Mission Objective #6: To encourage people to live as God sees us
Having spent several weeks reflecting on how God sees us, we finally get to put things in action. As Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, we are called to encourage others to live as God sees us. True to our style, let us take this objective apart in order to understand it fully.
To encourage: At the root of this word is "-COR," referring to the innermost feelings of the heart. The prefix "EN-" suggests the action to put in . We are called to put the idea of how God sees us into the innermost feelings of our hearts, and the hearts of those around us. Wow.
To encourage people to live as God sees US. Not how God sees them, but how God sees us: ourselves, and, collectively, every person, as His beloved children.
A good number of us have difficulty believing that God is in love with us and longs for a relationship with us. Traditional logic says this is a matter of self-esteem. The messages of our culture constantly hammer us down, and the temptation to compare and compete with one another pervades nearly everything we do. Self-esteem is an important and valid reminder to each of us that we are valuable as ourselves, and that it is healthy to acknowledge our talents, assets and achievements. To the degree we are willing to believe in our worth, we are able to celebrate our uniqueness, abilities and station in life. With enough trust and practice, everyone can learn to believe they are worthy of being loved - so the logic goes.
Yet there are many among us who have reasonably good self-esteem, and who genuinely believe God desires a relationship with us... and still hold back. Why? If we believe we are worthy, and we crave the thrill of unconditional acceptance, why hold back?
Consider this personal testimony:
Awareness is the first step to seeing that fear is not an absolute barrier, but is more like a countercurrent we ford as we choose the course that will lead us to the realization of our true selves in God’s eyes.
Our ability “to encourage people to live as God sees us" can only come after we have taken the leap of belief ourselves. Only then can we know the moments between certainty and trust, and how long it takes for that wave of unknowing to subside. Our Mission is not to change minds or change behavior. Our Mission is to reassure ourselves and those around us that the resistance we feel toward seeing ourselves is just the startle of realizing who we really are in God’s eyes; that, “it’s okay, it’s only me.”
Pray: Heavenly Father, help me to hear and recognize Your voice until I no longer feel afraid.
Contemplate: What obstacles in my spiritual life are rooted in fear?
Relate: Am I ever afraid to see my reflection through others’ eyes? Notice… and, pray about it.
Spark Calling to Spark: Divine Indwelling and Community
I love going into a garden, and walking among the plants, flowers, birds, and trees. My joy springs from the experience of the divine in all that is created in the garden, each and every member of its community. One rose alone would be lovely, but my experience is deeply enhanced by the bees, the lilies, the pathways of exposed roots, the rabbit scattering under the bushes, the notes of birdcall, the leaves falling from the maple, the pine cones nestled against the foot of the mother tree. The ecological diversity of a little garden astonishes me, and it is merely one microcosm of the world, and indeed the universe.
In a similar way, we can have deep experience of the divine through one another, even and especially through our diverse identities and lives. We are formed in the image and likeness of our creator God (Gen 1:27), who chooses to make his dwelling with us (Ex 29:45-46; Lev 26:11; Ezk 37:27; John 1:14), and even within us (1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16; Rom 8:11). When we authentically encounter one another, we come into contact with the divine in and through one another. Theologically, this moment of relationship with the divine is enosis, or experience of the divine in and through creation and community. What is important to know here is that in a state of grace we bear a divine spark within us, and that those we encounter do also. When two people come together in authentic relationship, spark calls to spark. We are touched and transformed by the divine when we cultivate the openness to be present to the other person in patient receptivity and loving acceptance.
The Apostle Paul gives us another image of this indwelling: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the human body “is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.” (CCC 364).
Jean Vanier thus gives us a complete picture of the profound meaning of indwelling: that if Christ dwells in us individually, and likewise Christ dwells in our neighbor, then he dwells in all the rich diversity of the people around us, this vast, beautiful garden of humanity. That includes the smallest, the weakest, the broken, the suffering, both within ourselves and in others. In fact, as Jean Vanier states, the “whole vision of Jesus” is this very thing: to enfold the weak, the impoverished, the suffering with love, and to likewise experience the enfolding in love of our own weakness, poverty, and suffering. For are not we all members of one and the same body, the same temple of Christ? We all share a common life and love: “so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually parts of one another” (Rom 12:5). In becoming the Body of Christ, we take up the mission of Christ, to love one another, and in so doing we each both give and receive love and acceptance.
We know through the gospel that our interactions with one another are, in a very real sense, interactions with the divine: Jesus says that “whatever you did for the least one of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Moreover, we know that we are not to approach our relationships with some kind of intellectual or emotional calculation, but rather “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34). We are to be as children in the direct simplicity of our love and acceptance: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (Matt 18:3-5). Therefore our love for, and acceptance of, one another ought to be sincere and complete.
