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?
Colossians 1:15 "Jesus is the image of the invisible God…"
As we dwell some more on our Objective #3, which is to make people aware that our innate need to connect with others springs from God's thirst to be known and loved, we take this week to think a little more about God.
The quest for knowledge has been part of the human condition since it could first be recorded. There is knowledge we gain from the things before us, which our senses observe, and then the knowledge of things unseen, which we often must infer based on contrast. Forces, waves, powers, concepts – few of these are observable unless we observe the space around them. Some things can only be perceived in the surrounding of something else… or in the absence of something else. “Loneliness,” for example, is at once an experience, a concept, a physical sensation and a desire – perceived only when there is an absence or loss.
All of us, all neurotypes, put our trust more readily in things seen than unseen. It is common sense. If we see something, it is probably there. If more than one of us sees something, it is more probably there. If throngs of people see something, comment on something, and interact with that something, we can fairly safely conclude: it is really there.
So, what, then, of people who go unnoticed… unseen… unheard… for whatever the reason may be?
What must we conclude about people who are passed by, overlooked, deliberately ignored, aggressively excluded, too anxious to speak up, too overwhelmed to look up, left behind because going would be too taxing… ?
It is logically absurd to say that such people are invisible in the truest sense of the word. But, for those who relate to these scenarios, there is hardly a better term to describe the experience. We may be tangibly present, but we may as well be invisible.
Here is where debate usually breaks out. Who is responsible for invisible individuals? Is it my job to learn to speak up, or your job to stop and notice me? What’s wrong with being invisible if I like it that way?
It does require two elements to achieve invisibility: The positive, and the negative; the principle object, and the surroundings. A third element, circumstance, completes the picture, and a fourth, desire, sets it in motion.
But enough philosophy. Let’s talk God.
“God” is one of those concepts we infer based on emotional or spiritual signs and experiences. For the most part, God is invisible… as invisible as any one of us feels when, for whatever reason, we are unnoticed.
Saint Paul writes that Jesus, the tangible human being, is the “image of the invisible God.” That held true for the thirty-three years Jesus was materially alive on earth… but in the centuries that have passed since Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, God has once more taken the invisible station beside our tangible senses.
Is it any surprise, then, that our third objective suggests that God thirsts to be noticed?
If we may allow such a comparison, God Himself – invisible source of life – waits to be noticed in the same ways we do.
The quiet among us, the marginalized, the misunderstood, the anxious – are still there, even if we only have traces of them to remind us. Even when we only can see evidence of them instead of speaking with these people directly. Even when we only keep a faint recollection of them; or when we wonder if, in their silence, they even care at all.
The face of God is invisible, yet is present even ordinarily among us… in other people individually (1 Corinthians 3:16), in our connections with one another (Matthew 18:20) and in Holy Communion (John 6:32–71).
Objective #3 asks that we consider how our need to be recognized is echoed in God’s need to be recognized. Or - perhaps - God's need to be recognized is echoed in ours. Perhaps our need can serve a purpose of reminding us to look for God in the negative space. With great delight, may we realize that God's need and ours are fulfilled simultaneously as we extend ourselves in willing connection. By seeking to connect with others, we can’t help but encounter the invisible God. All we need, then, is to remember that He is an integral part of every connection.
Pray: God, Father – show me where You are, before me, today!
Contemplate: Let us consider how God, the All-Powerful, All-Seeing Source of Life, when unnoticed… places Himself in exactly the same position, with the same longing, as any one of us when we are unnoticed.
Relate: Focus this week on our own willingness to seek connection – recalling that each connection is an opportunity to acknowledge the invisible God.
We are still on Objective #3 of our Missionary directives, to make people aware that our common human need to be known and loved springs from God’s thirst for us to know and love Him. We have gone through the important theological underpinnings and are now taking one more week to ponder what this means in more practical terms.
Our needs spring from God’s thirst to be known and loved.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak speaks of hunger, more than thirst, but the two are intertwined, as anyone knows. We might argue that “thirst” speaks to something more constant throughout our day, while “hunger” is something whose satisfaction lasts longer between each revisiting. THIRST is a frequent, eager desire. It can be both craving and physiological relief, comforting habit and momentary refreshment. Hydration is universally marketed, and beverages make up giant portions of our social structure, from water coolers to coffee shops, from public taverns to sporting events. Flavored, fizzy, hot or cold, thirst is something we rarely do alone or without anticipated delight.
In our Missionary conceptualization, people hunger; God thirsts.
The two most familiar instances we hear of God’s thirst is Jesus’ quote from the Cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28) and the same phrase repeated by Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the telling of how she came to form the order of the Missionaries of Charity. We lean more toward the second instance, reiterating Mother Teresa’s devotion as a means of recognizing God’s need as one that is as frequent and eager.
“Drinking” itself is a concept seen throughout Sacred Scripture. We see it used as an analogy for fully entering into and partaking of an experience in Matthew 20:22 and Luke 22:42.
“God’s thirst,” then, is His eager desire to fully partake in the experience of us.
