Ah, at last, we get to the “how” of our Mission. How do we propose to take on spiritual starvation? By the way of Saint Thorlak.
This will sound familiar because it makes up everything we do, and many of our previous Missionary Thoughts have discussed this in bits and pieces. We have not, however, presented it in its entirety as a concept. This is the week we do.
When we examine a “way” in which someone lived, we seek to identify those signature characteristics which set the person apart. In most cases, the “ways” of admirable people are variations on themes common to all of humanity. In the same manner there are many routes from all directions to get to single-point destinations, there are many “ways” to carry ourselves from one stage of our life to the next. In the Christian worldview, all of these individual “ways” point ultimately toward the one Way, the Divine Person of Jesus, who identifies Himself explicitly as The Way to God, our Heavenly Father (John 14:6).
Think of it like the American highway system:
This denotes a local route number of a road that begins and ends across a small area.
This is a larger route that connects different areas.
This is an Interstate route that connects to a master highway
ultimately connecting large parts of the entire country.
The ways we take in our individual lives are local routes.
The mentors who guide us are larger routes connecting different areas.
The saints map out Interstate routes, tested and determined to connect directly to the one, true Way.
The way of Saint Thorlak, therefore, bears Interstate insignia. His way was determined by ecclesial authorities to connect directly to the one, true Way of God by faithfully following the example of the Gospels. Thorlak, himself a regular man, ushers us to the way of Jesus, who takes us to the Heavenly Father.
As states across America each have numerous routes connecting to the Interstate, the Christian world has numerous saints offering ways to connect to God. Some of the more familiar ones are the ways of St. Francis (… Franciscans), St. Dominic (… Dominicans), St. Benedict (… Benedictines), St. Ignatius of Loyola (… Jesuits), St. Teresa of Calcutta (… Missionaries of Charity) and onward. These holy people are all on par with one another, all on the same team, all providing us a way to serve others and see the goodness of God. Thus, the way of St. Thorlak may not have the same familiarity as those enjoyed by the followers of Sts. Francis, Dominic or Teresa, but it is no less of a way – and it is, in fact, highly specialized for what he did best: battling starvation.
The Way of Saint Thorlak begins by consecrating everything – everything we are, and everything we are not; everything we have, and everything we lack – to God’s service. We accomplish this through caritas, voluntary humility, a contemplative sense of wonder, and leading others by the example of our daily doings.
Sounds simple. Guess what? It is. It is a way of life that anyone can attain by being ordinary. The catch is, it really touches on our humanity. Caritas concerns our hearts and minds with the well-being of others. Voluntary humility asks us to be exactly who we are, with no pretense or attempt to hide our needs. Wonder requires giving ourselves permission to be child-like in admitting we like when things make us stop and take in the big, big picture without sarcasm or cynicism. And, leading by example means a willingness to be seen.
It is a formula within reach of anyone, and it is proven to counteract spiritual disconnection. It is the way Thorlak Thorhallsson lived every day of his sixty year lifetime, back in the twelfth century. He never planned to become a “way” – he simply lived, as he was, where he was, and invited others to become signposts themselves connecting others to the abundant life… in other words, an Interstate, to the One, True God.
We could leave things here: The way of Saint Thorlak is an easy, accessible manner for connecting our lives with God. What excites us more, however, is the realization that this formula is particularly useful as a spiritual guide for people with autism – something that has long been lacking, but has been sought by thousands. We believe: here it is!
Why is the way of Saint Thorlak especially well suited to people with autism seeking spiritual direction?
Because it addresses the spiritual needs of people with autism in a way that is not overwhelming. It fosters connection from within each individual, rather than beginning in established community. It teaches WHY people with autism are taught social skills – for the benefit of helping others (caritas) and advocating for our own needs (voluntary humility). It celebrates sharing factual knowledge (wonder) and calls on us to behave deliberately and visibly (leading by example). It offers a way to be pleasing to God, and pleasing to others, which does not require us to wait for a certain degree of mastery or perfection to begin. We may not have the emotional resources to do much right now. The prospect of going out, of speaking, making eye contact, remembering all that we have to do to be socially acceptable – all of these may still be far out of our reach. But this way of Saint Thorlak, of going with what we do have and offering it to God as all we’ve got – THIS is within our reach. It is marvelous in that it does not include failure because our needs are our tickets to social connection and feeding others spiritually. When we go forth with our needs in hand, we either come home with those needs met, or with the same batch we started out with. Both outcomes guarantee connection. For people who are accustomed to constant scrutiny and demand to perform up to standards painfully higher than our capabilities, this is sweet relief.
In fact, the way of Saint Thorlak was described in just that way, albeit not in the context of having autism. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak relates this, about the earliest part of his career as a priest living as an assistant to the cleric at the church-farmstead of Kirkjubær, where the two men “experienced that which God says: that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ … they bore it easily, for they then started to bear nearly all the responsibilities on behalf of all those people inhabiting the districts close by them. …They took upon themselves in a remarkable way those names by which Almighty God called his apostles the light of the world, because they lit up the path of mercy which leads to eternal rejoicing, both with their excellent teaching in words and with their glorious examples” (pp. 5-6).
If you are expecting a blockbuster tale of suspense and high drama, Saint Thorlak’s saga will be disappointingly ordinary, save for the fact that he sounds like a person with autism by modern criteria (… and, the list of recorded miracles at the end is eye-popping – literally!). No matter. We see something extraordinary. Saint Thorlak’s way has been kept quiet, as he himself was, for nine centuries, waiting for the right point in human history to speak up and be noticed.
That time is now.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us the way to You!
Contemplate: How often have we dismissed our own lives as being too ordinary, too difficult, too messy? Is it up to us, or up to God, to decide the value of what we have to offer?