Jean Vanier notes that in community we may feel pressured to live up to an ideal image of ourselves, or to hide or change parts of ourselves, especially those that our world rejects or devalues. Yet these attributes of ours are often the very things that make us uniquely ourselves, and we should be comfortable and content in them. If we are the handiwork of our Creator God, then shouldn’t we choose to live out of the identity which God himself has fashioned for us? Community “is not about perfect people. It is about people who are bonded to each other, each of whom is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate.” Community is defined by this loving bond between people, which “is the only earth in which each can grow without fear toward liberation of the forces of love which are hidden in them. But there can be growth only if we recognize the potential, and this will never unfold if we prevent people from discovering and accepting themselves as they are, with their gifts and their wounds.” Making room for this individual self-discovery and self-acceptance must be a critical hallmark of the community. As we are called by God to be who we are, and not what others impose on us, we are in turn enabled to respond likewise in being a part of the earth of that community which fosters growth, acceptance, and love.
Love, then, forms the basis for all. We can have confidence that God, who is Love (1 John 4:8), loves us (John 3:16) and makes his loving home with us (John 14:23), and that he has created us to be simply ourselves and no other (Ps 139:13-14). In living out our own graced purpose, our primary characteristic and action is love: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). As we love our neighbor in the poor, the weak, the broken, the suffering, we direct our love also to Christ (Matt 25:40). Thus paradoxically, profoundly, the indwelling of our Lord is directly tied to God’s outpouring of love to us and through us, in and through the community, which is also love tendered back to God.
I would like to close with a remark made to me by the founder of the Mission of St. Thorlak, Aimee O’Connell, during a conversation regarding indwelling and this divine spark within each of us. Aimee said: “Our mission is to go, defenseless, in search of that spark in the other person.” How right she is. Once we discover that divine spark burning within ourselves, we realize that spark calls to spark, and that our own spark compels us to go in search of the other, in vulnerability and openness to authentic encounter. The spark within us burns with God’s love, love which catches fire within us, which lights our neighbors in turn, as they light us with the fire of God’s love. Certainly, we may come up against all kinds of barriers in our effort to love sincerely and completely. In our contemporary, fast-paced, and high-tech world we often ignore or miss opportunities to truly and defenselessly connect with others. Yet these challenges only make our mission even more urgent today. Can we go, defenseless, in search of that spark in the other person? Can we, like the One dwelling within us, love and accept them for who they truly are?
Laura Reece Hogan is the author of I Live, No Longer I (Wipf & Stock, 2017) and O Garden-Dweller (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Find her online at www.laurareecehogan.com, and on Twitter: @laurarhogan .
Objective #5: To teach people to see how God sees us, and how God sees those around us.
Our first considerations of this objective have pondered how God sees us. With these musings taking root, we can now shift emphasis back to the purpose of the objective: to teach people to see how God sees us.
Teach people to see.
Teach people to SEE HOW (recognize the manner in which) God sees us as children full of potentiality… and, teach people TO SEE (personally witness and observe), in the same manner in which God sees us.
Teach people to see.
To see as God sees us: As His precious children.
How can we do this, realistically, in a world which favors childhood less and less?
There are a number of obstacles already which are fairly hard-wired into human nature and social constructs. Childhood equals need, equals dependency, equals responsibility. If I see everyone around me as a child, the responsibility will overwhelm me. If I try to imagine myself a child, the dependency will overwhelm me. The vulnerability, intimacy, need and wonder of childhood may be piercingly beautiful to contemplate but is out of bounds in any relationship outside of parent and child. Throngs of people are automatically dismissed and disqualified from our ability to consider them as children because each person is someone else’s child – not my child.
Not my child. Not my responsibility. Not my place.
Rather: God’s child. God’s responsibility. God’s place.
God sees each one of us in the way a proud father sees his sons and daughters. Seeing others is as simple as recognizing that each person we encounter is loved by God.
Here’s what. Visit any cliché in our minds of any storyline where an outcast goes from being shunned to being accepted. Avoid the urge to become wrapped up studying group psychology and dynamics of acceptance, whether we feel they are inevitable or social constructs to battle against. We are only looking to pinpoint that one thing which triggers a group to shift from rejecting someone to granting them acceptance and full membership.
That one thing is being loved. Vouched for, found acceptable, and admitted.
It is a worn-out plot device, but it holds true. If even just one character from the established group looks fondly on the outcast, the invitation opens because the outcast has been rebranded – no longer distrusted, but worthy.
From cliques in school to workplace alliances to sports leagues to college fraternities to loners to introverts to convicted criminals to people with bad reputations to people in high society… no matter how you choose to group people, the game changer between included and excluded is one person declaring another worthy.
If there is someone on the outside of our circle, we may never notice that person. But, let someone in our circle extend an invitation, and our mindset changes with that one gesture acknowledging their worth.
Folks: Someone in our circle HAS extended that invitation. To every single person you will encounter today, known and unknown. That “someone” is God, and He has declared every person “loved.” We may not know them, and we may not trust them… but God does.
Our job is to remember that. Constantly. Perpetually. Repeatedly.
As God's children, we are pre-approved.
As with any invitation, this is an open gesture, not a command. So, as we glance at the person in front of us, we are called to remember that God has seen and loved that person, and invited (not commanded) them to be part of our group: “You are loved. You belong here.”
Since God loves the person in front of us, we have that endorsement that they are admissible. They are no longer strangers, but invited guests. They are loved. They belong here.
The same is true with ourselves. We are loved. We belong here. We are invited guests. Not commanded, but invited.
Even if the other people around us did not see our name on the guest list… we know with certainty it is there.
