The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
The Baltimore Catechism lists seven “capital” sins as those which most blatantly present obstacles to our ability to trust God’s love. The term “capital,” as used here, comes from the same root as “captain,” which is a useful image of how temptations work. Beyond choices on a flow chart, each temptation acts like an enemy captain determined to undermine our loyalty to God. These “captains” subvert our trust in God by introducing resentment, jealousy and doubt to our daily doings. In theory, any temptation we name might be an agent of such things, depending on the circumstances. Even innocuous or essential items can subvert our love of God if viewed or used wrongly.
At any rate, these are the capital sins (or, chief temptations leading to sin) as listed in the Baltimore Catechism:
We now look at each temptation as viewed through the lens of living with autism.
Pride. Most of us are familiar with “pride” as a positive statement of celebrating our gifts. As embodied by social movements, pride is a way to showcase the best of who we are, as we are. However, we are vulnerable to two detrimental mindsets: competition, and focus on strength. The first can be avoided if we agree that every person has gifts worth celebrating — even those who do not share the particular views, attributes or talents we celebrate in ourselves. Unless we recognize that everyone has something valuable to contribute, we turn celebration into competition. “Pride” done right is about our gifts, not superiority. Secondly, we must include our weaker and less developed areas in presenting our gifts, lest we fall victim to the mindset that our worth comes only from our strengths - or worse, that we must minimize or camouflage our weak spots. Finally, we can find ourselves reluctant to celebrate others because of their strengths (jealousy) or because of their weakness (doubt). In all things, let our “pride” be in God’s designs and not our own desires.
Covetousness is the habit of looking unhappily at ourselves and resentfully at the gifts of others. Thoughts like these are common temptations and not sinful unto themselves; it is in entertaining them, and acting on them, that sin comes in. We are especially vulnerable when conditions are hard, when people are unkind, and when exhaustion sets in. When we find ourselves depleted, marginalized or overlooked, it seems all the more unfair that others are favored. Why are some people more easily accepted? Better able to function? Better liked? Temptation is ripe when we focus on the status of others. The antidote is remembering that social capital is an illusion of perception, not a reflection of our objective worth. Opinions change like the wind. Our value is constant. If we can persevere through fluctuations in opinions, we are less likely to wish for more than what we are.
Lust is a word we most associate with sexuality. However, it applies to anything we wish to take for ourselves, without giving anything in return, for our pleasure alone. In the throes of a craving, resentment, jealousy and doubt can sharpen the sense of scarcity while our focus (possibly even fixation) drives us to act. Lust underlies most addictive and predatory behavior, whatever the gratification may be - food, money, sex, power or social status. We resent the craving, we are jealous of anyone who has what we want, and we doubt anything else can satisfy. Lust is the opposite of trust, and the opposite of love. Lust not only harms the other, but the powerful rush of gratification sets up habits which are very difficult to change. The antidote is actively cultivating gratitude for what we have, trusting that God will provide what will bring us true joy over the long term, not just momentary pleasure. As lust develops by habit, so too does this mindset of gratitude.
Anger A sin? Not by itself. Anger is a human emotion, and part of our design by God. Anger is a useful and essential part of relationships and moral development. How else could we express outrage against aggression or violations of human dignity? Anger is a signal of wrong, a stir to corrective action and a protection against harm. Anger only becomes sinful when it is the product of resentment, jealousy and doubt. Dissatisfaction with what we are, or focus on what we are not, is more rooted in fear than justice. It may feel the same as useful anger, but the object of such resentment ultimately is God and His designs conflicting with ours. An honest look can tell whether or not we are drawing closer to God or departing from Him in our moments of anger, and that will determine if it is useful or sinful.
Gluttony is the temptation to take more than we need. It goes back to scarcity, which is rooted in doubt. Some of us genuinely struggle with knowing when we are satisfied and when we are not. Autistics in particular can have a tricky time moderating things that feel good, especially as they provide periods of relief to our perpetual anxiety. Sometimes we genuinely need others to suggest where healthy limits are so that we concretely see the cutoff between just enough and too much of whatever we enjoy — be that food, drink, music, screen time, reading, and anything else that delights us. A quick rule is: if our joy lingers after we stop, it’s more likely to be healthy than if putting it down makes us fret about craving more.
Envy is the temptation to resent other people’s happiness. When we are anxious and exhausted, it is challenging to see others at rest and not feel anger or hopelessness at our own condition. Autism is not for the faint of heart, and gratitude when our very bodies feel constantly under siege can be a long shot. How, then, can we counter this temptation? One thought is to remember that nobody is ever perfectly happy. In the same way our own struggles are often invisible, others also struggle unseen with their own hidden needs. It is important to remember that we are not losing the race if someone else is where we want to be; we simply are not there yet. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves these things hour by hour.
