Our weekly Missionary Thoughts are meant to develop the kind of mindset that opens doors, starting with our own. We hope you go as deep as your thoughts will allow - and be surprised by what you find hidden in the silence. Such contemplation is the keystone of this ministry. Contemplative action comes after we ponder something so deeply that we can no longer sit still – we absolutely must chase after that truth we have found so that we can capture it and joyfully experience its realization.
Tears, then: embracing tears, for our bread.
We are lingering here because tears are of such great importance to our work. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak must be willing to feel our emotions to the fullest. Some of us already do. Perhaps others have adopted habits to suppress our emotions for one reason or another, or have gradually forgotten how to feel openly. Let us be very clear: We cannot welcome others with closed doors. Even a partially closed door gives hesitation to the souls around us. We must open our doors in every figurative sense: unlock them, unlatch them, and swing them open as wide as the jambs allow.
As we’ve mentioned before, this does not mean we reveal every hidden aspect of ourselves, and it does not mean we have no boundaries. It means that, for Missionary work, we open the doors to our humanity, through voluntary humility, whenever we seek someone’s friendship.
A good test of this openness is the degree to which we are willing to embrace tears – both our own, and those of others.
This week, we ask you to read over these points, and find the one that provokes the most thought. Maybe it confuses you, or irritates you, or maybe it makes sense with blazing clarity. Once you find it, really study it, and identify how and why it resonates with your desire to join hands with this Mission.
Again, these are thoughts for all Missionaries - those with autism, and those without. We conclude by inviting you to consider how tears open, or close, doors in your own relationships… or, how you would like them to.
Two different times, the Book of Psalms uses this phrasing: “You have fed us with tears for our bread.” Seeing how we are an apostolate concerned with spiritual food, this is a matter of interest for our Missionaries, and is our thought for this week.
A powerful emotional relationship underlies this poetry. “You have fed us…” suggests dependency, particularly that of a child. “Bread” is a universal symbol of comfort and plenty. “Tears for our bread,” then, would be a shocking, even hurtful substitution. Do we assume the psalmist is lamenting that God seems to be sending tribulation instead of peace? Yes, in strictly historical terms. It certainly resonates with those times when we, too, have suffered with things beyond our control and wondered how we ended up with bitter herbs when we expected our daily bread. But let’s linger here, since we know both poetry and Scripture speak on as many layers as humans are complex.
Let’s think about tears. They are salty… wet… warm. An outward sign of our interior emotion.
We most often associate tears with sorrow, but they can also come with laughter, surprise, anger… actually, anywhere that emotions become more intense than our words can express.
We’ve all heard that human beings are the only creatures who shed tears of emotion. We are also programmed to recognize tears as a signal for our attention, starting the moment a child is born. Infants and children rarely suppress their tears, and adults dutifully respond. A gradual shift comes as children mature. Instead of crying easily, adolescents – despite having intense emotions – increasingly feel the need to hide their tears as an act of independence. This is a useful way to practice self-regulation and coping, but it should not imply failure if tears slip out. In fact, it is equally useful to see how peers are moved to compassion when they see you in a moment of high emotion. Adults probably shed the least tears of all the various age groups, but healthy adults still do cry as a part of living, and friends still (usually) respond with care when tears are spotted.
People with autism have a strained relationship with tears.
As you read over this list, it should occur to you that we could remove the words “with autism” and it would still apply to many. Difficulty crying is an “anyone” thing, just as tears themselves are not exclusively an autism thing. People with autism cry for exactly the same reasons as do everyone else. In fact, we’re all familiar with phrases like these (and they didn’t originate on the autism spectrum):
Do tears really make us that vulnerable?
Crying happens when our NEED can no longer be experienced alone.
Crying is not designed to be done in secret. When we cry alone, tears themselves are all we have – just salt and water, which nourishes no-one (and would be toxic if that were all we consumed).
When we allow someone to know our need, however, we give them a gift: the chance to respond, with leaven (= that which moves them to rise), balm (= oil) and sweetness (= sugar) to soothe our distress. Their acts of comfort need be nothing fancy, just simple solidarity – the grains of our experiences mixing with theirs, milling together in a shared moment of understanding (= flour). The warmth of our tears plus the warmth of their giving completes the gesture, and all the components of (spiritual) bread are in place. Tears DO become bread when we share them with others.
[ God feeds us with tears for our bread ] --> No! -->
God feeds us with tears, for our bread.
Note the insertion of the comma. That comma changes everything, and can be put there with a simple act of our consent. It takes a lamentation and turns it into a proclamation.
“God has fed us with tears for [= instead of] our bread” -> becomes ->
“God has fed us with tears [= which contain necessary ingredients], for our bread.”
So, then. Our need, expressed in our tears, can feed our souls and can feed the souls of others…
Each of these “unlesses” can be changed… worked on… remedied… and transformed, as part of our spiritual commitment as Missionaries, including those last two. Autism DOES impact one’s ability to shed tears, and autism DOES impact one’s ability to respond to tears. But, if we take the impact autism has on our ability to cry and respond to crying, and consecrate it [dedicate it to serving God-in-others]… the ensuing love [CARITAS] will make that impossible task possible.
And so, for this week’s thoughts, we ask you to ponder this idea deeply.
Pull it apart, question it.
Let it rest.
Let it rise in your heart.
And let it become your bread.
We lead off this week with a quick word association exercise. Ready?
Imagine you could make a generous contribution toward helping people with ASD. “My focus would be AUTISM _____________ .”
Let us guess. Among the answers that are not registered trademarks, the most common are:
These are all worthy causes and vitally important concepts.
But not ours.
Please, don’t get us wrong. We endorse each cause named above. Who wouldn’t? Acceptance recognizes the triumph of individuals’ efforts to live their best lives under the differences and difficulties that characterize autism. Awareness is an open invitation for others to take the time to understand what living with autism looks and feels like. Treatment offers relief from distress and raises competence in coping. And, although there is no known “cure” for autism as yet, biomedical research continues to advance the three other previously named causes, giving many hope that one day the debilitating symptoms of autism can be eradicated.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak approaches autism by following the lead of our spiritual patron, who met things head on where they were… learned from them… and reformed them.
Wait: AUTISM… REFORM?
Stay with us. You’ll see.
When St. Thorlak was consecrated Bishop of Skalholt, his superior, the Archbishop of Norway, was pleased to have found someone who shared his (unpopular) passion for moral reform in the church. Thorlak was already familiar with the anything-goes mentality of Icelandic priests and leaders. He tried for many years to demonstrate through his own actions that clergy were obligated to observe a higher way of living through serving others, not their own pleasures. He understood that appointment to higher office meant you were chosen and your work to be set apart, made sacred, and dedicated to God’s use.
Now hold on. We realize that autism is not a calling, and not an honor. It is a yoke under which people are placed by the mere configuration of their genes, developmental circumstances and confluence of all other factors which contribute to autism’s expression.
Public office, too, is a yoke. High titles bring privilege, yes, but also obligation, for humble servants and hedonists alike.
Yokes. We’ve heard this before. Who was it that said “Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”?
Is this true? Can we trade in the yokes we are dealt and take up the Yoke of Jesus Christ instead?
The answer is YES. We can. We accomplish this through an act of the will, a conscious choice to take something ordinary, lift it up in prayer, and dedicate it to serving and glorifying God.
Taking your yoke, whatever it is and however burdensome, and dedicating it to the sacred service and glorification of God, is accomplished through consecration.
Historians reflecting on St. Thorlak’s legacy summarize him as “a reformer.” Did he set out with that explicit intention, or was that the consequence of how he lived out his vocation? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that St. Thorlak was a man of voluntary humility. He was strongly convicted and uncompromising, but he was not aggressive. He came from need, not demand.
If St. Thorlak accomplished reform, it was through consecration.
St. Thorlak felt a great love of God from his earliest age. He responded by consecrating his life to God’s service. He never sought high titles, but he did accept them with trepidation and indebted loyalty to the One who commissioned him: first a deacon, then a priest, then a scholar abroad, then an abbot, then a bishop.
St. Thorlak – socially paralyzed, impaired speaker, lover of learning – consecrated what he had to serving God and serving God-in-others. He felt pain when his kinsmen suffered. He hurt when people in authority gave poor example by their greed, unethical dealings, dishonesty, lustful indulgences and disregard for the dignity of women and children. He wanted to help bring remedy to these injustices and help those who suffered the consequences.
St.Thorlak, with the authority of a cleric, dedicated himself and all that he had – ordinary objects, land holdings, people under his tutelage – to serving God-in-others. He dedicated his struggles, triumphs and ordinary daily rituals. He consecrated all to serving God-in-others.
And, people noticed.
People in places high and low noticed he lived differently… quietly… contemplating something bigger than that which was before them. At times he appeared overly serious, and he had an unusual love of rules and order, but he still had a memorable effect on people. He was an unexpected blessing, a gentle burst of oxygen that remained even after he left. He stirred people to see themselves differently because he approached everyone he met as a gift.
Yet - this is someone for whom speaking, even eye contact, was painful!
How did he do it?
He gave himself, struggles and all, in loving obedience to serving God-in-others – and it went from something painful (and something most take for granted) to being a source of blessing for him AND all who received it. Each ordinary, painful encounter became a blessing which brought God-in-him to God-in-others.
Back to us, and our exercise, now.
Bringing God to people in a way that gets their attention… taking real, painful impediments and circumstances, and converting them to pathways to blessing… Yes. That all sounds like “reform.”
And so, our angle, our contribution to helping those affected by autism, is, in fact, “reform.”
Reform, through consecration.
Let us then finish the phrase: Our focus is: Autism CONSECRATED.
Take what we have, however poor, however painful, and dedicate it completely to the service and glorification of God. In America alone, one in 48 people are affected by autism. If we consecrate that, then one in 48 will be blessed… and will bless untold others in each of their circles.
It CAN happen.
If we hear the call.
This week’s Missionary Thought works on many levels. It functions as a tip for people with social anxiety. It gives non-anxious people an idea of how to approach someone whom they have passed by time and again without making it seem forced or awkward. It gives homage to our patron, St. Thorlak, who employed this action every day of his ministry and whose example we recognize as opening doors for people with autism spectrum disabilities. And finally, it is an actual testimony: something that a real person did, difficult as it was, and discovered how to disempower her panic attacks. By the time you’ve read this through, we hope you’ll understand the underlying premise of The Mission of St. Thorlak.
THE SCYTHE OF SAINT THORLAK IN ACTION
Let us review: The Scythe of St. Thorlak, which cuts through the thorns casting shadows of doubt in our unclear minds, is VOLUNTARY HUMILITY.
Here is one way to put this scythe into action, with a little imagination. For those times when you feeling awkward, anxious, withdrawn, unable to speak, or unable to find the on-ramp to join an existing gathering: put on your imaginary reporter’s badge, and go interview someone.
That’s right. Envision your very own press pass. Now, go get the scoop.
What is it about a press pass that emboldens reporters? Have you ever noticed how someone going for the big story has an overflowing measure of confidence? A press pass allows access where people are otherwise shooed away by security and people in charge. A press pass permits you to interrupt, cut in with a question, to be noticed, to announce that you have a need. Instead of being snickered at, talked over, brushed aside – press passes take precedence. They are respected. People not only notice press passes, but they pause to accommodate them.
You, then, take up your press pass. Go up to a situation – a conversation in progress, or a person you’ve never approached before, or a setting that you’ve always avoided – and grab that interview.
SEEK OUT THE STORIES FROM THE MARGINS
If you don’t have a real press pass, don’t forge one (please). Use the Scythe of St. Thorlak instead. Trust us… it will get just as much attention. Take up your willingness to be humble and resolve to learn from the people you approach. With a little prep work you can have some questions in mind and how you plan on asking them. Don’t worry if you are clumsy, if you stutter, if you get looks of confusion. Just go talk to them. Ask them questions. Show them, by asking, that they are a valuable resource to you… because they are!
There. Doesn’t that sound like a good tip for people with social anxiety? (We hope so; it is meant to be.)
Then again, it works for people who are not diagnosed with anything in particular, for those who are socially comfortable and have a solid group of friends and don’t really take too much notice of the people on the fringes, the people sitting alone, or, maybe, the people who really don’t look very approachable. It’s easy to pass by someone who really doesn’t like talking to other people.
Since when does any of that concern a reporter going for the exclusive interview?
As Missionaries of St. Thorlak, whether or not you have a diagnosis, your job – your OBLIGATION – is to look for people on the margins and seek out their stories. You want to come to know them as well as you know the people in your comfortable circles. You want to know what makes these quiet or off-putting ones tick. You also want to help them see that you genuinely notice them, appreciate them, and would feel their absence if one day they were gone.
So you, too, go in with your press pass, your voluntary humility, and tell those people on the margins that you really wish to know them better. Be willing to be rebuffed, mumbled-to, hedged-against and outright rejected... but more importantly, be prepared to be surprised by their candor, their delightfulness, their softness… and their likeness to you. Be committed to regularly speak with them at their pace, not yours, and be ready to find that you really enjoy their company.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ST. THORLAK'S MISSION?
