"I believe in the Holy Spirit... The Holy Catholic Church... The Communion of Saints..."
These words are repeated any time the Apostles' Creed is recited, and also through the more elaborate phrasing of the Nicene Creed at Catholic Masses every weekend: a chorus of voices forming one community comprised of individuals, families, friends and visitors of many walks of life and many stories coming together to celebrate and reaffirm the faith that holds all in common.
The Catholic Church is an incredibly large, diverse, worldwide community. From the very beginning, this Church has consisted of the most ordinary of people. The first Apostles were neither scholarly nor wealthy, and nearly every Scriptural figure had some need, foible or messy situation to which we can easily relate. Disabilities abound in Scripture, from physical impairments to neurological conditions. From merely an anthropological standpoint, we can deduce that the population back then had its own gradation from mainstream to marginalized for one reason or another, not terribly different from what we see today.
The stories in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Himself, show not only compassion and empathy, but also a distinct celebration of the gifts that each of these individuals brought to their community. The faith of the early Church was enriched and embodied by acknowledgment of the frailties that drew out the humanity in each of its members. The same can be said of the body of the Church through each successive age and period in history: the poor, the vulnerable, the failing and the complicated exist side by side with the strong, the polished, the wealthy and the successful. Indeed, many moments of epiphany occur when strength encounters weakness and the true meaning of Christian love is revealed.
When the community affirms its belief in the Communion of Saints, we acknowledge those souls throughout time who have exemplified in their lives what Jesus intended our own lives to look like. Saints, even as a subgroup, have the same distribution of traits and circumstances as any other community, from privileged to disadvantaged and every degree of challenge in between. (For more on what makes a saint a saint, visit our previous Missionary Thought here. )
Patronage is a special designation among the canonized saints which recognizes their lives’ specialty or devotional association. It is rare that any given saint is not known as the patron of something, even nominally. A random search on lesser-known saints might turn up, for instance, those like St. Boris, who lived a pious Christian life cut short at the hands of his jealous pagan brother. His holy example is commemorated on the Orthodox calendar with feast days on May 2 and July 24, but his story does not lend itself to a cause more specific than pious Christianity itself, and he is not known for any specialized patronage.
Are saints like Boris simply unlucky, victims of antiquity and the long shadows cast by better-known saints with more popular devotions? Not at all. Sainthood is not a popularity contest, though proprietors of religious goods can attest that certain saints’ prayers and images are in higher demand than others. St. Peregrine, for instance, is the Patron Saint of Cancer Patients. St. Anthony is the Patron of Lost Items. St. Joseph is Patron of Workers, Carpenters, Fathers, Happy Death and The Universal Church, along with several locations and municipalities … and, off the record, many will attest, selling one’s home. If sainthood itself is akin to attaining an honorary rank of distinction, being awarded patronage is like earning clusters on top of canonization. In actuality, patronage is little more than specialization of prayer based on that saint’s unique personality and manner. Since St. Genesius was an actor, it is only natural that actors feel he can more closely relate to, and pray for, the needs of a performer than, say, St. Lydwine, who hailed from Holland and fell ill after an ice skating accident. She, unsurprisingly, is Patroness of Ice Skaters and the chronically ill.
Many canonized saints are patrons of the locations they are most closely associated with. St. Patrick has Ireland (though he was born in Britain) and St. Bridget has Sweden. A good number of saints are patrons of their geographic see. Such is the case with our namesake, St. Thorlak, born and raised in Iceland, where he would elevate the sanctity of this remote nation in the sixty years he lived.
And so, here we are, at the intersection of autism and spirituality. Whom shall we call upon in patronage? Who is the Patron Saint of Autistic People, that we might turn to that saint for inspiration, prayer, encouragement, and enlightenment?
(That’s right, not even Thorlak. There is currently no Patron Saint of Autistic People.)
To be most fair, there has never been as widespread an understanding of autism as what has taken shape in the past decade. Autism is an elusive and enigmatic condition that has run the gamut from shame to celebration over its years as a diagnosis. While we as a human race still have plenty to learn (and plenty of stereotypes to reconsider) about autistic thinking and neurodiversity, we find ourselves at a point in time more favorable toward autism than ever before. As life catches up with this trend, so, too, Catholics worldwide are beginning to understand and recognize autism as a valid and distinct variation within the community. It seems a ripe time to consider who might be “the” saint worthy of that official designation, “Patron Saint of Autistic People.”
