Q: What do Missionaries of Saint Thorlak do?
* This question refers to the “active,” regular Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. To learn specifically about Domestic Prayer Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, please see last week’s post.
A: Missionaries of Saint Thorlak do everything we usually do in our everyday lives; except, we choose to pray, contemplate and relate to others in a manner inspired by the way St. Thorlak lived out the Gospel call, for the purposes of combating spiritual starvation in our circles.
Let us break this down further.
“Missionaries” are people who set ordinary things aside, going to specific places to teach and serve, driven by a “mission” to dictate the way they speak and serve.
The ordinary things we set aside as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are our hesitance to need and our reluctance to act.
The specific places we go as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are wherever there might be people who are spiritually starving.
Spiritual starvation can be found anywhere someone might feel disconnected from others. If we tried to narrow down our target area, it would be: the part of the world we live in, and the circles we interact with daily. Our target audience would be: the people we live around.
Our Missionaries pray – that is, have a solid relationship with God, speaking with and listening to Him regularly. We contemplate, meaning that we turn ideas over and over in our minds and hearts, imagining and wondering and discovering truths and applications and patterns within these ideas. We relate, meaning that we deliberately interact with other people in a carefully studied manner that fosters true spiritual connection. This last component is the crucial one which sets our Missionary work apart from our ordinary manner of thinking. We intentionally see in others the opportunity to learn from, and to be greeted by, God Himself, through them. We feed others by seeking spiritual nourishment from them, making ourselves available through offering our need.
To accomplish this, we need to make sure we place ourselves around others. We cannot be hermits. We cannot decline invitations. We cannot claim seclusion as our default; solitude must be something from which we sip, judiciously, only when we need to recharge and not to our excess pleasure. We do not require Missionaries to be outgoing, extroverted, confident or booked socially solid. Introverts and homebodies are just fine; in fact, the quieter among us are often very well suited to our Mission work, so long as they do not give in to the urge to be alone, or occupied, all of the time.
It is a great advantage that our Mission work can be done wherever we happen to be: in school, at work, with our families, with our neighbors, with people standing in line and in situations we have never been before. The key is to do what we do consistently, as a habit of life. Our Mission is ongoing. Nourishment lasts only a short while before it is needed again; there will never be a lack of need.
As we have said, our Missionaries take the time to study the life and teachings of St. Thorlak of Iceland for our own personal instruction. He found a way to live and act that was quietly, powerfully effective in feeding his spirit and the spirits of everyone, wherever he went – even though he had debilitating speech impairments and social anxiety. He was never miraculously cured of his autism. Instead, he consecrated it, making it the source of his need, and offering it to others, everywhere he went. The result was abundant, nutrient-dense spiritual fruit that eventually found him worthy of the title “Saint.”
Let us end with these points.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is NOT:
-A cult following
-A fan club
-A role play or re-enactment group
-A religious sect
-A therapy program
-A special interest group
-A substitution for church or worship services
-Binding through laws, vows, pledges or restrictions
The Mission of Saint Thorlak IS:
-A way to grow closer to God
-A way to grow closer to others (even for the socially anxious)
-A way to combat spiritual starvation in the world
-A way to find good, nourishing fruit among the thorns of autism
Hmm. “The Mission of Saint Thorlak is a way.”
It is tempting to look at the litany above and ask why we are not simply “The Way of Saint Thorlak,” given that so much of our work is dedicated to prayer, contemplation and imitation. The answer is simple: We are more than just study and methods. We are contemplation PLUS action. We take what we learn about St. Thorlak’s way of combating spiritual starvation and apply it, here, today.
We are not just a way; we are a MISSION.
And we are unabashedly ambitious about it.
Q: Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a prayer ministry?
A: Everything we do begins and ends with prayer. We pray contemplatively. Our contemplative prayer is our commitment to developing and maintaining a connection to God. Our contemplative action is taking the fruit of this prayer to other people, and connecting to them... making a continuous chain that begins and ends with God, and continuously grows with each person who joins our chain.
This seems like a good time to discuss more about a specific arm of our apostolate, Domestic Prayer Missionaries, whose role it is to pray for those who come to us in need with requests.
Q: What do you mean, "Domestic"?
A: The origins of the word point to these meanings:
The dictionary adds:
All of these senses of the word "domestic" can be found in the way we use the term. The Domestic Prayer Missionaries of St. Thorlak are missionaries-in-place. They do their praying right where they are, in their current circumstances, in their current frames of mind. They can be absolutely anywhere people live. This makes for a beautiful paradox: They are "domestic," meaning, in place; but they are everywhere... thus, transforming "everywhere" into one, common household, and validating our view of humanity as one family of one God.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries of St. Thorlak are servants of God's household.
