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.
This week’s Missionary Thought works on many levels. It functions as a tip for people with social anxiety. It gives non-anxious people an idea of how to approach someone whom they have passed by time and again without making it seem forced or awkward. It gives homage to our patron, St. Thorlak, who employed this action every day of his ministry and whose example we recognize as opening doors for people with autism spectrum disabilities. And finally, it is an actual testimony: something that a real person did, difficult as it was, and discovered how to disempower her panic attacks. By the time you’ve read this through, we hope you’ll understand the underlying premise of The Mission of St. Thorlak.
THE SCYTHE OF SAINT THORLAK IN ACTION
Let us review: The Scythe of St. Thorlak, which cuts through the thorns casting shadows of doubt in our unclear minds, is VOLUNTARY HUMILITY.
Here is one way to put this scythe into action, with a little imagination. For those times when you feeling awkward, anxious, withdrawn, unable to speak, or unable to find the on-ramp to join an existing gathering: put on your imaginary reporter’s badge, and go interview someone.
That’s right. Envision your very own press pass. Now, go get the scoop.
What is it about a press pass that emboldens reporters? Have you ever noticed how someone going for the big story has an overflowing measure of confidence? A press pass allows access where people are otherwise shooed away by security and people in charge. A press pass permits you to interrupt, cut in with a question, to be noticed, to announce that you have a need. Instead of being snickered at, talked over, brushed aside – press passes take precedence. They are respected. People not only notice press passes, but they pause to accommodate them.
You, then, take up your press pass. Go up to a situation – a conversation in progress, or a person you’ve never approached before, or a setting that you’ve always avoided – and grab that interview.
SEEK OUT THE STORIES FROM THE MARGINS
If you don’t have a real press pass, don’t forge one (please). Use the Scythe of St. Thorlak instead. Trust us… it will get just as much attention. Take up your willingness to be humble and resolve to learn from the people you approach. With a little prep work you can have some questions in mind and how you plan on asking them. Don’t worry if you are clumsy, if you stutter, if you get looks of confusion. Just go talk to them. Ask them questions. Show them, by asking, that they are a valuable resource to you… because they are!
There. Doesn’t that sound like a good tip for people with social anxiety? (We hope so; it is meant to be.)
Then again, it works for people who are not diagnosed with anything in particular, for those who are socially comfortable and have a solid group of friends and don’t really take too much notice of the people on the fringes, the people sitting alone, or, maybe, the people who really don’t look very approachable. It’s easy to pass by someone who really doesn’t like talking to other people.
Since when does any of that concern a reporter going for the exclusive interview?
As Missionaries of St. Thorlak, whether or not you have a diagnosis, your job – your OBLIGATION – is to look for people on the margins and seek out their stories. You want to come to know them as well as you know the people in your comfortable circles. You want to know what makes these quiet or off-putting ones tick. You also want to help them see that you genuinely notice them, appreciate them, and would feel their absence if one day they were gone.
So you, too, go in with your press pass, your voluntary humility, and tell those people on the margins that you really wish to know them better. Be willing to be rebuffed, mumbled-to, hedged-against and outright rejected... but more importantly, be prepared to be surprised by their candor, their delightfulness, their softness… and their likeness to you. Be committed to regularly speak with them at their pace, not yours, and be ready to find that you really enjoy their company.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ST. THORLAK'S MISSION?
St. Thorlak used this technique routinely in spite of many social limitations. He was a lover of learning. He saw volumes of stories, wisdom, experience and adventure in the people of his diocese. He wanted to understand everyone almost as fervently as he himself longed to be understood. If we are to follow his holy footsteps, it is up to us to imitate his example to the best of our ability. They may not have had journalists in his day, but they certainly had saga-writers and storytellers… none of whom had any material without people to inspire them. Go, therefore, and be inspired by the sagas of the people close at hand!