Conceptually speaking, how does that relate to our day to day doings? If God created us, how can He NOT experience us?
Just as people can co-exist and observe one another without ever interacting, so too it can be that we can exist here, created by God, but never really engage with Him.
How does one engage with God?
By using the faculties we ordinarily use, for everything else that we ordinarily do.
This is a challenging concept for a lot of people, especially those whose faculties do not ordinarily favor interaction and engagement, and also for those who rely on tangible, concrete experiences because conceptualizing abstract information is particularly difficult. Many of us, in fact, fall into that second group, and it is for this reason we take comfort in remembering that God’s essence dwells in each of His creatures – and so, interacting with others is, in part, an interaction with God, through the indirect route of His intrinsic nature. Put another way, the more we interact with others, the more we accumulate our experience of God’s essence.
Interaction with others need only be on the smallest scale:
This list could go on indefinitely. But, how can these gestures translate into acknowledging God? As simply as:
Are these mind-games, or tricks, or spiritual exercises? None of the above. These are genuine ways to engage with the invisible God, who may be invisible but is no less real. It is an awakening of the forgotten art of practicing the Presence of God, such as that made popular by the French Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
People hunger; God thirsts. It is easier to fetch someone a cup of water than to make them a full meal. In His wisdom and goodness, God thirsts for our company: He eagerly wishes for our acknowledgment, a little at a time, in manageably small increments. He does not await a twelve course meal. He asks only for a cup of ourselves, every now and again, which He drinks in full partaking and experience of our person every time we do.
Pray: This week, let us make our prayer by greeting the invisible God in our ordinary doings.
Contemplate: Refresh or familiarize ourselves with the thoughts of Brother Lawrence on the Presence of God. These writings are available here.
Relate: This week, observe how easily (or with what difficulty) we may incorporate God into our ordinary interactions.
Who, here, is familiar with Divine Mercy? The second half of the twentieth century found a great deal of focus in the Roman Catholic Church on the merciful aspects of God, culminating in the work of St. Faustina Kowalska to explain and promote the message and image of Divine Mercy (“Jesus, I Trust in You”). The image itself shows Jesus beckoning with rays of red and white, symbolizing blood and water, promising not to turn anyone away who merely trusts that He means what He says… in Scripture, from the cross, and through His vicars in the Church. In 2015, Pope Francis declared an “Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy” whereby the theme of God’s mercy was highlighted as a source of joy and hope throughout the world. It is difficult to approach any Christian church, from the Catholic Church on through the post-Reformation denominations, and not hear about mercy.
What is mercy? It is knowingly stepping out of a position of power to assist someone’s need, without expecting reward, compensation or applause.
What is God’s Mercy? God’s knowingly stepping out of His position of power to assist us in our needs.
People who set their positions aside to help others are commendable. What is the appropriate response if they are not seeking compensation, especially when our needs prevent us from returning the favor? Certainly, a gesture of gratitude – but more than an impersonal “thank you.” A personal response, a candid sharing of ourselves, would be meaningful for both parties. In this way, mercy necessarily connects people.
The same holds true with God. In showing mercy, God is aware of our limitations and the impossibility – the absurdity – of producing anything to reward an Almighty Creator. How could we, inhabitants of His earth, give Him anything He has not imagined into being, which we have not already taken from His treasury?
We can give our personal response, a sharing of ourselves. We possess and govern our own will. Yielding a share of that to God is indeed a true gift which He does not already possess.
Numerous teachings on Divine Mercy have been proclaimed by saints and theologians of recent time to counter the despair, fear and littleness we experience with the expanding awareness of evil in our age. Thousands hear and turn toward God in the comfort of this loving embrace. Yet, thousands more do not, who embrace the post-Christian messages of humanism, relativism and individualism with dysphoria and distrust. Thousands fortify themselves in self-esteem, self-justification and self-preservation. Such mindsets reject mercy because they do not perceive any use – any need – for it.
Recall this from our thought earlier this month: Brokenness permits mercy to penetrate the shell of self-reliance. It is through our brokenness that mercy reaches us.
Brokenness is the most fundamental common denominator of humanity. We are all broken. Brokenness will win the battle of spiritual deprivation because need is not a weapon… it is our supply pipeline… our very lifeline. Without need, life has no purpose. Even the staunchest individualist can be persuaded to see – and experience – the validity of this argument.
Need opens doors.
If we have no place for need, we cannot understand mercy; because, without need, mercy is meaningless.
Jesus Himself is God’s finest and most concrete demonstration of His need to connect – He is Need Incarnate. Thus, embracing need is but one shade of awareness away from embracing God.
Consider this: Missionaries of St. Thorlak regularly appeal for mercy by leading with our need, by practicing voluntary humility. By offering our need willingly to others, we very literally draw mercy out of others – giving them an opportunity to experience the connection that mercy permits, even on the smallest scale.