They each also come from this one household, even if they happen to reside in various and different geographic locations at present. Therefore, they are all of home manufacture: God's home.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries are very much concerned with internal affairs. Their one job as Missionaries is to cultivate a strong internal connection between themselves, God and each person they pray for. They strive to keep their internal affairs in working enough order to carry on this mission day by day. Yes; they definitely are concerned with internal affairs.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries pray from where they reside, and not from a foreign place. Missionaries of St. Thorlak are not foreigners to suffering. We recruit 'em that way, and we're not ashamed to admit it. The world is full of suffering, and people who ask us for prayer are right down there in the mud. We want - no, we NEED - tough mudders on our team. People who are more than just sympathetic - people who have been personally affected by despair, struggle, confusion, failure, triumph in spite of ugly things, misunderstanding, disconnection, isolation, spiritual hunger, brokenness, anger... you get the idea. People for whom suffering is not one bit foreign, but where one resides. THOSE are the people we want to deploy to pray for those who ask for help.
"Involving home or family" - once more, we're talking in very broad terms. God's family. Humanity. The Mission of Saint Thorlak is out to connect people again, through acknowledging our humanity. We think that counts for the purposes of this definition.
Q: Is the Domestic Prayer ministry limited to people affected by autism, since autism is mentioned in your mission statement?
A: (Happily): NO!
We DO expect that some of our prayer intentions, as well as some of our Domestic Prayer Missionaries , will have some connection to one or more of the struggles associated with autism - whether experienced as a person with autism or supporting someone with autism. There are thousands of people affected by ASD, and prayers are always needed.
But, no, autism is not a requirement. One need not have autism to be a missionary of ours, or a supporter, or a beneficiary of our apostolate.
Spiritual starvation does not exclude anyone. Neither do we.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak exists to address spiritual starvation. Letting people with autism lead us on our way.
Q: If you exist for everyone – if you are not only an autism ministry – why is “autism” part of your mission statement?
A: Just as we are students of an Icelandic teacher, we are students of an autistic teacher. The methods of our spiritual patron reflect the processing and communication style of a man with autism. We see how his methods resonate with people with autism, and we want to apply them, widespread, to everyone. It is the principle of inclusive education, reversed. We are utilizing autism-specific instructional methods and “including” everyone else because it is a very helpful format for all learners. We gladly let people with autism lead us on our way.
Could this be a door opening?
If you are able and willing to pray for someone,
you are qualified to be a Domestic Prayer Missionary.
If you know suffering, and can pray from suffering,
you are all the more qualified. No matter who you are.
No matter your needs. No matter where you are.
Likewise, if you would like the support of a
Domestic Prayer Missionary’s prayers,
we invite you to contact us.
We thank you for trusting us enough to let us know, and we sincerely want to meet you.
No matter who you are. No matter your needs. No matter where you are.
If prayer is universal currency, we think this is a coin from which both sides can address spiritual starvation.
Q: What is the connection between this ministry and Saint Thorlak? Are you Icelandic?
A: Our material and methods are patterned after the life and teachings of the Icelandic Catholic Christian Þorlákur Þórhallsson (in English, Thorlak Thorhallson). We are Icelandic in the sense that we are students of an Icelandic teacher.
Thorlak Thorhallsson was a Christian who lived in Iceland from 1133-1193. At that time, Christians there followed the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Thorlak was a deeply spiritual thinker from boyhood with a love of the psalms and theology. He studied under the tutelage of Eyjólfur Sæmundarson, a renowned priest and scholar, and was strongly encouraged to enter the priesthood. He was ordained deacon at fifteen and priest at eighteen, which even then was considered unusually young. In his career, he would be parish priest, traveling scholar, abbot, and eventually, Bishop of Skálholt (1174-1193). He was a prolific teacher, writer and poet, and was widely known for his unwavering dedication to the Gospels. Thorlak was declared a saint by Icelandic clerics shortly after his death, and this declaration was reiterated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.
It is a good spot here to pause and clarify just what we mean by “saint.” The title “Saint” is an honorary title, not unlike “Doctor” or “Captain.” It speaks to a majority portion of that person’s work, but it does not define the person or endow upon them magical powers. Just as a doctor is an ordinary person who masters and completes an intensive course of study, a saint is an ordinary person who is found to have lived a Godly life and is held up as an example of how other ordinary people might live well. Saints are not worshiped or prayed to; they are imitated, learned from, quoted and respected. Saints are believed to live on in eternal, unseen life, and are believed to be able to pray for us as friends and mentors, but are well beneath the Holy Trinity in the order of the universe. Saints are people, creatures, human beings. We might compare it to folk heroes and respected peacemakers throughout history. Hopefully, people don’t “pray to” or worship Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Isaac Newton, but their names, words and works are widely respected, and their images and names frequently adorn everyday objects to honor and remind us of their example. Thus it is with Catholic saints.