Sloth. Given this word’s association with laziness, we need to make the distinction between willful inactivity and actual, legitimate conditions under which autistic people are called unproductive. Lack of energy is a reality among autistics for numerous reasons: the drain of social demands, decreased muscle tone, variances in blood pressure and metabolism, migraines, connective tissue anomalies and chronic pain, just for starters. These are actual physical, cognitive and neurological conditions associated with autism and have nothing to do with our character. In fact, most autistics, if asked, will express the wish for more energy and the ability to do things on par with the rest of our communities! Sloth is the choice not to act when action is needed and we are capable of acting. It is up to each one of us to know in our hearts and minds what our capability is - and to be honest with ourselves in making these decisions. When we live congruently within our abilities and our limits, we have nothing to fear... and, we can (hopefully, politely) dismiss unwarranted criticism with a clear conscience.
The capital sins are by no means the last word on right and wrong, nor do they contain everything we need to consider when examining the morality of our own behavior. However, if we see these as some of the more common gateways toward seeking pleasure before seeking God’s design first, they make a useful starting point.
Book Review: Autism and the Church
by GRANT MACASKILL - Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Director of the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland: Baylor University Press
In his new book, Autism and the Church, Bible scholar Grant Macaskill describes in meticulous detail how autistic people come to find themselves on the periphery of the community, even and especially in places designed to be welcoming, such as our churches. In part, autism itself makes large spaces and big gatherings overwhelming to the senses. A bigger problem, according to Professor Macaskill, is the continued reliance of our social institutions (including churches) on the economy of social capital. Like its financial counterpart, social capital is the net value of what an individual brings to any given group. Unlike money, social capital’s value is skewed by perception (what others think we can offer) instead of actual value (who we are as children of God).
Whether it is the need for different space with reduced sensory overload, the systematic manner of autistic thinking or the awkwardness with which autistics conduct conversations, Professor Macaskill acknowledges the unfortunate fact that autism does not fit cleanly into what we have come to expect from church experiences as a community. Yet each child, teen and adult with autism brings a multitude of gifts, ideas and needs to the table of worship which do, in fact, fit perfectly into the Gospel message of God’s love and design for what a Christian community is meant to be. Professor Macaskill does a splendid job of outlining and explaining this in practical terms backed by solid Scriptural references. He also includes caveats for how to avoid misuse of Scripture in approaching the question of welcoming those who present with a poverty – even bankruptcy – of social capital.
Grant Macaskill’s approach speaks to autistic Christians with clarity and perspective that we have yet to see overtly discussed in either autistic or Christian circles. The institutional response to autism has been typically geared toward the deficit. Keeping with his social capital framework, “acceptance” has happened when others have created special and exceptional programs and categories for autistics, highlighting our social poverty; or, by outright exclusion, presented as an incentive for us to increase those traits the group finds valuable until we finally qualify as insiders. Neither way acknowledges the reality that our autism physically and emotionally compromises our ability to play into group dynamics and then drains us of the energy we need to maintain our participation. As a result, autistics often remain on the periphery as a matter of survival, doubting our worth to the community.
For this reason, the wide-sweeping methodologies and cookie-cutter recommendations which have proliferated in educational settings and trickled into other areas such as sports, churches, clubs and service organizations have not helped autistics feel more included. Why? What we really need is relationship: to be known for who we are and the gifts which we have as individuals. In applying institutional norms to autistic people, we’re still being grouped and reduced to numbers… and not thriving. What we really need is relationship. Grant Macaskill does a masterful job of describing how autistics can thrive in the community through application of St. Paul’s theology of weakness and relationship. His conclusions are both challenging and encouraging to Christians and church leaders, in that he reaffirms what we already hold as our core belief: that each one of us is, first and foremost, a beloved child of God. Seeing one another for our God-given gifts, instead of appraising our value in terms of how well we fulfill institutional norms, will not only keep our focus on the truth of the Gospel message we proclaim, but is vital to celebrating autistic persons and families as important and essential members of the Body of Christ.
A Continuing Look at the Nicene Creed
with Fr. Mark P. Nolette
Special thanks to our spiritual director, Fr. Mark Nolette, for his ongoing work in his home diocese of Portland, Maine. As a regular contributor for HARVEST magazine, Fr. Mark continues his closer look at the Nicene Creed and has graciously allowed us to link to that here. Fr. Mark’s article appears on page 9.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Our discussion on sin continues this week in step with the Baltimore Catechism, Lesson Six. As we study various examples of sin, we can equally call this a study of our human faculties and how we respond to the opportunities which come our way.
God desires a firm and freely chosen place in the heart and mind of each soul He creates. Our hearts and minds are distracted, however, by the knowledge of evil which we now inherit as part of the human condition. The degree to which we dwell upon these distractions is one indicator of how fully we trust and accept God in relationship to ourselves.
