The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking:
Basic Catholic Prayers
The Baltimore Catechism begins not with instruction but with the most frequently heard prayers in the Catholic faith. Why start here? What motivated the Catholic scholars to start with prayers before we even get into the premise of our faith? Wouldn't it make more sense to start by explaining God and what we know about Him before we dive straight into how to invoke Him and converse with Him?
When the Baltimore Catechism was first published in 1891, then again in 1921, the concept of a user's manual did not exist yet in the common American vernacular. Nowadays, manuals are passé. Most consumer products are designed to be user-friendly, plug-and-play, unbox and go. What we see more and more is a "Quick Start Guide" or reference card as an alternative to a more lengthy instruction book.
The choice to begin with prayer instead of doctrine is very much like a Quick Start Guide to the Catholic Faith. One could see simply the words to be memorized in order to fit in and participate right off the bat, or one could see what these words represent and glean the fundamental summary of our faith right here. In a sense, this echoes the experience of social skills instruction: we are taught basic stock phrases to use in certain situations and can skate by nicely if we learn to use each at the proper time, or we can more deeply consider what each means and why each evokes the response it does from those around us.
And so, the Baltimore Catechism introduces the prayers most frequently heard in the Catholic faith which also act to summarize the scope of our beliefs. We have the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles' Creed, Confiteor, and the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love as our Quick Start Guide. No time to unpack the finer elements comprising our faith? Then, become familiar with these prayers and recite them with sincerity to experience what being Catholic is all about.
It is greatly tempting to take any of these prayers and expound on their meaning; likewise, to write at great lengths about prayer itself, since that alone is a concept which confounds and has confounded people of all neurotypes from the beginning of time. Some people find prayer natural, and others find it impossible. Some pray primarily with words; others with actions; others with song; others by experience. It is said there is no wrong way to pray. Within the Mission of Saint Thorlak, we simplify prayer to mean: deliberate relationship with God. For those of us on the spectrum, this makes a bold clarification, as everything with us seems to come down to "relationship" and "relationship deficit."
"How do I know I am praying?" If we are engaging, or sincerely intending to engage, our thoughts and emotions with God, we are praying.
"How do I know I am praying well?" If our attention is on God, or wanting to know God, or wanting to share ourselves with God, we are praying well.
"How do I know I am praying right?" If we are showing honesty, sincerity, commitment of our attention and desire to increase the trust we feel that God is real, we are praying right.
In contrast, the following factors have nothing whatsoever to do with gauging the quality of our prayer:
Here is where many autistics run into difficulty: Prayer is meant to be a mutual conversation between ourselves and God. Sounds easy… if conversation is something that comes easy. The advantage of having “prayers” (plural noun) is that they can assist our “prayer” (intentional action) in the same way reading scripted dialogue can help familiarize us with conversational skills, gradually leading us to where we can become more comfortable and more spontaneous. Furthermore, scripted prayers make excellent study guides so that we can know more about God before we jump into spontaneous conversation.
The downside is that the literal words might become distracting. For example:
Our Father – calls to mind our actual father and all the attributes we associate with him. It can be hard to think of God in any other terms than the image we associate with “father.”
Who Art in Heaven – means we can’t see him, and can feel like God lives in an invisible castle somewhere.
Hallowed Be Thy Name – what does that mean? (That the name of God itself stirs respect).
Thy Kingdom Come – is confusing to anyone not familiar with monarchy. Again, it calls to mind imaginary castles from storybooks.
In their fuller context, these words mean:
God, who loves us as His own children, who exists in a realm beyond what we can see: may you be loved every time we say your name! May your ways of love and mercy be known right here, right now!
Still finding it confusing? Don’t despair. The fuller manual is still ahead. Not everyone can jump in with just the Quick Start Guide, especially if it’s something completely unfamiliar. By the time we’re done, it might make more sense. Faith in God is something that will always leave people with more questions than answers, and that is, in many ways, reassuring. After all, a quest we never fully complete can never become stale or stagnant.
It's December! Don't forget: The SAINT THORLAK NOVENA is recited from December 14-22, with THORLAKSMESSA celebrated the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23.
We begin now an ambitious journey to see if it is possible to explain the Catholic faith in terms that resonate for people who tend to process life autistically. "Life"? Yes. This is, for all our purposes, a guidebook on the meaning of life, as revealed to the first Christians, and as conveyed by theological scholars throughout the centuries. It is simultaneously old and new. It is not any revision or update of the teachings of the Catholic Church, but more of a reflection and discussion of how these precepts are revealed in our daily doings and applicable our eternal existence. Not too ambitious there.
