Material, or Spiritual Reciprocity?
We have had a week to think about reciprocity and the resist factor. There are still three decks of cards waiting for us – our intent, our mode of operation, and our help. It’s a slow-moving process being a contemplative ministry, but hopefully, it’s bearing good, rich fruit.
Reciprocity, you will recall, means a state of mutual dependence, an exchange of benefits, a cooperation and bestowal of privileges between people in power, all of which guarantee connection and spiritual nourishment. The degree to which we resist reciprocity determines a large part of our risk for spiritual starvation.
“Resist” implies something we actively do to push something away.
People resist things all the time, and many times we have no idea why. We are not purely logical beings, especially when it comes to relationships, acquired habits and all the subtle ways that fear influences our decisions. Resisting reciprocity is a habit with deep roots, many causes, and far-reaching spiritual implications.
Let’s have a look at that second deck. Pick up your card and see if you drew MATERIAL or SPIRITUAL. This is going to direct the orientation of your giving, receiving and reciprocal expectations.
MATERIAL reciprocity is the cleanest, most predictable and most logical to study. It is safe, in many ways, because it focuses on things rather than people. We learn this kind of transactional thinking from our earliest lessons in fairness, sharing and generosity:
As we progress through elementary years, we go from a concrete understanding like this to more abstract, subtle concepts of giving and receiving. By middle school, we start to see that fair does not always mean equal. Sharing is not always mandatory. Generosity is more a measure of the heart than a quantity given. Adolescents begin to see how these concepts transition from material to spiritual. Adults can give praise. People can share stories. Friends can be generous with their time.
The material side of giving, receiving and reciprocity never goes away, however. Money is earned, saved and spent. Donations are collected out of kindness and desire to help people struggling. Gifts are given – and expected – on special occasions. How we manage material things both fosters and reveals aspects of our character like prudence, wisdom, discernment, sacrifice and self-governance.
Generally speaking, material givers are those who spend on others, and material receivers are those who anticipate and plan for financial needs. (Did we catch you in thinking that material receivers are those who reap gifts? To a degree, yes, this is true; material receivers do get more than they give, preferring to take in than pay out).
Lest we turn our RPG into a financial planning game, do remember that this is about relationships. And what about that resist factor?
Those with material orientation and moderate resist factors may occasionally decline an opportunity to give, or may politely thank you but turn down a gift you offer, but the key is: they do not act from fear. In contrast, those with highest resist factors will try the hardest to block material reciprocity. They may refuse donations, gifts or acts of monetary kindness. They will easily make excuses to avoid contributing or volunteering. Keep in mind that these actions are not necessarily a love of money or a fear of poverty – they are a shrinking away from reciprocity.
Once more, there are far too many variables and possibilities to make an exhaustive examination. However, as we venture further into the details of the simulation, we start seeing how our material habits point to our spiritual habits… or, in some cases, make for a good smokescreen to hide our spiritual habits.
Materially speaking, our ease of giving and receiving can be impaired by fear of loss, fear of debt, or demand for security. Reciprocity adds the pressure of expectations when we think transactionally, if we feel like we need to appear impressive, generous or magnanimous. To many, receiving assistance or donation bears the unspoken obligation to give something in return, and this is a greater burden than bearing the hardship alone. Some feel awkward receiving a gift for the same reason. People who resist reciprocity are reluctant to give because they do not want to set a precedent or create expectations that their gifts will be regular or recurring. Some people refuse giving because their recipients have not demonstrated adequate standards of reciprocation in the past, along the lines of “why should I give them anything when they have overlooked me time after time?”
What if we drew the SPIRITUAL card? Can these same principles be said of our relationships, in the spiritual sense?
Many of us overlay the material rules of giving, receiving and reciprocity onto our spiritual lives. Not only do we hold ourselves to these principles as though they were rules, but we also expect others to apply these rules to us. How easy life would be if everything were transactional, able to be tabulated, and judged according to quantities.
But it does not hold up.
Humility says that we embrace what we have equally with what we do not have, and offer it all just as it is. Humility does not wait for satisfaction or demand it from others.
Mercy and forgiveness can only be begged because, by their very essence, they are a lessening of the sentence, a release from the debt we owe with nothing expected in return. If mercy is expected, that’s presumption, and negates the grace. If forgiveness is demanded, that’s extortion, and is anything but sincere.
Love? Love is at once gratuitous, irrational, sacrificial and laden with risk. In fact, the purest form of love is the highest risk.
How, then, can SPIRITUAL giving and receiving be discussed with any logic or application?
MATERIAL giving and receiving is finite because things are finite.
SPIRITUAL giving and receiving is infinite because God is infinite.
MATERIAL reciprocity must be approached with caution because things (money, gifts, donations) get used up and run out. Scarcity will always be a factor.
SPIRITUAL reciprocity can be approached with abandon because God Himself is humility, mercy, forgiveness and love… and can never run out, because God is infinite.
We forget this.
All the time.
What if we played this RPG as though nothing were finite, everything were in abundance?
Some of us would still hoard, and some would still demand equality and exact balance. Some would give more to their favorite players and hold back from the ones with whom we have grievances.
Some would hang back and not play much, because they have everything they need. Once giving and receiving reach stasis and an abundance is achieved, there’s not much left to do. What do those players do? Leave the game, or sit and watch… and grow distant?
Perhaps. Until one of us comes along and gives without counting, engaging you just because you are in the game.
Our basic framework is in place. Play away, and notice how the variables interact. See how similarly or differently you play with MATERIAL intent versus SPIRITUAL intent. See how well your game play parallels your spiritual life, whichever card you’ve chosen.
All of this sets the stage for the weeks ahead, when we start to see the effects of spiritual nourishment… or spiritual starvation.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, your ways are not our ways. Sacred Scripture shows time and again how material thinking clouds our faith and understanding of the Kingdom of God. Show me, through this exercise, how I approach humility, mercy, forgiveness and love… and any ways in which my habits keep me from experiencing these things in my relationships.
