We look more closely this week at what defines our particular approach as missionaries. You will recall that our methods are patterned after the late Bishop Thorlák Thórhallsson of Iceland, whose public leadership and ministry left a lasting impact on the faith of his people, and whose manner was uniquely marked by traits that today would be called autism, social anxiety and communication disorder.
It is the paradox of his success which inspires us to pinpoint the techniques he used with the limitations he had. Did he struggle in secret, or deny his difficulties? Did he rise above his symptoms through some miracle intervention? Was he cured? Did he simply exhibit heroic strength as he fought his way through each obstacle? Did he have parents who advocated for him, friends in high places, elaborate therapies applied to his skill deficits?
No. There was none of that.
Bishop Thorlak did something completely different: He consecrated himself, just as he was, to God’s service. To be sure, he did not know the clinical concepts we have today, and he did not explicitly have autism in mind when he chose how to live out his vocation. Even if he had, the process and the result would have been the same. We chose him for our mentor because his method is remarkably simple, accessible and powerful – and it works.
Some might say that Bishop Thorlak was naturally inclined toward everything that led to his success. He was fervent in his faith, loyal in his service and even-tempered in his diplomacy, all of which helped tremendously in his career and as a holy man of God. Yet there were plenty in his time who described Thorlak as somber, rigid, stubborn and headstrong. In other words, he was a saint in the eyes of the faithful, but not everyone enjoyed his company. (Sounds a little like us ordinary folk, no?) The truth is, he was as human as anyone else, with regular human failings amplified by the effects of autism. For everything remarkable he did, he likely had just as many moments of sensory overload and complete shutdown. We say this to head off any notion that we idealize Bishop Thorlak or portray him as someone above our own experiences. On the contrary, we believe Thorlak had a full range of emotions, traits, behaviors and foibles. Be sure to keep this in mind as you continue reading.
Bishop Thorlak, being fully human and fully fallible, took all that he was, and all that he was not… all that he could do well, and all that confounded him… all that was asked of him, and all that he dreaded in fear… and consecrated it all to God’s service. When he did that, a remarkable thing happened: His useful traits became a pleasing, acceptable offering by their own merits, and his (shall we say) less helpful traits were transformed from stumbling blocks into keys which opened doors for him, by way of voluntary humility. He assessed what he lacked and then chose not to curse his disabilities, but to offer his needs as a chance to learn from the people in his see. Rather than being a Bishop of high and removed social standing, he embraced mentorship as a way of life: first seeking mentorship from the people he served, and after receiving their friendship and wisdom, mentoring those in his own employ.
Consecrating ourselves to God’s service, in the manner of Bishop Thorlak, is as simple as starting with these three Biblical words: Here I am.
Here I am – just as you see me. Nothing polished or embellished, as in a job interview, but starkly honest, hiding nothing.
Here I am – and I need you. I need you to be a friend to me. I need your company. I need to experience God through you.
Here I am – with only that which I’ve got on me. My hands are rather empty. I imagine that I know what you are looking for, and I know I don’t have that. What I do have, I offer you… my skills, my ideas, or maybe just my company. I would love to feel like I am valuable to you, but I have no idea how to be. You tell me.
Here I am – and I am glad to be here. I have a lot to learn from you.
Here I am – and I have a lot of experiences which might be interesting or helpful to you. I would love to share them with you.
Here I am, God. What can I do that is useful for You, when I am ordinary and imperfect?
Here I am, God, and I’m watching and listening. Show me, by leading me to people around me.
Imagine presenting yourself to God, seeking Him to employ you. What do you genuinely have to offer Him? What do you feel holds you back? Ask God to show you… and He will, over time. Go slowly as you watch and listen for clues, and thank Him as you notice each puzzle piece.
Become aware this week of how God is mentoring you by speaking through others, and then, how God might be mentoring others by speaking through you.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel: God-Is-With-Us.” – Isaiah 7:14
There is a secret code greeting between members of the Mission of Saint Thorlak: the numerical sequence 7-1-4. It makes us smile every time. It is a wink of solidarity between Missionaries because it is our shorthand for one of our core principles: God is always with us.
This week, we look at how this fits into the foundation of what we do.
“Spiritual starvation,” you will recall, is a state of disconnectedness from others, and ultimately, disconnection from God. We think of spiritual nourishment in terms of flowing through a continuous chain, with God at the source and each successive link either transmitting or impeding the flow of God’s love to the links ahead… eventually reaching completion where we are.
Some have wondered why we start with the image of a chain, which is linear, instead of the vine and branches (see John 15:5), or more of an electronic circuit. Our choice of imagery is deliberate for good reason.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak focuses on our interactions with others to address spiritual starvation. We pick up all the way down at end of the chain, where we are. Why don’t we direct address peoples’ relationships with God, at the front of the chain? Isn’t God the source of love and life?
