Our human need to be known and loved. Last week, we methodically looked at the lexical meaning of each word within this first objective. This week, we look closely at the spiritual meaning.
Humans are distinguished from other creatures by our capability “of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving and entering into communion with other persons” – so says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #357. We find this definition especially well suited to our Mission at hand. For the numerous ways Catholic principles were challenged in St. Thorlak’s day, and all the more in our own time, many find the foundational definitions supporting Catholic teachings surprisingly sound and widely acceptable.
This definition of human hinges on the notion of allowing others into our hearts and minds, and willingly visiting in the hearts and minds of others.
Both elements, our openness to giving and our openness to entering, are radically challenging. Giving others access to our hearts and minds exposes our greatest vulnerability: our very selves. We risk others mocking, dismissing or exploiting that which makes us who we are in our deepest essence. Opening our opinions, ideals, hopes and imaginings to others gambles that they will not feed upon them for their own power or gain over us. Does this seem a bit melodramatic? Think about the secrets you keep tightly guarded about yourself, and ask yourself why. It takes a lot of energy to protect ourselves from exploitation; it must be for very important reasons that we all routinely do just that.
Openness to sharing the intimate thoughts and feelings of others sounds much less threatening, much more easily accomplished – assuming others are open to sharing with us, right? Well, that means that we are open to knowing and considering the passions of the person in front of us, from the baristas to the classmates to the passengers across the aisle to the significant others in our lives. Are we willing? Are we open? Are we interested? How easily do we knock on other people’s doors – particularly those with whom we are not yet very familiar?
This could get complicated quickly. Isn’t it human nature to open ourselves easily among those who share common interests and values, and to show more caution with people whom we know disagree with (or disapprove of) us? Yet this definition of “human”— given to us by an institution more than twenty centuries old and considered unyielding by many – makes no exceptions regarding those whom we are to seek in communion. It says, to be human, we freely seek communion with one another. Period. It makes no allowance for selecting those whom we most resemble or most prefer.
What about obstacles arising from conditions we do not choose? Autism, anxiety, speech and language difficulties make connection difficult, but certainly make us no less human. For that matter, other people’s grudges, prejudices, fears and emotional histories can just as well create barriers for us. We believe the solution is in the desire. No matter how many factors impact our ability to connect right now, our openness means more than our execution.
There are countless reasons why we do not grant access to our most cherished ideas, or why we do not comfortably greet others’ thoughts with the same reverence as our own; yet, until we at least agree to be open to this goal, we hold ourselves to a standard far below what personhood is meant to be. We must counteract excusing behavior as “human nature” when people habitually guard themselves or refuse attempts to understand others’ points of view (even if those viewpoints contain error). Correction: It is AGAINST human nature to resist knowing each other personally and deeply.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak begins by living our human need, right here, where we are. Our entire vocation is striving to allow others into our thoughts and feelings, and to participate in the thoughts and feelings of others. How we choose to do this is up to each individual’s creativity and expression, capabilities and limitations… but we believe it can be done.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us today how to give others the chance to know us: first, in our own thoughts; then, in our hearts; and finally, if we are able, in our words and actions. If we are not yet able to speak or act, we pray for openness to the way to see this happen.
Contemplate: Communion makes us human. Think about this in everything we do, with everyone we encounter.
How frequently do we check in on ourselves to see how well we are doing at being human?
There are no standard responses. Every person, every situation is different and requires different degrees of prudence. There are as many gentle souls out there as there are predators who exploit our trust, and the wise person seeks out the difference. But our fundamental way of living must start with at least the willingness, the wish, to reach a level of ease enough to allow ourselves the experience of being human.
Mission of Saint Thorlak, Objective #1: To make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.
Last week’s thought might be summarized with one word: WORTH. We wondered when it is worth our effort to act with the care, concern and attention that we ordinarily save for the best occasions, the best people. We agreed that fine crystal is worth more than disposable plastic. And we concluded that the worth of what we have, whether plastic or crystal, can be elevated as simply as elevating the care and attention we give it.