We, of course, already consider St. Thorlak as our patron here, and, most definitely, a patron of autism. There is nothing preventing him from being that to us and to all who turn to him for inspiration and spiritual guidance. His manner and way of living feel autistic, sound autistic, and very likely would have been called autistic, had such a word existed in his time. Many autistics use his way as a pattern for connecting to God more meaningfully… for learning how to find strength in vulnerability… for coping with the days when overload tries to destroy our sense of wellbeing… for relating to people who do not relate to us… for understanding, recognizing, addressing and preventing the spiritual starvation many of us encounter on a daily basis.
As the Octave of Pentecost reaches its close, now is a very acceptable time for the Holy Spirit, through the workings of the Holy Catholic Church, to lead the community here toward the Communion of Saints. In designating a Patron Saint of Autistic People, the Church will both recognize the gifts brought by the autistic community to the Kingdom of God, and offer that same community the gift of our own decorated, saintly champion with clusters.
Let us pray that it happens soon!
JOIN YOUR VOICE TO THE CAUSE!
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is compiling a portfolio of written notes from readers around the world, stating why they feel St. Thorlak deserves the title Patron Saint of Autistic People. Specifically, we are seeking to answer the question, “In what way is St. Thorlak a patron for autistic persons?” Why St. Thorlak? Why autism? Notes need only be brief and heartfelt, and would be very greatly appreciated as we build our case. If you are moved to contribute, please send your note to email@example.com Thank you!
The Missionary Thoughts blog, including our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking, will resume in June.
In the meantime, please check out the insightful and autism-inspired posts by our Spiritual Director at The Anchorite!
by Guest Writer Valerie Boles
Grief is something no one likes but everyone experiences. It is a part of our human experience. We hurt when we lose something or someone. Usually when we think about grief, we think about the feeling we have after someone dies but we can grieve when we get seriously ill and can’t do the things we use to do. Whenever we lose something, we grieve.
Grieving is a process our minds, bodies and souls go through to deal with the loss of something good and important. When we are grieving, every bit of us can be affected; our bodies feel tired and weary, our minds can be preoccupied, we feel sad, we can’t do our work with the same excitement we normally do. Even when we’re not thinking about what we have lost, the world just doesn’t seem quite right. When we are grieving, it feels like we will never be the same again. It feels like the world will never, ever be quite right. Love is essentially God’s signature on the people and things in our lives, and our loves become a part of ourselves to the depth which we love them. God does not want us to feel incomplete forever. We are not stuck in this lonely feeling; together, with God, we can experience our grief and remember who, or what, we have loved as still a part of ourselves, even if now tangibly absent.
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge what we have lost and what we are feeling. We cannot hide what we are feeling from ourselves, nor do we need to.
Next, we need to commemorate the person (or, perhaps, the opportunity, the ability, the animal companion, or even the cherished object) we have lost. In grieving for those who have died, funerals and wakes are beautiful ways for us to commemorate our loved ones as a community. We can also commemorate people individually. Some people write beautiful stories and poems, others can make artwork, and some others might run races in honor of their lost loved ones.
The step that lasts forever is remembering. We always remember who and what we have loved. It is especially helpful for me to remember my lost loved ones in prayer and visit their gravesites on their birthdays and leave flowers. I also like to keep pictures up of my lost loved ones so I can remember them every day.
Sometimes, we can wonder, “Where is God?” and “Why did He let this happen?” These are hard questions and it is important that we share this pain with God and ask these questions in prayer.
God does not want death to occur. It was not in His original plan. When sin entered the world, so did death. Jesus’s response to death was to experience it for himself, with us. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He showed us that he is with us even when the worst things happen, even death.
We may not feel like God is with us when we are suffering loss, this is why Jesus gives us tangible things to assure us that he is with us. We can see Jesus’s death when we look at a crucifix and we can reflect on Christ’s death by reading the Gospel accounts of the passion. The most tangible way that we can experience God during these times of grief is through the sacraments. In the Eucharist especially, we can see, smell, feel and taste God even when we don’t feel God’s presence.
One of the most important things to remember during these times of grief is that Jesus did die and he did suffer with us but that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose from the dead. Even though the death of our loved ones is so painful, death does not have power over us. Jesus’s resurrection shows us that we do not need to fear death for ourselves or our loved ones. Even though we are separated from them now, we will not be separated from them forever.
For some of us, the idea of heaven is one that is easy to accept, maybe even obvious. That is an incredible gift. Others, find the concept extremely hard to believe. After all, we can’t see heaven. No one we know has ever come back from the dead and told us about it. It seems that we have no evidence for such an ideal. This is again where I point to Jesus, who tells us that he is preparing places for us in heaven. We trust him because he did rise from the dead! Jesus is our hope.