A few notes at the outset. First, this project uses the Baltimore Catechism as its foundation. The Baltimore Catechism is in the public domain and will not be explicitly copied, but rather, referred to, repeatedly, as the basis for discussion. Second, this is not meant to replace any of the existing Catechisms recognized and endorsed by the Catholic Bishops. It is intended exactly as its working title says: a set of notes (an annotation) on the existing Catechism, as one with autism might think about and understand each concept presented in the original. Third, the tag "for autistic thinking" seems the best way to communicate that this is suitable for a wider audience than simply those with an autism diagnosis. In presenting commentary in an autistically-minded fashion, it is readable by, and of interest to, potentially anyone.
What is a "catechism," anyway? It is a comprehensive collection of views and principles, often presented in question-and-answer format, as we did here. A catechism is rather like a wiki or FAQ that has been compiled, tested, revised, refined and certified by scholars as doctrinally accurate. Catechisms exist both as teaching tools and reference books.
The Baltimore Catechism is a reference originally published in 1885 and is based on the Small Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine. Its intention was to be a textbook on Catholic doctrine for North American schoolchildren. Our choice to start here rests mainly on its availability in the public domain, but also accounts for its integrity as a solid doctrinal resource and its simplicity in format. This was once the gold standard for religious instruction in schools, and generally speaking, we want something that is presented at a level anyone can understand. We do not expect most readers to have, or pursue, degrees in theology, and indeed, no-one should have to go to that extent to gain a working understanding of the Catholic faith.
One more question: What about our readers who are not Catholic? We have often said that our readers do not need to be Catholic in order to benefit from this Mission. We still, boldly, believe that to be true. This will not read like a history course, nor will it read like religious indoctrination. The impression we aim for is "This is what the Catholic worldview looks like." If the word "Catholic" is a sticking point, we propose thinking of it as a travelogue to someplace you have never been, or have visited without knowing a great deal about the history or culture of the place. Underline this enough times that it remains front and center: We are a Mission to end spiritual starvation. Nowhere does it say in our Mission Statement or Objectives that we are out to convince people to become Catholic. We are not about numbers. We are not sponsored by anyone, nor are we yet incorporated. We make no profit. We sell no products. We have no hidden agenda or ulterior motives. What you read is what we do. We unabashedly do all this in a Catholic mindset, finding great inspiration in the Word of God and the examples of the saints... and, if our readers find themselves nodding in agreement, then, that counts as one more thing we have in common within our humanity.
We look forward to getting started next week!
Pray: God, we ask your favor and blessing on this project, that our words may be windows of understanding between our hearts and Your ways, that we may draw closer in love and trust by experiencing You more fully. In Jesus’ Holy Name, Amen.
Contemplate: “As we relate to others, so we relate to God” has been our recent focus here. Does the inverse apply? Is it the case that, in the same manner we relate to God, we generally relate to others? We can only know this, and test this, if we know God. May this Annotated Catechism be a step toward better knowing God.
Relate: How often we think that our relationships might be easier if we, or someone we know, came with a manual! As often as we have had that wish, so too might God wish we could understand Him! May our study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church become like a manual for better knowing and recognizing God.
Over the past few weeks we have talked about different needs brought to our attention by real people across our readership. From the outset, this Mission has existed to bring the voice of Saint Thorlak out from under the snows of time to speak to our century with his distinctly autistic look at faith and pastoral administration. The “faith” end has been covered fairly thoroughly in our discussions of the Way of Saint Thorlak, which has freed us up these past few posts to talk more about administrative aspects of addressing the needs of people seeking spiritual nourishment.
There is a very popular meme which reads “Autism Does Not End At Eighteen.” Likewise, the pastoral needs of autism do not come to a close when a person successfully receives the bulk of their sacraments, be that at Confirmation or Matrimony. In fact, the needs continue week by week as autistic individuals seek to receive the Eucharist and participate in parish life. In this sense, people affected by autism are exactly no different than any other person, typical or otherwise. Every human person seeks to understand God using the faculties they have. Engineers find God in a more formulaic, orderly fashion than artists who find Him in the nonverbal emotional palette. Extroverts find God more readily at coffee hour, and introverts find Him in the silence of the chapel. Autistics… well, I can’t speak for all of us, that’s for sure. I can only speak for myself, and then I can generalize some of my own observations and curate some of the comments I have gleaned from conversations over the years. But absolutes? No such thing. Each person with autism is as uniquely varied as the next.