Relate: Take time this week to appreciate the ordinary ways the people around you are valuable to you.
Þorláksmessa: The Feast of 23 December
But what if this year were different? What if this year, we marked the anniversary of Saint Thorlak in a way that reflects who he really was, and what he really stood for? What if each one of us made an effort on December 23, in some small way, to tell someone in our path: “You bring light to me”? Doing this, paradoxically, will give light to the heart of the person who hears it... which is what Saint Thorlak was all about. Then, with hearts thusly lit in all parts of the world, we can silently turn in our hearts and say to the memory of Saint Thorlak, in joyful unison: “You bring light to us. Thank you.”
Skaftafell Ice Cave - Iceland
We are almost done picking apart our Mission Statement and are about to move on to the Objectives, where the action is. Contemplation always sets the stage for all we do, and our readers have done a great job slowly mulling over the defining elements of our apostolate. That last piece, though, needs a glance, maybe even a fresh treatment before we roll up our sleeves.
“Letting people with autism lead us on our way” is what differentiates our approach from other (equally valid) forms of mission work, devotional activity and disability support. In fact, it strives to blend these elements seamlessly to form an entirely unique resource to address and prevent spiritual disconnection.
How is it, specifically, that we look to people with autism to lead us in our efforts?
We invite you to revisit this thought from June, 2017 if you would like to continue considering autism’s contribution to our Mission in more depth.
Autism is one of the hundreds of thousands of ways that the human condition is reflected throughout the world we live in. The tally of people affected by this condition is constantly growing. We dare say: so are the numbers of people who, for one reason or another, are disconnected from their Source, and disconnected from their purpose. We don’t have numbers yet to back up our claims, but if our instincts are correct, we’re going to need a huge number of people who can understand and recognize disconnection so that it can be adequately addressed and prevented. We’re going to need people who can expand our capacities for patience, understanding, empathy, gentleness and sincerity… to help make this a more human world once again. We’re going to need people familiar with needing help, who are not afraid to be humble. We’re going to need people well-trained in the “what and how” of human to human connection… who can show us best practices for getting the message out.
People with autism: Lead us on our way.
Pray: Father in Heaven, as we enter this season of Advent, help those of us beginning this Missionary journey in darkness to trust that light awaits us.
Contemplate: In philosophy, a “problem” is more like a puzzle or an inquiry than cause for alarm. How is autism a “problem,” philosophically speaking, in your own circumstances?
Relate: Who do you know that is affected by autism? How has connecting with that person changed you? (If you cannot think of anyone… hold this thought until the day you do. It will probably come soon.)
In visiting our Mission Statement over the past few weeks, we have given an overview of understanding and recognizing spiritual starvation. A very simple summary would be:
1) Spiritual starvation happens when we are disconnected from others, and ultimately, disconnected from God.
2) Symptoms of spiritual starvation are difficult to detect, but almost always center around self-preservation.
We must also include this stipulation:
3) In order to address and prevent spiritual starvation, people must first understand and recognize the process of spiritual nourishment, beginning with themselves.
The first two principles make up the “what” and the “why” of our Mission. The third is our “who.” As for “when” and “where,” the answer is always: everywhere, right now. In upcoming weeks, we’ll go in greater depth into “how” we propose to address and prevent spiritual starvation by following the way of Saint Thorlak.
It is very tempting to leave things here. These are our most fundamental points. Anything else might expand, expound, explain and adorn them – but, until we commit these points to heart, there is little gained by adding words.
Let us, then, sit with these thoughts and ponder them.
(If that’s not quite a full enough glimpse, here are some questions to help reveal the bigger picture.)
Q: Is it important to know why someone is disconnected from others?
A: Not immediately. We would not ask hungry people how they became so famished before feeding them first… but, after a good meal and a supply of groceries to take home, it would be very helpful to learn about the particular circumstances.
Q: If symptoms are difficult to detect, how do we know who we intend to help?
A: Everyone. The answer is, it does not matter – we help everyone. Anyone who is human qualifies. Spiritual nourishment originates with God and may be accessed at any time without fear of running out. Give nourishment freely and give often.
Q: Why begin with ourselves? Isn’t this contrary to the missionary mindset? Isn’t this like taking a choice portion for ourselves before distributing to the needy?
A: It may seem like we’re encouraging selfishness and greed, but our instruction is similar to the pre-flight safety announcements when traveling by airplane. “If the pressure in the cabin suddenly drops, oxygen masks will deploy automatically for your immediate use. Please secure your own mask first before attempting to help others with theirs.” Why? Because we ourselves need oxygen in order to effectively help someone else. Spiritual nourishment is accomplished through connection. If we are adequately nourished, we not only have an abundance to share with the under-nourished, but we’re also well-versed in, and living, the example they may need to see in order to gain confidence or move toward openness with others.
More importantly, if we are not well spiritually nourished, we ourselves are likely acting more in self-preservation than in openness – and this is contrary to the example we intend to foster.
Q: Why bring other people into it when we could just connect with God, ourselves, directly? What about monks and hermits who live in solitude? Are they also spiritually under-nourished?
A: (… Can we just say, we really like questions like this!) Our answer is twofold. First, we believe people are designed and intended to interact with one another. Christians can find this principle throughout Sacred Scripture (such as Matthew 5:16), but anyone of any belief system can generally agree that our physical and emotional needs are best met through contact with others. This may be less true in adulthood than in early childhood, when our lives depend on care and shelter from others, but it is nearly impossible to exist well in isolation. Second, religious monks and hermits may indeed live in physical isolation, but the focus of their life is connecting to their Source (God) on behalf of themselves and all humanity. Christian monks and hermits particularly spend hours in prayer not just for their own benefit but for raising up the needs of, and calling down heavenly graces upon, all humankind. We have yet to meet monks or hermits whose work is undertaken for their own benefit. We assert that this is an extraordinary, transcendent form of connection with others. Instead of connecting to one person at a time, such mystics open their hearts to all humanity at once.