Why are we focusing on this? Why suggest something that could be found in the pages of a social skills manual, or a group therapy session for people on the autism spectrum? Why not promote something more deeply spiritual, since we are spiritual missionaries?
Because it IS spiritual… when it is consecrated.
Consecrated? A Postscript.
The "press pass" technique is a true story of a real person's effort to overcome suffocating and frequent panic attacks in social situations. She never had the benefit of therapy sessions or social skills curricula. Instead, she was met by adults and professionals who called her “shy” and “timid” and pushed her to “get past it.” This was more than just “anxiety” – these were racing heart, swimming head, hyperventilating, cold-sweaty panic attacks which plagued her throughout high school and beyond. Finally, this courageous soul rose above her disability with her own willpower… not by curing it… not by conquering it… but by consecrating it.
By dedicating what little she had to the service of God and others, her path finally came into focus. No more did she work to impress other people… no more did she try to prove herself… but rather, she entrusted her struggle to God’s service, as imperfect as she was, and her focus shifted away from herself.
By focusing on God, she found her way out.
This is by no means a condemnation of social skills curricula or self-esteem therapy. But it is, for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, a reminder:
Autism therapies are means to our end, which is: Service of God-in-others.
May we contemplate this idea in preparation of learning what it means to consecrate autism to serving God-in-others.
One of the only recorded prayers calling on St. Thorlak was written around the year 1350 (see end note) and bears these words: “Cut with the scythe of your workings the thorns casting shadows in my unclear mind.” Scythe? Thorns? That’s some powerful imagery. After all, a scythe is no little pocket knife, and any thorns requiring a tool that big must be some serious, menacing thorns – the kind that keep people away.
Those familiar with St. Thorlak recognize the paradox of this image. While his stature and authority were both scythe-worthy, his nature was anything but threatening. Gentle, modest, clement, placid – those were more frequent descriptors of St. Thorlak’s disposition (also used in the same prayer cited above). A scythe is probably the last thing anyone would imagine in the hands of a quiet, scholarly bishop. So, what kind of thorn-slashing weapon did this author have in mind, if Thorlak was not known for using aggressive force?
St. Thorlak struggled with varying degrees of social anxiety and difficulties speaking throughout his life, often finding his public duties quite distressing. Yet, he willingly accepted the obligation of every office to which he was appointed, believing that his mission was to serve other people in complete charity. His commitment to CARITAS made these impossible tasks possible for him.
St. Thorlak dedicated his life to promoting social and clerical reform among a very resistant crowd. He unceasingly met, counseled and instructed the people in his pastoral care. Although he was opposed and outright mocked by many powerful leaders, he won people over time after time without using harsh or aggressive tactics. How did someone who was painfully shy, who dreaded crowds, was considered overly serious, and who was chronically misunderstood by his peer group win so many hearts?
So: What does voluntary humility look like, and how do we use it? Here are some illustrations.
This voluntary humility defines us as Missionaries of St. Thorlak. Traditional mendicants start out from plenty but take vows of voluntary poverty, spending their time begging for material charity. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak start from spiritual poverty and sincerely embrace voluntary humility, spending our time begging for spiritual, fraternal charity (= CARITAS).
Thus, Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are equally people with autism and people approaching those with autism. The only pre-requisite for being a Missionary of Saint Thorlak is having humanity… and, as we see this week, a willingness to take up St. Thorlak’s Scythe.
Who’s ready to start reaping?
End note: The prayer referenced above is very nicely detailed in the work of Susanne Miriam Fahn and Gottskálk Jensson, The Forgotten Poem: A Latin Panegyric for Saint Þorlákr in AM 382 4to', Gripla, 21 (2010), pp. 19-60). The words “cut with the scythe of your working…” originally referred to the 14th century author’s appeal for clarity in recalling the details of St. Thorlak’s biography.
Missionary Thought for the Week of April 24, 2017: Love Makes Impossible Tasks Possible (Continued).
A quick recap from last week: “Love,” for our purposes, means CARITAS: An over-arching regard for the care and well-being of others.