Going further, a “spiritual patron” or “patron saint” is an ordinary person who lived a holy life and whose example is particularly useful for a need at hand. Saint Thorlak is the spiritual patron of Iceland because he is most familiar with the Icelandic terrain, living conditions and cultural heritage. We also speculate that his teachings may one day sufficiently demonstrate he is just as greatly a spiritual patron of those affected by autism.
So, why should we be HIS students? Why should we emulate Saint Thorlak, out of all the other saints and learned people we could study?
1) Saint Thorlak was exceptionally talented at teaching and explaining theology to the people he served. Keep in mind that he lived in a time before print materials, mass media, and widespread education. The majority of people in 12th century Iceland were laborers who had little capability of academic study. Icelanders, including fellow clergy, were very much accustomed to making and following their own social customs – which were not always in line with Christian principles. Yet, one of their countrymen, Saint Thorlak, highly educated and refined in social standing, could explain spiritual concepts to them in a manner they related to, and many wished to imitate.
2) Saint Thorlak was very likely a man with autism. It is not so much the diagnostic label that matters to us, but the fact that he taught as he lived – like a man with autism. He not only spoke Icelandic and Latin, but he “spoke ASD” in his manner of presenting ideas. A master spiritual teacher whose methods were formed and filtered through his autistically-inclined mind could not only reach thousands of ordinary folk in his day, but would be a huge help to us if we could have him as a spiritual teacher to reach people with ASD today.
3) Saint Thorlak’s story is an anomaly. He had crippling speech impairments and social anxiety, yet he sought out people, befriended large numbers of people, mentored many young people, and volunteered under public scrutiny for the office of Bishop – knowing fully well it would be a monumentally difficult task. What motivated him? What permitted him to do these things in spite of his very real limitations? A close study of his life reveals that he found his methodology in the Gospels. He so carefully patterned his life on the Gospels of Jesus that he brought Jesus virtually present to those in his path. His most cherished Scripture passages were those which demonstrated relationships and their embedded blessings, and he was quietly elated to bring these blessings forth upon his countrymen. Who better to turn to, in emulation, than a man who broke the shackles of his social impairments through the power of the Gospels?
A very important point to keep in mind: We are here to combat spiritual starvation in our time. So was Saint Thorlak, in his time. He was out to connect every Icelander with the One, True God. We think his methods were spot on, and so, we have adopted them.
In recognizing that St. Thorlak’s struggles with autism enabled him to teach spirituality in a way that was remarkably clear and relevant, we reach out particularly to people with autism to be adjunct ambassadors of our message, in the same, wonderful manner of our spiritual patron.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Let’s toss in some related questions, while we’re at it:
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a prayer ministry?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak Christian?
-Do people need to be Christian to partake in the Mission of Saint Thorlak?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak trying to convert non-believers to the Catholic Faith?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a faith formation program for children with autism?
Bonus question - if you've read this far, you've earned it!
Q: Is that Niagara Falls in the background of your webpage?
A: Icelanders already know this answer well. No, it is not Niagara Falls. The photo is Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, located in Northeastern Iceland. At this site in the year 1000, the Lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði declared the Norse gods invalid. With that, Iceland embraced the One, True God as THEIR one, true God. As a demonstration of faith, Þorgeir threw the statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall - simultaneously enacting their burial and their baptism. We believe this is not only a magnificently beautiful image of our patron's beloved homeland, but a magnificently symbolic site for what it is we hope to do: connect people to the One, True God.
Q: How does spiritual starvation tie into having autism/ASD?
Q: How does “spiritual starvation” tie into autism/ASD?
A: It may be helpful to explain how this Mission came to be.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak originated with a deep stirring in the heart of one person who spent many years observing and contemplating the problem of spiritual starvation. An idea, and then a solution, came into better focus after considering this question through the lens of having autism.
The root cause of spiritual starvation is disconnection from others, which is completely independent of diagnostic labels. Spiritual starvation is not caused by autism; neither does autism guarantee spiritual starvation. However, the effects of having autism greatly increase the likelihood one will experience some degree of disconnection in their relationships. Therapies for people with autism/ASD focus on the ways they are different from their peers, validating symptoms on one hand and teaching ways on the other to adapt to social expectations. Teaching to people’s differences, however, ingrains them as part of a person’s identity. If discussion of our common humanity is neglected, a disconnection is automatically in place. It is crucial to remember that people with autism sometimes focus so well that concepts appear either/or, black/white, 0/1, open/closed, with no shades in between.