We leave you with these images to review and reinforce our core understanding of spiritual starvation.
Aren’t we being redundant in driving these points like this?
Perhaps. But we are also using something called best practices for instruction. By using graphics and repetition, and by rephrasing points across multiple contexts (like our Q&A), we maximize the opportunity for this information to stick and make sense. Educators discovered this when tailoring lessons to students with learning disabilities and processing difficulties… but, as it turned out, it helped people of all abilities master concepts better.
That, by itself, is almost like a parable to what we are doing. By taking extra care to reach people who need help in a specific way, we end up finding out how to help… everybody.
Pray: Dear Father in Heaven, help us commit these ideas to our very lives so that we can be better equipped to spiritually nourish the people around us. Send others to nourish us, and help us receive them openly - so that we all continue and perpetuate this work begun in You.
Contemplate: Come up with your own questions about spiritual starvation… and then, using the three points from this week’s post, attempt to answer them. If you get stuck, keep trying – or contact us and we’ll give it a try.
Relate: Connect, connect, connect. Remember everything we have looked at thus far. Don’t just socialize; connect. Don’t avoid the opportunity right in front of you; connect. Connect in the place where you are, with anyone the day provides. You should not have to go far out of your way. Start small and local.
In keeping with the clinical analogy, it makes sense to look next at symptoms. Physical starvation concretely affects the entire person: body (e.g., weight loss, anemia); mind (e.g., lethargy, difficulty concentrating); and emotions (e.g., agitation, depression). But what would then be the spiritual analogs to these symptoms? Is there such a thing as spiritual weight loss? Furthermore, the overlap between mental and emotional effects is confounding in and of itself. The overarching problem is that symptoms, by definition, are an individual’s personal experiences, and are as variable as the people facing them.
Perhaps we need first to look for a common denominator. Is there a point to which both physical and spiritual starvation may be reduced, which can then be compared as an analogy between the two?
Aha – we think we’ve got it. Something which should sound familiar: SELF-PRESERVATION.
In physical starvation mode, the body automatically turns to self-preservation by slowing down metabolism and cognitive functioning to minimize expenditure of energy. People show increased agitation and irritability as both a function of imbalanced chemistry and our instinctive survival behavior which draws attention to the fact that something is wrong.
In spiritual starvation mode, our thoughts tend to turn inward. We fortify ourselves to survive without connections by empowering self-statements:
Defensiveness and distrust build gradually if left unchecked. As we repeatedly assume the worst intentions from others, we prepare for (or even pre-empt) pain and rejection.
There is a noteworthy distinction between the physical and spiritual. Self-preservation in physical starvation is the body’s drastic, involuntary effort to prompt for help to remain alive. In spiritual starvation, however, the mechanism serves the opposite function: to push help away and to shut our connections down.
Is it drastic? Yes.
Is it involuntary?
(pause) In part.
In the measure that it is a function of habit, we believe, yes.
It is theoretically impossible to speak definitively for every person in every circumstance, and for our purposes, it is not necessary. We are fairly certain, though, that we can make a few general statements common to all human nature and stay within the limits of reason.
Let us simplify by saying that spiritual self-preservation is an act of deliberately withholding one’s self from connecting with others. We can speak both of isolated instances of last resort and long term self-preservation as a habit nurtured over many years. As with anything else, change is always possible, but ingrained behavior is quite nearly automatic – and much more difficult to root out.
Here’s another wrinkle: Spiritual self-preservation can occur without insult, injury or interference from others.
Take autism, for instance.
Someone with the best intentions may experience extreme anxiety in the presence of others. Ambient noise may jumble a person’s thoughts. Eye contact may be painfully difficult. Words may come out incorrectly, or slowly, or in choppy stutter. Social rules may be unclear. In any of these cases, the choice to isolate rather than interact seems more like survival than avoidance. Yet, the outcome remains the same: disconnection.
It is easy, in the case of physical starvation, to cleanly point from cause to effect. Such clarity does not exist in the spiritual realm.
What we do know is that disconnection from others is a sign of spiritual malnourishment… and is detrimental to spiritual health.
Very often, we will find someone – perhaps, even, ourselves – isolating from others, for one reason or another… once in awhile, or habitually. The outward signs are not always clear, or obvious, or even detectable.
What, then, do we do, if we do not know who amongst us is spiritually hungry, and who is spiritually well-nourished?
The answer is simple: Nourish everyone. Those who have plenty will appreciate the nourishment. And, those who have none… will appreciate the nourishment. There is no such thing as too much generosity when it comes to spiritual nourishment.
Starting with ourselves.
Pray: Heavenly Father, we pray that You reveal our innermost habits to us, so that we may recognize the symptoms of our own spiritual hunger before it turns to starvation.
Contemplate: What habits of spiritual self-preservation do we nurture? Before this exercise, were we aware of these habits?
Relate: Spiritual self-preservation pushes people away in our moments of need. If we catch ourselves doing this, pause and consider the outcome… and, if at all possible, try a different route. What happens?
Last week, we began studying spiritual starvation by comparing it, conceptually, to physical starvation. We looked at the definition of physical starvation as being a state of food deprivation which, if left untreated, can lead to death. We examined if it is possible to compare an abstract concept such as spiritual starvation with something concrete and measurable as physical starvation, and determined it is. With that established, we can now go forward in more fully defining our concepts, theoretical as they may be, so that everyone has the same basis for understanding what we mean by combating spiritual starvation.