People acting from “love” often do heroic things, on small and large scale alike. Inconvenient favors are somehow easily offered to friends in need. Our willingness to look silly increases with the degree to which we hope to gain another person’s affections. The Good Samaritan in each of us ignores rules, drops everything and offers help when someone has a sudden and urgent need.
When it comes to people with autism, the same principles apply... only, we know it takes a degree of heroic motivation just to navigate the ordinary interactions.
Heroic? Yes, we think so. Living with autism is intense. Emotions are amplified, sensations are overwhelming and isolation sometimes feels necessary. For a person who finds eye contact distressing, speaking painful and interactions exhausting, greeting another person is a corner quickly cut in the name of “I’ll do it another time because I need to recharge right now.”
We know you do. We know the confusion, the longing to think more and speak less, the way your heart races when someone looks you directly in the eye, the embarrassment you feel without knowing why. It is very reasonable to want space in solitude and the freedom to “be” without having to rehearse rules you don’t always understand or believe necessary.
But, as impossible as it is to rise above these challenges in everyday situations, we also feel that love… CARITAS… can make it possible.
CARITAS by itself is a nice goal, but it might seem a little off in the distance. Maybe even a long way. Lofty. Abstract. Idealistic. Maybe you have a general sense of good will toward others but are not ready to act on it yet. Maybe you want to feel that way but find it too difficult. Maybe your anxiety is still too strong.
This is where “MISSION” comes into play.
Why are we the “Mission” of Saint Thorlak, and not, say, the “Society,” or “Ministry,” of Saint Thorlak?
The Online Etymology Dictionary can help clear that up. The earliest use of the word mission referred to an act of sending; a dispatching; an act of release or letting go.
We don’t simply ponder things; we ponder them to act on them. We first gain understanding, then accept the call to employ what we’ve pondered. Contemplative prayer + Contemplative action = Mission.
The very definition of CARITAS requires us to deliberately act in order to realize it, covering the sending and dispatching part.
What about releasing or letting go?
We might say we release ourselves from our hesitation and let go of our fear in the name of CARITAS because we choose to be more concerned about the spiritual nourishment and well-being of others than our dread of discomfort, looking silly, making mistakes or forgetting rules.
The CARITAS of St. Thorlak is like a manual override switch we can activate each time we make even the smallest gesture in the name of our Mission – which then empowers us to take that different route. Instead of avoiding the usual anxieties, hesitations, difficulties and reservations we have about interacting with others, we head straight into them, ready to welcome the discomfort and the consequences! Why? Because we aren’t just acting as ourselves anymore. We are acting in the name of our Mission, which shifts our interest from ourselves to the welfare of others. We become more interested in putting an end to spiritual starvation than avoiding distress.
In sum: We aren’t just practicing pro-social behavior to earn praise from our teachers and acceptance from our peer group. No! We are on a MISSION of CARITAS! Specifically: to understand, recognize, address and prevent spiritual starvation among people we pass day after day. By doing this, we feed our own souls from the same bread of friendship we offer… and, as we ourselves are nourished and strengthened, those impossible tasks become even more possible.
Love (CARITAS) empowers us do things we would never ordinarily do. Even when autism screams that we can’t. Even if autism makes us look impossible to reach.
Love makes impossible tasks possible.
We had to do it sometime: We need to talk about love.
“Love” as a topic is covered in far too many other places, especially in youth and young adult ministries, for us to focus on it too long. Then again, it does appear twice in our Mission objectives:
- To make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved
[- To make people aware that these are also the immediate needs of those around them]
- To make people aware that these needs spring from God's thirst to be known and loved.
We included that middle one because it implies that others around us need to be known and loved, so that counts in this discussion.
For our purposes, throughout the entire body of Mission of Saint Thorlak material, print and multimedia, retreats and readings, exercises and encounters: the “love” to which we refer is CARITAS: Love which is rooted in goodwill, justice and sincerely caring about the others around us.