The Catechism explains that sin is a willful – that is, freely chosen – departure from God. This can be done by thought, by word or by deed. As we consider this in terms of relationship, we can call to mind similar dynamics in any of our existing relationships, be these friends or family, neighbors or coworkers. Imagine those elements which cause friction and erosion in our relationships. Thoughts by themselves are not harmful, nor necessarily sinful, until we nurture and entertain thoughts which breed unrest. Feelings are valid. Thoughts come and go. Many times, people act in irritating ways. We can think and feel a hundred different ways toward the same person throughout any given day, but these thoughts will not erode our relationship with this person unless they take a practiced, divisive turn. Likewise, if we are tempted by ideas that would lead to harm or use the other person as an object for our own thrill, we can choose to dismiss these thoughts or retain them. If we retain them, we can well imagine how the other person would feel if these ideas were suddenly made transparent. Thoughts which erode relationships and cultivate resentment tend to be sinful. And, since thoughts lay the foundation for attitudes and behavior, then words and deeds logically follow suit. Any thought, word or action which knowingly erodes and divides reflects a departure from God’s intended design for humanity.
The question of “Yes, but is it sinful?” boils down to three factors, as the Catechism goes on to explain: seriousness of the matter at hand, degree of prior reflection, and our consent to the departure from God. These are truths which can only fully be acknowledged deep within ourselves, and even then it can be difficult to reach absolute certainty. The Catholic Church is very clear: sin exists, and all sin destroys our ability to trust and experience God. A departure which meets all criteria – a serious matter which we have pondered and consent to carrying out – is considered a mortal sin, in that it is a full break from God that requires our repentance and renunciation to repair if we truly do not want to forfeit our relationship with God completely. “Mortal,” in this sense, literally refers to the life of our soul. Not every sin is this dire. The majority of departures from God are venial, which comes from roots meaning “pardonable,” and refers to sin that stems more from weakness in the face of temptation than from calculated disavowal of God. This is not to diminish the erosive power of venial sin. Anyone can attest that a relationship can be just as easily destroyed by small erosion over time as by a single catastrophic break.
Readers will likely note that our study has not included any specific list of dos or don’ts. God’s law is not a list of rules, so it would not be practical to list what is sinful and what is not. God does not dole out permission or watch over humanity with a running count of our infractions. God exists, and God loves. We either trust His love or we skirt around it, sometimes outright deny it. There are as many ways to depart from God as there are individuals who depart from Him. Sin is about our soul’s relationship with God, bottom line.
The good news is that God’s relationship with us is constant and alive. If we depart from Him, He waits for our return without abandoning or condemning us. And, He has given us a clear and definitive way back for each and every instance of departure. No soul is ever without the opportunity to be restored to the relationship God intended with us from the beginning.
Next week, we continue looking at what we proclaim when we say the Nicene Creed. Our next Catechism post in two weeks will look at the most common temptations toward departure – that is, toward sin.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Original Sin – Actual Sin – Mortal Sin – Venial Sin
Many people have heard by rote the types of sin “taught” by the Catholic Church. This line of thinking characterizes the Church as a group of elders who gather to define what constitutes naughty behavior, and who further go on to assign spiritual penalties to such transgressions. Such ideas go all the way back to the Middle Ages and beyond, and are about as accurate as thinking the public education system invented the alphabet for the purposes of issuing report cards.
No church or religion invented sin. And, no church or religion “teaches” sin. The Catholic Church ascribes to the idea that there are metaphysical laws which define the universe in which we live, meaning that God created all things and all creatures with its own purpose and design. Humans, as you may recall from previous posts, were created and designed to know God, to love God, to receive God’s love and to live harmoniously with the way in which God imagined all people to express and fulfill their talents. Just as we plan and design our crafts with particular form and function, so too does God create people with intentional design. The intended form and function of something can be said to be the laws under which that “something” operates. An automobile has form and function which can vary from car to car but must have certain basic principles met before it is a “good” automobile. In other words, if a piece of machinery follows the “laws” which makes something an “automobile,” it functions well. If not, it falters, or fails, or functions as something that does not qualify as an automobile.
The same phrasing can describe humanity. The “laws” which make something “human” are how well we know God, love God, receive God’s love and respond to God’s intended design.
Sin is the consequence of not following the law… that is, not following God’s intended design.
Thus: Nobody can “invent” sin. Sin is a state of misalignment.
With that in mind, let us see now the two ways that misalignment occurs:
The phrase “original sin” is meant to signify that we begin our earthly lives in misalignment, since God’s intended design for humanity was not to know evil. Yet, once our ancestors chose to do so, it could not be un-seen. Our lenses no longer pointed solely at God. Think of it as someone altering the process before it even begins, such that everything coming out has this design flaw, and our minds now have a sharp focus on, and skew toward, things that divide and destroy relationships (since that is, in essence, what evil is – the destruction of our relationship with God).
“Original sin” does NOT mean that God created damaged goods, or that people are set up to fail from birth. In fact, God provided a correction – a “patch,” if you will – for original sin, and that is baptism. (We will discuss baptism in greater detail in future posts.)
Humans have free will, free choice, and are never coerced or manipulated by God or His Church into doing anything. If one finds an example of coercion, it is not authentically of God. Period.