We could spend days debating what we mean by “spiritual.” We could parse, lump and exclude. We could stretch until we lose sight of the horizon on each side. Still, we need a working understanding of what we mean by “spiritual” if we are going to do this right.
We want it to be clear that we believe every human being is comprised of body, mind and spirit interconnected. Some immanent character of our nature essentially and uniquely separates us from the other animal species. Since this character is defined in ways as numerous as there are worldviews, we know we have to draw our starting point firmly declaring our position that there is One, True Source of life whom we call God. We embrace the Christian view that God is triune in nature and that humans are unable to fully comprehend the workings of God because our intellect has been clouded by our ancestors trading their unquestioning acceptance of perfect order for skeptical scrutiny (… said with no presumption of summarizing Genesis in eighteen words).
We do not believe that it is necessary for people to share our theological view in order to benefit from the work we do and the ideas we promote. We will always maintain that the only qualification a person needs to be a Missionary of Saint Thorlak, or to partake in the fruits of our work, is to be human. It is helpful to understand our theological underpinnings, but not necessary; nor is it necessary to adopt our beliefs if you currently do not hold them.
Of the nearly infinite elements we could include in exploring things that are “spiritual,” it comes down to a practical need to limit ours to the specific focus we keep as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. The definition of “spiritual,” then, which we will use for our purposes, is: matters which pertain to the essence of God endowed in each human person.
Saint Thorlak - The Bishop who Battled Starvation
The Icelandic settlers of the Middle Ages faced terribly harsh living conditions. Iceland’s terrain and climate were not crop-friendly and livestock required decades to establish. Fishing provided a steady supply of food when the weather conditions were favorable. Overall, conditions were difficult, and food scarcity during long winters was a hardship many endured.
Thorlak Thorhallsson, who rose from deacon to priest, from scholar-theologian to abbot, and eventually, to bishop, was a champion in the fight against starvation in his time.
He did many things to see that everyone – families, widows, children and homeless beggars alike – had adequate food. At a period in history when Catholic bishops held high social status, Bishop Thorlak used his position of privilege to invite the poorest in his diocese to dine with him (… but not before taking time to wash and dry their feet, in the tradition of the Last Supper, and to delight them with gifts from his own treasury).
But more so than these acts of magnanimity, Bishop Thorlak instilled his firm adherence to Matthew 18:20 to everyone he met, everyone he mentored, and everyone he admonished. He took great joy in recalling that, wherever two or more gathered in charity, Jesus Himself became spiritually present – creating a bridge between heaven and earth, and a direct connection to God. In other words, he propagated spiritual nourishment abundantly, everywhere he went!
Bishop Thorlak saw each person before him as bearing the essence of God, and was not afraid to teach about that in all that he said and did. From political figures to fellow clergy to ordinary people… from diplomatic relationships to the sanctity of the marital union to the sacrifices required of priests for the good of their people… Bishop Thorlak consistently taught that everything comes back to how well we nurture our connection to God in whatever our state in life asks us to do.
Bishop Thorlak battled spiritual starvation tirelessly… and, quite successfully.
May his way open doors for us as we now set out to propagate his model in our time.
PRAY: God, Our Father: You are the Source of our very life, and the Source of the life of each person we see… those we know, and those we do not… those with whom we speak, and those familiar through publicity and celebrity. Your essence dwells in each of us. May we learn to see You in everyone, and to recognize Your essence, even in those who seem distant from us… and distant from You.
CONTEMPLATE: At the very foundation of what we do is the acknowledgment of God’s essence in every person. Ponder this, deeply, in order to let it become part of our ordinary consideration of everyday things.
RELATE: As we go about our week, try to recall that God’s essence is in us… and in those surrounding us. Every interaction is an encounter with God’s essence. Are you aware of this more as you encountering God, or God encountering you?
As we frequently say, our primary focus as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak is to combat spiritual starvation. Yet, we do not screen at the outset for spiritually well-nourished people who can then go find and feed the hungry. In fact, we want people who have seen what spiritual starvation looks like – or, better still, what spiritual starvation feels like – because these are the people who will be most fervently committed to the cause. In truth, there is no person immune from spiritual hunger. If you are fortunate enough to be spiritually well-nourished this day, you are valuable to our team for all the strength, support and balance you bring. We encourage you to pay close attention as you mentor others, because it is always possible that circumstances may change and you find yourself on the other side of the coin for awhile. Hopefully, your Missionary work will be a steady stream of nourishment when you need it yourself.
There are others among our ranks who, today, are not yet well nourished spiritually. We invite you, if you feel this describes you, to feel free to apply this to yourself. There is no reason we cannot benefit from our own teaching. Quite the opposite – it is essential that we assimilate and experience all that which we hope to model and offer to others.
So, then: What is spiritual starvation?
This, of course, refers to physical starvation. Spiritual starvation, its analog, would thus be the state of having no spiritual nourishment for a long period, often causing death.
We define spiritual nourishment as being meaningfully connected to our Source (God), either in direct relationship or through discovering the essence of God by meaningfully connecting with others.
(Here’s an easier shortcut: Connection. Spiritual nourishment means connection.)
Does it seem drastic to assert that having no meaningful connection to God or others for a long period might lead to death? Perhaps in the literal sense of cause and effect. Being lonely, isolated or ostracized would only seem to cause death if it reverted back to the physical, with social deprivation coming as a result of physical deprivation, and the cause of death being a consequence of this physical starvation. However, a compelling case can be made that meaningful connections protect against things such as substance abuse, suicidal ideation, addictions and criminal behavior. Is it possible that lack of connection (i.e., spiritual starvation) contributes in many cases to unhealthy choices, even to the point of risking death? Yes.