I boil it down to this: As we relate to others, so we relate to God. By “we,” I mean human beings. Including those with autism.
As we learn how to relate to others… as we learn how others react to us… as we experience others… so we experience God.
I think this about summarizes every pastoral need, and every effective pastoral approach to our needs.
As others are merciful to us (that is, as they are able to welcome us EVEN WHEN we drive them to the limits of their comfort), so we learn how God shows us mercy.
As others take an interest in our thoughts, our lives, our loves, our needs: so we learn how God takes an interest in us.
The patterns we observe in others are those we apply to the universe, and to God.
Thus: As others demand conformity and compliance and perfection, so we assume that God does, too.
As others avoid us, forget to include us, or assume that we don’t want to be invited even if we are going to say “no”… so we assume that God feels that way about us, too.
As we correctly or incorrectly conclude acceptance or rejection from those around us, so too, we conclude God follows suit.
Pastorally, that means: Parish staff members model God to us.
If a parish staff member takes the time to understand our needs, we see how God understands our needs.
If accommodations or modifications are not possible because of space limitations, lack of resources, disruption to the liturgy or invalidation of sacramental norms… and a parish staff member explains that to us in a way that is clear and honest… we see how God is not a mythical genie who grants wishes, but rather, a wise Father whose solutions to our needs often require trust on our part that He desires what is best, even beyond what we thought that was.
What do autistic people need, pastorally speaking? Very simply:
This week, I uploaded three of my talks relating to this topic. They can be found here. In these talks, I specify the obstacles that are most likely to exist between autism and fully experiencing our faith. Next, I propose that “social skills” are the foundation for the next level in our developmental hierarchy: spiritual skills. Lest it seem like a daunting task to have to create such a program, never mind train people and implement it, I dare say it already exists in our pastors and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Everything we need is already there, if someone will take the time and walk us through with caritas, voluntary humility, wonder and demonstration by example. St. Thorlak pioneered this method eight hundred years ago. His administrative genius has been recognized in the Canon of Catholic Saints; shall we now avail ourselves of his formula?
I have begun speaking. I do not intend to stop any time soon. How very autistic of me.
If you would like to hear more, please, contact me with the needs you have. It is my Mission.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us the needs we have, and lead us to ways to address them, together.
Contemplate: Is there a distinct “autistic spirituality” in the same way we hear there are autistic approaches to other fields, such as industry, service, design and implementation?
Relate: As others experience us, they experience God. Be aware of this as we go about our week.
We begin this week with some housekeeping items.
First: The Mission of Saint Thorlak now has a phone line receiving both voice and text messages at +1 (585) 568-7147.
With this comes some important notes:
1) This line RECEIVES MESSAGES ONLY. We maintain strict confidentiality among those who contact us, and at this time, our system does not allow for adequate privacy for us to make voice calls. We are able to reply by SMS text to mobile phones, or to respond to messages using email, but we are not able to respond by voice.
2) This line is for FEEDBACK AND QUESTIONS. We will check messages weekly and respond as we are able, and as we feel is appropriate. We may not necessarily respond to every message. If we do respond, it will be either by email or SMS text.
3) This line is NOT FOR EMERGENCIES OR CRISIS SITUATIONS. We are not able to monitor this line with enough regularity to assist with immediate needs.
As with all new features, there are bound to be glitches here and there, so we thank you for your patience as we establish this phone line as part of our regular offerings. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience created by our policies, but privacy is of great importance to us, and in our current physical location, we cannot yet guarantee the degree of privacy our standards require.
Fourth: For those who have asked if anyone makes icons of Saint Thorlak, the answer is – Uncut Mountain Supply! The link may take a day or two to become active, so check back if it is not yet available… but we have it on trusted word that Thorlak is at last part of their icon catalog.
Good things are coming, and for this we thank all of our fellow travelers, and thank God for the grace to travel this journey together.
We leave you with a reflection written in recognition of the recent visit of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux and her recently canonized parents, Louis and Zelie, to Iceland in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary Jubilee of the Diocese of Reykjavik. We keep the Diocese and all of Iceland in our daily prayers!