“Actual Sin,” then, is the term used to describe those times when we choose something that is not part of God’s intended design. As one can imagine, there are degrees of sin which range from accidental to carefully calculated. The bottom line is, all sin is a deviation from God’s intended design (or, in metaphysical terms, a violation of natural law).
With such a range of degree of sin, can we expect that sin’s consequences are equally variable?
Earthly, material consequences are variable. Spiritual consequences are not. The consequence of every sin is a break in our relationship with God. Sin disrupts our act of loving God and our ability to receive God’s love. Each and every time.
Next week, we will explore different types of actual sin, and consider both material and spiritual consequences – along with the remedies available to us, as beloved children of God.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Adam and Eve.
There cannot be many who have not heard some version of the Creation Story. Adam and Eve are humanity’s notorious duo, the first of our kind and the first to bungle things up. So numerous are the commentaries on these two that it borders on cliche to find their names in the Catholic Catechism. Yet, there they are, occupying the entire Lesson Five of the Baltimore Catechism, and likewise, our discussion for this week.
The Church believes Adam and Eve truly existed. They were created as man and woman were intended to exist, innocent of any corruption, fully expressing the rich gifts of their endowments of body, mind and soul by God, who loved the idea of them into flesh and bone and breath. Whether or not there was a botanical tree with literal fruit, or a spiritual construct embodied by metaphorical assignment, it is certain that God warned Adam and Eve of “partaking of the knowledge of good and evil.” God wished to preserve the innocence of the first man and woman by keeping their intellect focused on that which is good, beautiful and true. Could God have created anything that was evil, ugly or false? No... but He did create angels with free will, some of whom rebelled and set out to destroy and undermine God’s work. God likewise gave free will to Adam and Eve. While allowing them this freedom, he still intended them to live in purity and perfect balance. There would be no useful reason to follow any of the doings of the renegade angels.
As we know from the story, Eve was tempted by Satan to partake of that knowledge of good and evil, despite God’s warning. Satan asserted that God’s motive was to keep the man and woman from becoming a threat to God’s omnipotence. “You will not die if you eat the fruit,” Satan said. “Rather, you will become like God.” It was a clever exploitation of human nature: arouse curiosity, plant doubt and watch the rumor spread. Once Eve ate the fruit, Adam became curious and, using the disobedience of the other person as his rationale, followed suit. Part impulse, part calculated risk, part willingness to listen to a voice sowing seeds of distrust... our ancestors’ eyes were opened. Innocence was spoiled. Now, instead of seeing the good and the beautiful and the true, they saw it in terms of every way it could be perverted, distorted, exploited and ruined.
Horrified, Adam and Eve no longer felt safe. If goodness and beauty and truth could be corrupted, what guarantee did anyone have of anything? What once was seen in abundance suddenly became scarce. The present was no longer enough. Security became risk. In the presence of evil, God no longer seemed sufficient. In short: FEAR was introduced into humanity.
Our previous posts have emphasized a consistent theme: 1 John 4:18. Perfect love casts out all fear. And, in Adam and Eve, we see the inverse at work: fear deprives us of perfect love.
In the story, Adam and Eve cower in fear as they comprehend what they have done, and they can’t un-see the evil they now know. They understand why God instructed them to leave that fruit alone. What will God think? How could he love them now? Fear and doubt paralyze their once clear intellect. To make things worse, Adam and Eve now realize their very bodies can be used in perverse and corrupt ways, compared to the innocence and majesty of purpose they knew before seeing the ugliness of gluttony, lust and gratification. They covered themselves in shame.
Of course God knew what happened. With great sorrow, God watched His beloved man and woman fall away. Their responses betrayed them. Even God’s all-encompassing love fell into doubt in their minds. Fear gripped Adam and Eve... and they could not bear the perfect love of God. Perfect love casts out all fear... and so, Adam and Eve, enslaved by fear, were cast out on their own.
God did not abandon Adam and Eve. He continued loving them and all of their descendants no less than perfectly. With the institution of fear, however, humanity remains separated from God by the degree to which that fear holds sway over our minds.
Is there any hope for redeeming humanity’s relationship with God? Yes. In fact, God began laying the foundation for that redemption almost immediately. Through promises and covenants with the ones who trusted Him in spite of this primal fall, God led the way for the eventual birth of Jesus, the act through which God would become human himself and go before us in a story that would reverse every misstep of Adam and Eve, eventually taking on every conceivable fear and facing it himself in an incomprehensible demonstration of solidarity and desire to restore faith in Divine Love.
Remember, our task here is to annotate the Baltimore Catechism in ways that speak to the contemporary autistic mind. The Baltimore Catechism does a thorough job of explaining the “what” of the fall of humanity from grace. We aim, with the help of St. Thorlak’s theology of merciful love, to explain “why” - because, without a sense of why, the Catechism reads increasingly like a book of arbitrary rules... which speaks little to autistics and non-autistics alike.
Reference: Lesson Five, Questions 39-49.