Since we are on the guest list, we can also act on our Host’s behalf when we see those who do not yet realize they, too, belong. We can reassure them they are in the right place – by invitation, not command.
How do we teach people to see how God sees us, and sees those around us? By reminding them they belong here, in God’s eyes. By telling people explicitly, or by our unspoken gestures reassuring one another of our common status as God’s invited guests.
By sharing the good news: YOU are pre-approved!
Pray: Heavenly Father, teach ME to see Your invitation – to me, and to others.
Contemplate: When we treat others as approved members of our group, who is learning to see as God sees?
Relate: How do I behave, knowing I am pre-approved by God? How do I behave, knowing others are pre-approved by God?
We all know what heckling is. Whether it comes from those two old men in the balcony or the lady behind the counter who disapproves of your style, heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations – such as when someone boldly shouts, “YOU’RE NOT FUNNY!” to the stand-up comic who believes otherwise. Audiences embrace hecklers for the shock value of upstaging those on stage. Performers – not so much.
For the past two weeks, we have talked about childhood in the ideal. For that matter, we often speak of things in their ideal form. As we consider the approach we take into our Mission, it is necessary to keep our eyes and minds on the ideal. Real life may not be there, or even close; but we already live in real life. What good is a Mission unless it aims forward – maybe even, at times, beyond the visible horizon? We may not reach the ideal, but every step in that direction is a better way to live our everyday.
We are born vulnerable and sincere, and then life throws wrenches at us. Our bodies may not cooperate developmentally. Our minds may be ignored, even ridiculed, by social and economic barriers. And, the people around us may not care one bit if we are sincere, vulnerable, curious or joyful.
This sometimes starts at a very young age, but most times, our first encounter with hecklers comes in adolescence. The joy and wonder we have cultivated suddenly becomes our greatest liability. A snarky comment, a snide remark over something we love, or being pushed to the outskirts by those who do not share our interests – all of these are ways that adolescence usurps childhood. Friends can heckle friends, and media messages can heckle entire groups at a time. Comments that are closer to teasing but carry a sting are what we term “heckling,” which are not the same as the focused attacks we know as bullying. Heckling can lead to bullying, yes, but not always. Bullying leaves focused bruises, while heckling wears away at our capacity to trust and callusing our hearts into secrecy.
Whatever age it happens, heckling is the beginning of the end of our
Some of us are very resilient and bounce right along with hecklers, enjoying the give and take and shaking off the sting – maybe not even feeling it. Some of us have no way to tell the difference between heckling and criticism. Many of us find heckling confusing, and we react by putting on a tough face or by changing our outward behavior – denying our true selves, little by little.
Some of us stand up and proclaim our loves no matter what. We can all think of people who do this, typically the self-declared outsiders or the outspoken activists. Two key elements are needed to be those people: Enormous confidence and bold communication skills.
Some of us withdraw into our loves, reticently, pulling the veil over our true selves to avoid the hecklers and thrive as the people we want to be – alone, but true to our selves.
Heckling has the same spiritual effect on people across the board. It files down our confidence and ability to trust both ourselves and others. It then wears away our confidence and ability to trust in God. If others around us throw barbs and mockery our way when we have done nothing but be ourselves… it imprints the message in us that our efforts and our loves are ridiculous. For better or worse, the people around us are the index by which we see how we are received by others. The more people mock us, the more we accumulate a sense of worthlessness. After awhile, it becomes difficult to believe that God could ever find worth in our “ridiculous” ways and loves if ordinary, reasonable people cannot.
Once we collect enough of our hecklers’ frass, even over many years, we gradually become more bitter… angry… and defensive. Why? Because we know that our innocence and loves and ways are not worthless. We are the same person our entire lives, and the child’s-eye view of the confidence we once had is still there, if not buried under responsibility… or suffocating in hecklers’ frass.
How are we to handle hecklers? How can we promote living with child-like wonder and love without exposing hundreds of people to re-experiencing the pain and betrayal of a fresh round of heckling?
Go back to the beginning of this post: Heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations. Audience members justify heckling when they feel they are not getting their money’s worth of entertainment. What drives ordinary people to heckle one another in everyday life, where the price of admission is free and there are no scripts to limit expression or variety of opinion?
UNDERSTANDING is one of the pillars of our Mission. Thus, understanding hecklers is key to maintaining caritas without compromising our own integrity.
Hecklers feel cheated. How can we reassure them that there is enough joy for everyone, and that no two people will find exactly as much joy in the same things? How can we promise them that they are okay, even likeable, even if they fail to match our contentment?
By believing this ourselves, first.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta believed it could be shown with a purposeful smile. “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for a smile is the beginning of love. We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” We concur. Giving smiles as reassurance to those who heckle us has a purpose beyond the gesture and can help prevent snark or sarcasm from creeping behind our expression.
It will take practice.
For those of us tempted ourselves to heckle, good counsel is found in St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter three, Revised Standard Catholic Edition.
Whether we are heckling or being heckled, we must not neglect the last line of our excerpt from St. Paul: “Do not look on them [or, ourselves] as enemies, but warn them [or, be warned] as brethren.”
Brethren. Children. Children of God.
