By Sharon Abercrombie
As a five-year-old, Christine Watkins was enchanted the night her family went to view an outdoor nativity scene in their Berkeley neighborhood. But when she asked her father who the man, the lady and the baby were, he said they were just part of a Christian fairy tale.
One night, four years later, as she lay in her bed, Watkins realized there was no getting around the awful fact that she would eventually die — just like the rest of the human race. So where would she go? Her mom’s response: into a box buried in the ground or a cremation jar, but not to worry. Christine wouldn’t care because she’d be dead.
Rudderless and sad, with no spiritual underpinnings, facing a bleak future pointing to nothingness, the little girl created her own god — dance. She became a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet Company, loving every minute of it. Her passion came to a crashing halt when she was 19. Severe back and foot injuries forced the young woman to hang up her satin toe shoes forever.
The setback was more than she could bear. Desperate for comfort and reassurance, she turned to transcendental meditation, Indian gurus, and New Age practitioners. They didn’t take away her pain.
But Mary of Medjugorje and her son, Jesus, did. Watkins has written the story of her spiritual journey and conversion to Catholicism in a riveting, new book, “Full of Grace: Miraculous Stories of Healing and Conversion through Mary’s Intercession.” Released four months ago by Ave Maria Press, the book has sold more than 1,600 copies.
Since 1995, the year of her transformation, Christine Watkins has attended Holy Spirit Parish/Newman Center in Berkeley, going through the RCIA program there. For a few intervening years, she was a member of St. Dominic Parish in San Francisco. She now attends Newman Hall as well as St. Joseph Basilica Parish in Alameda, where she serves as coordinator for the After the Choice post-abortion healing program for the Oakland diocese as well as Rachel’s Vineyard site coordinator for Oakland and San Francisco. Her husband, John Watkins, is coordinator of Life and Justice for the Oakland diocese. They have two sons, Christian, 5, and John 1.
Besides her own story, Watkins writes of conversion episodes in the lives of five other people: Angela, a former angry stripper; Michael, a heroin addict; Poppa Jaime, a man who rescues children living in the sewers of Colombia; Goran, a homeless drug addict, and her husband John, “a sad, lonely young man,” before his healing.
What each has in common is a visit to Medjugorje, a town in the former Yugoslavia, where Mary has allegedly been appearing to six people since 1981. What the people in Watkins’ book collectively discovered is that “God will walk to the ends of the earth to find us, save us from whatever sin we’ve entangled ourselves in, and bring us home on his shoulders,” said Watkins, who first traveled to Medjugorje in 2001.
The trip took place six years after her spiritual breakthrough in 1995. That was the year Watkins had hit bottom. She was a walking spiritual emergency. Disillusioned by a long procession of gurus and empty relationships with men, she was spiritually bereft and physically ill.
During a phone conversation, Joseph, a friend from Berkeley, encouraged her to return from the East Coast to spend a few days in his Kensington home. Upon her arrival, she found herself surrounded by Catholic holy pictures and books. She hadn’t realized her friend was so deeply spiritual.
They had long conversations about religion. She began to realize the nothingness of her life. She fell to her knees and asked God’s forgiveness. It was then that she discovered that Joseph was a mystic given to visions.
Three days after her return to the West Coast, an exhausted Christine had a powerful experience of God’s presence, and in a semi-dream state saw a dark mass within her pop into nothingness. She awoke to find Joseph at her side.
He told her that Jesus had just cured the terminal cancer she had not known about and wanted her to join the Catholic Church and help bring to it compassion, kindness, love and generosity. Joseph also received a message from Mary that Christine should say the Rosary whenever she needed Mary’s help.
“The evening after I was cured,” she writes, “I heard a symphony — a soft, lilting piece of music I had never heard before …I checked everywhere …to see where the music might be playing, but I soon realized that the beautiful music was coming from within me. I realized then that heaven was rejoicing because one sinner had been saved, and the heavenly hosts were letting me join in the celebration.”
Watkins experienced a re-creation that brought hope and purpose: “to love him above all things and to love my neighbor as myself.”
She joined the Church through the RCIA program at Newman Center and spent three years earning a master’s degree at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, “where all the great mysteries of life were at my fingertips like ripe blackberries ready to be plucked.” She graduated in 1998.
Watkins studied spiritual direction her last summer at JSTB, then spent the next two years getting a master’s degree in social welfare at UC Berkeley.
When a friend gave her a book about Medjugorje, Watkins was fascinated. She felt compelled to make a visit, perceiving Mary “as God’s mouthpiece for our times. She is calling out for peace and for a return to Gospel values.”
Watkins also had another agenda. While grateful to Mary for helping bring about her conversion, there was something missing. Watkins still perceived the Blessed Lady as “a cold and aloof being.”
The trip to Medjugorje turned up very little in the way of a new Marian discovery for Watkins, but the energy of the church, the town, the mountains and the devotion of other tourists like her and her husband was “amazing,” she said.
“Medjugorje captivated us,” Watkins writes. “We didn’t know that a physical place on earth could contain so much of heaven…such intense spiritual communion.”
Watkins recalls being unable to worry about anything on her visit. “It was impossible.” But she still didn’t feel the actual presence of Mary. That came a few months later during a medical procedure. Feeling alone and abandoned, she called a friend who, on arriving, said, “I sense Mary. She’s here, she’s here — I feel her presence so strongly. She’s waited for this moment all your life. She’s been there for you ever since you were a little girl. She wants you to let her into your heart, she’s telling me that now you’re finally able to feel her.”
Watkins writes, “I could barely speak. I allowed her words to wash over me gently like a lullaby soothing the plaintive cries of an infant. For the first time, I let Mary’s love heal my pain. For the first time I could feel my Mother in heaven. As her light, comforting presence wrapped itself tenderly around me, she somehow entered the open cracks in my heart, and the cold chasm I had long felt between us vanished.”
Watkins and her husband have since made three more visits to Medjugorje. Their trip in 2005 was the defining moment for her book. “God started bringing to me other people with the most remarkable stories I’d ever heard.” Watkins asked if she could write them down. “Full of Grace” is the result.
What is the greatest gift she has received from Medjugorje? “It was the change I saw in my husband. He was healed of much of his anxiety and depression and really gave his life over to Christ.”
Watkins adds that both of them received the grace “to live Mary’s messages. When I was there, we were both graced with miracles, such as the miracle of the sun spinning and smelling roses during an apparition, when no roses or rose perfume were present. I learned later that the mystical smell or roses is a sign of Mary’s presence.”
The fruits of Medjugorje have spilled over into other people’s lives too, relates Watkins. “One friend converted in Medjugorje and is now running a large daycare for low-income and homeless children in San Francisco.” Another friend moved from a secure, well-paid job in San Francisco as a school principal to living in Mexico City, where he teaches and ministers to orphaned boys.
Each chapter of Watkins’ book concludes with a series of questions for personal reflection and group discussion as well as a faith exercise.
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