Missionary Objective #7: To teach people to live as God sees us -
First, by the example of our own lives;
then, by friendship;
then, by words.
The final objective of the Missionaries of Saint Thorlak is a call to teach all of the other objectives. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that this word teach derives from words which mean show and demonstrate; also, to point out and persuade. Interestingly, the same root also contains a nuance of warning.
The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a very full portrait of example. From its roots comes the notion that an example is at once a sample, a pattern… and, like our word above, a warning. Its Latin prefix –ex implies that something is to be taken or distributed from the model at hand.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are called to teach by example – to demonstrate the pattern of life lived by St. Thorlak in the things we ordinarily do, in the places we ordinarily find ourselves. This runs contrary to the conventional image of a missionary being one who ventures into foreign lands promoting foreign concepts, usually bringing material aid to people in stark need in the process. Why such a different approach?
Following the footsteps of our Missionary Patron
Saint Thorlak of Iceland was in many ways a domestic missionary, bringing the Gospel of Jesus to his own people, providing for them an explanation of moral concepts which, at the time, seemed constrictive and excessive to a people who had enough hardship just living on an island that where crops could not consistently grow and livestock could not reliably thrive. Although Thorlak was literate and highly learned, and wrote prolifically on principles of the moral life, it would be folly to imagine the majority of 12th century Icelanders sitting back and reading such lofty thoughts while the day to day sustainability of their livelihood hung in the balance. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak ,written in the 13th century as a case for his sainthood, tells over and over of how Thorlak lived his life; it does not cite any of his writings once. In fact, none of Thorlak’s writings survived past the Reformation. The account of his actions, not his words, prompted the Icelandic Assembly to declare his sanctity in 1198, and the Roman Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II to affirm his canonization in 1984.
Of even greater importance is the fact that Thorlak was widely known in his lifetime for having a debilitating speech impairment. He was no orator. As written in Chapter 13 of the Saga: “Bishop Thorlak often taught lessons, and that was a great trial because speech was difficult and painful for him.”
Armann Jakobsson and David Clark, who translated Þorláks Saga Byskups in 2013, write in their introduction: “Thorlak’s lack of eloquence and his sufferings when speaking in public demonstrate that it is not always by eloquence that a man can lead, he can also teach by his good example (docere verbo et examplo).”
Our Missionary work is to emulate the Way of St. Thorlak, where we are, as we are, with those with whom we ordinarily interact… first, in the example of our own lives: by a sampling of what we do… the patterns we exhibit in our behavior… and possibly as a warning? For our Pray-Contemplate-Relate this and the next few weeks, we will be presenting the outline of the Way of Saint Thorlak, asking each of us pray about it, contemplate each element, and observe where we notice any of these elements at work in our relationships. The warning will likely occur to us as we go about prayer, contemplation and relationship… perhaps when we observe those times we forget to deliberately apply these principles, or when we see the consequences of using other approaches to relationship.
Over time, with consistent practice and attention to our intentions, may we be worthy of the statement which resulted in the election of St. Thorlak to the office of Bishop of Skálholt:
“Thorlak strives to do everything best rather than talk most.” (Saga, Chapter 9)
Consider, then, how each of these elements comes across in the way we conduct ourselves:
Willingness to set the standard of respectable conduct through our own behavior
Consistently practicing these four elements ultimately leads us to:
( = Consecration of our everyday to God's service)
Looking for Daily Missionary Thoughts?
Aimee O’Connell here again. I do not want this space to be mistaken for a personal blog, as this is our website’s dedicated space for Missionary discussion and instruction. I need, however, to speak as myself one more time before reverting back to more customary posts on Missionary instruction.
I need to talk numbers.
I need a headcount, a show of hands, a sense of how many of us are ready to call ourselves Missionaries. Maybe not today, but very soon. I need to take this idea to the streets, literally, and put it to work.
You already know that I believe there is something special about the Way of Saint Thorlak. The principles of caritas, voluntary humility, a contemplative sense of wonder and living by example comprise a cohesive spiritual skills set for someone like me who does everything prescribed by social science but still feels spiritually hungry. I do not know if I have a disproportionately insatiable appetite for love, or an inability to absorb the love I receive, or if I deprive myself of the love I need by the consequences of my social awkwardness. It must be some measure of each. What I do know is that the Way of Saint Thorlak takes familiar principles and applies them in a way that I can understand and manage and use day after day. When I follow St. Thorlak’s way, I am nourished. As often as I hunger, I turn to these principles and find satisfaction. I no longer starve.
I am one person.
I am a single-case design.
My testimony means nothing if I am the only one who experiences it.
The discovery of this Way of Saint Thorlak has worked so consistently well that I am willing to bank everything on it. I have made it my life’s work. It is no longer an idea: it is a MISSION.
What convinced me?
