Objective #4: To make people aware that resisting these needs [that is, our human needs to be known and loved] limits our experience of God.
The Christian world looks this week upon the Passion of Christ, revisiting the story in deep meditation leading up to Easter. As the Passion readings are proclaimed, perhaps we will hear some of our themes, perhaps for the first time in this context. It is striking, for instance, to consider how quickly Jesus’ captors accused Him without taking many steps to fully understand Him. It also stands out that His words frightened and angered many, yet they did not permit him dignity even in being difficult to comprehend. Jesus’ accusers could easily have rejected His claims and been done with it, but they left civility and logic far behind as they mocked, ridiculed and physically assaulted Jesus – well before his criminal sentence of scourging and crucifixion was carried out.
This speaks loudly to the need to be loved. What about the need to be known?
The daily Scripture readings leading up to the Passion and Death of Jesus describe numerous encounters Jesus has with critics who become increasingly hostile to the point of threatening violence. Jesus is questioned directly and answers in ways that are tied to Scripture (and are therefore recognizable by scholars of the day) but are not at all straightforward by today’s standards. Furthermore, prior to His final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus repeatedly leaves the assemblies unnoticed, avoiding those who want to seize Him right then and there to have Him killed.
But then, we find ourselves at Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Feast of Passover. As He made His way to Jerusalem, Jesus was recognized and hailed as a hero. He did not hide from the crowd, nor did He make any attempt to diminish His identity. In fact, in Luke 19, Jesus seems to accept the loud cheering as inevitable, as something the crowd needed to do, remarking that if they were to be silenced, the very stones along the roadside would begin cheering – so great was that need to be filled. Jesus knew that He was a public figure and a public target. So, why did He give in and accept the attention being poured out upon Him, when it led exactly where He knew it would: to His public arrest, trial, torture and death?
Although we are skipping the richness of the theology at hand when we use this answer from our Objectives, let us say simply: Resisting being known limits our experience of God.
Better still, we might expound further that resisting being known limits our full potential to experience what God has imagined for us.
Many, many, many people resist being known. We will take a good amount of time to explore this in greater depth over this and the upcoming weeks because it is a condition few realize and to which even fewer give much thought. It is something every person experiences, to some degree, but is a more particular and ongoing struggle for people affected by autism. Social anxiety, sensory overload, misunderstanding behavior and difficulty coping can make anonymity seem like a necessary oasis… but, if we may starkly come back to our Mission, resisting being known limits our experience of God. If we are determined to end spiritual starvation, we must pick up and search for a better way.
Our spiritual role model, Saint Thorlak, lived this struggle. Historical literature candidly describes the holy priest Thorlak as quiet, reluctant to socialize, dreadful of crowds and festive gatherings. Most remarkable is the story of how Thorlak, who had gone from priest to monk to Abbot of the monastery in Þykkvibaer, felt a stirring in his heart to submit his name to the general assembly being called at the Althing whereby the successor to the current bishop would be chosen. He did not like traveling as a rule, and he especially did not like to go where he could be recognized. As it happened, Thorlak attended the assembly largely from the sidelines, watching the two other candidates speak and receive endorsements from important political figures. It was just as well to him, as he had no prominent entourage backing him. Just when he thought he had fulfilled his obedience to the interior call and could return, unnoticed, to his monastery life, someone mentioned his name in the public discussion and the attention turned to this surprising third candidate. A discontented buzz went through the crowd as people began questioning why Thorlak was being considered in the first place, if he had not even stepped forward to introduce himself by name. The wealthy landowner Þorkell Geirason, who had donated the land on which the monastery in Þykkvibaer had been established, spoke up at last: “Thorlak strives to do everything best rather than talk most.”
Shortly thereafter, the sitting bishop chose Thorlak as his successor. Lord Abbot Thorlak became Bishop Thorlak in 1174, and his leadership was so remarkably different than the other bishops of his time that he is still remembered, celebrated and emulated worldwide 844 years later.
Our point is, if Thorlak had remained anonymous, he may have fulfilled the call to present himself to the assembly, but his experience of God’s imagined plan for his life would have been greatly limited – perhaps even thwarted.
