The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking: Serving God
"Knowing, loving and serving God in this life" are the first three reasons given for God creating us in the first place. As much as we have systematically looked at these as an interconnected process, there still remains the fact that most of us take all of these in one bite. We are here to know, love and serve God. That word "serve" puts quite a spin on the first two, doesn't it? Let us imagine, in utter absurdity, inviting a total stranger to a lavish dinner. Afterwards, we approach our guest with this greeting: "Hello! Did you like your food? Was everything to your satisfaction? Wonderful! I invited you here so that you could get to know me. I actually kind of hope you'll come to like me... maybe even one day love me. And then, you get to serve me! What do you think?" As their laughter dies down, our guest would most likely leave - well fed, but never to return.
We do well to ask, "Are they serious?" in reference to the writers of the Baltimore Catechism. It's a pretty bold move to lead off with something that strong. At least give us a little more before revealing the catch, right?
Well, as we saw last week, "serve" does not necessarily mean "submit to" or "do labor for." As we come to know someone, and grow fond of that someone, we tend to extend ourselves for that someone in ways that overlook convenience. It may objectively be a chore to do a favor for someone, but when it's someone we love, and when it's a desire of our hearts, it's not perceived as a chore. The reason is, we freely choose to say "yes" when it's someone we love. Sometimes we even offer before they ask. On the flip side, if our someone was to demand, coerce or accuse in the course of seeking our favor, we might not be so eager. We might refuse, or, if we do the task, harbor a certain measure of resentment.
Free will is key to understanding service. Also, a good dictionary; even a thesaurus!
The Word Web app gives these suggestions for "serve:"
We could substitute any of these, easily, and see how they fit with our willingness to approach God. If he created us to know him, love him and "act to fulfill a purpose for him," that almost seems amazing - that God would have some purpose in mind for us just because we were born. To "do duty for God" seems like we've been chosen, found worthy, passed muster. To "benefit God" is perhaps the best one of all. Could my life really benefit the Creator of the Universe?
Of course, in there too is "be used by," and "promote," and "give a portion to." Yet, again, we would have to objectively see if these things are demanded of us or hoped for from us. When people say that "our God is a God of hope," it is both that God is a source of our hope AND that God hopes we will say "yes." God does not force anything.
Some will still say that this is merely an optimist's view of religion, and that ultimately it still comes down to control. We invite a review of the evidence to see if that bears out, and we will concede any point that definitively proves God forces anything. Since time began people have debated the existence of rules, terms and conditions, since it seems there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to God and Church. This is more or less where "promote" comes in. God did not create us as billboards, necessarily, but more as creatures particularly well able to reflect his goodness and mercy. We can promote the beauty and clarity and integrity of God's order by demonstrating it in action, or we can take liberty with our own interpretations... with the caution that the former rests on trust, and the latter, distrust.
Ultimately, it comes down to a simple choice: "Yes, I trust that God's intentions are pure, beautiful and have my best interests in mind" or "No, I don't trust God, because I think he his ulterior motive is to gain control over me.". One is surrender, which calls for our willingness to risk our vulnerability; one is submission, which accuses God of demanding our freedom from us.
Before we make our choice, consider how each of these attitudes affects our ordinary relationships. How well do we thrive on receiving the trust of others, and how difficult is it to endure the perpetual badgering of the distrustful? One promotes order; the other, disorder.
There's that word again, promote.
Feel free to choose whichever synonym communicates "relationship" best when reading that pivotal sentence, and take it to heart as we ponder our purpose: to know, love and serve God in this life... and then, to be happy with him in the next.
"Next" week will touch on that "next" plank in the platform: the life to come.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking:
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Is there a section of the Baltimore Catechism you find particularly suited to commentary and annotation through the lens of autistic thinking? We welcome submissions and may publish your idea or article in a future Missionary Thought! Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now there is a loaded question, and one asked in many senses. Why are we “here” – right here, right now, in these circumstances? Why are “we” here – why us? And why does God wire some people to have autism? Is it preplanned? Is it a deliberate system hack embedding a hidden superpower? Is it a functional design flaw? Is it a variation? Or is it out of God’s hands, the result of some consequence of the imperfections we must accept living in a fallen world?
“God does not make mistakes!” is often heard where such questions arise. We could rightly spend pages and pages looking at the theology of variation, of suffering and healing; and just as rightly strive to characterize autism as a state of being that includes both strength and weakness. Autism does not predict happiness or success any more than eye color or shoe size, nor does it suggest propensity toward or immunity from the suffering that comes with the human condition. Life is hard. Life with autism is hard. But so is life with size ten shoes. Perhaps it is good to look at why God created any of us, and then consider how our individual variations fulfill that purpose.
Question Six of Lesson One of the Baltimore Catechism may be the best known, most-memorized line of the entire book. Why did God create people? To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy forever with Him in the next.
What does all that mean? Why does that leave a lot of people feeling dissatisfied, unsettled, even angry?
Let’s be real. If we read it with 21st century eyes, we are likely to think God is a narcissist who created us to admire Him and do His bidding. And then, as we pull that thought out further, we consider all the things we are asked to do in the name of God and religion – like pray, go to Mass, and deny ourselves pleasures because God says they are sinful – and many of us want out before we even get started. Add in the hard stuff, and it really starts to look like God has a cruel streak!
The answer to these, and all other such concerns, can be found by knowing God. Like a list of ingredients, the item named first is done so to emphasize its importance: God made people, first and foremost, to know Him. God fashioned our combination of body and soul so that we might consider who He is and what He is like. No matter what issues or doubts we have, this is where we need to start.