Please continue praying with us, that the cause of St. Thorlak may be discerned as worthy of conferring on him the title PATRON SAINT OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Four of the Baltimore Catechism turns now toward God’s creatures. The first two questions review:
32. Q: Who created Heaven, Earth and all things?
33. Q: How did God create Heaven and Earth?
A: God created Heaven and earth from nothing, by His word; that is, a single act of His will.
Now it gets a little more interesting.
34. Q: Which are the chief creatures of God?
A: The chief creatures of God are angels and humankind.
35. Q: What are angels?
A: Angels are pure spirits without a body, created to adore and enjoy God in Heaven.
36. Q: Were angels created for any other purpose?
A: The angels were also created to assist before the Throne of God and to minister unto Him; they have often been sent as messengers from God to humanity; and are also appointed our guardians.
37. Q: Were the angels, as God created them, good and happy?
A: The angels, as God created them, were good and happy.
38. Q: Did all the angels remain good and happy?
A: All the angels did not remain good and happy; many of them sinned and were cast into Hell; and these are called devils or bad angels.
Angels are certainly well-depicted in pop culture. As most imagery goes, angels are large, winged, human-like creatures said to come down from the heavens. They can be visible or invisible, and are most often (but not always) benevolent. Pop culture’s angels are the celestial counterpart to fairies, who are smaller, winged, human-like creatures said to rise from the earth and can likewise be seen, unseen, kindly or malicious.
The Baltimore Catechism speaks of none of these attributes, instead stating that God created the angels for His delight in Heaven. Implied in questions 32-38 are several points of note:
Let us look now systematically at the attributes which the Catechism names regarding angels.
This entire topic seems by itself an interesting study in God’s creatures. However, it sets the stage for understanding what the Catholic church teaches about the roots of good and evil in the tangible world we live in. Though the existence of angels and devils remains unseen and cannot readily be proven using the scientific method, accepting their existence does provide a logical foundation for much of what is to come. For many, it is a stretch. For all, it is why we call it “faith.”
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Three of the Baltimore Catechism takes on the mystery of One God in Three Persons. Scholars and theologians have worked with this conundrum since the beginning of Christianity. While we claim no superiority or edge in offering our explanation, we hope that we can present the concept in a way that enhances our pursuit of faith.
21. Is there but one God?
22. Why can there be but one God?
The Catechism says there can only be one God because God is supreme and perfect, and has no equal. It is a matter of definition. Since God is the exemplar of perfection, and is the source of all else that exists, He is a single point which cannot be duplicated. If we were talking branding, which we certainly are not, God is universally recognized as unique and unable to be repeated. His perfection (and the fact that He is the creator of all things) transcends patent, trademark and copyright. There is no possibility of a knockoff, clone or generic formula which could even come close enough to be called “God.” It is not a matter of supremacy; it is a matter of recognition by all of creation that God’s essence is beyond anything which could ever be manufactured.
23. How many persons are there in God?
A: In God there are three divine persons, really distinct and equal in all things: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Catechism adds in Questions 30 and 31 that we can never fully understand how this is; only in partial glimpses and analogy. The full comprehension of this concept remains a mystery, which is defined as a truth we do not yet understand.
There is so much already written about the Trinity that readers are better off exploring this on their own than trying to learn it here. The better part, here, is to present a recurring theme in the Catholic faith, which is comfort with the unknown.
Autistics are known for concrete, predictable and logical thinking. Uncertainty can be an autistic’s archnemesis. So, the first point we want to make is that there is no uncertainty in discussing the Trinity. We are quite certain that there are three distinct and equal persons in one God. This, to us, is not up for question.
The HOW becomes the sticking point. Many want a solid explanation in order to accept the conclusion. But, just as scientific research must accept in part the unknown, so too our faith must accept that we humans have neither terminology nor paradigm to relate to something as utterly impossible as one entity consisting of three distinct, equal persons. Every known creature has a one-to-one correspondence with its essence, whether human or plant or animal. No species has been discovered which has multiple distinct, separate and equal essences. Even if we looked to the extremes, we’d find that polymorphic organisms or multiple personalities do not express the full criteria of distinct, separate and equal all of the time. Scientific research requires faith, or trust that a truth exists even if we have not yet reached it. Our second point is that something is not negated just because its explanation has not been found.