On the same human journey, together.
Pray: Dear Father, help me to see with Your eyes – the hecklers in my life, and the times I have been tempted to heckle. Help me to believe that, as Your children, we are all still learning… and still making missteps along with strides forward… and working toward the same goal together.
Contemplate: Ponder our main idea, that heckling is an confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations.
Relate: Listen carefully this week for heckling in our everyday interactions. Is it part of the landscape? How easily do we notice heckling?
Last week’s Missionary Thought generated a good deal of discussion, which is exactly what we hope for week by week. Thanks to everyone who shared feedback and asked questions. In a sense, our weekly posts are thoughts on human spirituality, “letting people with autism lead the discussion.” It is true that people with autism offer a fresh perspective on interpersonal connection, a distinct manner of looking at the philosophy of relationships, and perhaps draw different conclusions than we are accustomed to hearing.
Revisiting last week, we said that there are limitless ways we could say that God sees us, but the one we pick for our Mission’s focus is God perceiving us as who He imagines us to be, in the fullness of our potential. The closest we ordinarily come to seeing others in this way is when we encounter children.
To expound on that a little more before going on, we want to add back in what we discussed previously – that, in order to be known, we have to be willing to be known. In order to be seen as the children we once were, we must know that aspect of ourselves... and allow it to be known.
Here is what that means, in practical terms.
As children first encounter each element of the world around them, emotions are felt more profoundly than after those things are experienced routinely. The older we get, the more accustomed we are to things around us, and the less we notice them. Children, on the other hand, are easily mesmerized by things we take for granted. Colors… sounds… shapes… birds… vehicles… machines… things that evoke wonder, or joy, or delight… or fear, uncertainty, or trepidation, for that matter. The size, predictability and intensity of each new thing plays a large role in how they are perceived, as does the reactions observed of other people nearby. If an animal looks charming but is treated fearfully by adults in the vicinity, it is more likely to be feared by the child seeing it for the first time.
All of these emotions are intense, and betray our vulnerability – particularly because, at this age, we do not have enough experience to know what will happen, and we lack the words to explain how we feel.
Any one of us who has been in a new place without a guide has these feelings all over again.
Any one of us with sensory processing dysfunction has these feelings all the time.
Any one of us with speech impairment knows the vulnerability of emotion without words.
No matter what age: the deeper the emotion, the more difficult to assemble words to adequately explain ourselves to others.
And so, now, we look at that second sense of the question, “How does God see us?” – meaning, in what manner does God take us into His perception?
We, the Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, propose as our particular focus, that God sees us as someone who waits.
God, the Unseen Creator, is not one who intrudes, overwhelms or insinuates. He waits. He meets us where we are, and until we willingly expose our hearts to Him, He waits.
And, here is the biggest rub. God is God. People are not. People are everything from sensitive to insensitive, compassionate to indifferent, thoughtful to clueless. When we reveal our deepest emotions to other people, we get a huge range of reactions which shape the way we trust and relate to others. If we expose our hearts to people who ignore or hurt us in our vulnerability, we quickly learn to keep ourselves hidden. Inversely, when we reveal our deepest joys and are met with joy in return, we learn the joy of being known... and are more comfortable being vulnerable.
How can we know? How can we tell which people will treat our exposed hearts with care, and which will walk past – or, worse, mock our littleness?
But we CAN be 100% certain that God will meet us with perfect love, perfect care, perfect joy, perfect understanding. He imagined us. He knows us even better than we know ourselves.
Any time we have the human need to be known, we can turn to God, Who waits until we are ready to expose our hearts to Him, and then receives us with perfect knowledge.
All we need to do is make ourselves known to Him.
Pray: Dear God… in order that You may know me better, I offer to You today the things that affect me the most. Help me to be aware of Your presence and feel You with me, that I may learn to trust You more.
Contemplate: Take that prayer one step further and imagine God present at each deep movement of our emotions. Is it comforting, or unsettling, to think that God sees us in these moments?
Relate: How often do we include others in our deepest experiences? How does that reflect our readiness to be seen by God?
Moving forward to our next Missionary Objective, we are encouraged “to teach people to see how God sees us, and how God sees those around us.” Good linguistic nitpickers that we are, the question crossed our minds as to how to interpret this objective. Are we to consider the character in which we are perceived by God, or the process itself by which God views us? We find value in both. So, let’s examine both!
This week, we will tackle the first interpretation, the character in which God perceives us. It is a daunting task to presume we have any capability of deciding how God does anything, we know, and so we state at the outset that our teachings are not definitive or complete. They are one aspect of a study that for many is not complete even after an entire lifetime. Our charism, our angle, if you will, is consistent with our entire Mission. Our suggestions are based on evidence of relationship. We are confident enough to put them forward as the core of our teaching, and comfortable enough to say that, in our humility, we do not intend to limit God.
How do we appear to God?
We could dive into Scriptural evidence, of which there is plenty, referring to God’s imagining us (Psalm 139), calling us each by name (Isaiah 43), and loving us powerfully (Romans 8). Yet, we choose a verse which gives a sense of the relationship God intends with us, 1 John 3:1: “See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.”