Let us look back at physical starvation for a moment. The four most common factors leading to physical malnutrition:
How would these translate into the analogs of spiritual starvation?
These premises are the very foundation of our cause. We believe that spiritual starvation can be defined, and therefore understood. Once we do this, we can learn to recognize it by its signs and symptoms… and then, to address it using methods patterned after the life and ways of Saint Thorlak.
After taking this pause to better understand (or review) the concept of spiritual starvation, you may more clearly recognize it in yourself or someone very close to you. If so, take heart: you are very well qualified for this cause.
Even though Saint Thorlak was severely impacted by speech impairments and overwhelming anxiety, he met success after success in the realms of public ministry, clerical reform, church administration and spiritual mentorship. Wow. This is an admirable résumé for anyone. We boldly propose: If Saint Thorlak, with his known limitations, spiritually fed thousands in his lifetime… perhaps his methods could spiritually feed hundreds of thousands in ours.
Let’s find out.
PRAY: Dear Father in Heaven, You revealed to us through the prophet Isaiah: “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” [58:10]. Help us see how this applies to others… and then, to making sure our own souls are nourished with meaningful connections leading to You.
CONTEMPLATE: Call to mind the last time you remember fasting. Dwell on the sensations and urges you recall. Derive from that memory a parallel to how these would be experienced and expressed if it were spiritual hunger.
RELATE: Ask someone this week if they have ever been spiritually hungry. If we were able to record everyone’s responses, we imagine a very wide variety of richly thought-provoking responses.
A few posts back, we used our RPG parable to propose The Resist Factor – a numerical representation of how intensely people resist reciprocity. We are looking at this more closely now that we have played out the rest of our game. The Resist Factor is a crucial element in understanding the underpinnings of spiritual nourishment… and the beginnings of spiritual starvation.
It is worth repeating that it is equally meritorious if people are more likely to give of themselves to others (initiate) or receive others to themselves (anticipate). These traits speak to the leanings of our natural talents and are not a criticism of our behavior. The issue is the difference in intensity between the two. If our role play is at all a parable of real life, the more exclusively one acts in either giving or receiving, the higher the resistance there will be toward those who wish to reciprocate. Super-givers will strongly resist others giving to them, and super-receivers will strongly resist being received by others.
Once more, we emphasize: it is not a matter of balance; it is a matter of resistance.
It will be very helpful if we look at this concept, resistance, in terms of its meaning in electrical circuitry. Such “resistance” is, most simply, the degree to which electrical current will be impeded by the material comprising its path. Resistors are purposefully wired in to circuits to work against the flow of current. Some reasons for doing this: reducing voltage to protect extra-sensitive components from being damaged… converting electrical current into light (as in an incandescent filament)… converting electrical current into heat (as in a heating coil)… and offering variable setting control over the strength of the current (as in a volume dial or dimmer switch). Resistance is not a bad thing. It is put to good use in each of these examples.
There is also something called magnetoresistance, which is a fancy term for when electrical current is pushed back by the presence of a magnetic field. The same principles operate here as you feel when you hold two magnets together with the same polarity facing one another.
Our Resist Factor works very much like magnetoresistance, if you think of Giving and Receiving as opposite poles of a magnet. Those with extra-strength giving power resist the same pole, someone giving to them. Those with extra-strength receiving power resist being received by others. It works almost identically to the principle that opposite magnetic poles attract and like poles repel… or, in this case, resist.
Resisting others giving to us might look like this:
Resisting being received by others might look like this:
These lists are broad brush strokes of how we might resist reciprocity, knowingly or unknowingly. Any one of these behaviors can arise from numerous other factors as well. The crucial point of knowing our Resist Factor is that it is a direct indicator of our risk for spiritual starvation.
If we go back to this post from August, 2017, we recall how we imagined spiritual connection as a continuous chain, beginning with God at our source. We envisioned a chain rather than an electronic circuit to emphasize the contribution that each individual link makes to our spiritual nourishment. It is necessary to keep that imagery of chain-links, but it is also possible to conceptualize each link as a conductor of spiritual energy in the same fashion as electromagnetic current flowing through complex circuitry. Some links will transmit more readily (= higher conductivity) and others will impede the flow (= higher resistance).
Are some links in our chain resistors? Yes. Do they serve as impediments to receiving God’s signal, or are they deliberately functional, such as filaments, heating coils or volume control dials? These remain to be seen in future thoughts. For this week, we consider how our links are affected by the strength of our Resist Factor, which can reduce or block God’s signal altogether.
Simply put: If the Resist Factor is an opposing force to the flow of spiritual nourishment God sends us, it cannot fully reach its destination. The stronger the resistance, the less nourishment gets through.
The less nourishment gets through… the greater our risk of spiritual starvation.
It is as simple as that. And as complex as our habits are entrenched.
We often see only the person before us, not God-in-that-person; however, it is God who ultimately wants to spend time with us, wants to know us, and wants to lavish us with things that are both good and delightful, with the help of the people in whom His essence also dwells.
Our Resist Factor may be a matter of habit, or anxiety, or impulsivity, or an unyielding need to be in control at all times. No matter what the underlying cause may be: if we continually resist reciprocity, we actively push back a main artery of the spiritual nourishment we need to thrive as human beings.
One last, crucial piece: Super-givers [those who initiate, volunteer, offer and provide without pause and without rest] and super-receivers [those who anticipate, welcome, listen to and nurture with open hearts] are equally likely to sense strong spiritual nourishment flowing through them to others and feel very satisfied that they are doing their part to combat spiritual starvation. Yet both strongly resist nourishment flowing back toward them.