One (autistic) person’s suggestion of the HOW of the Trinity employs geometric imagery:
Finally, WHY? Why have three distinct, equal persons? Well, we don’t know… not definitively, anyway. But, sticking with our answer from the past two posts, we believe it fits our notion that God is the essence of love, personified. Love cannot exist by itself; neither can God. Once again, there is much to be explored by readers on the theme of love within the Holy Trinity. Two such articles, written by our spiritual director Fr. Mark Nolette, explore this topic in greater detail:
First, by way of the teachings of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love” :
Then, this, by way of reflecting on the Gospel of John:
Most Holy Trinity: Enlighten us!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
In exploring God’s infinite perfection, the Baltimore Catechism leads us to three more attributes to ponder, and all in one sentence. Question 20 of Lesson Two explores the style in which God governs his creation by asking if God is just, holy and merciful. The answer given is a threefold, interrelated “yes,” with each attribute explicitly defined:
Just: Providing what is deserved, whether merit or punishment
Holy: Exalted in goodness
Merciful: Less exacting than justice demands
The Baltimore text gives an example of a judge in a court of law who is motivated by wisdom and virtue. A criminal found guilty in this court will be sentenced according to what is right – no more, no less. Occasionally, circumstance will arise where the person’s guilt is mitigated by factors beyond control, such as impaired thinking, ignorance of the law or extreme and immediate need. In such cases, a just judge would show mercy by overriding the typical sentence with something more fitting, and in no way does this suggest the judge is corrupt or bending any rules. A just judge follows the rules. A holy judge asks what is morally right. A merciful judge considers each person’s humanity and frailty, and keeps or adjusts decisions based on what will lead that person to a better way of life.
When taken together, these three attributes form a solid platform of checks and balances. Any overreliance on one detracts from the ability of the others to achieve their intention. God’s justice is no less real than God’s mercy, yet neither dominate, nor do they switch off and on. All three operate simultaneously at any given moment: justice and mercy bound together in holiness. However many sermons, books and homilies may focus on one aspect over the other, the reality is a constant, perfect and simultaneous triad.
Our post last week considered God in the spiritual tradition of St. Thorlak, which portrays Him against the backdrop of His purpose, which is LOVE. God brought creation into existence with love, through love and for love… so, it ought to follow that God governs creation likewise: with love, through love and for love. This is where we can find a solution among those who assert one aspect of God’s governance over another (that is, the fire-and-brimstone image on the one hand, and the none-are-ever-condemned image on the other). LOVE is what motivates and binds justice, holiness and mercy into one cohesive truth. 1 John 4:18 shows how this works: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” If God is wrathful, there is reason to be afraid – either fearing God’s punishment for what we have done, or fearing that we can never reach or maintain a level of goodness to stay in the safe zone out of God’s way. Likewise, if God holds none of us to any standard of virtue, nothing in any other part of the catechism, or any religious teaching, makes sense. Some will say that Jesus’ death erased sin and guarantees salvation for all, even to the point of eliminating the concept of hell or damnation. That also fails to hold up under scrutiny and test, and it gives rise to a different kind of fear – that of everyone making up their own rules, justifying themselves without consequence, and gradually losing sight of the common good.
Perfect love casts out fear. If God is the essence of love, there ought to be no fear or chaos in God’s governance. The triad of justice and mercy bound by holiness is perfectly balanced, with neither fear of wrath nor moral chaos. Loving justice defends those who are abused and restores what is taken by holding abusers accountable. Loving mercy considers those who stand accused and invites them to choose the better way before the evil of their actions is locked in. Both exist simultaneously. Nobody loses. Those who decline God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of justice… and, those who accept God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of mercy.
Next week: The Holy Trinity
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Two of the Baltimore Catechism outlines the characteristics of God which most of us have heard in one way or another. Most of these qualities are beyond anything we can relate to in human terms:
Without anything like this in our concrete reality, it falls to our imaginations to construct our idea of God. That presumes, however, that we have a well-functioning imagination. Many of us do not, and even who do still find this far past the range of speculation. It often seems that our concept of God comes out like the mythical gods of long ago: Giant, thunderous, demanding, frightful in abject perfection (with ourselves, by comparison, looking like wretched fools or worse). In other scenarios, God ends up like a forerunner of Santa Claus, a benevolent grandfather figure who sees everything we do, knowing all that we feel, think and say, and exists to dispense gifts to us based on our merit. Imagining God can feel like living in a snow globe, existing solely for God’s amusement – or abandonment when He tires of watching us. It gets to be such absurdity that we eventually dismiss the whole thing as either too big to imagine, or outright fiction. Autistics particularly struggle with the contradiction of concrete realities which consist of abstract qualities. Perhaps, then, we might start with the implications of God rather than trying to comprehend His descriptions. St. Augustine took this approach in his teachings, and over the centuries, he would influence many others, including our own St. Thorlak. How did he – a scholar, and also a likely autistic – present these heady realities of God to the medieval Catholics of Iceland, few of whom were literate, all of whom labored day and night to survive on fishing and farming in an unreliable and punishing climate?
Thorlak’s intellectual leaning was a peculiarity to his fellow Icelanders, including those at the Oddi, the center of Icelandic scholarship. He found his niche 1,359 miles (2,187 km) abroad, studying theology at the renowned Abbey of St-Victor in Paris. He never intended to subsist on academia, though. Thorlak was eager to return to his homeland with the mission of bringing this marvelous knowledge of God to those unable to pursue theology. And, in the way many fellow autistics have of drawing out profoundly simple yet powerful solutions to confounding complexities, Thorlak showed a way to see the unseeable God by using the backdrop of His purpose: LOVE.
In that manner, then, let us employ the Catechism’s list of attributes to understand not a demanding deity, not an indifferent toymaker in the sky, but One who embodies and defines the essence of love.