This week, we attempt to translate this into our Mission. Arguably, the most unsolvable problem of the human condition is the way we are assigned different levels of importance, both by our own esteem and by the opinion of others. Though we are all born with equal worth, our day to day value varies by each eye of each beholder. Helpful people are of temporarily greater value to us than people who hinder us. Then, too, what we call our own best may not be what the people around us want. The portfolio of our value could rival any stock market report, with ups and downs as dramatic as the judgments we receive from others. Yet, on the most fundamental level, we know this is all an illusion. We know we all have equal worth.
How can anyone make a difference when the day to day economy of relationships makes it nearly impossible to remain objective? If only we could keep situational value separate from inborn worth, philosophically. We need a formula that cuts through complexities and allows for imperfections – dare we say, allows for failure. Otherwise, we may as well hang it up right here. Life does not conform to ideals and maxims no matter how good they sound or how firm our intentions.
Our objectives, therefore, attempt to whittle things down to the common denominator of our humanity. No matter how differently, how well or how poorly we accomplish our daily doings, we can all agree that each person in front of us is human, exactly like we are.
Thus, Objective #1: To make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.
Breaking this down, we have:
Humanity: Care and dignity of the person (for a longer discussion, see our thought from March, 2017).
Known: Understood. Recognized. Familiar.
Loved: Cared for. Cherished. Appreciated. Delighted in.
Need: To require because it is essential.
We included that last one to emphasize that being understood, recognized and familiar… being cared for, cherished, appreciated and delighted in… are all things that are required because they are essential – crucial to the very nature of our being human.
Why stop here? Each one of these elements can be examined even more closely.
Being understood: When others perceive the intended meaning of our words and actions
Recognized: Recalled, remembered from before; acknowledged as a valid person
Familiar: Comfortable; belonging there
Cared for: Attended to; interested in; concerned with
Cherished: Protected; valued highly
Appreciated: Recognized by our full worth
Delighted in: Pleased with; enjoyed; considered satisfying
We can all agree that these are the ideal conditions we would wish for each person born into our world, starting with ourselves. But wait: Did we not just say that our Mission will fail if we insist on conforming life to ideals?
Which brings us to a critical point: We do not ask our Missionaries to fix anything.
The working of this Mission depends on needs.
We ask our Missionaries to remember that we all have the same need for our intentions to be recognized… the same need to be supported and accepted where we are… the same need to feel at ease in public… the same need for others to find us interesting, even enjoyable.
Our Mission works because it is a Mission of awareness – starting with our own needs, and then recognizing that we share these needs with everyone else. Anyone, anywhere, can achieve this. Can we fix hearts, minds, attitudes? Probably not. But we can be aware of the needs which unite all of humanity. And we firmly believe that awareness of our common humanity, if properly cultivated, will elevate our sense of worth… and all else will naturally follow.
Objective #1 does not hinge on how well people behave, how kindly they act toward us, or if we agree with what they have to say.
Objective #1 hinges on WORTH. Objective #1 is to remind people that humanity is WORTH more than things that are disposable. Humanity is WORTH time and attention, to understand and appreciate… and we are willing to step up and start now.
It runs the risk of looking differently: Looking at ourselves differently… looking at others differently… and, most especially, looking differently from others. Leading with our most human needs. Are we willing to do this?
For Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, it is all our life’s worth.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show me how to notice… how to see… how to feel… and to embrace my own need to be known and loved. Show me where I act against this need, and show me where I go to fill it. Show me, so that I may be aware. Help me see and understand before I do anything else.
Contemplate: How aware am I of the basic human need to be known and loved? Consider this week’s thought over and over. Are these thoughts familiar, or something new? As fundamental as these concepts are to our lives, we do not often spend time thinking about them specifically.
Relate: This week is all about awareness. When I go about my week, may I be aware of my attitude toward each person I encounter, including my opinion of their worth, and my awareness of their needs.
What freedom there is in opening a new calendar. No scribbled out changes, no limits yet on what we can do or what opportunities will come. Within hours we will gather up our promises, obligations, hopes and commitments, planting them among the dates to anchor us along the way.