Of all the manners in which God perceives us, Missionaries of Saint Thorlak emphasize that God sees us as children. This theme is reiterated several times in Scripture: John 1, Matthew 19, Galatians 3 and 4, Romans 8, and 2 Corinthians 6, to name a few.
What do we know about children as a cultural concept?
God sees us in many ways, but the particular way we emphasize is His seeing each one of us as His child. When God sees you and me today, He sees us as we were when He first imagined us into being. He sees our innocence, potential and hope. He sees our most vulnerable needs. He sees the wishes of our hearts. He sees what frustrates us, what delights us, what confuses us. He sees our talents and applauds them as any proud parent applauds our tiniest achievements. He sees where we have been misled, hurt, betrayed and conned, and aches for the hurt we feel. He accepts each crumpled daisy we pick for Him as though it were a majestic bouquet fit for royalty, and He is not exaggerating. He loves us and delights in us and longs for the best for us… each one of us.
Those of us who have had difficult and ugly childhoods struggle greatly with this concept, of God seeing us as children. It triggers our impulse to flee or fight. It triggers hostilities and shame. It makes it no less true. It means that the ugly reality of the world has damaged our ability to believe that God is any different than those who violated our trust.
It makes us ask: If You, God, see me as a child, why didn’t You step in and shield that child from being violated? The answer is not simple. God can’t limit people in what they choose to do. God is the Father Who Loves Perfectly but exists in a different plane and is not a human hero who beats back evil with a sword. God conquers evil with love, and that takes much longer to bear out than intent to harm.
It makes us wonder: Do those among us who have not fully experienced childhood have difficulty comprehending a God who sees us as children? There are many who do not connect well with children, or enjoy play, or tolerate depending on others, or enjoy others depending on us. Anxiety and precocious academic interest are two things which quickly short-circuit childhood. Some have coined autism as a condition of “premature adulthood,” and that description fits in many ways. Some of us have had to grow up in a hurry when disaster, tragedy or family hardship preoccupies what would have been our innocence and our formative time to learn to trust well. It does not change how God sees us, but it significantly alters our ability to comprehend why that is important.
We encourage readers to ponder these thoughts in anticipation of next week, when we continue the discussion from the other sense of the statement: By what manner, or process, does God view us?
Pray: Heavenly Father! You are a Father to me, and You love me as your own child! Help me understand this relationship more fully!
Contemplate: How easily do I imagine God seeing me as a child? Do I feel at ease with this idea, or uneasy?
Relate: How would our relationships be different if we recalled each person before us as the child they once were?
It almost seems too easy when we think about this week’s topic. If our objective is to make ourselves known, there are plenty of ways to get our contact information out there. “Word of mouth” now includes social networking and mobile communications. Our faces and names can be pulled up in a moment’s search, and uploaded photos tell our stories faster than we can. Speaking up, joining in and being seen are the ways to be included, remembered and invited places.
A good number of us are not fond of groups, public places or elaborate activities, but we need be no less known. Personal introductions and detailed profile pages take care of that, even if we hang back, decline invitations or choose carefully what we do when we do go out.
Another number of us are not skilled in social situations. We are aware of our discomfort, our anxiety, our dislike of having to recall and meet expectations to gain approval. We may have had supportive adults in our childhood who provided mentorship in social skills through formal training or subtle role modeling. Or, we may have stayed off to the sidelines, through our own choice or being left out of the group before us.
Some of us are completely powerless, having every good intention and potential skill but facing people who refuse to know us. There’s no social skill model for that, other than those with the section on “dealing with rejection.”
The Mission of Saint Thorlak promotes “being known” as a protective factor against spiritual starvation. But it would be absurd to suggest that interpersonal disconnection is solvable by practicing better social skills and seeking wider exposure. Spiritual starvation goes far deeper than that.
The key to being known is found when we clarify: by whom should we strive to be known?
The very beginning of our chain of connectedness, you will recall, is the Source of Life: God. We did not spring up one day out of nothing, but rather, were imagined by God and brought into fulfillment as the person we are. We were created in immediate and necessary relationship to our Creator. The One who knows us best is the mind from which our realization came forth.
We realize ourselves most perfectly at the moment we become our own person.
Then, we travel down the chain on our life’s journey.
How well we retain our original, intended identity is a function of how true we stay to the original image.
To toss out some analogies…
No matter how connected we are, whether we have hundreds of connections or only one or two, we cannot be known for who we are if we do not know the original.
Numerous reasons exist for losing sight of ourselves. One scenario particularly relevant to people with autism is a processing dysfunction related to theory of mind whereby these people cannot recall defining characteristics about themselves – or cannot imagine how others perceive them. It is as though they can never quite trust that they are visible or memorable to others between face to face encounters. For those familiar with face-blindness (protopagnosia), this would be the inverse – self-blindness (autoagnosia).
This may be a neurological reality for some, but for others, the mere habit of comparing self to others, adapting our behavior or image to arbitrary ideals, can have the same effect. And then, there is the gradual drift away from our originally intended, God-imagined way of living. Just as teenagers assert their individuality by going against their parents’ wishes, we, too, frequently carve our own embellishments into our identities regardless of how far they might range from God’s intentions. Some of us end up looking quite differently from when we started out.