Valerie Boles is a graduate student of occupational therapy at Saint Francis University. She is passionate about finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel. In her free time, she enjoys camping, listening to podcasts and reading.
by Aimee O'Connell, T.O.Carm.
When Good Friday gives us pause to consider Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion, our attention is most naturally focused on suffering, even to the extent where the words “cross” and “suffering” have become intertwined in the Christian lexicon. For much of my life, I have equated “the cross of autism” with enduring the suffering particular to this condition and accepting it as my lot. Perpetual anxiety, painful sensitivities to light and sound, headache and nausea in noise and crowds, inability to express emotions, difficulty speaking… all of these have been realities for me, along with debilitating exhaustion and a heavy measure of self-loathing when I fall short in acting up to social expectations. All of this seemed in line with how I took Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion to be. In my spiritual immaturity, I saw Jesus’ suffering as a demonstration of “walk it off.” Take what life deals us, even when it’s unfair, and carry on without complaining.
Perfection in suffering, to me, seemed that I should do it so that nobody knew I was suffering at all. I reinforced this idea with Mother Teresa’s admonishment to “do everything with a smile,” and with Matthew 6:17, which exhorts us to fast and sacrifice without making a show of ourselves. I also tried to rationalize this through St. Therese’s Little Way, proposing that “doing things with great love” meant doing them so as not to bother the people around me with my problems.
Through the grace of God, and the fruits of my time spent in prayer this Lent, I am learning to see now that this is not at all correct. It is an overly literal distortion of what is actually meant by each of those spiritual maxims. My view has been rooted in manipulation – that is to say, manipulating my suffering to such a degree that I denied it, and I denied myself the chance to experience it fully. In denying the truth of what I suffered, I paid the triple price of ordinary exhaustion plus the extra work of maintaining an untruth plus enslaving myself to standards I cannot possibly reach or maintain (and in the process, unfairly raising the expectations of others).
I see now that Jesus never “walked it off.” He knowingly faced his accusers with complete vulnerability. He told the truth of who he was, knowing it would be rejected, mocked, ridiculed and punished. He made no pretense that the scourging was mortally painful. He did not suggest he had the strength to carry the cross. He did not say he would not die if he was crucified. He knew every one of his limitations, and he offered them to the extent he could.
The actual cross of autism is embracing what I can and cannot do, in the same plain nakedness as Jesus. To do this, as St. Therese implores, “with love,” it is not to pretend it is fun or easy. Rather, it is to accept and believe that I am loved as I do. Even in my weakness and shortfall, God loves me fully… right here, right now.
And, guess what? This new way is harder. Walking it off is nothing compared to checking my pride and admitting that I can’t do something, especially when it’s someone I don’t want to disappoint, like a friend or a superior or a family member. Admitting the truth would actually spare me the pain of sensory overload and trying to do what I don’t have the energy or adequate capability to do, but it requires stripping myself of the clothing of my pride. In that moment of truth, it is so tempting to heed the voice of the thief tempting me to avoid the cross and save myself from revealing my vulnerability. But, as we saw with the two thieves beside Jesus, one embraced his need and brought God present; the other sneered, preventing God’s grace from saving him. Even on Calvary, where two or more acknowledge their need before God, there He is with them (Matthew 18:20).
The ordinary suffering of autism remains the same. The anxiety, the exhaustion and the sensory overload are part and parcel of our condition. But in the absence of acknowledging this truth about ourselves, the suffering becomes dead weight… a thankless burden we adopt in exchange for the chance to look strong, to avoid being naked in our need, to not be mocked, criticized, or accused of being lazy. Yet, we know what’s true. Are we willing to stand up for that truth, as Jesus did? We begin by accepting God’s immediate, unconditional love in these weakest, most naked moments of truth… and discovering, to our surprise, that God’s love alone is real and plentiful enough to withstand the insults of those who refuse to believe, and to sustain us through all of our needs – good measure, and flowing over.
May each of us experience the reality of this love, abundantly, as we meditate upon the mystery of the Cross.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Question 38 of the Baltimore Catechism explains that Satan and the fallen angels are real, as do many other sources within the Catholic and other Christian traditions. Rebel spirits go by several different names. Fallen angels, demons and false gods are some of the most common. In the interest of keeping things simple, it is accurate to say that these rebel spirits are an unseen force actively working against God. Demons cannot steal or destroy souls, but they can contribute confusion, division, frustration and temptation to our everyday lives in their ongoing aggression toward God.