We lead off this new start with this challenge: Who are we saving our best for?
Different occasions call for our best. As children we are taught a “best behavior” which requires extra mindfulness of our actions to make sure they are pleasing to others. It is implied that we don’t live this way routinely, and it almost seems exhausting to imagine doing so. “Best behavior” is usually in direct opposition to “relaxing” and “enjoying ourselves.”
Sometimes, our “best” is not the kind of “best” like the fine crystal in the china cabinet. Sometimes “best” means “this is the most I can offer.” When we have masked anxiety with all our might, when we have spent hours following social scripts to perfection… when tension and frustration and exhaustion threaten to overload the circuitry already loaded with “best” expectations … our other emotions may begin screaming to be addressed, and this can spill over into literal expression very easily.
Notice we don’t explicitly say “autism.” Exhaustion is exhaustion, whether it is autism-induced or caused by any of the hundreds of other conditions of being human and being asked to perform. For that matter, tension and frustration are also tension and frustration. People without autism face all of these challenges too; sometimes, just as frequently.
Bottom line: best behavior takes hard work, much attention and care to which we are not ordinarily accustomed.
Back to the china cabinet for a moment.
Most of us use plastic cups more frequently than fine crystal. Few occasions, for that matter, call for fine crystal. It makes more sense to bring plastic cups with us to school and work or out for a run; certainly not fine crystal. Why is this? Obviously: because fine crystal is expensive and fragile… but not because crystal is unsuitable to hold water.
More truthfully, though: If we carried fine crystal with us wherever we went, we would have to treat it with our full attention and care. We would have to invest time and effort in using it well, slowly and thoughtfully. It could be done. We choose not to.
Another argument says that cheap occasions do not warrant fine crystal. The effort to use fine crystal, and the act of appreciating its uniqueness and careful design, is wasted on chugging water out of the cooler and soda from the can.
Is the same true, then, of our best selves? Do we not routinely give our best because we would have to invest time and effort in spending ourselves well, slowly and thoughtfully? Is the effort wasted on eyes and ears who won’t pause to appreciate our uniqueness and careful design?
How often do we consider the person in front of us and immediately think they are worth investing time and effort into spending ourselves well, slowly and thoughtfully? How often do we pause to appreciate their uniqueness and careful design, before chugging with a glance and moving along?
One could argue that plastic cups exist out of laziness more than matters of practicality, portability or affordability. But then, how is it any fault of ours if we find ourselves starting with a cabinet full of plastic cups and not a drop of crystal?
No matter. The issue is not what we have; it is the care and investment with which we have it.
If our china cabinet is a cardboard box and our best is a plastic cup, it still holds water. If a guest arrives at our door, we can turn them away because we do not have crystal, or we can offer them a drink from “this cheap, disposable plastic cup,” or we can invite them in and say, “Care to share a drink with me?”
The issue is not that we live in a world which has embraced plastic cups. We do not suggest bringing fine crystal into situations just to say it’s fine crystal. Rather… we see a world of plastic cups and wonder if we can elevate it to equal footing with fine crystal. In the end, it matters not one bit what it is made from or how it was made. It matters what we do with it.
What if we take exactly what we have, act as though it is worth our time and care and personal attention – and then share it with the people around us?
The ordinary stays ordinary. Plastic is still plastic. Crystal is still crystal. Everything gets treated with the same degree of careful, thoughtful appreciation.
Appreciation. That is something we can all strive for, no matter what our state in life might be.
Who are we saving our best for?
Once we begin sharing it routinely… the answer will be right in front of us.
Pray: Loving God, You supply us abundantly with evidence of You in the people around us. May we learn to recognize your signature, even if we have to seek slowly, thoughtfully and with our full attention and care. Give us, then, the privilege of seeing Your design in ourselves.
Contemplate: How will seeing God’s design in ourselves make us less inclined to save our best only for certain people or occasions?
Relate: Go for it. Put out your best to the first person who comes along. Then, again, with the next. Start small with the hope that one day it will become a habit.