Spiritual hunger lacks the pangs we feel on empty stomachs. However, the secondary symptoms of spiritual malnourishment are very similar to those of physical hunger: agitation… restlessness… inattentiveness… pressuring others… anxiety… irritability… listlessness… lethargy… flightiness… loss of interest… loss of empathy… superficiality… distractedness… and desperation. Among many other signs.
Parables and role plays are not all that different. Both require imagining ourselves in hypothetical situations. We put forth this RPG to help us understand the concepts underlying our Mission… and our responsibilities as Missionaries.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, help me see and understand these concepts with love, and not accusation; with compassion, and not condemnation; with wonder, and not fear. It is my job right now to learn, but not yet to act. Remain with me as I ponder these ideas.
CONTEMPLATE: Does the Resist Factor make sense to you? If not, ponder what it is that does not click, and write it in the comments for this post (or, if you receive these thoughts via email, reply to email@example.com with your comments).
RELATE: For the rest of the week, each time you encounter another person, remind yourself that each person bears God’s essence… and, that this essence is given as nourishment to your soul.
We are wrapping up our role play experience this week and next with reflections and comments on the whole thing. If you have taken the time to really immerse yourself, you’re probably hitting the same snags as everyone else. Great! This is, in fact, an intended part of the process. Our RPG is designed to focus our attention on the most basic foundational pegs of human relationships, allowing us to see how such things are affected on a rather grand scale by the seemingly smallest subtleties of orientation and assumption.
We’ll start with what is most fresh – revisiting our solitary/mentor discussion from last week. Did anyone find it jarring to see this bit of advice?
It might be the wording, or the slightly dismissive tone. Perhaps it’s the suggestions that seem a little off. Perhaps it’s the whole paragraph that seems… downright insensitive.
And, this is a role play, after all, so we can use more liberty here than we would take in real situations.
The advice above was blithely given to those of us drawing the “solitary” choice from the Help Deck. The “mentor” card, on the other hand, received a good ten paragraphs or more of discussion and elaboration. Assuming a 50/50 chance of drawing either card, the “solitary” players really got shortchanged. It would appear that our agenda centered on extolling the virtues of mentorship and convincing readers that this is a key part of doing what we do.
It was. We are not ashamed to say that we did want to do that, and we hope we did a decent job of it. But now we need to look at the flip side, the notion of playing alone, answerable only to ourselves. A lot of people live their lives this way on purpose… but a great many more go through their day to day with no mentoring simply because it’s not there. Life does not play out with a deck of cards. Many, many people do what they do with what they have, without the benefit of a game structure to introduce someone as a designated and trustworthy advisor.
Our advice (in our opinion) smacks a little too much of reality. How many of us have heard these messages, in one way or another?
For those of us who have, or have ever had, any difficulty in any social situation or relationship, this is the kind of talk that makes us want to explode… or give up.
To be fair, these statements by themselves are not entirely bad. Many times we
do need encouragement to try harder. Many times we need to be reminded by
someone else that we are being too harsh of a critic toward ourselves. Many
times it is indeed helpful to glance at someone else and see what their secrets to
The key is not to do any of that for ourselves.
These messages take on different nuances, depending on their source. If someone is truly connected to us, understands our need and suggests something along these lines, it can be very helpful and reassuring. If it is a message that comes from someone to whom we are not personally connected, it sounds like an unhelpful platitude meant to keep us from inconveniencing the speaker. If it comes from ourselves, especially as we go further down the list, it begins to sound less encouraging and more dishonest.
There will be times when we have to wing it. There will be times when we improvise, or when we are out of ideas and have to keep trying anyway. Life is like that sometimes, no matter how well we try to plan or control what happens. But habitually falling back on ourselves without the benefit of feedback or encouragement gives us a sense of insulation that whispers the temptation to fake it ‘till we make it. After awhile, we internalize that our success is based on a fraudulent façade… which disconnects us from our very selves.
Think about that.
How often does real life give us the “solitary” card instead of the benefit of a “mentor” card? Too often, unfortunately. We have no way to guarantee we will have mentors available. So what, then, can we do, when we find ourselves with only ourselves?
Remember, our Mission as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak is to take on spiritual starvation, one ordinary step at a time. Keep this foremost in our minds, and not only will we protect ourselves from spiritual malnourishment, but we will lead others by our example.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, help me to recognize the people You provide as emissaries to me, and help me see where I am needed as Your emissary to others.
CONTEMPLATE: When have I heard, or said, advice like the statements we have studied in this week’s Missionary Thought? What message has it sent?
RELATE: Actively practice one of the suggestions from this week’s Thought ( Pray / Designate / Cultivate / Mentor ).
At last, we are on the fourth and final deck of our role play: the Help Deck. Like the previous cards, this deck yields one of two options: SOLITARY or MENTOR.
If you are assigned “solitary,” it does not mean you are isolated or restricted from interacting with other players. It means that you get to choose your game play and strategy to suit yourself and your motives. You know your power, your weakness, your resist factor, your intent and your mode of operation – and you get to be executive producer of it all. No matter what happens, you are only answerable to you. If you are pleased with how your game is going, you smile to yourself and think, “I’ve got a good handle on this.” If you’re not pleased… well, you still have all the skills you’re used to using, so maybe you can take a deep breath and try a little harder. If you’re unsure of yourself, improvise as best you can. Maybe you can watch and mimic what some of the other, more successful players are doing. Maybe the fact that it’s a role play will give you a burst of courage to try something you’ve never done before. Rest easily – you are free to be your own cheerleader or your own worst critic. Best of all, nobody will ever know if you are highly skilled or just winging it. That’s between you and… you.
The “mentor” card allows you – in fact, obligates you – to seek and accept another player as your mentor. You are free to pick and choose, even perhaps even interview other players before settling on your mentor. What counts is that you have someone consistently and actively engaging with you to help you have a successful gaming experience.