Make no mistake – autism IS a difference. Denying that helps nobody. But it is a difference only to the degree that anyone is ever “different,” no matter what aspect you examine. Autism is not an identity. A person’s name, a person’s character, yes – those are identifiers. But “autism” belongs in the subset of a person’s traits, not in that person’s identifier field.
Back to the idea of teaching social skills: Learning appropriate behavior and how to recognize and respond to unspoken cues gives anyone an advantage. These used to be called “communications courses” and were offered only to those going on to public relations and high power sales careers. Teaching these skills so intensively to children who are already naturally more attuned, more observant, more reflective… and already very well aware of how it feels to be on the outside looking in… cultivates tremendous insights.
-- Which often go stale and neglected once these children hit middle and high school, and are sometimes discarded completely once they reach higher education or employment.
In essence, helping people with ASD learn social skills makes them different again, in an entirely new way, once they reach adolescence.
Then again, ALL young people wonder where they fit in, or if anyone notices them, or if they make a difference to anyone. This is not exclusive to having ASD! Young people thrive or starve spiritually based on their ability to form connections, regardless of diagnostic status.
The “WHAT IF” moment: What if a program were developed in the same manner as that of social skills programs, only with a focus on SPIRITUAL skills?
Differences can be advantageous, sometimes, can’t they.
Our Mission was founded on the realization that this world we live in consistently finds large numbers of people who are introverts, yes, and have difficulty connecting because of that… but just as many who are outgoing, but lonely… social, but detached… successful, but unfulfilled.
In other words, spiritually starving.
By patterning our methods on those used to teach social skills to students with ASD, then elevating the material from an elementary level to a higher, spiritual level, we aim to reach:
We want this to be accessible to everyone – a pattern of approaching relationships that anyone can use, so that we can all experience the fulfillment of connection, and we can all support one another as we do it. We hope to impart these principles to the people who seek our guidance so that THEY take this to those in THEIR circles, becoming everyday missionaries themselves.
The hard work which people with autism devote to finding their way is our inspiration. We turn to them to show us the needs of the human heart and help us teach everyone these fundamental skills of spiritual fulfillment through connecting with others.
Q: I do not have autism. Can the Mission of Saint Thorlak help me support people with ASD (autism spectrum disabilities)?
A: Yes. The Mission of Saint Thorlak can help you support people.
(So, yes, that also includes those with ASD).
Our Mission statement is rather nebulous with respect to autism. We are out to end spiritual starvation, letting people with autism lead us on our way. Our advertisements say that we offer spiritual skills for those "affected by" ASD. Does that mean our material applies to those with ASD, or those without? Who, exactly, are those “affected by" ASD? That could mean… anyone.
We did that on purpose.
The beauty of our model is that our approach is particularly comfortable and helpful when applied to people with autism, but in actuality, it is applicable to anyone.
We *are* a ministry with autism specifically in mind. People with ASD have a particular set of needs unique to ASD, and it does nobody any good to pretend that it does not require thoughtful consideration and occasional modification to help people with ASD partake in the things the rest of us are doing.
Couldn't we just as well say the inverse – that it requires thoughtful consideration and occasional modification for people without ASD to partake in things that people with ASD are doing?
We don't mean to be absurd, but our point is that either case is a matter of recognizing our common humanity and being considerate of one another whether there are diagnostic labels or not.
Let us break this down in another way.
For people with ASD, The Mission of Saint Thorlak wants to be a starting point for the next level of social skills. Once elementary skills are in place, we want to introduce social skills at a secondary, or spiritual level. We want to help people with ASD to be able to see the perspectives of others in terms of our common humanity. People with ASD spend their first six years of school learning how their thought processes are different from those around them; now, we want to show them how their hearts are the same as everyone else's.
Back to the question at hand: If you do not have autism but are seeking to help people with ASD, you can see them on an elementary level, looking systematically at their traits and symptoms, and treating them accordingly… or, you can see them at the next level, as a human being like yourself, with the same spiritual needs that you have… and, you can treat them accordingly.
If you are here to find ways to support people with ASD, we very earnestly suggest that you start by asking yourself what you need, as a person… and then, get to know the people you wish to support. Get to know them – not their symptoms, not their diagnosis. Get to know who they are and why they are passionate about the things that move them. Then, let them know YOU, and your needs as a person. Show them who YOU are and why YOU are passionate about the things that move you. If you're lucky, they will join you in friendship and mentor you as you begin the scathingly honest, scathingly beautiful tasks of seeking and admitting the truths of your common humanity.