Did Thorlak like attention? Not one bit. Did he want his name bandied about? No. Was he happiest when he was unrecognized? Yes. In fact, there are many stories recorded of acts he did in secret because he did not seek praise or notoriety. It pained him to put his name on things – presumably because he saw that the glory should go to God, or should be shared equally with the people he loved serving. Bishop Thorlak benefited more from the company of the poor and the shunned than they benefited from his wealth, and he did not think it fair to be praised when he felt it was he who got the better end of the deal.
We conclude with a paradox that fits seamlessly into the always paradoxical scheme of Saint Thorlak’s ways: Sometimes, voluntary humility requires making your name known rather than hiding behind someone else’s.
Sometimes, voluntary humility requires us to ride in the open toward the plan God has in mind for us.
Hosanna! Lead us, Lord, to deliverance!
Pray: Did you know that “Hosanna,” though a form of praise, means “lead us to deliverance” when literally translated? We repeat, then, this week’s prayer: Hosanna!
Contemplate: Consider how anonymity thwarts God’s fundamental design with these two Scripture verses: Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you each by name, and you are Mine;” and Romans 9:28, “God does not enumerate us, but calls each by name.”
Relate: How often do you call people by name? How often do you identify by your own name? How often do we hide behind a different name (or social media handle, or avatar, or job title…) to conceal our vulnerability?
To make people aware that resisting our needs limits our experience of God
Our next objective finds us at a very familiar place. We frequently visit the subject of need as a supply pipeline, a gateway to mercy and a means of connection. Each of these elements, we have said, is an avenue to experience God; but have we truly paused to consider what we mean by “experiencing God?”
This gets tricky very quickly. Each individual person experiences God as an individual, as much as all individuals experience all things individually. The same vanilla ice cream will be experienced differently by as many people who sample it. There will surely be people who have similar, or nearly identical experiences – because, after all, we are all made up of the same “stuff” that makes people what we are – but each experience will ultimately be uniquely and infinitely definable, down to the tiniest nuance, unto each separate individual.
So it goes with God. What really complicates things is that God is invisible; discernible, but intangible; singular in concept, but infinite in existence. Ice cream, by comparison, is measurable and finite. Infinite variables experienced infinitely by individuals is just too infinite to try and condense into a pamphlet called “What to Expect When Experiencing God.” To further complicate things, we are all at different places in our spiritual lives, some at great heights, some rejecting spirituality altogether, and most of us scattered somewhere in between. How can a group of Missionaries claim anything about helping or hindering our experience God?
Let this be very clear: We are not selling any absolutes, any guarantees or any formulas. We are following a string of “ifs” which seems (to us) to logically hang together.
IF we all have human needs to be recognized and understood;
IF God has that same need, for us to recognize and understand Him;
IF “need” is a channel through which human connection flows;
IF God Himself is our Origin and Source, found at the very first link in our chain of connectedness;
We would expect that, the more we actively practice embracing our needs, the more likely we are to experience connection with others;
The more likely we are to experience connection to God through our connections with others.
This is a vital and defining element of our Missionary philosophy. We are out to help people connect with God, but rather than preaching a way to do that directly, one on one, we are suggesting a different route: connecting with God, eventually, by first connecting well with others.
Why take an indirect approach, when our core philosophy demands sincerity? Let us assure you, we ARE being quite sincere. We sincerely think that, in many cases, the indirect approach is more effective than flying straight toward something we are not prepared to handle.
Consider these points:
And so, here we are. We offer this as an alternative route, as a proposal to see if the Way of Saint Thorlak is a way that takes us to God slowly, gently, with plenty of support and practice and small steps along the way. Those of us familiar with autism spectrum disorders know what it looks and feels like to be in a state of sensory overload and anxiety hijack. These are very real experiences, and certainly not exclusive to those affected by autism. Imagine, then, being curious about God but feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, disempowered, excluded, overlooked or too different to fit in. Imagine saying things like, “I’d like to know God better, but God would not like me. I do things, I think things, I like things that are way out there.” Maybe so. Maybe, too, we have heard that such “things” are explicitly opposed to God or the church we heard them discussed in.