CONTEMPLATE: Do I approach relationships more spiritually or materially?
RELATE: Focus this week on your weaker area (giving/initiating or receiving/anticipating) by making a point to perform an action of just this kind. What made it easy or difficult?
Welcome back, gamers. This week is when it gets fun, in our opinion, because we finally dive in to what it all means in real life. Thanks for being patient over these past two weeks. We think you’ll find it well worth it.
You’ve got a card revealing your primary orientation: a giver, or a receiver. The dice tell you how strong this power is for you, and, relatively, how weak you experience the inverse.
If you are primarily a giver, you initiate. You volunteer, suggest, troubleshoot, seek, fix and rescue. You send out signals at regular, steady intervals. You maintain high activity – and high control. You are the driver.
If you are primarily a receiver, you anticipate. You observe, listen, watch, ponder, provide and assess. You pause before acting or let the activity come to you. People seek you out. In broadcast terminology, you are a master signal detector. You are super-attuned, intuitive and available. You aren’t the driver, but you are no passenger, either: you are the one who maintains the car for when it’s needed.
A binary system like this usually forms a dichotomy, in that you are one or the other. Yet, common sense knows there are times when even the strongest receivers initiate and give. There are times when the most ambitious givers hang back and wait, rather than initiate. This is why we are using values starting at two, rather than zero. No person is completely incapable of giving or receiving – even in an imaginary role play.
We assigned weakness values to the inverse of your strength to help define your character. A weak giver likely appears aloof, thoughtless, clueless, self-centered, stingy, reluctant and obtuse. On the other hand, weak receivers don’t get your signals, so they, too, are misconstrued as clueless, aloof, reluctant and obtuse – along with distant, unwelcoming, constantly busy, poor listeners and never available when you need them.
But wait: this is not as simple as being a zero sum game with yourself. “Weak receiver” is not always interchangeable with “strong giver” and should not be taken as a criticism. Furthermore, can there be givers who give too much, come on too strong, offer unsolicited advice, and routinely fail to observe? Or, people who receive too much, who wait too long and fall out of touch, who spend so much time reading your mind that they miss what you are actually saying, who watch you like a hawk and make you self-conscious, who pick out every minute detail to the point of distraction?
Absolutely. There’s no clear cut good or bad here.
So, what’s it all about? Balance?
Not quite. Balance implies an even distribution of weight. It suggests finding a happy medium, an average, an equal amount of investment into opposite sides. Balance between giving and receiving would be achieved by giving as many times as you receive, or receiving as many times as you give… or, lessening the number of “gives” until you reach equilibrium with your “receives” … or, upping whichever quantity is lower until it equals the strength in the other.
Life just doesn’t work that way. We cannot keep score for ourselves or the people around us without becoming calculating or obligatory – two things that contradict sincerity. No amount of receiving will offset someone who gives to such an extent that they overpower their recipients. No amount of giving will look or feel sincere if a super-receiver suddenly goes on a giving marathon and gets it all out of the way, to offset the reputation they have of never volunteering.
The problem comes when we look at giving and receiving as transactional – especially when these things are not independent or mutually exclusive.
Sincere giving… sincere receiving… are not transactional. They are reciprocal. They are, by necessity, interdependent.
We cannot give if someone is not there to receive. We cannot receive if someone does not give.
We can neither give nor receive in isolation.
Yet, so many of us try to do just that.
Here, finally, is where our numerical values come into play.
Regardless of give value and receive value, the difference between the two gives us something much more meaningful – our RESIST FACTOR: the degree to which we resist reciprocity.
A super-giver with a give value of twelve has a receptivity of two… and a resist factor of ten. Such people give like crazy, receive once in awhile… but strongly resist anyone trying to reciprocate.
A super-receiver who is highly attuned to the needs of those around them, anticipating their friends before any call is ever made… has a receptivity of twelve, and a giving propensity of two. The resist factor is still ten. These people resist reciprocal contact to the highest degree.
In contrast, a hypothetically balanced giver-receiver, whose values are seven on both sides, has lower strength giving and receiving… but zero resist factor. These people accept help when they need it, and initiate help when it is needed. Nary a flinch.
The key factor for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak is not if we are inclined to give, or if we are inclined to receive. The number most important to know is our resist factor.
You may be a top-notch giver, or an open-armed receiver… but if you resist reciprocity, you are at high risk for spiritual starvation.
Next week, we will look more closely at the how the resist factor affects our spiritual nourishment, and where our other cards start coming into play.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, thank you for this opportunity to gain insight about myself. I consecrate all to You, exactly as I am, and ask that you reveal my strengths to me, reveal my needs to me, and use all that I have to your glory and service.
CONTEMPLATE: How might the resist factor be an impediment to spiritual nourishment?
RELATE: If this role play were to accurately reflect you, do you notice your resist factor? How easily do you accept reciprocity from others in your giving (initiating) and receiving (anticipating)?
As we pick up our RPG simulation once again, we want to briefly discuss the four decks of game play cards we have imagined: the starting deck, our superpower; then, the intent of action deck, our mode of operation deck, and our help deck. So far in our sim, we have drawn a card from the starting deck to find out if we are a giver or a receiver. We have recorded that as our power and the inverse as our weakness, such that the strong givers are weak receivers, and the strong receivers are weak givers. We have a lot more to add on that, but let us first look ahead to what the other three decks have in store.
The next card we’ll draw is our intent of action. Again, we will find only two possibilities: MATERIAL and SPIRITUAL. This will put a filter on our superpower. We can be material givers, material receivers, spiritual givers, or spiritual receivers. (Don’t worry… this game goes quickly, so you can play it enough times to experience all of the variables without having to commit to a lifetime of game play as only one or the other. If only real life were that simple… but then, that is why we have this game.)