Trust us. Your sincere interest in the humanity of the people you want to help contains every element of every suggestion you could ever find in all the manuals, encyclopedias, training programs and seminars put together.
Humanity is our specialty. If that's something you are looking to pursue, then, yes, the Mission of Saint Thorlak can help.
We continue our Q&A this week with this question:
“I am affected by autism. What can the Mission of Saint Thorlak do for me?”
Before we answer, we need to give you fair warning. Everything we say and do is said and done deliberately, contemplatively and, in food terms, would be considered nutrient-dense. We are out to feed souls, and with a talented contemplative poet as our spiritual patron, we intend to do so with rich context and multi-layered meanings. We are literal and figurative, metaphorical and lyrical. And oh, how we love words and word origins. Words are our ingredients, and if we are looking to serve the spiritually hungry, we must strive to choose wisely.
You will forgive us, then, if we wonder about the manner in which this question is asked.
What can this Mission do for ME?
= What does this Mission have to offer, that I will find useful?
What can THIS Mission do for me?
= What makes this Mission better suited than others out there?
What can this Mission DO […for me]?
= How will my undertaking this Mission benefit me?
Well, before we go too far into the deep, let’s start with the assumption that this was an ordinary question deserving a basic overview.
For someone affected by autism, The Mission of Saint Thorlak can:
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is appropriate for individual participation by means of:
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is appropriate for group participation by means of:
* Group activities will maintain a slow, contemplative format regardless of group size. Groups may be led by you, or you may join as a participant. Groups may be formed in any number of ways. There might be a group formed spontaneously by people of similar interest… as part of a parish youth group… in a college/young adult group ministry… as an extracurricular or homeschool group… truly, the possibilities are limitless.
* Groups need not be limited to people with autism diagnoses. We deliberately say “people affected by autism” because that includes people with ASD and people who have someone with ASD somewhere in their circle.
An important note: The materials necessary to conduct Mission groups are in different stages of completion and have not yet been posted. We will prominently announce when these materials are available for download.
There, that was easy. Easy question, easy answer.
Not so fast.
Let’s answer those other two connotations.
What can THIS Mission do for me?
= What makes this Mission better suited than others out there?
In short: Nothing.
That’s right. We are a contemplative apostolate hoping to end spiritual starvation in the world. If this resonates with you, either because you are spiritually hungry and find nourishment here, or because you want to do something to feed hungry souls, then we’re very glad to have you here. We are not a business. Our bottom line is: How many souls are still starving on our watch, and what are we going to do about it? If our Mission not a good fit for you, we pray you find what you need.
Then: What can this Mission DO […for me]?
= How will my undertaking this Mission benefit me?
Ah. This is our favorite.
Your decision to join hands with the Mission of Saint Thorlak will be of some benefit to you – we can almost certainly guarantee that. It’s not because of anything we do, though. It’s the very act of joining hands, of stepping forward, that will bring you what you need.
See: We are here to promote need. By admitting our need, we draw others to us. By exposing our need to others, we affirm that they are necessary to others around them… and, their response provides the nourishment we needed. Caritas is impossible without need… and, surprising though it is to realize this: unlike physical need, spiritual need is a choice.
(Don’t worry. We’ll get much deeper into that later on down the road.)
So, then, to recap: What can the Mission of Saint Thorlak do for you?
You tell us.
Over the next few weeks, we will be examining the basics which frame The Mission of Saint Thorlak, including a job description for anyone who is ready to become a bona fide Missionary, and a greater, more detailed study of each our objectives.
Let’s start with one of the more frequently asked of our FAQs: “How is this a ministry for people with autism/ASD, yet it claims to serve everyone?”
Here’s how we see it.
1) We aim to be a resource for people with ASD who have aged out of primary and elementary level social skills [“how to make and keep friends”] and are ready for the more challenging adolescent and young adult questions [“why is it spiritually beneficial to make and keep friends?”].
There are several reasons to reach out to youth and young adults with ASD:
-Whether by circumstance or consequence, youth and young adults with ASD are generally more likely to be found on the outskirts of social circles and the community at large. The neurological realities of ASD make it extremely uncomfortable to be among noise, crowds or in groups whose purpose is unclear or not personally interesting. Also, people with ASD at any age have greater difficulty forming and maintaining relationships than people without. The root of this is the same anxiety that impacts early childhood, only now it is less socially acceptable to show it. This anxiety impacts all areas: physical (increased heart rate, for instance), cognitive (such as thinking about what might go wrong) and emotional (feelings of dread, embarrassment, fear, or even resentment).