Aha. Yes. And, that is why we start at the end: to get a good sense of just how well nourished we are spiritually. To do this, we need to stretch our connections into a straight line and see each link between ourselves, at the end, and God, at the source. It is not the number of links that matters; it is the degree to which God’s love flows through each successive link. If the people in our chain are open to receiving and transmitting God’s love, His love flows abundantly – whether the people themselves are polished or imperfect, poised or clumsy, introverts or extroverts, living with a condition or diagnosed with nothing at all. God works through all of us just as we are (… and, if we consecrate all we have to His service, we actively permit His love to flow through us at maximum power… but we will save that for another discussion).
There are, however, places along the chain where the flow becomes constricted. We do not live perfect lives, and even the most pious among us remains human, with human feelings and human failings. It is a dynamic flow that changes with our day to day openness and willingness and movements of the heart and reactions to people around us. It is only over long periods of time that the flow might become more permanently constricted, and rarely is it ever cut off completely – or irreversibly. The degree of spiritual starvation reflects the degree of constriction somewhere in the chain, and this is why it helps to see the chain at its full length, to better understand how to get that nourishment flowing again.
There are three key points we need to make as we relate the idea of this chain to our Missionary work, and they reinforce the importance starting our work at the end of the chain, rather than the beginning.
1) God is the source of our life
2) His essence is part of each of us
3) God is alive and broadcasting His love continuously, simultaneously, across all Creation
Our life begins with God, back at the start of the chain. We do not call ourselves into being; God is the source, the origin, and the foundational link of our spiritual nourishment.
Although we each originate with God, our lives are not lived in the spiritual realm of The Creator – they are lived in the tangible realm of Creation. We live where God is unseen. How can He be the foundational link, if He is not seen? We are not tethered to God like astronauts on a space walk; we are living our lives here in the tangible world, physically separated from Him. So, how can God supply us with nourishment if we are separated? It is because all people, all created things, bear the essence of God.
Pause and ponder: Creatures bear the essence of God. Not simply an imprint or a trademark – but a bit of God’s very essence! God’s essence is in the fabric of each of His creatures. We can say this because God is Life itself… so, by receiving life from the Source of All Life, we are, by necessity, imbued with the essence of this “life” which comprises our souls. This is not to say that each one of us IS God, or is equal to God, but that the substance animating our souls contains God’s life-giving essence.
That essence in us not only enlivens us, but also gives hints as to how God imagines our potentiality. We might (rather poorly) compare this to the manner we say we resemble our ancestors through family traits and tendencies. Physical genetics play one role, but there are also intangible threads of personality and character which consistently express themselves through successive generations. So it is, also, with God: He imparts a bit of His character to us when he forms our souls. As we hear echoes of distant ancestors in our contemporary relatives, so too we can hear echoes of God Himself through those who make up our world – because each person bears God’s essence.
On to our next point: God is alive and present at all times, though He exists in a realm we cannot physically perceive. We conceptualize God constantly broadcasting Himself, and that signal reaching infinitely, though invisibly, throughout the totality of all Creation. God is perpetually present, and perpetually broadcasting, but we may only perceive Him during those moments we pick up and attend to His signal. If we were somehow able to perpetually monitor the signal, we could experience the truth that God is indeed perfectly and constantly present with us, “live,” in every aspect in which He exists… continuously, completely and simultaneously. This means God is “live” in His essence.
We imagine God’s broadcast signal as a quiet, steady, pulse of love, like a heartbeat, recalling that sense of perfect rest we feel when we nestle on a parent’s chest and hear the reassurance of their life inside them and instinctively know that we are not alone.
Therefore: If we are aware of God’s essence in us… and God’s essence in the people around us… we can experience God, “live,” by attending to God’s signal emanating in us and from them. We can experience God to the degree to which we receive the signal. And… the more people to whom we are meaningfully connected… the greater the chances of hearing it. Furthermore, if two or more join together, the signal is boosted.
Two or more? That sounds familiar. Hold on. We’re almost there.
Each person is different. Each moment for each person is different. Each circumstance is different. So, moment by moment, there are nearly infinite combinations of how we might experience God, or how someone might experience God through us. Sometimes it will be strong, and others it will be nearly imperceptible. Sometimes there will be interference. Sometimes we will forget to listen. Sometimes our own signals will dominate. Sometimes we will not recognize it. But none of this negates the fact that there is a signal.
Why do we ask our Missionaries to seek others?
= To give others the opportunity for God to greet us through them – and give them the chance to experience the signal.
By seeking their greeting, we boost the signal for them!
Our need calls God through them!
When the signal is perceived by itself, it generates great joy… but when it is received through another person, it activates Matthew 18:20, and God becomes present in Jesus… Emmanuel… God-is-with us.
"7 1 4."
PRAY: Heavenly Father, how marvelous are Your designs! You are alive and with us, unseen, as love broadcasting live, around the clock. Help us remember that, under the noise, under the static, You are there: clear and soft and constantly sending your greeting, in gentle rhythm, to our hearts.
CONTEMPLATE: Keep this thought in mind as you go about your week, and observe how it affects your thoughts, actions and feelings.
RELATE: Each time you encounter someone, silently realize: God’s essence is broadcasting to me, from within that person!