The two decks off to the side will come into play as the game progresses. We use the first round just to practice examples of giving and receiving with our assigned intent. After the introductory round ends, we get to choose from the next deck, which tells us our mode of operation: CONNECTION or SELF-PRESERVATION. These concepts are familiar to our regular readers, but we will consider them in light of our role play and discuss how they impact the game with each variable we have mentioned. Finally, we have the fourth deck, from which we draw our help. No surprise – this, too, is a binary choice. We are assigned either SELF-HELP or MENTOR. We will get into this in more detail as well.
That is essentially the game. We can always add in settings, such as school or family or workplace, but the ideas at play will not change all that much. Hopefully, the implications and game play are fairly obvious at the outset.
As we mentioned last week, this may not be the most captivating RPG, but it is remarkably helpful in forming and illustrating our missionary mindset. Believe it or not, the point of all of this is to help ourselves become more aware of some very crucial variables in our personalities and our relationships which might be impediments to our spiritual health. It is not a personality type test or a diagnostic tool for one problem or another. It is not a cleverly disguised way to pigeonhole people, and it will never be completely accurate 100% of the time. People are people, not simulations, and we should keep our expectations focused on the living, breathing happenings of each moment – not on assumptions, rules or scripts. We like the simplicity of a simulation because it gives us an opportunity to imagine and think, and perhaps to gain insight into things we ordinarily take for granted.
Back, then, to our first deck. Which did you draw, or which did you imagine yourself to be ordinarily? Are you primarily a Giver, or a Receiver? Did you add in a dice roll to determine the intensity? How did you arrive at your choice? Was it based on what you believe about yourself, or how other people react to you? Are there some of us who still do not quite know?
For explanatory purposes, “Givers” here are people who take initiative in offering things. These are people who seem to anticipate the needs of others, who volunteer as soon as the call for help goes out, and who surprise you with visits, acts of kindness, contributions and boundless ideas. On the flip side, “Receivers” are known both in the welcoming sense and in their facility with detecting and interpreting signals. Receivers are the people you go to when you have something weighing on your mind, or when you have a joy to share, or when you want the company of someone extremely easy to be around. In fact, these people seem to “get” you better than anyone else, and are the most loyal among the people you have ever known… even if you barely know them.
If you added in the dice roll, you’ll also have a number that shows how intensely you express your superpower. The higher your super-value, the greater will the difference be in the intensity of your inverse. The value for your superpower ranges from two to 12, and the value for your weakness is your super-value subtracted from fourteen. If you are a super-giver at a power of 12, your receiving power is two; giving dominates your receiving by ten points. If you are a super-receiver of 8, your giving capability is six. Some get a lucky seven and are proportionally balanced.
(Got all that?)
It may take a lot of pondering before you realize which profile fits you better. The dynamics of your relationships can be deceiving. For instance, you might think at first you are a Giver… until you realize that others in your life consistently take from you, without much initiative on your part. Surprise! That makes you a Receiver! Others may call themselves Receivers based on the number of gatherings they host at their home, with refreshments and activities… hmm… does that makes them Givers? Then there are people who assume being extroverts means being default Givers. Is that true? Not necessarily.
Suddenly, the line between Giver and Receiver looks awfully blurry.
Perhaps we should look at the inverse. Will that help?
If you are someone who is slower to initiate interactions… someone who waits to be spoken to, or who follows the lead of others… someone who “brings up the rear” in line… someone who is still assessing the situation after others have begun taking action… if you feel reluctant, quiet or awkward…
… these are ways people criticize you for not being a Giver.
Yet, each of these traits is an asset if you are a Receiver. Especially that last one, feeling awkward – because you know what it’s like to feel out of place, and chances are, you go out of your way to make sure other people don’t have to endure that. The other traits speak to wisdom, prudence and care in listening.
If you believe you are a Receiver because you pride yourself in constantly scanning for needs… or because you check on the people around you, shrugging off anyone checking on you… or because you make yourself available 24/7 and insist people take you up on that… or because you are ready with suggestions and solutions for any situation…
… Guess what? You are a Giver!
This is getting too complicated. We need a simple definition, and fast.
Here it is.
Most generally speaking, Givers initiate, and Receivers anticipate. But we cannot know until we interact with others.
Please – remember – this is not a personality test. It is a game.
One, we hope, which will help you know your strengths… and needs… as our Missionaries.
Because we cannot embrace our needs until we know them.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, help me to know how others experience me. Do I greet more people on Your behalf, as Your ambassador – or do I more easily receive You as a guest, through them?
CONTEMPLATE: How comfortable am I in realizing my weak area in this game? Do I feel this way because of what I think, or because of what others have said to me? Would God see it this way? How would others respond if I plainly said, “Can you help me become a better __(Giver/Receiver)_____ ?”
RELATE: Continue observing your typical patterns. Are you more likely to initiate (act first) or anticipate (assess and wait before acting) in your interactions? Are you finding yourself surprised?
Imagine a role-playing game with two decks of cards to start. From one deck you draw your superpower; from the second, the intent of the interactions you will enact. Off to the side are two other decks which we will get to later, after the game gets moving.
This is a painfully simplified RPG. There are no wizards, no mythological creatures, and no tournaments to decide the future of your monarchy. In fact, it’s rather like real life. Lest we apologize for being so ordinary, keep in mind, we’re here to form missionaries. We’re aiming to make your ordinary life more meaningful – not to create a fantasy escape.
Start by taking that first card. You find one of two choices: GIVING or RECEIVING. All of the cards in this deck are either one or the other. Write this down; this is your superpower. The card you did not draw will be designated as your weakness. (If you really want to make it an RPG experience, roll dice to get a power level for each, with the highest values being the most intense).
Where would you fall out, if this wasn’t a role play, or if role playing games just aren't your thing? Which comes most naturally to you, giving or receiving?
Hold on to your answer; it’s important. First, though, let us examine these elements a bit more closely.
“Giving” is a familiar concept.
-Gifts are a sign of celebration, encouragement or consolation
-Rewards are given for achievement or hard work
-“Sharing” is a form of giving we learn to do when our first inclination might be to keep something for ourselves
Some people give readily and easily. We can quickly begin naming such people:
-Dedicated parents, teachers, coaches, mentors
-Almost anyone in the service professions
-The “popular” ones at school
There are numerous reasons a person might be oriented toward giving. Personality type is probably the most obvious, but anyone can find themselves giving in situations past their normal comfort zones. People respond to the needs around them, recognizing the greater good in giving rather than passing the opportunity (or the crisis) to someone else. Some people simply give because nobody else does. Some give because it feels good; others, because it feels right.
People who rarely or reluctantly give tend to be much more guarded, skeptical or calculating. This generally boils down to three main reasons:
-Protection from abuse, rejection, hurt or misunderstanding (= fear)
-Genuinely not knowing how or what to give (= lack of skill or resource)
-Deliberately withholding themselves for revenge or hostility (= aggression)
The concept of giving is fairly well developed and easy to recognize. To wit: who has not heard numerous times the maxim: “It is better to give than to receive”?
Which brings us, then, to the alternate concept: receiving.
“Receiving” gets a bad rap, by comparison. Think of the concepts we might readily associate with receiving:
-Getting a gift
-Taking ownership of something
-Accepting a payment
-Accepting a delivery
-Accepting a reward
-Pulling in (as in receiving a signal)
-Catching the ball, being passed a puck, or attempting to return a serve in sports
Each of these bears a connotation of taking, which itself implies a loss or giving up by someone else for our benefit. We are conditioned to think of “giving” as selfless and “receiving” as selfish.
Back to our game. What if you drew “receiving” as your superpower? Is that even possible? What would that imply for you, and to your fellow RPG players?
Besides sports players, who are the skilled receivers in our lives?
(Anyone else having a hard time?)
We admit, we have deliberately overlooked some of the other meanings of “receive.” Perhaps it is time to include those. How about having a look in Sacred Scripture? In addition to several citations meaning the connotations above, we find several other uses of this word receive, such as:
“Receive the law of [the Almighty], and lay up his words in your heart.” (Job 22:22)
“Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may eventually become wise.” (Proverbs 19:20)
Connection; Communion with God through One Another
Moses, to God: “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” (Exodus 34:9)
Of God: “As an eagle incites its nestlings forth by hovering over its brood, so He spread His wings to receive them and bore them up on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11)
“With contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received” (Daniel 3:39)
“Whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One who sent Me.” (Matthew 10:40)
“Whoever receives one child such as this, in My name, receives Me.” (Matthew 18:5)
“The crowds, meanwhile, learned of this and followed Him. He received them and spoke with them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.” (Luke 9:11)
Clearly, there is a distinction between the material sense of receive, meaning “get,” and the interpersonal connotation, which implies connection, interaction, welcoming and generosity. But - if we may - let us also note how the material sense of receive appears in Sacred Scripture:
“Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately, they received their sight and followed Him.” (Matthew 20:34)
“Whatever you ask for in prayer, with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22)
“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22)
Each of these instances depicts people getting things, yes. However, none of them imply loss or giving up, and none have to be earned or taken. Rather, each example is of something made freely available by God because He loves us, and for no other reason.
God, it seems, is constantly poised and ready to give. He only requires that we desire what he offers: that we receive.
In fact, as we consider all of this, receiving appears to be quite the stealth superpower, whether or not it’s the card we drew at the beginning. The intent of our action, that second deck, is going to determine whether or not our receiving is material or interpersonal.
So now, we come back to your initial answer, to yourself, as to which you would be ordinarily. Are you a skilled giver, or a skilled receiver? Is your weakness an avoidance of giving, or an avoidance of receiving? Please do not allow these ponderings to worry you. Each one of us is gaited differently. One person’s superpower is another person’s weakness, and vice versa, but each one of us has a place in the plan for this world. You may not have found yours yet, but that only means it’s still out there.
Please also note the very peculiar fact that this first deck tells you your superpower, but that superpower reveals your weakness. As we progress through the game, we will discover something remarkable: Because your weakness is the inverse of the superpower, it contains the very essence of the superpower in reverse… and so, defeating your weakness will be accomplished by applying that superpower in reverse.
Not following? Not buying it? No worries. We will continue this next week. Trust that it will all make sense. For now, let it puzzle you, as only the best games do.
PRAY: Heavenly Father of All Goodness, help us give ourselves freely to You in love… and help us receive your grace, enlightenment and healing in all of our needs.
CONTEMPLATE: Consider the Scripture verses noted this week, and settle on the one which appeals to you the most. Ponder what it is that draws you to that verse.
RELATE: Be aware this week of your interactions, noticing the many ways you give, and the many ways you receive. This will set the stage for next week’s Missionary Thought.
This week we visit another of the qualities we choose to embrace as followers in the footsteps of Saint Thorlak: Wonder.
From the earliest age, it is written, Thorlak Thorhallsson showed an unusually deep interest in everything. He was a contemplative by nature, slowly studying things around him and considering them from every possible angle, savoring the ideas and questions which came to mind as he did. It is no surprise that he was drawn to the Book of Psalms as a very young boy and learned to read by memorizing them. As an adult, and after his ordination, he would go on to write volumes of spiritual reflections and poetry of his own, tragically lost to fire and plunder over the centuries. Enough has been written about him to know that he lived this sense of wonder his entire life, and that his greatest desire was to share this wonder with everyone he could.
So, what is wonder, and how do we cultivate it as Saint Thorlak’s missionaries?
Wonder and contemplation go hand-in-hand, though one does not necessarily require the other. You could say that contemplation is the act itself, and wonder is the emotional sense of falling in love that contemplation brings about. Wonder is the delight in seeing how God and Creation each reveal the other, and the thrill of being invited into this mutual revelation. Wonder is the expression on a baby’s face at things the rest of us consider ordinary, like a ring of keys or a puff of dandelion seeds. Wonder is the excitement of observing something bigger than we are. Ideally, academic learning should begin with wonder – although as they get older, school children do not always see their subjects quite so romantically.
