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.