We, being human, have the limits of our minds and senses; thus, the first three attributes reflect the limits to how we can know God. God is spiritual, perfect and infinite. Spiritual suggests He exists within the interior and unseen realm, the experience itself of being. One of the earliest translations of “spirit” is “breath.” We can think of God as the breath that says “yes” to all that has existed, exists now, and will exist far beyond our participation. Perfect means complete, whole, without flaw. Infinite: God encompasses the totality of all that is. Since creation is very much alive and unfolding, that totality is not finished, nor can we comprehend how far back it goes or how far ahead it will go on.
Without beginning, without end… everywhere… all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful: These are, in one sense, embellishments on the notion of being infinite. God’s essence and intentionality infuses and sustains all creation, which includes us and the world around us and the universe in which our world exists. But more specifically, these reflect the intentionality of God. He exists not just to exist, but to be, see, know and act. Why?
What if the answer is love? If God is love’s very essence, then creation is the expression of joy so ripe that it had to be given form. The “love” that is God is that creative love underpinning the interests which propel our spirits. God’s love is no mere greeting card sentiment. God’s love is all-consuming, all-knowing, all-seeing and without end. God’s love of the very notion of humanity and earth and universe, and all its intricacies, is indistinguishable from God Himself, and exceeds the capacity of God to remain statically fixed or detached. It is such a burning drive that God, unable to be contained, brought it all into being to experience it.
Repeat: God did not simply imagine us. The delight He took in imagining us was so consuming that He was moved to experience us. Hence, God actively sees, knows and empowers what He has given form and substance.
Autistics know the difference between thinking about something and experiencing that intense rapture which drives us, draws us forward, consumes our minds and feels like the meaning of life itself. Onlookers call this our “special interest.” We go along with that terminology because it avoids degrading our joy into something pejorative, like “obsession,” but it grossly dismisses how greatly that joy affects us. (To the point, who would ever gaze upon a loved one and whisper, “You are my special interest?”)
With “love” as God’s backdrop, we see that he is neither dictator nor spy in the sky. God supplies all, designs all and sustains all because He is love which cannot be contained.
This may still be too much to comprehend or believe, especially when we look around and see everything that is NOT love. Where did all the mess come from, and why does God not step in and clean it up for us? We will continue this discussion as we explore more of the Catechism. In the meantime, let us recall that list in answer to the question, “In what manner does God love us?”
Spiritually. Perfectly. Infinitely. Without beginning or end. Everywhere. Seeing and knowing all, and loving us with all His power.
The Autistic Works of Mercy
Many are familiar with the Christian practices known as “The Works of Mercy.” There are two groups of such acts, divided into corporal (actions producing physical benefit to others) and spiritual (actions producing or demonstrating moral benefit to others). The traditional corporal and spiritual works of mercy are drawn from Scripture and have been taught since the earliest centuries of Christianity.
“Mercy” itself is an interesting choice of wording. Why aren’t these called “acts of kindness,” for instance? Kindness is implied in mercy, yes, but these go beyond being nice; they risk being nice when it is not necessary by giving the benefit of the doubt. They extend kindness unearned… maybe even undeserved. Rather than pausing to gauge worthiness or eligibility, mercy acts now, out of sheer, foolish love. For example: The first corporal work of mercy urges us to “feed the hungry.” Common decency does not let anyone go hungry if we can help it. Common courtesy offers someone food when it’s mealtime. But are we obligated to offer someone food when we were not expecting to, or when they will make no effort to contribute anything in return? Technically, no. “Mercy” is one up from “kindness,” going ahead even when there are acceptable reasons not to.
When it comes to autism, there is a good-sized gap between people’s expectations and our shortfall in meeting them. Some of this is just the way it works out. Some has to do with the invisibility of our limitations. Much depends on pre-existing notions, information and attitudes, along with the dynamics of each situation and how far people are willing to extend themselves past what they originally thought was “right.”
Autism was not written about in Biblical times, of course. But it is both discussed and better understood today, and as such, there are ways in which mercy can be both demonstrated and shown through autistic lenses. These imperatives, these Autistic Works of Mercy, can be studied in scriptural context just as well. They are ways of extending mercy to autistic people, and they can be merciful acts performed by autistic people. These acts apply to anyone, from any walk of life, having any neurotype. Thus, these are acts of mercy inspired by autism, but ultimately, applicable to all.
THE AUTISTIC WORKS OF MERCY
Believe the unseen
Autism is a largely interior, invisible state of being, even when our traits are noticeable. If someone speaks of their autism, expressing surprise might be a natural response – but a merciful response will assure that we believe what is said. “The unseen” refers to the interior workings of a person’s mind: their intentions, their emotions, their imagination, their wishes and their yearnings. An autistic person is pondering and processing an enormous amount of information at any given moment, and so, their facial expression, communication or outward behavior may look like they are in serious thought (because, they are). Facial expressions will not convey even a fraction of what is actively going on within the heart and mind. It is an act of mercy to acknowledge that our inner world is real, alive and thriving – even when others can’t see it or know what is happening there. Avoid being quick to criticize those whose outward actions are hard to interpret. Raise our expectations, and allow others show us what we do not yet realize.