Our lifestyles generally do not allow for much wonder. We live in task-oriented times. We place more emphasis on information than the wonder it might evoke, and much of the information we face is not fodder for fancy. Check the weather, check the traffic, check our messages, check our appointments, check our agendas. Get driving directions, learn a set of facts, watch some viral videos, indignantly react to injustices and infringements highlighted in news feeds. Cheer on sports teams, enjoy photos of friends and family, check reviews to make a purchase, read the label on a box of ingredients. Information abounds. Wonder is in shorter and shorter supply.
Some people manage to live lives of wonder because they are naturally inclined that way. Most of us don’t. Most of us reach saturation somewhere during the day and spend the rest of our time coping with the stress of processing and handling the rest of the business on our minds before going to bed for the night. We unwind with fiction. We sleep. Perhaps we dream. And then we begin again.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak strive toward contemplation in all that we do, but realistically, many of us struggle with finding wonder. But we mention it this week, not as a social commentary, but as a necessary element of spiritual nourishment. In that chain of our lives, with God at our origin, we can more easily recall God when we experience moments of wonder than when we plow through yards and yards of plain information. Thus, we have two choices, if we seek to actively experience God in our everyday moments. One, we can cultivate an interior sense of wonder, making a habit of looking for how God is revealed in the things around us and how the things around us are revealed in God. Two, we can cultivate an exterior sense of wonder, seeking to experience this mutual revelation through others.
One does not have to exclude the other.
In fact, those who live very rich spiritual lives do both.
Notice – especially for you readers who struggle with social anxiety, experience pain with eye contact, or who do not feel genuinely friendly – none of this requires any socializing or social activity. This is all about connection. One glance of yours, acknowledging another person’s presence, affirms their purpose. Accepting one glance from someone else – being noticed without need of any words – affirms yours.
Infused by wonder.
It looks different. When you see things that closely, that slowly, and see all that goes into something so insignificant… you feel wonder. You can’t help it.
Saint Thorlak had a horrible time socializing. It was not his forte. It was painful and stressful and intimidating. Yet people came to see him all the time, even when he was a young boy, to listen to him speak and ask questions. He didn’t resent it. He found that he didn’t like socializing… but he thrived in sharing wonder. One or two moments of imparting the love he felt toward God and Creation, and his cup was filled, good measure and flowing over. And so were the cups of those who visited him.
As an adult, Saint Thorlak served hundreds of people, day after day, as priest, abbot and bishop. He never learned to love socializing… but he was beloved, and he loved each person in his path, with the wonder of each one reflecting a different aspect of God to his hungry heart.
Hunger for wonder… and we can never be spiritually starved. Use Matthew 7:7-12 for confirmation.
RELATE: Share a moment of wonder with someone by telling them (or writing to them) something that delighted you. If you feel embarrassed doing this, treat it like an experiment and do it simply to observe their response. (Other people are as inexperienced with wonder as we are, so do not be discouraged if they seem unimpressed. Remember, it’s your wonder you are offering them a share in – not their approval you are seeking.)
When do people experience God most fully?
Is it during our childhood, when we are free from responsibilities and cushioned from many of the betrayals we will come to realize as we mature? Is it when we realize our vocation in life? When we pray? In times of silence? In the morning, in the middle of the night, when we are happy…?
We think the answer is whenever we have permission to be authentic, wherever we are, however old we are.
The Online Etymology Dictionary characterizes “authentic” as a sense of being real and accepted as factual. It is rooted in the pairing of auto (self) and hentes (being).
How many times do we routinely find ourselves allowed to be completely authentic?
In childhood? Very many.
As we grow in years? Fewer and fewer.
From our formative years, we learn what pleases others and what does not. We gradually figure out how to express who we are within the confines of maintaining peace, order and pleasantry, whether this is following the rules in kindergarten or earning promotions in the workplace. It is also discovered within our relationships as we learn how our actions attract, influence or alienate others.
As we grow, we hear the echoes of many well-intentioned people who have helped us learn how to behave politely around others – whether or not we have autism.
We also hear the echoes of our rebukes: being told to stop crying, for instance; or, that our fears are ridiculous, or that our deep love of academia is boring, or that our silence hurts people’s feelings, or that our moments of overload are an embarrassment to our families. Adolescence alone is a pressure cooker for the conflict between being ourselves and being acceptable to others.
Whenever motivation is extrinsic – that is, when we act in order to earn something good or avoid something unpleasant – our authenticity decreases. This can be as large as the difference between a forced apology and sincere regret of having hurt someone else, and as subtle as wondering if you just smiled at another person because your speech therapist taught you to do it, or because that other person made you feel like smiling.
Are we ever taught how to be authentic?
Do we know how to be anxious, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed or confused, without fearing that we will offend the people who are important to us? Have we been so “good” for so long that we have no idea what our moments of authentic need should look like?
The reason we ask is found in our Mission Statement and Objectives; specifically, that Missionaries of Saint Thorlak seek:
- To teach people to see how God sees them, and how God sees those around them
- To encourage people to live as God sees them
- To teach people to gently encourage others to live as God sees them -
First, by the example of their own lives;
then, by friendship to them;
then, by words.
Most of us struggle to be authentic even before God because we know our imperfections. The way we believe God sees us is heavily influenced by the way we believe others see us. Yet God Himself is the One – sometimes, the only One – Who sees us as we truly are, and Who knows us down to who we were created to be. He knows what we really look like and how much effort we put into living the way He intends for us to live.
God always gives us permission to be authentic, because in His infinite love, He can see us no other way.
The others around us vary greatly in their capacity to meet us where we are. Those who do are like oxygen to our souls. Our true friends never leave us in our dark places, but they oxygenate us until we are ready to move forward to better spiritual ground (…even if we don’t want to go there).