This is where your other cards really start to come into play.
As you begin the search for your mentor, are you stronger with giving, or receiving? Do you have a high resist factor? Those elements help determine how easily you approach, and well you will benefit, from being mentored.
Do you have a material orientation? You’re probably going to expect your mentor to measure your progress or tally your “correct” choices. If you instead have a spiritual orientation, you’re more likely to look at the quality of your interactions. You may consider how it feels to act sincerely, or how you feel during your interactions, or how others react to you.
How about mode of operation? Your willingness to be mentored will be vastly different if you are open versus self-preserving. What happens when your mentor tells you something in your game is not working, or worse, is coming across as hurtful? An open mode will permit you to discern the helpful elements from that feedback. A self-preserving mode will find you ready to dismiss or oppose anything that questions your competency or hints that you might need help – because help shackles you in dependency on others, and once you start accepting help, you’ll never be able to speak your own mind without having to worry about pleasing everyone. In that case, you might think it expedient to cut ties and find a new mentor.
Wow. This is a lot of work. Isn’t a “mentor” someone who makes things easier?
No. Which brings us to an important point. We chose that term, “mentor,” very deliberately. A mentor is someone who imparts wisdom to you for your benefit. They are, by definition, benefactors. We could have dubbed this person your “helper,” leaving their disposition up to chance, but we explicitly created this role to have benevolent intent. There is no chance your mentor will sabotage you or want anything for you other than your best interests.
Sometimes, the things in your best interest are those which challenge you the hardest.
Sometimes, one person will care enough to step up and tell you a difficult truth for the sake of helping you grow, or helping you see a pitfall before you stumble. THAT is a mentor. You are fortunate indeed if that mentor also happens to be a friend or a family member.
To be sure, you are only likely to click with a certain few people in this kind of relationship. Mentors are people, after all, and not all personalities are compatible. Connecting is all the more difficult when we realize that the best growth happens when we are most vulnerable. How hard it is to find the right person with whom we can be our most vulnerable selves!
How will you know who to seek as your mentor? Should you consider their card profile, their propensities, their modes of operation? Can a player with a “solitary” disposition be your mentor? (In game play, yes, any other player can be your mentor. They themselves must rely on their own resources, but they are still free to be a resource to you).
Resource. That’s a great way to put it.
A mentor is not an accountability partner who agrees to keep you on track while you push yourself outside your comfort zone. Neither is a mentor strictly a friend, or a master to an apprentice. A mentor is a resource: Someone who fills a need. And, as with natural resources, sometimes that which you need from that person is hidden in plain sight, or requires cultivating, or will only be evident after a good amount of sifting, observing, and sifting some more. Get to know the stories of the people around you, and you may discover that they possess information and empathy in areas you never knew would help. You will find exquisite treasure particularly among those who have struggled, have failed previously, or even now are experiencing great pain. Do not limit your search to only those who profess expertise. It is the difference between reading a brief encyclopedia entry or a poignant memoir.
Expertise is good. Please, do not get us wrong. But most of us are not experts. Most of us would do better to have the manual on how to get back up again, not how to get there without falling.
Jesus fell. Three times, in fact. Literally.
If anyone could write a handbook on how to cope with being misunderstood, dealing with rejection, living with betrayal, handling unjust treatment and going forward when everything you have built collapses… He can.
It is a shame that Jesus is not in our game.
If two or more are playing together, in a shared spirit of gaining insights together… that activates Matthew 18:20… bringing Jesus into the room with us.
In fact, He is right there. Across from you. Beside you.
Hoping to greet you.
And, what if you are feeling alone as you hold your “solitary” card?
Remember: All that means is that you are going it alone, without being mentored.
If you find yourself in that situation, and you want to connect with Jesus… go and mentor someone else. Matthew 18:20 works both ways.
Our game is set up at last. Time to play. Next week, we will look back on the experience and see how it applies to real life.
PRAY: Sacred Scripture writers make excellent mentors. One of our favorites is Saint Paul. For this week, our prayer is to read Philippians 4:12-14 and imagine Saint Paul saying this to you after you have approached him with a hard question in your life.
CONTEMPLATE: Think how Saint Paul’s words, “It was kind of you to share my trouble” echo to our themes of voluntary humility and caritas. In his context in particular, our word, “need,” can be well substituted for his word, “trouble.” In what circumstances does it seem burdensome when you have shared in someone’s need?
RELATE: Think on the people in your life who are mentors to you, and then, those to whom you act as a mentor. Do you simply share expertise, or do you share your very stories with one another?
We’re up to the third deck in our role play. We have our power, our weakness, our resist factor and our material/spiritual intent. We now choose our mode of operation: OPENNESS or SELF-PRESERVATION. This card describes how we approach other players in the game.
This is a very laid-back simulation. We have not mentioned scorekeeping or stockpiling, and it’s not altogether clear if this is a competition or a friendly gathering, but we do know that it is a game of individual players, not teams. If this is a competitive game, the mode of operation takes on particular importance. “Openness” is useful in team play but not in head-to-head competition. You don’t want to be too open in chess, or in poker, or in dodge ball. “Self-Preservation,” on the other hand, seems to be an obvious game strategy. You want to protect your position, your pieces and your gains, and it’s not a good idea to let your guard down.
What about relationships?
Openness in relationships is about the same as it is in game play. The price of openness is vulnerability, and the payoff is interconnected participation. Self-preservation, on the other hand, is a safer way to operate, at the expense of sharing yourself and experiencing others more fully.