It would not be the first time that has ever happened.
Nor does it mean that our comforts and preferences should be automatically approved by God “if” God loves us.
It does mean that, no matter what we think, or like, or want to do, God thirsts to be known and understood.
If we presumed to put words in God’s mouth, they might be, “Before you write Me off, please, see first where I am coming from. For my part, I will never write you off. I may not approve one bit of your desires, but that is because I can see further and wider than any big picture you can see. Can you at least learn about My intended design before making up your mind?”
Furthermore, the standards by which we define civil behavior apply no less to the way we approach our concept of God. “Our needs” include the need to not be mocked, ridiculed, belittled or disabled by the words or actions of others. It is just as wrong to make those gestures toward God. In this way, resisting our need – our need to be human toward one another – does indeed limit our potential experience of God.
This week’s Missionary Thought is likely to stir up questions and strong feelings. We conclude here with two very important closing items:
We repeat once more that our purpose is to foster understanding and connection. If our Catholic loyalty is a stumbling block for some, we respect that. We also hope, sincerely, that readers will extend to us the same purpose, to foster understanding and connection… for, we believe, it is through connecting with one another that we will all mutually begin to experience God in new and enlightening ways.
Pray: God, Father: Help me to see You in the connections I have, and the connections I form.
Contemplate: Is it the case that I need God, or that God needs me, in order to experience Him? Is there a distinction?
Relate: How does connecting with people around me help me to better approach God?
Colossians 1:15 "Jesus is the image of the invisible God…"
As we dwell some more on our Objective #3, which is to make people aware that our innate need to connect with others springs from God's thirst to be known and loved, we take this week to think a little more about God.
The quest for knowledge has been part of the human condition since it could first be recorded. There is knowledge we gain from the things before us, which our senses observe, and then the knowledge of things unseen, which we often must infer based on contrast. Forces, waves, powers, concepts – few of these are observable unless we observe the space around them. Some things can only be perceived in the surrounding of something else… or in the absence of something else. “Loneliness,” for example, is at once an experience, a concept, a physical sensation and a desire – perceived only when there is an absence or loss.
All of us, all neurotypes, put our trust more readily in things seen than unseen. It is common sense. If we see something, it is probably there. If more than one of us sees something, it is more probably there. If throngs of people see something, comment on something, and interact with that something, we can fairly safely conclude: it is really there.
So, what, then, of people who go unnoticed… unseen… unheard… for whatever the reason may be?
What must we conclude about people who are passed by, overlooked, deliberately ignored, aggressively excluded, too anxious to speak up, too overwhelmed to look up, left behind because going would be too taxing… ?
It is logically absurd to say that such people are invisible in the truest sense of the word. But, for those who relate to these scenarios, there is hardly a better term to describe the experience. We may be tangibly present, but we may as well be invisible.
Here is where debate usually breaks out. Who is responsible for invisible individuals? Is it my job to learn to speak up, or your job to stop and notice me? What’s wrong with being invisible if I like it that way?
It does require two elements to achieve invisibility: The positive, and the negative; the principle object, and the surroundings. A third element, circumstance, completes the picture, and a fourth, desire, sets it in motion.
But enough philosophy. Let’s talk God.
“God” is one of those concepts we infer based on emotional or spiritual signs and experiences. For the most part, God is invisible… as invisible as any one of us feels when, for whatever reason, we are unnoticed.
Saint Paul writes that Jesus, the tangible human being, is the “image of the invisible God.” That held true for the thirty-three years Jesus was materially alive on earth… but in the centuries that have passed since Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, God has once more taken the invisible station beside our tangible senses.
Is it any surprise, then, that our third objective suggests that God thirsts to be noticed?
If we may allow such a comparison, God Himself – invisible source of life – waits to be noticed in the same ways we do.
The quiet among us, the marginalized, the misunderstood, the anxious – are still there, even if we only have traces of them to remind us. Even when we only can see evidence of them instead of speaking with these people directly. Even when we only keep a faint recollection of them; or when we wonder if, in their silence, they even care at all.
The face of God is invisible, yet is present even ordinarily among us… in other people individually (1 Corinthians 3:16), in our connections with one another (Matthew 18:20) and in Holy Communion (John 6:32–71).