But – where are these people? Who brings oxygen to MY soul? Who gives ME permission to be authentic?
If you’re counting on one hand, you’re in great company. If you’re struggling to think of more than two, you’re in even greater company.
Not to worry. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak know a fast way to oxygenate a room with authenticity and to equip everyone we meet with tanks of their own, if they wish. We know the way to begin experiencing this permission to be authentic in all of our relationships, paralleling the freedom we felt in our most innocent childhood days.
Our secret? Start giving others permission to be authentic.
If we approach everyone with complete permission to be authentic, with our only plea being “show me your true need, with no filter!” – we will find it nearly impossible to resist being authentic ourselves. Our hesitation to be seen by God will likewise start melting away.
How is this possible? As simply as Matthew 18:20. When you give someone else permission to be authentic, you open the door for God to greet you, authentically, through them. You will begin experiencing God, authentically, as Jesus is brought present to you.
It may take work. You may have to catch yourself before you toss out a barb to people with different opinions, or you may have to squelch your urge to wonder if people are telling you the truth. Remember, you aren’t guaranteeing authenticity – you are simply permitting it. You are offering a forum for no-penalty honesty. You are freeing the people in your circle from having to perform to receive their reward, because you reward them with your authenticity. You are leveling the playing field and expecting only the best… because you do - or, if not yet, because you want to… and, because you hope people will assume the best in you. You want to teach people to see how God sees them, and how God sees those around them. You want to encourage people to live as God sees them: first, by the example of your own life; then, by friendship to them; then, by words.
But just a warning: if every person should begin supplying the oxygen of authenticity to even a fraction of the full potential, we would find ourselves at high risk for a spiritual conflagration at the slightest spark of zeal… the likes of which we’ve been warned about in Luke 12:49.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, I stand before you today just as I am. Help me to experience You, authentically, and fully.
CONTEMPLATE: Do I give others permission to be authentic? What do I do or say that prevents this from happening? Am I aware that I do this? Is it necessary?
RELATE: Take tiny steps. Give one person, one time, permission to be authentic this week. Make this something deliberate. Observe how you experience the encounter. What do you notice about yourself?
It's here! The Mission of Saint Thorlak Group Leader's Guide may be downloaded for facilitating groups in your area.
The scene is a kitchen table, where you are sitting with someone from your family. This person is like the glue that holds the family together, even though you are a vast, widely scattered family with far-reaching branches. You are being given a long list of details the day before you all gather together for a weekend reunion.
Different family members are named, and requests are made. Aunt Margaret is sensitive to the sun, so make sure she has shade. Thad has an egg allergy, so no mayonnaise for him. The twins are very quiet, and they don’t like hugs, so be sure not to come on too strong with them, and they really hate being told how much they look alike. Uncle Bert is fun to be around, but please, no politics – he doesn’t know when to stop. Wendy is bringing her new boyfriend who is not too popular with the rest of the family. And please, be sure to congratulate Kevin on his new job. He’s very nervous about this promotion and we want to give him all the support we can. Oh! I think Ronnie is going to be there, but she’s coming alone – so don’t ask any questions.
Are you getting all this?
Depending on who you are, you may be eagerly taking mental notes, or zoning out. You might be ready to dive into the thick of things or wanting to run for the hills. Maybe you only married into this family and are completely overwhelmed. This seems like a high maintenance gathering, in any case.
This situation is purely hypothetical, but is a very useful parable to help illustrate what social skills classes are like for people with any degree of autism. The range of people with autism is a wide enough spread that it could include any of the reactions above, along with several hundred others. But it is all the same kind of experience: being instructed in the way other people hope you will act in situations that are somewhat predictable but, in the end, unable to plan down to each conversational detail. It is intimidating, and, unfortunately, in some measure, artificial.
The person giving the instruction in our scene probably has good reason. Two guests she named had medical conditions, after all, and presumably the others have track records suggesting how they might behave in group gatherings. The motive could be keeping the peace, or a genuine personal concern for the people involved.
We are putting you in this situation and asking you what you would do as a Missionary of Saint Thorlak. For, as it is a parable to social skills instruction, it is also a very useful parable for socializing in general.
A big chunk of our readers will have no difficulty answering. To them, we give a nod of appreciation and permission to coast through the rest of this article.
The other chunk are the ones who feel tension just imagining this. You are our intended audience.
It is very well for us to prescribe greeting others and letting God greet us through them. It flows naturally when socializing is easy and desirable. It is much more difficult – perhaps impossible – for those who find socializing difficult, or overwhelming, or even… irritating.
There are many, many people who find socializing irritating. Autism or no autism.
We could take the time to explore why this is – maybe these people are spent at the end of the day and want to retreat into solitude to recharge. Maybe they find human nature itself irksome and absurd, or maybe they are highly anxious and nauseated at the idea of socializing. Maybe they are genuinely depressed and do not have the energy or the empathy to reach out to others. Maybe the people surrounding them are hostile, or snobbish, or interested in things that are not at all appealing.
The bottom line: Nobody likes socializing when it’s forced, or when it feels forced.
We concur. In fact, forced socializing violates our requirement for sincerity in everything we do.
What, then, would a Missionary of Saint Thorlak do in this family reunion scenario, or any situation, if they sincerely have no desire to socialize?
Above all else: Do not socialize.
This is not a trick answer. It is given as sincerely as we expect you to act.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak does not promote socializing.
We promote connection.
There is a huge fundamental difference between these concepts. People can socialize without ever connecting, and people can connect without ever socializing.
Socializing implies everything we think of in an interaction between people. It takes skill, work and time. It requires physical and emotional energy. It is the goal of social skills training and is often the only means people think of when they envision connecting with others.
Connecting means: joining, linking, uniting or bonding two or more things together (via dictionary.com).
[Did you catch that? “Two or more”? Are your bells ringing?]
The act of connection occurs when you, as you are, authentically experience someone as they are, in a shared moment. And, when it occurs as part of your consecration of yourself, as you are, to God’s service, Jesus is brought present.