The word “preservation” itself has its origins in the concept of sealing things against disease and decay. It was originally used in the context of extending the safe shelf life of food, so you can get the sense of what that might entail: pressed, isolated, airtight packing; curing and dehydrating meat; adding agents such as salt to inhibit the growth of bacteria or to keep foods dry; or boiling, followed by canning or freezing. The premise is to destroy things which break the food down and then to create a breach-proof barrier against future agents of disease.
Self-preservation, obviously, is a different sort of concept, referring to an act to protect our bodies and spirits against attack or malaise. We hear about it during times of extremes. Self-preservation during war is a necessary and intelligent course of action. Self-preservation in times of high duress is also reasonable and appropriate. First responders and emergency workers often use techniques to lessen the intensity of the emotions they feel on scene so that they can function more rationally and with the focus needed to operate under horrible and tragic conditions. There are also times when self-preservation becomes necessary in our relationships, particularly if we find ourselves being abused or witnessing abuse. It happens.
For a role play simulation, these outlooks are fine and interesting to contemplate and explore. It seems, though, that there is an imbalance of probability between the two. The extreme conditions leading to self-preservation are, for the most part, much less likely to occur than the ordinary conditions which lend themselves to openness. Even first responders, who see extremes on a daily basis, have a day off now and then. It seems disproportionate to have these as choices for our modes of operation if self-preservation is more of a situational variable and openness is more of a long-term habit.
Unless, of course, they are, in fact, equal.
The stark truth is that there are many people who operate in self-preservation mode routinely. Some have had traumatic events in their past which have robbed them of the ability to trust. Some are highly sensitive people who experience their emotions and relationships so intensely at baseline that they need some form of modulation to cope and function well. Some are people who have adopted these habits so gradually over time that they may not even be aware they are using them.
If we were to create a set of pamphlets on “How to Operate in Openness Mode” and “How to Operate in Self-Preservation Mode,” it might surprise people to see how quickly they recognize their patterns. In lieu of pamphlets, we’ll give you the basic rundown of the operating rules for each mode in a hypothetical scenario.
Two guests are sharing a meal put on by their mutual friend who is hosting them. Toward the end of the meal, one guest leaves the table unexpectedly, abruptly getting his coat. “I have to go,” he says. “Thanks for dinner!”
As he leaves, the remaining guest and the host have two different reactions.
The remaining guest, who operates in Openness Mode, is confused by the surprising departure of the other guest. This person actively extends herself to understand what happened. She discerns, considers, observes, ponders. She does not have any lack of emotion – in fact, she’s rather upset, because she knows the other person quite well and feels miffed that he left without any warning or explanation. She wonders if she said something offensive. She worries. She is a bit irritated, because the other guest had something important to give her for a project they had been working on, and now she is left feeling frustrated. She runs all kinds of possible ideas through her mind. Maybe he became ill. Maybe he forgot something. Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe she just cannot know right now. No matter what, she seeks the best possible interpretation, aware that it could be that he has not worked at all on the project and that he is acting very rudely in his behavior. She is open to his side of the story. She will remain as optimistic as the situation will allow.
The host, on the other hand, who operates in Self-Preservation Mode, is livid. He knows better than to trust people. He is always on alert and prepared for the worst case scenario. He is ready to attack or defend, in a state of perpetual presumption. He will not allow himself to be hurt, used or let down. He spends the next ten minutes angrily insulting the guest who left, unable to believe he went to all this effort for someone as ungrateful as that. Furthermore, he never had much use for him anyway. He remembers several other times this man was reluctant to help, and he is not surprised he acted in such an offensive way tonight.
Who knows what really happened? Who knows what will happen? Will the abrupt absentee return briefly with the packet for his friend, saying “Oops! Almost forgot!” Will he act like nothing happened in a few days? Is he even aware of how his behavior came across?
Now take the host’s outlook and extend it across every other possible scenario. The habit of assuming the worst is very easily nurtured. People with this outlook are rooted in fear and distrust. While it does keep them from being taken advantage of, this safety from hurt is also a safety from love, mercy, need and engagement.
Put another way, people who adopt the regular habit of self-preservation are immune from disease… because they keep themselves in an emotional vacuum. Just like a good, well-sealed mason jar.
Some of the characteristics of items which have been in a state of preservation for longer than intended:
Food this far gone is usually thrown out and replaced. This is not an option for people. Nor should the spiritual state of our hearts ever get to this point.
To be fair, we need to acknowledge there are just as many risks that come with being open and “unpreserved.” People who assume the best are at risk for being hurt… being disappointed… being let down… looking foolish… looking naïve… and being wrong.
That’s the chance you take with discernment. People who are open allow in all kinds of possibilities, including the ones that are incorrect, and even sometimes dangerous. People who trust indiscriminately are especially vulnerable to danger and exploitation. Discernment is key. Openness does not require one to be a stooge or a doormat; it calls for discernment, a sifting of facts and an active search for that which is useful amidst the lint and clutter.
We could say that openness is a willingness to feel pain for the sake of finding the good… and that self-preservation is a pre-emptive rejection of anything that might hurt.
We could say that openness is an act of humility… and that self-preservation is a bold stand of pride.
Openness says, “I don’t understand… I need you to show me.” Self-preservation says, “I don’t need you to protect or defend me, I can do it myself.”
Notice which says “I need.”
There is a time to preserve, and a time to be open. Think about what these concepts mean, and we’ll put them in the game – along with our last deck – next week.
PRAY: Our prayer this week is a look at Sacred Scripture.
Read Luke 17:32-33.
CONTEMPLATE: What does this passage say to you about self-preservation?
RELATE: Carefully notice your interactions and attitudes this week, and see which mode of operation surfaces most. Do so with a spirit of wonder and not dread or fear. If you find that you do not like what you discover, then, thanks be to God – you now understand others who may be operating this way, in a manner you did not see before.