For plain text of this reflection click here.
A request has recently come to the Mission of Saint Thorlak for a prayer suitable for children. What a beautiful thought, and yes, certainly, something that is much needed.
We are very pleased to introduce A Child’s Prayer to Saint Thorlak, which is written in simple verse and evocative of the special relationship we Catholics feel with the holy departed. Despite the title of the prayer, Catholics do not pray TO the saints in the sense that we hold them up as idols or lowercase-gods. We do not believe saints have any more power than we do because the saints are people, just like we are. Nobody goes to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6). However, as we ask our tangible friends to pray for us, we too ask the departed souls – whom we believe live on intangibly after bodily death – to pray for us. Saints are those whom the Church has carefully scrutinized and determined to be examples of virtue worth looking up to, and whom we believe to be in the company of God in eternity.
“A Child’s Prayer to Saint Thorlak” reads like a conversation with an invisible friend, and how very appropriate for those of us on the autism spectrum. Many autistic children enjoy friendships in their imaginations to much great benefit. An imaginary friendship is non-threatening and proceeds at the pace of the child’s comfort. It can be just as helpful in developing social skills as tangible friendships, so long as the child eventually seeks to apply these skills toward actual connections. And, to be perfectly frank, it’s not only children who imagine friendships. Autistic teens and adults do this too, though likely in secret because of the fear of the shaming we would receive if anyone found out we still do this at our age. In its purest form, this sort of fancy is little different than the “imagery” used by athletes to help improve performance between games, or the “envisioning exercises” cultivated by entrepreneurs to hone their business models long before seeing them through to reality. “Imagination” has been reduced in American English to meaning “make-believe,” but in its essence, this word is much more.
Contrast “Imagination” –
What a pity, that we can have imagination powering great ideas, but reduce it in an instant with a twist of grammar to something that is not true, and will never exist beyond “fancy.” Yet, how powerfully we know those people we hold in our minds and hearts – in other words, in our imaginations!
Linguistic nuances aside, let us look at the Catholic saints again. These are the saga-heroes of the Christian faith, great women and men and children who lived ordinary lives with extraordinary virtue. Catholics profess at every Mass that we believe in “things visible and invisible,” and “life everlasting.” The saints are more than just static characters from the past; they are alive, invisible, and interceding for us before God.
Perhaps that is a better term than “imaginary.” Yes. Invisible. Just out of sight.
Like so many of us: known better by minds and hearts than by eyes.
Just as real, just as needy, just as valuable. Just as hungry to be known for who we are.
Just out of sight.
Pray: Heavenly, Invisible Father: May I remember that You are there, as I am here, in mind and heart. Help me to know those I do not see… and those who do not see me.
Contemplate: “Imaginary friends,” by linguistic definition, cannot be real. “Invisible friends” can be. Who are our own invisible friends? Are we, perhaps, an invisible friend to anyone else?
Relate: How do we keep our “invisible” friends from becoming “imaginary”? How do we keep ourselves from becoming invisible?
This week, we offer a site tour for any who find that interesting or helpful!
Our website is a collection of information, initiatives and interactive features emulating the example of Saint Thorlak of Iceland. Hopefully, these are organized intuitively and are easy to navigate.
We have been working this week on optimizing our layout for mobile devices, and we have seen some improvement. If there are any pages that give particular difficulty, please let us know, and we’ll make the necessary tweaks.
Our target audience is anyone, although we generally find higher numbers of visitors who are in some way affected by autism or seeking to know more about our spiritual philosophy. We also meet a good number of people who are curious about Saint Thorlak, as he is still relatively unknown in the world of saints and famous figures from medieval Nordic history.
And now, without further ado, clicking here will take you to our video site tour!
As our apostolate continues to grow and reach new people, many have asked about the Mission of Saint Thorlak website. It seems like a good time to pause and take a look around. This week we will talk specifically about our blog, and next week will be a site tour and walkthrough.
A recurring theme in the comments we hear about our website regards the visibility and indexing of our blog. The format we currently use is fully integrated with the website but not the easiest to navigate, especially in trying to reference past posts. Our “blog” is more of a running instruction manual for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, and less a running commentary. It consists of specific thematically sequenced reflections to help familiarize readers with our Missionary mindset. Thus, we place our weekly posts under the header “Mission Activities” and refrain from calling it strictly a blog.