What we can do – what we MUST do – is get an accurate snapshot, without comparison or embellishment, using the principles of the Mission of Saint Thorlak: understanding, recognizing and addressing of our unedited selves through the lenses of caritas (acknowledging our value) voluntary humility (accepting what we are, as we are) and mercy (recognizing not only our imperfections, but our needs). We must be willing to look at our own image with love… because God loved the idea of us enough to make it reality.
We know how to face resisting being known by others. Now, we must face those times when we resist being known by ourselves… and, by God.
Pray: God, I come before you exactly as I am. Please show me who you intend me to be.
Contemplate: Do I go about my day thinking of myself as the person God imagined me to be?
Relate: In an unfamiliar setting, do I first think, “I do not know anybody!” or, “Nobody here knows me!” Which perspective keeps us closer to our true selves?
To understand "autoagnosia" from a reader's firsthand experience, visit our Guest Thoughts.
Objective #4: To make people aware that resisting our need to be known, and our need to be loved, limits our experience of God.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak, in its public form, has existed for just over one year now. We showed up unannounced on the web and social media on March 1, 2017, and we have been broadcasting ideas about spirituality ever since.
Interestingly, we have received ZERO questions as to where we came from, how we got here or who contributes to our posts. We could easily have dropped out of the sky as no more than an experiment to see if anyone would notice.
Initially, yes, the website and its social media satellites were put up to see if anyone else saw the vision we did and felt it was worth following. But The Mission of Saint Thorlak is no experiment. It is exactly as it says, a mission – a quest to end spiritual starvation, commenced in the mid-1980s by a person with autism who has spent many hours searching for light in the shadow of disconnection, and now believes the formula can be found in the Way of Saint Thorlak.
That person is me: Aimee O’Connell.
I am Aimee, the one who writes the material posted here and on social media. I am a Lay Carmelite. I have autism. I also have a Master’s degree in school psychology and extensive experience working with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of skills and strengths within the context of the conditions bringing them into my professional path.
I am slow to speak and wage constant battle with social anxiety, but people do not realize it. I spent my childhood being different, my adolescence feeling defective, and my adulthood wondering how I can be so competent yet so completely unknown. All the while, the people around me persisted in saying there was nothing wrong. “You are smart… you are well liked… you are perfectly fine!”
And trapped, because I know the truth about me which nobody seems to recognize, acknowledge or believe. I can continue under the façade they give me, or protest, and lose their support.
I have always been more comfortable in the company of “broken” people – that is to say, people who recognize their needs and accept them. I refer just as squarely to people with disabilities as to people with full physical and emotional stamina who nonetheless recognize that life dishes out more challenges than consolations. I do not purposefully seek out people who struggle because I feel sorry for them… I gravitate there because I, too, struggle, and I draw strength from their example. I find spiritual nourishment being accepted by them. It is here I feel my most recognized – my most “known.”
For most of my life, I did not have words to describe what I meant. I came closer when I studied the work and writings of Jean Vanier and Father Henri Nouwen, who both do a wonderful job explaining the theology and psychology of brokenness and embracing exactly who we are, as we are. Yet the synthesis… the union of awareness and purpose, contemplation and action… did not take root in me until I encountered the quiet, unknown and little-understood Patron Saint of Iceland.
I was 42 years old when I first heard the name of Saint Thorlak. As a fifth generation American with no Scandinavian roots, I did not have much cause to consider Iceland or its saints until my homeschooled daughter took an interest in that country and I simply followed her curiosity.
The unassuming but holy life of Bishop Thorlak was recorded by saga-writers in the Icelandic Middle Ages for Icelandic posterity, not with any inkling that his story might have an impact in the 21st century. When I read this Saga, I did so with only historical intent. However, the more I read, the more I recognized someone with same challenges as me, who lived by a pattern that fulfilled the principles of Vanier and Nouwen. I felt great walls trembling within as I saw, in the life of St. Thorlak, that it is not fleeing from brokenness that creates barriers to being known and understood. It is failing to assert our place among the ranks of the broken because we mistakenly feel obligated to live up to the façades people want to see – denying our brokenness to allay THEIR unease.
St. Thorlak faced that, too, from the days of his precociously academic youth to his ascent in social and political rank as a cleric. Relatives and benefactors pushed him higher and higher, sending him abroad to study and urging him to pursue political alliances, Church appointments, even marriage, because he showed such “promise.” Even as he earned praise and opportunities to rise above the hard conditions demanded by life in Iceland, he was happiest among the broken, poor, infirm and ordinary right there in his homeland. He frequently invited outcasts to dine with him in his Bishop’s residence – not because he wanted to help them, but because he needed to be around people who would recognize and accept him as the bashful, struggling but affable man he really was.
The important people saw Thorlak as someone important… and so, they never really knew him.
In part, this is why I have kept my name out of the picture as long as I have. This Mission is the realization of my lifelong wish: to broadcast these ideas as far and as wide as there are people who find them useful, in a format that is easy to understand and universally accessible. I dread thinking that this effort might be taken as another achievement in a polished portfolio – another adornment on a façade imposed by those who do not truly know me. I will not let this Mission become another source of disconnection.