Iceland is probably best known by others in the world for its remarkable natural beauty; perhaps, too, for having the world’s oldest parliament, for their meticulous preservation of Norse culture and literature, their admirable national literacy rate, and their exemplary system of renewable energy. Iceland is not, however, particularly known for its noteworthy figures in Catholic history. In fact, few people know much about the Catholic Church in Iceland beyond those practicing the Catholic faith there now, comprising less than five percent of Iceland’s entire population, and consisting largely of immigrants.
Every part of the world has seen its share of holy men and women over the centuries. The very idea of being Christian is to live a life of virtue and charity, so, arguably, the Canon of Catholic Saints is like a “Who’s Who List” of model citizens to emulate from among the hundreds of thousands of other solidly good-living people in human history. It can furthermore be argued that one need not be Christian to lead a virtuous and charitable life, and we say this to emphasize that we are all part of a common humanity called to be generous in caring for one another before we call ourselves anything else.
Iceland saw its native son, Thorlak Thorhallsson, make this list in 1198. Eight hundred and nineteen years ago, in the thick of the Middle Ages, before the big name saints even came onto the world scene... tiny Iceland notched a bona fide canonized saint.
In the same historical period that would later record the lives of household-name saints such as Francis and Clare, Bernard, Benedict, Dominic, Rita and Joan of Arc in other parts of Europe, Thorlak of Iceland got there first.
How did it happen, then, that Thorlak made it into this Who’s Who, the Canon of Catholic Saints, in 1198… and yet is barely known today?
It’s all about timing and placement, even with Catholic saints. Keep first in mind that Thorlak was locally canonized in 1198, as the Pope then was not a world traveler as he is today, and Iceland was extremely isolated geographically. Local canonization was the norm around the world, not just in Iceland. Thorlak’s canonization was thus valid and recognized throughout Europe. However, it did not stop there. In 1984, Pope John Paul II officially recognized Thorlak as a Catholic saint and declared him Patron Saint of Iceland. This statement is a magnificent data point. A pontiff, who himself would be declared a saint, acknowledged and reaffirmed the holy example and patronage of Thorlak seven hundred and eighty six years later. Talk about staying power!
Proclaimed by John Paul II! What an achievement!
Why is Thorlak not widely known?
Timing and placement: Thorlak was a beloved figure in Iceland until the 1500s, when the Catholic religious establishment was razed in the Protestant Reformation. Catholic traditions were obliterated for many years before they would be re-examined centuries later to glean any spiritual good from the remnant of their memory.
We can gratefully thank the diligent Icelandic historians for preserving Thorlak’s name and legacy. As time will do, though, his life’s color has grayed into the shadow of medieval memory. He is catalogued as a strict, no-nonsense bishop who established and enforced rules. He is noted for taking on politically powerful chieftains over their refusal to cede property to the diocese and their reluctance to conform to church rules regarding their behavior. This characterization fits well into the old order, and he certainly did do these things. Iceland, unmatched in maintaining their historical identity, has ensconced him as their Model Medieval Bishop. December 23, the feast day of Saint Thorlak, is marked as a cultural holiday, Þorláksmessa, commemorating him even to this day.
As a Model Medieval Bishop.
It’s pretty hard to relate to that today. It’s harder, still to live it up in celebration of someone who cracked the moral whip and demanded property. And it’s nearly impossible to do so when it is exactly one day before Christmas Eve.
How do we make a meaningful feast day for a saint who did… (what did he do, again?)
We can’t read from his writings. They have been pillaged or destroyed by fire.
We can’t venerate his relics. They, too, were pillaged and destroyed.
We could have a meal that hearkens back to the past, but what we end up commemorating is the preparation for Christmas Eve, not Saint Thorlak himself.
How do we toast a Model Medieval Bishop when his life has absolutely no common context, no application whatsoever to our lives today?
By bringing him present with us. That’s how.
By knowing him. By knowing his story. By realizing his light.
By doing what we call Missionaries of Saint Thorlak to do every day.
To simply notice him and ask: “Can you be our friend?”