When this apostolate first started out, we very literally began from nothing and built our way up. We needed framework and context for the concepts underpinning the choices and ways of interacting that emulate the example of Saint Thorlak and seem particularly effective for helping autistic people connect more meaningfully with others, and, ultimately, with God. We decided to roll these ideas out one at a time, week by week, gradually introducing our purpose, mission statement and objectives, striving for a good balance between abstract and concrete. This would be accomplished by sharing our thoughts – our Missionary Thoughts – and would serve both to communicate our reasoning and provide enough of a glimpse that the thought could then be emulated in readers’ minds and actions. We purposefully use the heading “Contemplation in Action” because this further reinforces the idea that we aim to present ideas that are at once spiritual and practical. In doing so, our model hopes to imitate the ideals of a good prayer life.
We have acknowledged the need for better indexing and referencing, and so have created a table of contents by date and topic on our “Missionary Thoughts Archive” page. Behind the scenes, we are working to formulate these posts into a Missionaries of Saint Thorlak Guidebook which will be made available in print and e-book formats for easier reference.
Please, keep the feedback coming. We are here to serve. It is an exciting place to be in terms of this apostolate, as our inventory has affirmed that our foundation is in place and looks to be solid. We can now start building real, tangible ways to help people connect spiritually, across the globe and in our own regions. It’s here. It’s time.
Along with the site tour, we are also working on rolling out a Google Voice phone line that can receive voice mail and text messages, and then, we are very serious about writing an annotated catechism for those affected by autism - and, anyone else who finds that format more readily applicable to engaging our faith.
Keep us in your prayers!
-Aimee O’Connell, T.O.Carm.
A funny thing happened during our August hiatus here at the Mission of Saint Thorlak. A flurry of "Contact Us" forms began coming in from different regions of the world, surprisingly all from people seeking spiritual direction. The timing of this coming during our inventory clearly pointed to this being a theme needing to be addressed, and so we started doing our homework in our weeks off. Where might we look to assist teens and adults who have real and relevant questions about how to better experience God, both personally and as part of their faith communities?
Bottom line: There is not much out there.
There are several options for social stories and manipulatives which younger children may use and bring with them to church services. There are growing numbers of churches offering "sensory-friendly" services or worship spaces to help accommodate those who need quieter or more kinetic space. But what is there to help the autistic older children and adults who seek to comprehend the spiritual purpose for coming to church in the first place?
One adult who contacted us has graciously permitted us to quote her requests directly. Her words describe the need much better than we could summarize.
Wow. This is just one person!
Other dilemmas that have been brought to us concern relationships with difficult people and how to reconcile the need for healthy boundaries with Christian teachings. Still others have shared deep pain about participating in the Catholic sacraments. Verbal limitations are a huge obstacle to the sacrament of Confession, for instance, where the normal expectation is to speak directly to the priest. The matter of anxiety and scruples just complicates things all the more. It seems to be random luck as to whether or not a parish has a priest who is familiar enough with autism to know how to comfortably address these practical issues among those who think, feel and experience life as people with autism. Furthermore, the majority of spiritual teachings not only defy ordinary logic, but they tend to evoke emotions which people on the spectrum process differently than most others. If we are missing bricks in our foundational experiences of our faith, we have all the more difficulty grasping what these practices are supposed to look like and feel like.
The most ordinary daily processes are already more difficult to master, more deliberately studied, more cautiously approached and less obviously understood for autistic people than nonautistic people. Something as abstract – and so very, very serious – as faith is easily brushed aside as one of the optional things in life that we might get to if we can solve all those other, ordinary things first.
Well: If it’s optional, then, what about those of us who opt to pursue it?
Besides those already named, here are some more topics that could use better, more concrete explanations:
The longer the list, the more it resembles some sort of “Catechism for Autism”… and, the more we realize that there really could be such a thing, one day, if anyone takes the time to compile such a resource: an explanation of the faith, using words and examples and suggestions for accommodations to make spirituality more accessible for those who desire it but cannot yet grasp it.
Someone has to start somewhere.
Pray: Heavenly Father, let there be a way we can better know You!
Contemplate: What are the areas of our spirituality that pose the greatest difficulty in our connecting with God and others?
Relate: Ask others these same questions, and realize they are more common than we might have first thought.