I am Aimee. I am just me. I struggle every single day, but rarely in sorrow. I struggle more as an aspiring athlete seeking to become stronger and endure longer with each trial. I am not competing for the top prize. I simply want to look back afterward and see that I did well by my teammates.
You – readers, followers, and every person I have not yet met: you are my teammates.
And, now that you know my name, let us get on with this Mission.
Pray: Dear God: I offer everything I am, exactly as I am, this moment, this day. Let it be YOU who greets me in the eyes and words of people around me, that I may more fully experience who YOU know me to be – and not limited by what other people want me to be.
Contemplate: Who do I know better: myself, as God imagines me… or the person others see when looking toward me? How closely do these two images match up?
Relate: When I encounter others, do I see them for who they are, or do I see them as I want them to be?
Objective #4: To make people aware that resisting these needs [that is, our human needs to be known and loved] limits our experience of God.
The Christian world looks this week upon the Passion of Christ, revisiting the story in deep meditation leading up to Easter. As the Passion readings are proclaimed, perhaps we will hear some of our themes, perhaps for the first time in this context. It is striking, for instance, to consider how quickly Jesus’ captors accused Him without taking many steps to fully understand Him. It also stands out that His words frightened and angered many, yet they did not permit him dignity even in being difficult to comprehend. Jesus’ accusers could easily have rejected His claims and been done with it, but they left civility and logic far behind as they mocked, ridiculed and physically assaulted Jesus – well before his criminal sentence of scourging and crucifixion was carried out.
This speaks loudly to the need to be loved. What about the need to be known?
The daily Scripture readings leading up to the Passion and Death of Jesus describe numerous encounters Jesus has with critics who become increasingly hostile to the point of threatening violence. Jesus is questioned directly and answers in ways that are tied to Scripture (and are therefore recognizable by scholars of the day) but are not at all straightforward by today’s standards. Furthermore, prior to His final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus repeatedly leaves the assemblies unnoticed, avoiding those who want to seize Him right then and there to have Him killed.
But then, we find ourselves at Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Feast of Passover. As He made His way to Jerusalem, Jesus was recognized and hailed as a hero. He did not hide from the crowd, nor did He make any attempt to diminish His identity. In fact, in Luke 19, Jesus seems to accept the loud cheering as inevitable, as something the crowd needed to do, remarking that if they were to be silenced, the very stones along the roadside would begin cheering – so great was that need to be filled. Jesus knew that He was a public figure and a public target. So, why did He give in and accept the attention being poured out upon Him, when it led exactly where He knew it would: to His public arrest, trial, torture and death?
Although we are skipping the richness of the theology at hand when we use this answer from our Objectives, let us say simply: Resisting being known limits our experience of God.
Better still, we might expound further that resisting being known limits our full potential to experience what God has imagined for us.
Many, many, many people resist being known. We will take a good amount of time to explore this in greater depth over this and the upcoming weeks because it is a condition few realize and to which even fewer give much thought. It is something every person experiences, to some degree, but is a more particular and ongoing struggle for people affected by autism. Social anxiety, sensory overload, misunderstanding behavior and difficulty coping can make anonymity seem like a necessary oasis… but, if we may starkly come back to our Mission, resisting being known limits our experience of God. If we are determined to end spiritual starvation, we must pick up and search for a better way.
Our spiritual role model, Saint Thorlak, lived this struggle. Historical literature candidly describes the holy priest Thorlak as quiet, reluctant to socialize, dreadful of crowds and festive gatherings. Most remarkable is the story of how Thorlak, who had gone from priest to monk to Abbot of the monastery in Þykkvibaer, felt a stirring in his heart to submit his name to the general assembly being called at the Althing whereby the successor to the current bishop would be chosen. He did not like traveling as a rule, and he especially did not like to go where he could be recognized. As it happened, Thorlak attended the assembly largely from the sidelines, watching the two other candidates speak and receive endorsements from important political figures. It was just as well to him, as he had no prominent entourage backing him. Just when he thought he had fulfilled his obedience to the interior call and could return, unnoticed, to his monastery life, someone mentioned his name in the public discussion and the attention turned to this surprising third candidate. A discontented buzz went through the crowd as people began questioning why Thorlak was being considered in the first place, if he had not even stepped forward to introduce himself by name. The wealthy landowner Þorkell Geirason, who had donated the land on which the monastery in Þykkvibaer had been established, spoke up at last: “Thorlak strives to do everything best rather than talk most.”
Shortly thereafter, the sitting bishop chose Thorlak as his successor. Lord Abbot Thorlak became Bishop Thorlak in 1174, and his leadership was so remarkably different than the other bishops of his time that he is still remembered, celebrated and emulated worldwide 844 years later.
Our point is, if Thorlak had remained anonymous, he may have fulfilled the call to present himself to the assembly, but his experience of God’s imagined plan for his life would have been greatly limited – perhaps even thwarted.
Did Thorlak like attention? Not one bit. Did he want his name bandied about? No. Was he happiest when he was unrecognized? Yes. In fact, there are many stories recorded of acts he did in secret because he did not seek praise or notoriety. It pained him to put his name on things – presumably because he saw that the glory should go to God, or should be shared equally with the people he loved serving. Bishop Thorlak benefited more from the company of the poor and the shunned than they benefited from his wealth, and he did not think it fair to be praised when he felt it was he who got the better end of the deal.