Can a soul be “lost” as in no longer being able to have something? Or “lost” as in a battle?
God does not destroy what He creates and endows with value. God does not reject us. He does not even reject us when we waver or question. He does not even penalize us for acting in ignorance (for reference, see Luke 23:34). The only way our soul can be forfeited is if we, as its custodians, review the options and decisively reject God – whether as a solitary act or in a spirit of solidarity with the fallen angels. Yes… some people do choose to distrust, divide, rebel and oppose, usually for the chance to exercise maximum control. In seizing that choice, our soul is lost from our care – and forfeits eternity with God.
In sum: A soul cannot be lost if it chooses at any point to seek God, even if this is at the very last moment of earthly life.
A soul who is lost at the end of its earthly life cannot be recovered.
Where is our hope, then?
Learning to trust.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
How can we take care of our body
without compromising our soul?
The tone of this question may sound a little confusing. How would taking care of our body compromise our soul in the first place? In a reasonable manner, not at all. Caring for our body is responsible and Godly. There is no conflict between practicing physically wellness and spiritual wellness.
The problem is, physical wellness, as a concept, has become very marketable, and very profitable. Wellness has been taken from its place of common sense and elevated to an ideal which we are encouraged to strive toward at all costs… particularly those costs transferring from our pockets to those selling products promising to bring us that much closer to this nebulous but never quite fully defined state of “well.”
Every principle of wellness seems to flow logically from the know-love-serve-God formula. If God endowed us with the body we have, we naturally have an obligation to give it care that reflects our acknowledgment of this gift. We ought not to abuse or overindulge our bodies’ capacities for pleasure or pain. We ought to recognize the interconnection between physical, emotional and mental wellness and strive for balance in all that we do, produce and consume. We do well to notice the chain reactions between mental distress, emotional distress, physical distress and spiritual distress. A healthy body promotes a healthy mind, and a healthy mind promotes a healthy spiritual connection to God.
How can we tell when something takes excessive attention from knowing, loving or serving God? We dare say, when it reaches the point where we wish God weren’t watching. If we feel like we have to sneak something we intend to do, take a closer look. Why sneak it? Who will disapprove, and why? Would God disapprove? If so, it’s not good for the soul. If we’re not sure, it’s probably a very good time to find out first. And, if not… then maybe this is a good time to revisit how we understand God. There are definite limits to the bodily pleasures God intends, and definite reasons for the limits of Godly order… along the same lines as the limits imposed by a wellness-oriented lifestyle. Denying indulgence in one area is often the avenue to produce a greater good in another. This is just as true in soul wellness as it is in body wellness.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Does taking care of our body somehow interfere with taking care of our soul?
All three elements – body, mind and soul – are integral parts of who we are. The core of our identity rests in the soul, the center from which our thoughts, feelings, intentions, impressions and actions arise.
Much has been debated over the centuries as to the role the body plays in the health of our soul. Some contend that the body and soul are in constant battle, with the cravings of the flesh ever drawing us toward pleasure at the expense of virtue and morality. Some feel that morality is subjective, and that contentment of the body reflects, or promotes, contentment of the soul. Some fall somewhere in between.
Here is a way to summarize the right order of living:
The role of body and mind is to promote and uphold the purity and integrity of the soul.
- Purity: Preservation from corruption
- Integrity: Wholeness; being undivided
We can use a chart like this to compare operating parameters:
Imbalance occurs when we exaggerate emphasis on our body’s needs or consider our bodily needs more frequently than considering the needs of our soul. Think in terms of the chart above. If we spend a great deal of energy on things that are mortal, we have less to devote to the immortal. If we focus on sensual feelings, we spend less time feeding our intangible needs. If we put more stock in our body’s appearance than our soul’s identity, we neglect that core part of ourselves that makes us who we are. It begins to sound like common sense.
One last question: Can it ever be that we give too much emphasis to soul care, and not enough to body or mind? No. Here’s why: The soul is the essence of our life. A healthy soul produces a sound mind and actualized body. A very, very healthy soul produces a very, very sound mind and a very, very actualized body. Shall we keep going? Is there such a thing as too much health? Thankfully, no!
When we look at it this way, then, the best way to care for the body is to lavish excellent care upon the soul. Does care of the body interfere with care of the soul? No; it BEGINS WITH, and THRIVES UPON, care of the soul.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking:
Is our soul’s care completely in our control, or is it affected
by outside forces?
Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than our body?
A: In losing our soul, we lose God and everlasting happiness.
Now the variables of control come into play. Is the soul interconnected with body and mind, or is it separate? Recall our graphic from a few weeks back:
But, first, what do we mean by “in our control”? The choices we make? How can we ever know if anything is purely “in our control”? Even our behavior, which originates in the body, can be arguably influenced by factors beyond our control, both from outside ourselves and far within, on the molecular level. We did not start our own hearts beating, after all!
Let’s hurry up and define some of these things before we get too far out of hand. Outside of high philosophical and theological circles, we think the following definitions will suffice:
- IN OUR CONTROL: Things we freely choose
- AFFECTED BY OUTSIDE FORCES: How far our actions stray from our intentions
All this, and we haven’t even answered the question yet. Is our soul’s care completely in our control, or is it affected by outside forces?
We cannot control the majority of forces which act upon us. But our intentions are solely ours, and so the choices we make are often like arrows shot in wind, fog and all sorts of tricky circumstances. The important point to remember is that intentions count in the equation. We are not purely victims of circumstances, nor are we masters of our own fate. We are conscious beings in between, and the God who put us here knows that we are not always able to act without influence and interference. If we keep God in our intentions, our souls will not be lost. The more we keep God in our intentions, the more our souls will stay on the path God imagined for us. And the more we focus on outside forces, the more easily we will find ourselves disoriented.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
What can we do to correct lapses in soul care?
First off, let us make this very clear: Lapses in soul care are part of the earthly human condition. Even with the purest intentions, we live and operate in an environment that does not readily support soul care. The constantly flowing thoughts, feelings and sensations of ordinary life make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate out the things that remind us of God at their very substance from the things that feel so good we look to them, and away from God, in their appreciation. It really does not take much to distract us from God.
It comes back, then, to cultivating a sense of awareness: of God, of ourselves, of one another, in that order. [To revisit the idea of Missionary Awareness, see here.] But if our soul care has dropped significantly, we may need to build our awareness from the bottom back up. By recalling the God-endowed value of others around us, we begin to remember the God-endowed value of ourselves; and then God Himself, Who Endows Value.
Sound spiritual practices are rooted in awareness, but when we find soul care slipping, there are also specific means of maintaining this awareness once it has been recovered. Catholics enjoy the sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession, as a means of directly eradicating impediments to soul care. Outside of Reconciliation, there is prayer, community support, pastoral counseling, liturgical participation, spiritual reading and reserving time for silence to get us back on track. That last one, reserving time for silence, was a practice championed by our Patron Saint Thorlak during his time as Abbot at the Augustinian Monastery at Thykkvibaer. More than just unplugging or refraining from talking, recollected silence is a deliberate listening. Consider the difference between passive silence and active listening to see how the faculties are enlivened and engaged by periods of deliberate silence.
What courses of action are harmful to our soul, or place our soul at risk?
It would require a great deal more than annotation to delve into how a person’s actions can put the welfare of the soul at risk. Our task here is to give an overview and a sense of direction, rather than an exhaustive treatment.
If we think of God’s gaze being filled with his love for us, then the things that would lead us to avoid God are those which are not good for our souls. Try as we might, we cannot think of any exceptions to this guideline (and it’s not for lack of trying!) Observe some examples that come to mind:
-Going against anything moral (lying, stealing, cheating)
-Purposefully calculating something that hurts another person
-Doing things we would not have God watch us do
-Avoiding God when we feel embarrassed, inadequate, frustrated or angry
So very often we base our presence on what we bring to the room. And just as often we on the spectrum can feel overwhelmed, or empty, or unglued, or insecure, or shaggy around the edges, or grouchy, or tested to our very last limit… and be absolutely correct in declaring, “Leave me alone! I’m not very good company right now!”
Even when we remove ourselves from his gaze.
The flip side here is that God’s love never wanes; and so, it also does not push, beg, force or chastise.
Are there consequences to the things we choose? Most certainly. Is there such a thing as Divine Justice? Most certainly. Does Divine Justice work the same way we understand human justice? Most certainly not. It can feel like there are no eternal consequences to the things we do, whether openly or in secret, whether we believe they count or believe they have no effect on any other person… but it remains those things which lead us to cut the connection which put our soul in mortal danger.
The Scriptural Stations of the Cross for Autistic People is a devotion that can be made at any time, but accompanies the season of Lent especially well.
Special thanks to Fr. Mark Nolette for this beautiful collection of reflections!
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak