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.
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