How do we know God? How do we KNOW anyone? There are hundreds of ways, each with their own level of depth and detail. The origin of the word “know” suggests it is an act of comparing and contrasting, matching up similarities and distinguishing between differences. Knowledge can come through observation, pondering, reading, listening, discussing and doing. For those of us on the spectrum, factual knowledge is usually our strength. Knowing someone is a little more complicated: it requires proximity, social engagement and the ability to interpret the experience, whether through direct contact, observation or imagination. It’s hard enough to do that with the people around us. How can we engage with someone who is invisible, intangible and immeasurable?
Well, maybe it’s not THAT difficult. Just last week, in spelling out attributes of the human soul, we said: “Each person has a unique, essential spirit… that is invisible, intangible and immeasurable – but is expressed through all that we feel and all that we do.” Come to think of it, those invisible, intangible and immeasurable elements ARE how we know others!
Realistically, knowing others still relies on our five senses taking in data that is tangible and measurable. By seeing the actions, hearing the words and participating in the actions of others, we come to know their character. It takes significantly more detective work to know someone we cannot see, hear or physically engage with.
We really ought not to go any further in our assumptions or conclusions until we give this knowing a fair shot. It may take us awhile. What many people find helpful is not to look forward, but to look backward, back to a time when we might remember experiencing something that reminded us of God, or something someone said was what God is like. Most of us have some kind of notion of “God” from our early childhood, either from what we are taught or what we pick up from what we’ve seen and heard along the way. Many of us remember something that caused us to stop and feel a tremendous sense of awe, or wonder, or wish, that reached beyond ourselves and our senses into that unseen, unknown realm which we intuitively know is there but we just as intuitively know that nobody can see… yet.
If “knowing” is comparing and contrasting, we might do just as well to think of a time in our past when we felt like hiding, or shrinking away, or suddenly covering up something we love because we have a need to protect that love. Those are the moments autistic people know best when someone else makes a comment or a statement (or worse) that pierces a moment of our most oblivious joy with the sharp pain of their ridicule or misunderstanding.
What is it that gets pierced? What is it misunderstood, or ridiculed? Is it us, our very selves? Or is it that sense of joy, or insulation, or innocence, or immersion in something we love to the point of losing ourselves into it? Most of us would agree it is not us, per se, but the love we feel which is ridiculed.
Maybe we cannot sense God when things are running smoothly and people are treating us well. But when we are hurt, what is it that hurts? What is it that we seek after when we hurt, in our earliest childhood? It is an invisible, intangible, immeasurable something. Maybe we can’t define it, but boy, do we feel the pain when it gets injured. That innocent wonder which is wounded when love is ridiculed – it certainly fits the description we’re going for. Could that be God, or God’s likeness, or God’s echo?
If we are facing an obstacle to engaging with our faith, go back to the beginning. Worry about nothing else until we can say, confidently, that we KNOW God. Nothing else will work until that connection is working.
More to come!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking: Lesson One - The Schematic Diagram
What a great time to begin at the beginning. Here we are, Baltimore Catechism in hand, ready to start unpacking the components of the Catholic faith as they were laid out for the people in America in 1885. The book reflects nearly sixty years of prior scholarly discussion aimed at creating a summary and explanation of Catholic doctrine easy enough to present to children and detailed enough to enliven the faith in those teaching it. The resulting work remains a timeless starting point for those seeking to conceptualize what choosing to be Catholic is all about.
God is presented as the Creator of all things: the physical world and the laws of physics; the spiritual nature of beings and the spirit dwelling within each living creature; and every variation of species therein, of both things we see and invisible essences we experience.
People are a subset of God’s creatures who have both physical (body) and spiritual (soul) natures, made especially for the purpose of knowing God and experiencing Him in a direct and specific relationship.
- Each person has a unique, essential spirit, characteristic of their “self,” that is invisible, intangible and immeasurable – but is expressed through all that we feel and all that we do.
- This particular spirit is not simply an animating force, but also contains the person’s core identity, their soul, which, as the Catechism states, “will last as long as God Himself.” In other words, each person’s essence lives forever.
- The soul is more than the energy enlivening the body; it has awareness of itself in relationship to God and the ability to make rational choices rather than encoding patterns purely on instinct or conditioned responses.
- The soul is designed to seek after higher things, better understanding, ever greater knowledge; but the soul cannot know everything by its own power alone. The soul requires God to lead, guide, teach and nurture these yearnings in the relationship for which it was designed.
- Every soul may freely choose to follow God’s order, or to go off on its own, risking the kind of harm that comes from disorder.
We need to pause here and reflect just a bit on the schematic as it relates to people on the autism spectrum. No two people are exactly the same, but within those infinite variations of body and personal essence remains the same purpose, which is growing in knowledge of and relationship with God. (We will get to that next week.) Autistic thinkers tend to approach both knowledge and relationships in our own autistic way, sometimes finding our particular wiring helpful (for instance, in the ways we reflect on and record information) and sometimes needing a little more engineering to understand things as easily as nonautistic thinkers do (such as when our linear, wired-in-series thinking struggles to comprehend the infinite, abundant and parallel functioning of God). Autistic wiring also seems to have unpredictably distributed areas of resistance, capacitance and conductivity, compared to the schematics of more typically wired thinkers. Our energy flow may seem to diminish faster than others, especially when we are functioning in social (parallel-wired) situations. The important point is to be aware of our own, individual wiring and to trust that it was designed that way by God – who did so deliberately, in hopes we would discover Him through that very way he wired us. Comparing ourselves and our wiring to that of anyone else is futile and pointless. If God had wanted us to think like someone else, He would have wired us that way.
Next week, we continue Lesson One, looking next at WHY God created us in the first place.
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