A connection can be something as simple and fleeting as eye contact, or as complex as enjoying a lifelong friendship.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are called to connect. So, at this imagined family reunion, our Missionaries would be expected to connect, somehow, with those attending.
What does that look like?
It means, for our purposes, not focusing on the long lists of what to do, what to say, or how to act. It means approaching each person and engaging with them, as you are, as they are, as you are able.
“It means a lot that you are here.”
“You are an important part of our family.”
“I always remember the time you __________. It has stuck with me this long!”
“Are you glad you came?”
“Would you like some lemonade?”
These encounters are brief, but personal, and meaningful, and sincere. And, each is a moment blessing you and blessing the other person – by Jesus, Himself, present.
This feeds you spiritually.
This feeds the other person spiritually.
This takes less than ten seconds.
You could easily fulfill these connections and then retreat someplace alone, and still say with truth and satisfaction, "Mission Accomplished."
If you are someone who shudders at the idea of social gatherings, this is manageable. And it prevents spiritual starvation.
If you are someone who genuinely cannot enjoy socializing, after school or after work, wanting weekends alone to recharge, or feeling like you can barely get out of bed, you can still make sure you are spiritually fed, and you can still spiritually feed others.
This week, we ask you to replace “socializing” with “connecting” and see how that reframes things.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, please show me how to connect with the people in my proximity. Help me to remain sincere, and help me to experience what it feels like when You connect with me through them.
CONTEMPLATE: How well do I routinely connect with others? Is this because I have a misunderstanding of what “connection” means?
RELATE: Practice, practice, practice. Connect! And, if you’d like to have fun with this idea, make it a challenge to connect with as little as possible. How well can you connect in a glance? A smile? A nod? Can you connect in absolute silence? See how many ways you can surprise yourself.
We look more closely this week at what defines our particular approach as missionaries. You will recall that our methods are patterned after the late Bishop Thorlák Thórhallsson of Iceland, whose public leadership and ministry left a lasting impact on the faith of his people, and whose manner was uniquely marked by traits that today would be called autism, social anxiety and communication disorder.
It is the paradox of his success which inspires us to pinpoint the techniques he used with the limitations he had. Did he struggle in secret, or deny his difficulties? Did he rise above his symptoms through some miracle intervention? Was he cured? Did he simply exhibit heroic strength as he fought his way through each obstacle? Did he have parents who advocated for him, friends in high places, elaborate therapies applied to his skill deficits?
No. There was none of that.
Bishop Thorlak did something completely different: He consecrated himself, just as he was, to God’s service. To be sure, he did not know the clinical concepts we have today, and he did not explicitly have autism in mind when he chose how to live out his vocation. Even if he had, the process and the result would have been the same. We chose him for our mentor because his method is remarkably simple, accessible and powerful – and it works.
Some might say that Bishop Thorlak was naturally inclined toward everything that led to his success. He was fervent in his faith, loyal in his service and even-tempered in his diplomacy, all of which helped tremendously in his career and as a holy man of God. Yet there were plenty in his time who described Thorlak as somber, rigid, stubborn and headstrong. In other words, he was a saint in the eyes of the faithful, but not everyone enjoyed his company. (Sounds a little like us ordinary folk, no?) The truth is, he was as human as anyone else, with regular human failings amplified by the effects of autism. For everything remarkable he did, he likely had just as many moments of sensory overload and complete shutdown. We say this to head off any notion that we idealize Bishop Thorlak or portray him as someone above our own experiences. On the contrary, we believe Thorlak had a full range of emotions, traits, behaviors and foibles. Be sure to keep this in mind as you continue reading.
Bishop Thorlak, being fully human and fully fallible, took all that he was, and all that he was not… all that he could do well, and all that confounded him… all that was asked of him, and all that he dreaded in fear… and consecrated it all to God’s service. When he did that, a remarkable thing happened: His useful traits became a pleasing, acceptable offering by their own merits, and his (shall we say) less helpful traits were transformed from stumbling blocks into keys which opened doors for him, by way of voluntary humility. He assessed what he lacked and then chose not to curse his disabilities, but to offer his needs as a chance to learn from the people in his see. Rather than being a Bishop of high and removed social standing, he embraced mentorship as a way of life: first seeking mentorship from the people he served, and after receiving their friendship and wisdom, mentoring those in his own employ.
Consecrating ourselves to God’s service, in the manner of Bishop Thorlak, is as simple as starting with these three Biblical words: Here I am.
Here I am – just as you see me. Nothing polished or embellished, as in a job interview, but starkly honest, hiding nothing.
Here I am – and I need you. I need you to be a friend to me. I need your company. I need to experience God through you.
Here I am – with only that which I’ve got on me. My hands are rather empty. I imagine that I know what you are looking for, and I know I don’t have that. What I do have, I offer you… my skills, my ideas, or maybe just my company. I would love to feel like I am valuable to you, but I have no idea how to be. You tell me.
Here I am – and I am glad to be here. I have a lot to learn from you.
Here I am – and I have a lot of experiences which might be interesting or helpful to you. I would love to share them with you.
Here I am, God. What can I do that is useful for You, when I am ordinary and imperfect?
Here I am, God, and I’m watching and listening. Show me, by leading me to people around me.
Imagine presenting yourself to God, seeking Him to employ you. What do you genuinely have to offer Him? What do you feel holds you back? Ask God to show you… and He will, over time. Go slowly as you watch and listen for clues, and thank Him as you notice each puzzle piece.
Become aware this week of how God is mentoring you by speaking through others, and then, how God might be mentoring others by speaking through you.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel: God-Is-With-Us.” – Isaiah 7:14
There is a secret code greeting between members of the Mission of Saint Thorlak: the numerical sequence 7-1-4. It makes us smile every time. It is a wink of solidarity between Missionaries because it is our shorthand for one of our core principles: God is always with us.