-Ordinary living with ASD is filled with challenges that others don’t see. There are no solutions, just determination to succeed. Sometimes, that can be exhausting, and socializing is often a casualty. Yet, putting aside relationships can become a habit which can eventually lead toward spiritual starvation. It is all a matter of balance.
-Young children with ASD now receive a great deal of social and emotional support. Once middle school comes, these supports start dropping off – right when the social scene turns volatile, unpredictable and confusing even for the most confident individuals. The Mission of Saint Thorlak offers guidance and support at this very level. Tweens, teens and young adults need something more elaborate, something that better anticipates adulthood than the preschool and primary social lessons they had growing up. Learning about relationships in terms of spirituality is well suited to this age group, and that is exactly what we aim to do. We hope our particular Missionary training will pick up where elementary social skills leave off, and equip these marvelous young souls to live spiritually well-nourished lives for all their years ahead, in all that they do… and, that their mission work “accidentally” helps countless others in their paths to do the same.
2) As you read this, we hope you see that this echoes the needs of adolescents and young adults across the board. Why single out people with ASD when everyone can benefit?
Anyone can be at risk for spiritual starvation. There are all kinds of people who are isolated for one reason or another. Therefore, it’s important to remember to check our margins, wherever we are, whoever they are, for hidden treasure. People with and without ASD face the same social and emotional situations across the board, and anyone can starve in spirit, ASD or not. (Hopefully, not on our watch!)
We feel there should be no distinction in who can learn the spiritual mechanics of friendship and spiritual nourishment. By only teaching people with ASD these skills, we exclude great numbers of “other” young people who need the spiritual nourishment of friendship just the same.
We see a very effective solution to both of these needs. In our ministry, we encourage people without ASD to seek out those people with ASD to genuinely learn from them – about the real value of relationships, and the importance of understanding the other person’s point of view before labeling, dismissing or misconstruing their intentions. As we expect people with ASD to learn these skills, so we should expect people without ASD to learn them just as proficiently – and, who better to mentor them than the people with ASD themselves? Spiritual awareness and sensibility is invaluable as we all work together to combat and prevent spiritual starvation, and hopefully reinforce to people with ASD that their contributions are valuable just as they are to our community.
3) On that note, we admit our bias: We hope people with ASD will undertake this ministry with us… to understand, recognize, address and prevent spiritual starvation in the community at large.
By virtue of their diagnosis and developmental traits, people with ASD tend to have many distinct advantages which suit them ideally for our brand of mission work, and we hope they will forgive us for singling them out in direct recruitment. What can we say? We only want the best. Sports teams send scouts to high school and college teams with the best records to draft prospects; why can’t we?
In short: People with ASD have experience and knowledge that people without ASD cannot. They have natural advantages in the ways of preventing spiritual starvation, yet many don’t even realize it. That’s okay; we’ll step up and ask them to be our mentors.
4) Finally, in terms of human behavior, the idea of being sent on a mission fires people up to push past obstacles that would otherwise be too difficult or painful, especially when they are motivated by CARITAS. Our thought is that the very act of taking up our Mission will help people with ASD accomplish their social goals as greatly as the Mission itself. We hope that recruiting people with ASD stirs them to consistently put these social principles into action, in spite of the very real pain and anxiety they routinely face by living with ASD in a non-autistic world. It’s easy to backslide into isolation when it’s just you, but if you are a bona fide Missionary committed to ending spiritual starvation in the world, you know there are a lot of souls counting on you… and you find a way.
And thus, we reach our conclusion, in much fewer words than all the explanations above:
We are a ministry for everyone, so that people with autism may find their way.
Our weekly Missionary Thoughts are meant to develop the kind of mindset that opens doors, starting with our own. We hope you go as deep as your thoughts will allow - and be surprised by what you find hidden in the silence. Such contemplation is the keystone of this ministry. Contemplative action comes after we ponder something so deeply that we can no longer sit still – we absolutely must chase after that truth we have found so that we can capture it and joyfully experience its realization.
Tears, then: embracing tears, for our bread.
We are lingering here because tears are of such great importance to our work. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak must be willing to feel our emotions to the fullest. Some of us already do. Perhaps others have adopted habits to suppress our emotions for one reason or another, or have gradually forgotten how to feel openly. Let us be very clear: We cannot welcome others with closed doors. Even a partially closed door gives hesitation to the souls around us. We must open our doors in every figurative sense: unlock them, unlatch them, and swing them open as wide as the jambs allow.