Remarkably, if anyone should take the time to pick up the historical texts and start reading, we see what made him a saint in the first place. He was not named “saint” because he was a Model Medieval Bishop. He was recognized as a holy man because he bucked this establishment.
Saint Thorlak’s entire priesthood – in a remote land bound by the Medieval Church – was indeed one of establishing and enforcing rules. But he did so with unprecedented mercy.
Mercy. Now, there’s a word we have all heard. In fact, in 2015, Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, calling on people worldwide to rediscover and embrace compassion, understanding and forgiveness… to reconcile with one another, and with God. To stop living like rule-bound Pharisees and live like Jesus, loving others because we love God and we affirm the presence of God-in-others.
“Mercy” is not a word we associate with the Medieval Church.
Saint Thorlak lived his entire priesthood with unprecedented mercy – at a time when mercy was not widely taught, and was not widely shown… in a country used to making its own rules, whether the Medieval Church agreed or not… in a powder keg of power clashes waiting to happen.
Saint Thorlak lived mercy. He established rules by demonstrating the spiritual motives behind them. He expected the best from his countrymen – but he knew how high the moral standards of the virtuous life were, and how powerless most of us feel to reach that high. He knew the rules, he knew the reasons, and he knew the harsh penances to be assigned to those who didn’t reach them. (Those were not just legend; they were reality.) So, what did he do? He counseled people individually about living more virtuously, determined their penance, and then assigned them a fraction of the prescribed debt of prayer or fasting. The remainder, he took upon himself, and completed for them. He slept little and ate little, between the prayer and fasting he did on behalf of his flock, but worked no fewer hours because of it. He simply denied himself leisure.
Folks: Did you get that? St. Thorlak was a serious, dour-faced bishop because he saw how difficult the Church’s punishments were, and he performed them for us.
Penitents saw what he did for them, and it made them pause. Here was someone with the right to lord power over them and to exclude them from good standing, from the one institution that could help families barely surviving on a remote island that was subject to harsh seasons, rough seas and dangerous weather. Instead of shaming and scolding people for their weakness, he shared in it – without compromising the morality he was teaching. He did not excuse immorality. He pointed it out and proclaimed the better way. But he took the punishment. In everything he did, he showed mercy.
Thorlak lived mercy in many other ways. He personally invited destitute and diseased people to dine and stay with him in his own residence, but he did so in secret, so as not to draw praise for something he felt he ought to do as a matter of course. He championed the dignity of women, taking political leaders to task who openly kept numerous mistresses while wife and children were used for show. He set up funds for poor families so that they could remain together rather than split apart for lack of provisions.
Where are these remarkable stories of Saint Thorlak? Are they legends, exaggerated with retelling, romanticized over time?
No! They are found throughout the same texts cited by historians, starting with The Saga of Bishop Thorlak. They are all right there, in plain sight!
Saint Thorlak is not hidden in the shadows of time. It is, rather, that few people take the time to see the light of his mercy, which was far ahead of its time.
Perhaps the light of Saint Thorlak has been hidden in the shadows of time because he was more a saint for our time.
Last week, we proposed marking Þorláksmessa by letting those in our path know how they bring light to us. Not only is this consistent with the way Saint Thorlak lived, but it brings to life the timely verse from Luke 1:78 as we head toward Christmas: “In the tender mercy of God, light from heaven will break upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness.” (Since we’re talking a feast day in Iceland, we can’t help but notice the play on words at a time when Iceland receives just over four hours of total daylight).
We close with this miracle account from The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, a very literal case of light rising from Iceland: “During the winter, the eve of Maundy Thursday after the death of Bishop Þorlákr, a farmer called Sveinn saw such a great light in Skálholt over Bishop Þorlákr’s tomb that he could hardly see the church for it” (chapter 20).
May we all be witness to this light rising from Iceland. May we be part of it. May we contribute our own light to this celebration of mercy and love of God through the way of Saint Thorlak.
Skálholt in Winter
There will be no Missionary Thought next week as we pray with everyone around the world: Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, PEACE to all people of good will!
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.