We could spend hours exploring degrees and types of love. We do not want to take up too much time discussing and partitioning characteristics of agape, philia, pragma and ludus as pertaining to friendship (… did you even realize there were that many forms of friendship-love?) We also want to make it very clear that we do not include or discuss erotic and romantic love simply because those concepts are specific and highly subjective, personal forms of love that tend to overwhelm people, on or off the autism spectrum, and are best rooted in caritas in the first place.
To us, caritas is the term that most fully embraces the manner of love we are seeking to tap: a measure each of brotherly/sisterly love, motherly/fatherly love, loving friendship and loving kindness, extended by us to those who meet the criteria of being human.
Does that concept of love qualify in our future discussions of God’s thirst to be loved? Yes. St. Thomas Aquinas covers this in Question 23 of his Summa Theologiae as he explains caritas as humankind’s seeking a deep friendship with God, reflected both in love of God and love of neighbor.
Why are we choosing to use the Latin word caritas instead of its English translation, “charity”? We could use either word interchangeably, but we know there are many connotations that go along with “charity” which blur our intentions. We want our motives as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak to be completely spontaneous, voluntary and rooted in a sincere desire to get to know the people around us. We think of the work we do as rallying around the delight that gaining a new friend brings to us. There is simply too great a chance that our functioning as a missionary apostolate might lead us to confuse “charity” with its popularized meaning, “giving to others from what we have plentifully.” No; in fact, we approach others in our spiritual poverty, hoping they will give their friendship to us from THEIR plenty!
Okay, then… back to our thought of the week: Love makes impossible tasks possible.
Hmm. Love… caritas... Do goodwill, justice and sincerity make impossible tasks possible?
Let’s do just one more test, to make sure this concept of caritas is the one we are looking for.
“LOVE makes impossible tasks possible.”
We all know, from poets to pop music, cartoons to epic romances, that falling-in-love drives people to do things they would normally never do. So, that works.
We also know that parents extend themselves way past the borders of comfort in every direction when it comes to caring for and helping their children. Familial, maternal and paternal love all work.
How does caritas make impossible tasks possible?
By leveling the playing field between humans. We need what you need. You need what we need. Let’s help each other, and accomplish both.
Becoming a Missionary of Saint Thorlak requires one to actively cultivate a spirit of caritas toward the people around us through contemplation, giving us a purpose we would not ordinarily have: to deliberately feed the spiritually hungry with our own need to be fed.
Okay… (thinking about that)…
To feed the spiritually hungry with our own need to be fed?
That’s absurd. It doesn’t make any sense. In fact, it’s impossible.
Unless… caritas really does make impossible tasks possible.
The progression of our Missionary Thoughts so far goes like this:
1) Friendship’s Secret Superweapon: Asking others to be OUR friend is more powerful than asking others if we can be THEIR friend, because in asking, we come from need (spiritual poverty). This draws people to us by soliciting their talents, not imposing ours on them.
2) Humanity: The origin of this word stems from “consideration for others.” If you’re human, you arrive with the need to be known and loved as part of your humanity.
3) Spiritual Hunger: Every human carries some degree of spiritual hunger which is relieved by others knowing us and befriending us. As we engage others to assess and feed their spiritual needs, our own spiritual hunger is fed… because, where two or more gather in Christian friendship, Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, source of our True Spiritual Food, becomes present.
4) and 5) Sincerity is coming from a place of acknowledging our own needs, and is a crucial ingredient to feeding spiritual hunger.
6) When we fear our own needs, we create barriers.
Now, #7, a paradox: Others can be fed spiritually by our own hunger… if we seek and obtain in mutual caritas, making this impossible contradiction possible.
* * *
If you’re feeling lost, don’t worry: next week we will explore this in much more concrete and familiar terms. For this week, consider the times when love, in any of its definitions and forms, has made the impossible possible in your life.