Objective #3 asks that we consider how our need to be recognized is echoed in God’s need to be recognized. Or - perhaps - God's need to be recognized is echoed in ours. Perhaps our need can serve a purpose of reminding us to look for God in the negative space. With great delight, may we realize that God's need and ours are fulfilled simultaneously as we extend ourselves in willing connection. By seeking to connect with others, we can’t help but encounter the invisible God. All we need, then, is to remember that He is an integral part of every connection.
Pray: God, Father – show me where You are, before me, today!
Contemplate: Let us consider how God, the All-Powerful, All-Seeing Source of Life, when unnoticed… places Himself in exactly the same position, with the same longing, as any one of us when we are unnoticed.
Relate: Focus this week on our own willingness to seek connection – recalling that each connection is an opportunity to acknowledge the invisible God.
We are still on Objective #3 of our Missionary directives, to make people aware that our common human need to be known and loved springs from God’s thirst for us to know and love Him. We have gone through the important theological underpinnings and are now taking one more week to ponder what this means in more practical terms.
Our needs spring from God’s thirst to be known and loved.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak speaks of hunger, more than thirst, but the two are intertwined, as anyone knows. We might argue that “thirst” speaks to something more constant throughout our day, while “hunger” is something whose satisfaction lasts longer between each revisiting. THIRST is a frequent, eager desire. It can be both craving and physiological relief, comforting habit and momentary refreshment. Hydration is universally marketed, and beverages make up giant portions of our social structure, from water coolers to coffee shops, from public taverns to sporting events. Flavored, fizzy, hot or cold, thirst is something we rarely do alone or without anticipated delight.
In our Missionary conceptualization, people hunger; God thirsts.
The two most familiar instances we hear of God’s thirst is Jesus’ quote from the Cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28) and the same phrase repeated by Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the telling of how she came to form the order of the Missionaries of Charity. We lean more toward the second instance, reiterating Mother Teresa’s devotion as a means of recognizing God’s need as one that is as frequent and eager.
“Drinking” itself is a concept seen throughout Sacred Scripture. We see it used as an analogy for fully entering into and partaking of an experience in Matthew 20:22 and Luke 22:42.
“God’s thirst,” then, is His eager desire to fully partake in the experience of us.
Conceptually speaking, how does that relate to our day to day doings? If God created us, how can He NOT experience us?
Just as people can co-exist and observe one another without ever interacting, so too it can be that we can exist here, created by God, but never really engage with Him.
How does one engage with God?
By using the faculties we ordinarily use, for everything else that we ordinarily do.
This is a challenging concept for a lot of people, especially those whose faculties do not ordinarily favor interaction and engagement, and also for those who rely on tangible, concrete experiences because conceptualizing abstract information is particularly difficult. Many of us, in fact, fall into that second group, and it is for this reason we take comfort in remembering that God’s essence dwells in each of His creatures – and so, interacting with others is, in part, an interaction with God, through the indirect route of His intrinsic nature. Put another way, the more we interact with others, the more we accumulate our experience of God’s essence.
Interaction with others need only be on the smallest scale:
This list could go on indefinitely. But, how can these gestures translate into acknowledging God? As simply as:
Are these mind-games, or tricks, or spiritual exercises? None of the above. These are genuine ways to engage with the invisible God, who may be invisible but is no less real. It is an awakening of the forgotten art of practicing the Presence of God, such as that made popular by the French Carmelite Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
People hunger; God thirsts. It is easier to fetch someone a cup of water than to make them a full meal. In His wisdom and goodness, God thirsts for our company: He eagerly wishes for our acknowledgment, a little at a time, in manageably small increments. He does not await a twelve course meal. He asks only for a cup of ourselves, every now and again, which He drinks in full partaking and experience of our person every time we do.
Pray: This week, let us make our prayer by greeting the invisible God in our ordinary doings.
Contemplate: Refresh or familiarize ourselves with the thoughts of Brother Lawrence on the Presence of God. These writings are available here.
Relate: This week, observe how easily (or with what difficulty) we may incorporate God into our ordinary interactions.