As we’ve mentioned before, this does not mean we reveal every hidden aspect of ourselves, and it does not mean we have no boundaries. It means that, for Missionary work, we open the doors to our humanity, through voluntary humility, whenever we seek someone’s friendship.
A good test of this openness is the degree to which we are willing to embrace tears – both our own, and those of others.
This week, we ask you to read over these points, and find the one that provokes the most thought. Maybe it confuses you, or irritates you, or maybe it makes sense with blazing clarity. Once you find it, really study it, and identify how and why it resonates with your desire to join hands with this Mission.
Again, these are thoughts for all Missionaries - those with autism, and those without. We conclude by inviting you to consider how tears open, or close, doors in your own relationships… or, how you would like them to.
Two different times, the Book of Psalms uses this phrasing: “You have fed us with tears for our bread.” Seeing how we are an apostolate concerned with spiritual food, this is a matter of interest for our Missionaries, and is our thought for this week.
A powerful emotional relationship underlies this poetry. “You have fed us…” suggests dependency, particularly that of a child. “Bread” is a universal symbol of comfort and plenty. “Tears for our bread,” then, would be a shocking, even hurtful substitution. Do we assume the psalmist is lamenting that God seems to be sending tribulation instead of peace? Yes, in strictly historical terms. It certainly resonates with those times when we, too, have suffered with things beyond our control and wondered how we ended up with bitter herbs when we expected our daily bread. But let’s linger here, since we know both poetry and Scripture speak on as many layers as humans are complex.
Let’s think about tears. They are salty… wet… warm. An outward sign of our interior emotion.
We most often associate tears with sorrow, but they can also come with laughter, surprise, anger… actually, anywhere that emotions become more intense than our words can express.
We’ve all heard that human beings are the only creatures who shed tears of emotion. We are also programmed to recognize tears as a signal for our attention, starting the moment a child is born. Infants and children rarely suppress their tears, and adults dutifully respond. A gradual shift comes as children mature. Instead of crying easily, adolescents – despite having intense emotions – increasingly feel the need to hide their tears as an act of independence. This is a useful way to practice self-regulation and coping, but it should not imply failure if tears slip out. In fact, it is equally useful to see how peers are moved to compassion when they see you in a moment of high emotion. Adults probably shed the least tears of all the various age groups, but healthy adults still do cry as a part of living, and friends still (usually) respond with care when tears are spotted.
People with autism have a strained relationship with tears.
As you read over this list, it should occur to you that we could remove the words “with autism” and it would still apply to many. Difficulty crying is an “anyone” thing, just as tears themselves are not exclusively an autism thing. People with autism cry for exactly the same reasons as do everyone else. In fact, we’re all familiar with phrases like these (and they didn’t originate on the autism spectrum):
Do tears really make us that vulnerable?
Crying happens when our NEED can no longer be experienced alone.
Crying is not designed to be done in secret. When we cry alone, tears themselves are all we have – just salt and water, which nourishes no-one (and would be toxic if that were all we consumed).
When we allow someone to know our need, however, we give them a gift: the chance to respond, with leaven (= that which moves them to rise), balm (= oil) and sweetness (= sugar) to soothe our distress. Their acts of comfort need be nothing fancy, just simple solidarity – the grains of our experiences mixing with theirs, milling together in a shared moment of understanding (= flour). The warmth of our tears plus the warmth of their giving completes the gesture, and all the components of (spiritual) bread are in place. Tears DO become bread when we share them with others.
[ God feeds us with tears for our bread ] --> No! -->
God feeds us with tears, for our bread.
Note the insertion of the comma. That comma changes everything, and can be put there with a simple act of our consent. It takes a lamentation and turns it into a proclamation.
“God has fed us with tears for [= instead of] our bread” -> becomes ->
“God has fed us with tears [= which contain necessary ingredients], for our bread.”
So, then. Our need, expressed in our tears, can feed our souls and can feed the souls of others…
Each of these “unlesses” can be changed… worked on… remedied… and transformed, as part of our spiritual commitment as Missionaries, including those last two. Autism DOES impact one’s ability to shed tears, and autism DOES impact one’s ability to respond to tears. But, if we take the impact autism has on our ability to cry and respond to crying, and consecrate it [dedicate it to serving God-in-others]… the ensuing love [CARITAS] will make that impossible task possible.
And so, for this week’s thoughts, we ask you to ponder this idea deeply.
Pull it apart, question it.
Let it rest.
Let it rise in your heart.
And let it become your bread.
We lead off this week with a quick word association exercise. Ready?
Imagine you could make a generous contribution toward helping people with ASD. “My focus would be AUTISM _____________ .”
