer life through research and data may sound like a strange concept, but that is exactly what Jesuit Father Bill Watson is doing through the Sacred Story Institute (SSI).
A national Ignatian apostolate founded a year ago, SSI is based in Seattle. The Institute’s focus is to bring St. Ignatius’s Examination of Conscience, known as the Examen, to modern audiences and help them use it in their prayer lives. The Institute also collects data from those using its prayer method to learn about their experiences for the purpose of shaping more intuitive and strategic spiritual formation resources.
Fr. Watson’s ultimate goal is to help people pray and connect personally to Christ, so as to know how best to serve the Kingdom — the goal of the Spiritual Exercises. “We tend to focus on our spiritual life when we’re in a spiritual context, like Mass on Sunday,” he says. “I’m focused on how can we take Ignatian spirituality and use it for evangelization to a much broader audience than just those who may come to a retreat center.”
Fr. Watson has been engaged in retreat work for three decades, including as Director of Retreat Programs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Vice President for Jesuit Identity & Mission at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.
Through his retreat work, Fr. Watson says, “I became keenly aware that you can give people the best retreat experience, but the big challenge is to keep people spiritually connected to God after the retreat when they go back to their busy lives.”
Since recommitting to the Examen while on sabbatical 20 years ago, Fr. Watson has focused much of his work on this five-step reflective prayer.
During the Sacred Story Institute’s first research project this past year, hundreds of people from six Seattle parishes took part in a 40-week Examen course based on a new method of the Examen that Fr. Watson developed in his recent book: “Sacred Story-An Ignatian Examen for the Third Millennium.” They also did weekly surveys, providing the Institute’s research director, Mr. Joseph Youngblood, with data about their experiences.
“We’re research-focused,” says Fr. Watson, “but the purpose of the research is to build smarter spiritual resources that can help people grow.”
In addition to developing and offering the Examen course and collecting data from those who participate, the Sacred Story Institute decided to do its own publishing. Fr. Watson said the Institute plans on doing quite a bit of publishing, and managing its own book portfolio gives it greater flexibility. In the spring, the Institute will publish its second book, “Forty Weeks—An Ignatian Path to Christ with Sacred Story Prayer,” a popular version of the short Sacred Story method in the book of the same name.
In its second year, Fr. Watson says the Institute is using the Sacred Story Examen method to construct K-8 Conscience Formation resources for K-8 students. As part of the project, the Institute, through the Archdiocese’s Offices of Adult Faith Formation and Catholic Schools, is offering its 40-week program to all K-8 teachers in the Seattle Archdiocese’s schools.
The Institute will also customize the prayer program for different audiences: pastoral ministers and teachers; married and engaged couples; persons contemplating vocations; people with addictions; and other groups that approach the Institute for special research applications of the Sacred Story method. A long-term goal is to have research offices in Latin America and Southeast Asia.