Honor the boundary
This would be much easier if people made boundaries clear from the beginning (in which case, we’d simply honor them, even when we had other ideas). Many times, however, people do not stop and think about their limits, and few people state them explicitly upfront. There is a very simple workaround for this, and that is: ASK FIRST. Then, honor. By asking, we not only extend courtesy to a person’s boundaries, but we might also help them know where their limits are… and, we offer the gift of mutual respect as we do.
Invite the reluctant
This is crucially needed among the autistic community. On any given day, our social energy gets used up quickly by things that are not necessarily fun or fulfilling, yet we have the same needs for connection and enjoyment as everyone else. It takes an enormous amount of resolve, energy and skill to put ourselves in situations most people take for granted. There are some days we just can’t. There are others where we are willing to push. Then, there are days when we are ready and able. We can’t often tell far in advance which kind of day we’ll have until we are there. We also may not know how to join in an existing group or how to express interest in an activity that is unfamiliar. Being invited is a huge, huge gift – even when we do not accept that invitation. Why? Because it reminds us that we matter, that we are valuable, and it gives us something to work toward. (Extending to us the freedom to accept or decline an invitation is a way of honoring our boundaries, by the way!) Even if we have said “no” ten out of ten times, please, invite us again. Our needs may feel intimidating, but please, let us decide if it’s too much or just right. The willingness to include us is a true gift.
Recognize the struggle
This is an opportunity to remember that autism is not devastating, but it can be very exhausting and discouraging. Ordinary tasks can feel like uphill battles. Having to explain our needs (sometimes, not realizing them ourselves) and keep up at the pace of everyone else takes a toll quickly on our health and functioning. When we reach a point of saying we need a break or that we are done for today, we mean it. We are not trying to cut corners; in fact, it can be quite humbling to admit we can’t go any further right now… and, a tremendous gift to be able to say that in a place where we will receive support and encouragement for when we start up again.
Quiet the heckler
This is the only work of mercy here whose outcome is out of our control. If we think of ourselves at a performance where an audience member begins disrupting those on stage, we are largely unable to prevent their outburst. Even security cannot guarantee silence from hecklers. What we can do, however, is express our disapproval of their behavior and ask them to refrain from further disruptions. Or, if that heckling happens to be in our own voice, we can stop being disorderly… or hold off saying anything in the first place.
If we paid a great deal of money for tickets to see a performer who is not living up to our expectations, we may be theoretically justified in complaining. But are we ever actually justified in disrupting someone who has the right to be doing what they are doing, even if they are doing it poorly? What about those genuinely giving all that we have, even when it is not enough for those around us?
There is a great difference between feedback and heckling. People are entitled to let us know when we need to do something differently or better in line with expectations. But heckling is a form of shaming, and it is demoralizing to endure aggressive and rude comments when we are running short, whether our performance is on a paid stage or in the ordinary company of our peers. Chances are, we know we are failing. Verbal shaming does nothing but cultivate resentment, isolation and hostility. Let our voices remain merciful when the need for feedback arises.
Offer interpersonal rest
Autism and spoon theory have much in common. Autistics begin with a limited amount of interpersonal energy each day, and each task uses our available units until our energy is gone and we need to recharge. Some days we start out with a full battery. Others, we have not fully recharged before jumping in. Some tasks require only a little energy; others deplete our supply after only a few minutes. Freedom to rest allows us to recharge and function more fully when we return. Our need to rest from interpersonal activities is very real, and offering this gift shows a true interest in our wellness – which we do not often encounter, especially when our need to stay home or sit quietly is seen as something wrong or an affront to those who are more inclined to interact. Offering us rest is a true sign of friendship.
Embrace the irregular
Every one of us has a set of patterns we know and follow. We have our own rules, preferences and sense of what is good. We also carry a rough sketch of our expectations for what will happen and what the people around us will do. Life does not always cooperate with our plans, however; nor do those with whom we live and work and encounter in our daily doings. Some people do things in completely different ways than we expect. We can become outraged or impatient when things seem too different. Sometimes, irregularities are objectively wrong for the situation. Most times, they are just… different. For those times when different is just different, letting it go can cultivate peace instead of strife… and, can help us feel accepted and valuable, even when we know we are different.
One last word for those of us on the autism spectrum:
Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves can be hard to comprehend. Many days, autistics feel like we are asked to conform to other people’s expectations, which puts our neighbors BEFORE ourselves. We have difficulty finding that balance between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs (or, expectations) of others. Perhaps these works of mercy can be a beginning, for those of us who are autistic, to understand how God desires us to be treated. Perhaps we can learn to love better by extending these acts, first, to ourselves, and letting that be the example for how to love our neighbor.
- Aimée O’Connell, T.O.Carm.
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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