Let us guess. Among the answers that are not registered trademarks, the most common are:
These are all worthy causes and vitally important concepts.
But not ours.
Please, don’t get us wrong. We endorse each cause named above. Who wouldn’t? Acceptance recognizes the triumph of individuals’ efforts to live their best lives under the differences and difficulties that characterize autism. Awareness is an open invitation for others to take the time to understand what living with autism looks and feels like. Treatment offers relief from distress and raises competence in coping. And, although there is no known “cure” for autism as yet, biomedical research continues to advance the three other previously named causes, giving many hope that one day the debilitating symptoms of autism can be eradicated.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak approaches autism by following the lead of our spiritual patron, who met things head on where they were… learned from them… and reformed them.
Wait: AUTISM… REFORM?
Stay with us. You’ll see.
When St. Thorlak was consecrated Bishop of Skalholt, his superior, the Archbishop of Norway, was pleased to have found someone who shared his (unpopular) passion for moral reform in the church. Thorlak was already familiar with the anything-goes mentality of Icelandic priests and leaders. He tried for many years to demonstrate through his own actions that clergy were obligated to observe a higher way of living through serving others, not their own pleasures. He understood that appointment to higher office meant you were chosen and your work to be set apart, made sacred, and dedicated to God’s use.
Now hold on. We realize that autism is not a calling, and not an honor. It is a yoke under which people are placed by the mere configuration of their genes, developmental circumstances and confluence of all other factors which contribute to autism’s expression.
Public office, too, is a yoke. High titles bring privilege, yes, but also obligation, for humble servants and hedonists alike.
Yokes. We’ve heard this before. Who was it that said “Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”?
Is this true? Can we trade in the yokes we are dealt and take up the Yoke of Jesus Christ instead?
The answer is YES. We can. We accomplish this through an act of the will, a conscious choice to take something ordinary, lift it up in prayer, and dedicate it to serving and glorifying God.
Taking your yoke, whatever it is and however burdensome, and dedicating it to the sacred service and glorification of God, is accomplished through consecration.
Historians reflecting on St. Thorlak’s legacy summarize him as “a reformer.” Did he set out with that explicit intention, or was that the consequence of how he lived out his vocation? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that St. Thorlak was a man of voluntary humility. He was strongly convicted and uncompromising, but he was not aggressive. He came from need, not demand.
If St. Thorlak accomplished reform, it was through consecration.
St. Thorlak felt a great love of God from his earliest age. He responded by consecrating his life to God’s service. He never sought high titles, but he did accept them with trepidation and indebted loyalty to the One who commissioned him: first a deacon, then a priest, then a scholar abroad, then an abbot, then a bishop.
St. Thorlak – socially paralyzed, impaired speaker, lover of learning – consecrated what he had to serving God and serving God-in-others. He felt pain when his kinsmen suffered. He hurt when people in authority gave poor example by their greed, unethical dealings, dishonesty, lustful indulgences and disregard for the dignity of women and children. He wanted to help bring remedy to these injustices and help those who suffered the consequences.
St.Thorlak, with the authority of a cleric, dedicated himself and all that he had – ordinary objects, land holdings, people under his tutelage – to serving God-in-others. He dedicated his struggles, triumphs and ordinary daily rituals. He consecrated all to serving God-in-others.
And, people noticed.
People in places high and low noticed he lived differently… quietly… contemplating something bigger than that which was before them. At times he appeared overly serious, and he had an unusual love of rules and order, but he still had a memorable effect on people. He was an unexpected blessing, a gentle burst of oxygen that remained even after he left. He stirred people to see themselves differently because he approached everyone he met as a gift.
Yet - this is someone for whom speaking, even eye contact, was painful!
How did he do it?
He gave himself, struggles and all, in loving obedience to serving God-in-others – and it went from something painful (and something most take for granted) to being a source of blessing for him AND all who received it. Each ordinary, painful encounter became a blessing which brought God-in-him to God-in-others.
Back to us, and our exercise, now.
Bringing God to people in a way that gets their attention… taking real, painful impediments and circumstances, and converting them to pathways to blessing… Yes. That all sounds like “reform.”
And so, our angle, our contribution to helping those affected by autism, is, in fact, “reform.”
Reform, through consecration.
Let us then finish the phrase: Our focus is: Autism CONSECRATED.
Take what we have, however poor, however painful, and dedicate it completely to the service and glorification of God. In America alone, one in 48 people are affected by autism. If we consecrate that, then one in 48 will be blessed… and will bless untold others in each of their circles.
It CAN happen.
If we hear the call.