Now, consider this: God Himself demonstrates voluntary humility par excellence. He is all in all; yet, He chooses to need: He chooses to need our recognition, our understanding, and our willingness to trust that He does not reject us in our weakness. He needed this so badly that He took the flesh and constitution of a human to get that much closer and speak His longing that much more clearly.
God does not require an elaborate response. In fact, the words are provided for us in the image of Divine Mercy: “Jesus, I trust in You.”
We might say that Missionaries of St. Thorlak embrace that in the particular way of our charism: in recognizing that Jesus dwells in the hearts of those around us, and entrusting our needs to them, we echo: “Jesus [-in-others], we trust in You.”
Pray: Jesus, I Trust in You!
Contemplate: Does the degree to which we trust others reflect the degree to which we trust God?
Relate: How do we trust others? Do we trust as though we are trusting God-in-them?
To see an earlier Missionary Thought on “need,” visit https://mission-of-saint-thorlak.weebly.com/mission-activities/missionary-thought-of-the-week-for-april-10-2017-dont-fear-the-need
So far, our Missionary Objectives have looked at human need and how active awareness contributes more to our cause than looking for problems to fix. We have asserted that humans need to be recognized and appreciated in order to thrive spiritually.
We now move on to Objective #3, which is: To make people aware that these needs spring from God's thirst to be known and loved.
Our needs to be noticed and understood… originate with God?
Not that God designed us that way deliberately… but that these are an offshoot of God’s same needs?
Yes. In fact, that is exactly what we are saying.
We know this is going to be a tricky thought for anyone, believers and non-believers and those somewhere in between. Even if you are not inclined to believe such things, we hope you will keep reading if only to see where we are coming from. We feel that the thought process behind our belief is sufficient to retain even those who firmly oppose any notion of deity. If you take the time to see how we form our concepts, you might be able to discern why, and that might be enough to hold your interest. We hope you stay because you are an important contributor to our Mission, and even if you can’t reconcile this God stuff with your own thought processes, we ask that you stick with us – unless you genuinely conclude that pondering “God” is harmful to the cause of fostering human connection, in which case it doesn’t make much sense for you to stay.
Who is this God-with-a-capital-G?
God, in the Jewish and Christian traditions from which this Mission derives, is simultaneously a Father and Creator, the Source of all that exists and One Who loves all of Creation.
This “God” certainly contrasts with other deities who very often (but not exclusively, we note) exhibit attributes we might describe as: demanding, vengeful, greedy, aggressive, tyrannical, or indifferent. If we could only use one term for such traits, we would choose self-focused: acting from desire to gain for the pleasure of one’s self. Certainly, this is neither an exhaustive list nor a challenge to other traditions. It is here for the purpose of contrast.
Likewise, the Judeo-Christian “God” is not simply a force, a master, a creator, or an adversary to evil. As “self-focused” does not fit, unidimensional energy is just as incomplete in attempting to describe this “God” of whom we speak. Furthermore, none of these descriptors reflect the fact that “God” is alone at the top of the hierarchical order. There are no co-gods or goddesses who are equal agents of good or evil in any of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
So what, then, defines this “God”? What sets God apart from other deities?
We could give numerous theological responses and provide plentiful scholarly references. They do exist, and we encourage readers to delve as deeply into such research as they have the desire.
We have our own way of saying it.
We believe the answer is, “Divine Need.”
The Judeo-Christian God to whom we refer in the Mission of Saint Thorlak is a God with a Divine Need: The God who comes time after time to find our ancestors, to find us, to reach out to us, to try multiple ways to demonstrate Himself to us in ways we can understand. To prove that His interest is quiet, meek, and longing for our companionship.
Not longing for just any companionship – longing for our companionship.
Throughout the themes of the Mission of Saint Thorlak, the voluntary humility and wonder and caritas and mentorship, the gentle approach of sincerity, the willingness to need… we are, in fact, imitating the very ways that God Himself is said to have acted since the very beginning of Sacred Scripture.
Genesis 3:9: “Where are you?”
Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Psalm 23:4: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me, your rod and staff comfort me.”
1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”
John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
That last one is a hinge on which Christianity rests – the belief that God loved the people He created so much that He became one of us in order to prove His benevolence.
Once more, we emphasize, our thought here is not a substitution for a theological discourse, nor is it meant to be a catechism of the Christian faith. Rather, we ask readers to put on the mind of a child, just for a moment, and imagine at the heart of Christianity a God who stands quietly, not demanding, not showing off, and in full wisdom of what He is asking... reaching out to us, pleading:
“Can you be My friend?”
More on this, and its implications, next week.
Pray: God… open my heart and mind to this notion that You long to be known and loved.
Contemplate: This week’s thought bypasses a lot of theology and catechism, but does not intend to discard any of that. Can it really be this simple, that the Judeo-Christian God has a need for our recognition and love? Ponder this response: God does not “need” anything from us in order to exist; is it possible, though, that He created us in the hope that we would recognize and love Him?
Relate: How are any of our relationships different than the way we relate to God? People of all beliefs are encouraged to consider this question. The manner in which people relate to one another generally echoes the manner in which they relate in their spiritual experiences.