St. Thorlak used this technique routinely in spite of many social limitations. He was a lover of learning. He saw volumes of stories, wisdom, experience and adventure in the people of his diocese. He wanted to understand everyone almost as fervently as he himself longed to be understood. If we are to follow his holy footsteps, it is up to us to imitate his example to the best of our ability. They may not have had journalists in his day, but they certainly had saga-writers and storytellers… none of whom had any material without people to inspire them. Go, therefore, and be inspired by the sagas of the people close at hand!
Why are we focusing on this? Why suggest something that could be found in the pages of a social skills manual, or a group therapy session for people on the autism spectrum? Why not promote something more deeply spiritual, since we are spiritual missionaries?
Because it IS spiritual… when it is consecrated.
Consecrated? A Postscript.
The "press pass" technique is a true story of a real person's effort to overcome suffocating and frequent panic attacks in social situations. She never had the benefit of therapy sessions or social skills curricula. Instead, she was met by adults and professionals who called her “shy” and “timid” and pushed her to “get past it.” This was more than just “anxiety” – these were racing heart, swimming head, hyperventilating, cold-sweaty panic attacks which plagued her throughout high school and beyond. Finally, this courageous soul rose above her disability with her own willpower… not by curing it… not by conquering it… but by consecrating it.
By dedicating what little she had to the service of God and others, her path finally came into focus. No more did she work to impress other people… no more did she try to prove herself… but rather, she entrusted her struggle to God’s service, as imperfect as she was, and her focus shifted away from herself.
By focusing on God, she found her way out.
This is by no means a condemnation of social skills curricula or self-esteem therapy. But it is, for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, a reminder:
Autism therapies are means to our end, which is: Service of God-in-others.
May we contemplate this idea in preparation of learning what it means to consecrate autism to serving God-in-others.
One of the only recorded prayers calling on St. Thorlak was written around the year 1350 (see end note) and bears these words: “Cut with the scythe of your workings the thorns casting shadows in my unclear mind.” Scythe? Thorns? That’s some powerful imagery. After all, a scythe is no little pocket knife, and any thorns requiring a tool that big must be some serious, menacing thorns – the kind that keep people away.
Those familiar with St. Thorlak recognize the paradox of this image. While his stature and authority were both scythe-worthy, his nature was anything but threatening. Gentle, modest, clement, placid – those were more frequent descriptors of St. Thorlak’s disposition (also used in the same prayer cited above). A scythe is probably the last thing anyone would imagine in the hands of a quiet, scholarly bishop. So, what kind of thorn-slashing weapon did this author have in mind, if Thorlak was not known for using aggressive force?
St. Thorlak struggled with varying degrees of social anxiety and difficulties speaking throughout his life, often finding his public duties quite distressing. Yet, he willingly accepted the obligation of every office to which he was appointed, believing that his mission was to serve other people in complete charity. His commitment to CARITAS made these impossible tasks possible for him.
St. Thorlak dedicated his life to promoting social and clerical reform among a very resistant crowd. He unceasingly met, counseled and instructed the people in his pastoral care. Although he was opposed and outright mocked by many powerful leaders, he won people over time after time without using harsh or aggressive tactics. How did someone who was painfully shy, who dreaded crowds, was considered overly serious, and who was chronically misunderstood by his peer group win so many hearts?
So: What does voluntary humility look like, and how do we use it? Here are some illustrations.
This voluntary humility defines us as Missionaries of St. Thorlak. Traditional mendicants start out from plenty but take vows of voluntary poverty, spending their time begging for material charity. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak start from spiritual poverty and sincerely embrace voluntary humility, spending our time begging for spiritual, fraternal charity (= CARITAS).
Thus, Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are equally people with autism and people approaching those with autism. The only pre-requisite for being a Missionary of Saint Thorlak is having humanity… and, as we see this week, a willingness to take up St. Thorlak’s Scythe.
Who’s ready to start reaping?
End note: The prayer referenced above is very nicely detailed in the work of Susanne Miriam Fahn and Gottskálk Jensson, The Forgotten Poem: A Latin Panegyric for Saint Þorlákr in AM 382 4to', Gripla, 21 (2010), pp. 19-60). The words “cut with the scythe of your working…” originally referred to the 14th century author’s appeal for clarity in recalling the details of St. Thorlak’s biography.
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