We conclude with a paradox that fits seamlessly into the always paradoxical scheme of Saint Thorlak’s ways: Sometimes, voluntary humility requires making your name known rather than hiding behind someone else’s.
Sometimes, voluntary humility requires us to ride in the open toward the plan God has in mind for us.
Hosanna! Lead us, Lord, to deliverance!
Pray: Did you know that “Hosanna,” though a form of praise, means “lead us to deliverance” when literally translated? We repeat, then, this week’s prayer: Hosanna!
Contemplate: Consider how anonymity thwarts God’s fundamental design with these two Scripture verses: Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you each by name, and you are Mine;” and Romans 9:28, “God does not enumerate us, but calls each by name.”
Relate: How often do you call people by name? How often do you identify by your own name? How often do we hide behind a different name (or social media handle, or avatar, or job title…) to conceal our vulnerability?
To make people aware that resisting our needs limits our experience of God
Our next objective finds us at a very familiar place. We frequently visit the subject of need as a supply pipeline, a gateway to mercy and a means of connection. Each of these elements, we have said, is an avenue to experience God; but have we truly paused to consider what we mean by “experiencing God?”
This gets tricky very quickly. Each individual person experiences God as an individual, as much as all individuals experience all things individually. The same vanilla ice cream will be experienced differently by as many people who sample it. There will surely be people who have similar, or nearly identical experiences – because, after all, we are all made up of the same “stuff” that makes people what we are – but each experience will ultimately be uniquely and infinitely definable, down to the tiniest nuance, unto each separate individual.
So it goes with God. What really complicates things is that God is invisible; discernible, but intangible; singular in concept, but infinite in existence. Ice cream, by comparison, is measurable and finite. Infinite variables experienced infinitely by individuals is just too infinite to try and condense into a pamphlet called “What to Expect When Experiencing God.” To further complicate things, we are all at different places in our spiritual lives, some at great heights, some rejecting spirituality altogether, and most of us scattered somewhere in between. How can a group of Missionaries claim anything about helping or hindering our experience God?
Let this be very clear: We are not selling any absolutes, any guarantees or any formulas. We are following a string of “ifs” which seems (to us) to logically hang together.
IF we all have human needs to be recognized and understood;
IF God has that same need, for us to recognize and understand Him;
IF “need” is a channel through which human connection flows;
IF God Himself is our Origin and Source, found at the very first link in our chain of connectedness;
We would expect that, the more we actively practice embracing our needs, the more likely we are to experience connection with others;
The more likely we are to experience connection to God through our connections with others.
This is a vital and defining element of our Missionary philosophy. We are out to help people connect with God, but rather than preaching a way to do that directly, one on one, we are suggesting a different route: connecting with God, eventually, by first connecting well with others.
Why take an indirect approach, when our core philosophy demands sincerity? Let us assure you, we ARE being quite sincere. We sincerely think that, in many cases, the indirect approach is more effective than flying straight toward something we are not prepared to handle.
Consider these points:
And so, here we are. We offer this as an alternative route, as a proposal to see if the Way of Saint Thorlak is a way that takes us to God slowly, gently, with plenty of support and practice and small steps along the way. Those of us familiar with autism spectrum disorders know what it looks and feels like to be in a state of sensory overload and anxiety hijack. These are very real experiences, and certainly not exclusive to those affected by autism. Imagine, then, being curious about God but feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, disempowered, excluded, overlooked or too different to fit in. Imagine saying things like, “I’d like to know God better, but God would not like me. I do things, I think things, I like things that are way out there.” Maybe so. Maybe, too, we have heard that such “things” are explicitly opposed to God or the church we heard them discussed in.
It would not be the first time that has ever happened.
Nor does it mean that our comforts and preferences should be automatically approved by God “if” God loves us.
It does mean that, no matter what we think, or like, or want to do, God thirsts to be known and understood.
If we presumed to put words in God’s mouth, they might be, “Before you write Me off, please, see first where I am coming from. For my part, I will never write you off. I may not approve one bit of your desires, but that is because I can see further and wider than any big picture you can see. Can you at least learn about My intended design before making up your mind?”
Furthermore, the standards by which we define civil behavior apply no less to the way we approach our concept of God. “Our needs” include the need to not be mocked, ridiculed, belittled or disabled by the words or actions of others. It is just as wrong to make those gestures toward God. In this way, resisting our need – our need to be human toward one another – does indeed limit our potential experience of God.
This week’s Missionary Thought is likely to stir up questions and strong feelings. We conclude here with two very important closing items:
We repeat once more that our purpose is to foster understanding and connection. If our Catholic loyalty is a stumbling block for some, we respect that. We also hope, sincerely, that readers will extend to us the same purpose, to foster understanding and connection… for, we believe, it is through connecting with one another that we will all mutually begin to experience God in new and enlightening ways.
Pray: God, Father: Help me to see You in the connections I have, and the connections I form.
Contemplate: Is it the case that I need God, or that God needs me, in order to experience Him? Is there a distinction?
Relate: How does connecting with people around me help me to better approach God?