Tantrums go by many names, with many connotations. Toddlers have “temper tantrums,” expressing outrage over their inability to achieve what they want. Older children and adults have “meltdowns,” suggesting that frustrations have built past their ability to cope and hold off their impulses. The term “overload” can be equally applied to those whose sensory processing systems are hit with too many urgent needs at once, triggering outbursts of behavior which often take onlookers by surprise.
It seems that terminology shifts based on the expectations of others. The word “tantrum” becomes prickly when applied to older children and adults, and even more pejorative when aimed toward autistic people who genuinely experience sensory overload through no fault of their own.
Why in the world would we use that term here?
We chose that word precisely because of the sense of shame it evokes. Babies may be excused for not yet having the skills to cope under pressure, but older children and adults are held to higher standards. Even though everyone loses their composure from time to time, habitual outbursts are looked down upon as poor coping skills. Worse, meltdowns are not very polite in mixed company. Onlookers feel highly uncomfortable when someone rages. Screams intuitively signal danger deep within each of us. Nothing provokes soldiers like the roar of a drill sergeant, and nothing incites a riot like a battle cry. There is no pause for compassion or understanding when rage catches us off guard, whether our own or that of someone nearby. And then, there is the unspoken sense that older people are aware enough of their own actions to “know better,” to stop themselves before they lose control of their emotions.
Yes, we deliberately chose the most uncomfortable word for this week’s thought. No couching, no mitigating; just out with it, like the word itself implies: tantrum.
How can we encounter God in anything associated so plainly with rage and shame?
Simply, by looking at the truth of who God is.
The very idea of bringing God into a tantrum only seems to taunt us with impossible maxims. Love your neighbor. Honor your mother and father. Turn the other cheek. Peace be with you.
When we are overwhelmed enough to lose composure, the last thing we want to think about is God and the ideals we’ve just blown to bits. The last thing we want is anyone to remind us how wretched we are.
Except: God is there. Unavoidably. Right there, present with us, as we rage.
God does not flinch. God does not shrink.
God, the Creator of all things, whose universe produces lightning and storms and seismic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, does not require quiet to be with us.
God, who knows our hearts and minds, who sees what leads to our outrage, who cringes when we are slighted, when our plans go awry, when friends betray us, when strangers insult us, when hunger overtakes us, when fear unravels us… that same God is always with us.
If we have been taught how to recover from a meltdown by acknowledging our behavior and how it has affected the people around us, apologizing where we need to and asking forgiveness, and by being welcomed back into the circle with love and compassion, we learn to control our impulses, ask for help, and eventually recognize signs of building tension before our behavior alienates us from others.
If we have been conditioned to expect punishment, mockery and alienation following an episode of emotional overload, we either learn to avoid others when we feel upset or we accept that we will be rejected as we flail and fail and wait for the storm to pass.
So, where does God stand while we tantrum? Far back, waiting for us to calm down? Shaking His head in disappointment? Removing Himself until we apologize?
No. God stands with us. Our God is not a shaming God. Nowhere in any recorded Scripture does God mock, shame or alienate anyone.
How do we encounter God in the tantrums we have, or the tantrums we witness? By acknowledging His presence. By not flinching. By not shrinking. By realizing that, on whichever side of the tantrum we stand, God is standing with us, embracing and accepting us in our weakness. For, what is a tantrum but supreme weakness? Composure means we’ve got it together, we’re coping with whatever life is dishing out at us. Lost composure means we’ve been swept under a tidal wave so strong that we no longer have control over our most basic ability to reach out to another person.
What God would watch us drown? Not ours. Not from spite, not from apathy, and certainly not from abandonment.
The next time we hit overload and lose our composure, remember this: God loves us before, during and afterward. A meltdown can no more strip us of the dignity of being God’s child than the screaming toddler in the grocery store is discarded by the parent pushing the cart.
The next time someone nearby hits overload and loses composure, remember this: God loves them before, during and afterward. If they are having a hard time seeing God, we can always be His reflection standing by, recalling that person’s dignity as a beloved child of God.
Let us be clear: Unchecked rage is not healthy. In no way should we celebrate meltdowns or the damage they cause. As anywhere else, when people or things get hurt, repairs have to be made. Messes have to be cleaned up. Circumstances have to be examined. We are all accountable for what we do, even when we have passed our limits. But, if we can assess the damage and approach the aftermath with a deliberate plea to be shown how to rebuild with love, we are very likely to encounter God. It is the one prayer He can never refuse.