This week, we look at how this fits into the foundation of what we do.
“Spiritual starvation,” you will recall, is a state of disconnectedness from others, and ultimately, disconnection from God. We think of spiritual nourishment in terms of flowing through a continuous chain, with God at the source and each successive link either transmitting or impeding the flow of God’s love to the links ahead… eventually reaching completion where we are.
Some have wondered why we start with the image of a chain, which is linear, instead of the vine and branches (see John 15:5), or more of an electronic circuit. Our choice of imagery is deliberate for good reason.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak focuses on our interactions with others to address spiritual starvation. We pick up all the way down at end of the chain, where we are. Why don’t we direct address peoples’ relationships with God, at the front of the chain? Isn’t God the source of love and life?
Aha. Yes. And, that is why we start at the end: to get a good sense of just how well nourished we are spiritually. To do this, we need to stretch our connections into a straight line and see each link between ourselves, at the end, and God, at the source. It is not the number of links that matters; it is the degree to which God’s love flows through each successive link. If the people in our chain are open to receiving and transmitting God’s love, His love flows abundantly – whether the people themselves are polished or imperfect, poised or clumsy, introverts or extroverts, living with a condition or diagnosed with nothing at all. God works through all of us just as we are (… and, if we consecrate all we have to His service, we actively permit His love to flow through us at maximum power… but we will save that for another discussion).
There are, however, places along the chain where the flow becomes constricted. We do not live perfect lives, and even the most pious among us remains human, with human feelings and human failings. It is a dynamic flow that changes with our day to day openness and willingness and movements of the heart and reactions to people around us. It is only over long periods of time that the flow might become more permanently constricted, and rarely is it ever cut off completely – or irreversibly. The degree of spiritual starvation reflects the degree of constriction somewhere in the chain, and this is why it helps to see the chain at its full length, to better understand how to get that nourishment flowing again.
There are three key points we need to make as we relate the idea of this chain to our Missionary work, and they reinforce the importance starting our work at the end of the chain, rather than the beginning.
1) God is the source of our life
2) His essence is part of each of us
3) God is alive and broadcasting His love continuously, simultaneously, across all Creation
Our life begins with God, back at the start of the chain. We do not call ourselves into being; God is the source, the origin, and the foundational link of our spiritual nourishment.
Although we each originate with God, our lives are not lived in the spiritual realm of The Creator – they are lived in the tangible realm of Creation. We live where God is unseen. How can He be the foundational link, if He is not seen? We are not tethered to God like astronauts on a space walk; we are living our lives here in the tangible world, physically separated from Him. So, how can God supply us with nourishment if we are separated? It is because all people, all created things, bear the essence of God.
Pause and ponder: Creatures bear the essence of God. Not simply an imprint or a trademark – but a bit of God’s very essence! God’s essence is in the fabric of each of His creatures. We can say this because God is Life itself… so, by receiving life from the Source of All Life, we are, by necessity, imbued with the essence of this “life” which comprises our souls. This is not to say that each one of us IS God, or is equal to God, but that the substance animating our souls contains God’s life-giving essence.
That essence in us not only enlivens us, but also gives hints as to how God imagines our potentiality. We might (rather poorly) compare this to the manner we say we resemble our ancestors through family traits and tendencies. Physical genetics play one role, but there are also intangible threads of personality and character which consistently express themselves through successive generations. So it is, also, with God: He imparts a bit of His character to us when he forms our souls. As we hear echoes of distant ancestors in our contemporary relatives, so too we can hear echoes of God Himself through those who make up our world – because each person bears God’s essence.
On to our next point: God is alive and present at all times, though He exists in a realm we cannot physically perceive. We conceptualize God constantly broadcasting Himself, and that signal reaching infinitely, though invisibly, throughout the totality of all Creation. God is perpetually present, and perpetually broadcasting, but we may only perceive Him during those moments we pick up and attend to His signal. If we were somehow able to perpetually monitor the signal, we could experience the truth that God is indeed perfectly and constantly present with us, “live,” in every aspect in which He exists… continuously, completely and simultaneously. This means God is “live” in His essence.
We imagine God’s broadcast signal as a quiet, steady, pulse of love, like a heartbeat, recalling that sense of perfect rest we feel when we nestle on a parent’s chest and hear the reassurance of their life inside them and instinctively know that we are not alone.
Therefore: If we are aware of God’s essence in us… and God’s essence in the people around us… we can experience God, “live,” by attending to God’s signal emanating in us and from them. We can experience God to the degree to which we receive the signal. And… the more people to whom we are meaningfully connected… the greater the chances of hearing it. Furthermore, if two or more join together, the signal is boosted.
Two or more? That sounds familiar. Hold on. We’re almost there.
Each person is different. Each moment for each person is different. Each circumstance is different. So, moment by moment, there are nearly infinite combinations of how we might experience God, or how someone might experience God through us. Sometimes it will be strong, and others it will be nearly imperceptible. Sometimes there will be interference. Sometimes we will forget to listen. Sometimes our own signals will dominate. Sometimes we will not recognize it. But none of this negates the fact that there is a signal.
Why do we ask our Missionaries to seek others?
= To give others the opportunity for God to greet us through them – and give them the chance to experience the signal.
By seeking their greeting, we boost the signal for them!
Our need calls God through them!
When the signal is perceived by itself, it generates great joy… but when it is received through another person, it activates Matthew 18:20, and God becomes present in Jesus… Emmanuel… God-is-with us.
"7 1 4."
PRAY: Heavenly Father, how marvelous are Your designs! You are alive and with us, unseen, as love broadcasting live, around the clock. Help us remember that, under the noise, under the static, You are there: clear and soft and constantly sending your greeting, in gentle rhythm, to our hearts.
CONTEMPLATE: Keep this thought in mind as you go about your week, and observe how it affects your thoughts, actions and feelings.
RELATE: Each time you encounter someone, silently realize: God’s essence is broadcasting to me, from within that person!