Pray: God, hear our plea: Show us how to rebuild with love after composure has been lost!
Contemplate: When have we ever imagined God standing by during a meltdown? How would doing that change the situation?
Relate: The time to practice this week’s missionary skill is now, not when a meltdown is in progress. Practice by imagining how we would reflect God during someone else’s meltdown, and practice by imagining God ready to embrace us when we feel ourselves losing control. Practice this enough times to be ready when overload hits.
Readers might recognize that the Catholic Sunday Gospel reading is very well suited to this week’s thought. This tiny snippet from the Gospel of Mark is found at chapter 10, verse 15: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
For the autistic among us, childhood is already a thorny issue. Our chronological age never seems to match up with our interests. Sometimes we are drawn to things the world has designated as best for preschoolers, even if we seem too big to wonder at colors, shapes and familiar rhythms. Toddlers are allowed “imagination time” – should we not have that same permission to use objects to inspire our thoughts? Other times, we thrive being around adults, especially those who stop and listen to us and genuinely share our curiosity. Adults can be a lot easier to be around than children, who can be loud, kinetically unpredictable and impatient dealing with people who need a little extra time. When we feel the full extent of our feelings, we are told to “grow up,” and when our reactions don’t match those of the people around us, we are called “immature.”
Childhood on the spectrum is no better or worse than for those of any neurotype. But, in a very broad sense, it is very likely that the formative events of autistic people are different than those not on the spectrum. Our learning sequence may take many more detours and roundabouts than the straight road that is supposed to go from the sensorimotor stage to pre-, concrete and formal operational processing in child development.
Silly question of the week: At which developmental stage should we receive the Kingdom of God like a child?
By now, the point has become completely lost in the details.
Likewise, most of the other, less academic considerations we give this Gospel passage become waylaid by our attempt to define and apply what we think childhood means. In doing so, we completely miss the exhortation: Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Receive the Kingdom like a child.
This is what separates children from adults: DEPENDENCE.
Adults are those who have reached the stage of independence where they are expected to get and do things for themselves. No more do they need guardians to sign off on activities, provide for necessities or guide in making decisions. Adulthood, in a very simple sense, is the shift from primarily “Please help me, I need” to “I want, so let me go get.”
An adult’s wants and needs are the responsibility of that adult to pursue.
A child’s wants and needs are obtained at the mercy of others.
Saint Thorlak worried toward the end of his life that he had never had a childhood. He was required at a very young age to become very responsible so that he could one day provide for his family in the absence of his father, both materially and spiritually. As Thorlak was dying, he fretted about this Gospel passage, fearing in his literal mind that he squandered his opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God having spent his childhood as an apprentice adult.
Instead (as the story goes), God revealed that Thorlak had, in fact, demonstrated his childhood every time he depended on others for his material and spiritual well-being. Like a child, he received: education from teachers impressed with his aptitude; instruction from priests who marveled at his wisdom; companionship from adults who delighted in telling him stories of their legacies; and strength from people who struggled in one way or another, showing him that he was very much an important part of their daily lives.
Need draws provision, and the meeting of the two is the experience of God. This holds true whether the need is met well or poorly, expediently or reluctantly. However long the path to provision, the meeting of the two reveals where God was theretofore hidden.
Whether we receive the Kingdom of God through sensory channels, imaginary role play, hands-on experimentation or conceptual book knowledge is not relevant. What matters is that we do not insist on doing so by ourselves. We must voluntarily depend on others to reveal God.
Put another way: Our physical childhood begins at birth and culminates when we achieve independence. Our spiritual childhood, then, begins after we have achieved independence and gradually start learning how to depend on others– until at last we receive the full experience of the Kingdom of God.
Anywhere we go, we can find skills curricula and programs to help people learn independence. By contrast, it is nearly impossible to find any program teaching us how to depend on others. Usually, we wait until find ourselves in crisis situations to realize that learning these skills – how to trust, how to ask, how to be vulnerable – might have done us a world of good.
Maybe we should start earlier on.
We can begin by studying childhood.
Pray: Heavenly Father, our culture teaches us from an early age that is important to be independent. Help me to see how DEPENDENCE can be just as important a skill to have… and then, show me how to begin learning.
Contemplate: What does the Kingdom of God look like as I witness those who depend on others?
Relate: Try at least once this week to deliberately depend on another person… and then, watch for the signs of the Kingdom of God!