The point I wish to emphasize the most:
This point is a big one for me. Saint Thorlak did not reinvent or rebrand anything. He lived a holy life according to the way of the earliest Christians and in the practical manner of the most ordinary people. (Note: I have a difficult time calling twelfth-century Icelanders “ordinary,” since I find it remarkable to consider the grit and ingenuity required to live on an isolated island in the North Atlantic with sparse crops, few livestock, volatile climate, highly variable and dangerous terrain and few options for mercantile trade… but, I digress).
If anything at all is a shift from what we are used to, it is that people are typically taught to build fortresses, either to protect our self-esteem or to defend against others who antagonize us. St. Thorlak’s way proposes to abandon our armor and fight our battles with the weapon of vulnerability – which is to say, we use our need as an instrument, not an excuse to avoid others. I have always wanted to do this but have never known how. Few social skills programs include “how to need” or “why be vulnerable.” The Way of St. Thorlak accomplishes this, both in the how and in the why.
Each week’s Missionary Thoughts go into much depth to define and contemplate all of the concepts in our Mission Statement and Objectives. I feel we have laid out a solid program, and now all that remains is to see how it works.
The seventh objective of the Mission of Saint Thorlak is to teach everything we have talked about through the way we adopt and express these principles in our daily lives. Teach it by living it. Teach it by applying it in our relationships, letting it permeate the ways we connect with others. Then, in the natural flow of things, talk or write about it.
I have done just this. I have road tested St.Thorlak’s way for myself, have built stronger relationships because of it, and am now dedicating my time to writing, speaking, posting and Tweeting about it.
But it can’t just be an idea. The Mission of Saint Thorlak needs a roll call. We invite the spiritually hungry to adopt this Mission to relieve their yearning… and, we call out for spiritually well-fed people to be Missionaries along with us, to help lead the hungry to nourishment.
We will continue to talk more about this next week.
For right now, I need to know: Who’s with me?
Comment below the post, use one of our contact forms, or send us an email.
This is the time to be counted.
Pray: God, Our Father: Gather us together in this common Mission, under the patronage and way of Saint Thorlak, to bring spiritual nourishment to everyone in our path, as we ourselves receive Your nourishment!
Contemplate: Why is this a Mission and not just an idea?
Relate: Two words: ROAD TEST!
Learning to fall…
I speak now as Aimee O’Connell; not just the founding Missionary of the Mission of Saint Thorlak, but as someone who myself has been frustrated for decades by my inability to reconcile the messages of self-esteem with intense social anxiety, perfectionism and the sense that I am only as good as my performance. I am overly literal, and therefore I dismiss affirmations that come from a book and could not possibly predict my competence at any given moment. I do not like bold statements without disclaimers because there will always be some variable, somewhere, which invalidates even the somewhat relative generalizations like “I am doing the best I can with what I have.” Or, my spiritual needs do not fit the categories of self-affirmation. “I am likable” may be true, but serves to magnify, not counteract, the loneliness I have felt most of my life.
The times I have felt the most secure, the best grounded and the most optimistic have been when I have had permission to be imperfect. More precisely, not-quite-there-yet.
I have come to see that this is the greater skill for people like me. I do not need to learn how to praise myself. I need to learn that I am no less valuable for needing help. Self-esteem has, in many ways, become widely confused with self-reliance, and I have had to deliberately remind myself this over and over.
The concept finally made sense to me when I was first introduced to a learn-to-bike camp for older kids who are too tall for training bikes but still lack the core strength to pedal fast enough to balance. Most of these young people contend with autism spectrum issues, so their sensory overinterpretation makes each wobble in the bicycling process seem like a major earthquake. I attended the public information session for this camp with much academic interest. The brochures claimed high success rates, and I wondered... what could their secret be? Specially adapted bicycles? Coaches trained not to provoke anxiety from children trying to please them? Padded mats to crash on?
When our mindsets are trained to aim for perfection, it can be very unsettling to deliberately aim off target. It feels counterintuitive. Is it aiming low? No. Is it giving up? No. It is learning how to miss so we can better learn how to hit, just as balance on a bike can only be achieved when we start to sway and then correct our posture.
Self-esteem and coaching are very closely related concepts. We would never cheer for someone, including ourselves, who is giving anything less than their best. In that sense, self-esteem and coaching are a lot like faith. Believing the best of others is a leap of faith, indeed.
Let us move forward, then, toward our last Missionary Objective, which is to be the living road test of all of the other objectives.
Contemplate: Those familiar with the Stations of the Cross will recall that falling is mentioned not once... not twice... but three times, in the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Why is this element of such importance that it is thrice repeated? What does it mean to “rise again”… and how does this correspond with the other places we hear this phrase in the Gospels?
Relate: How do we react when a fall has taken place? Do we encourage others and help them rise again, or do we stand over them, focusing on the fall and not the person who is learning? Is this how we anticipate others will react when we ourselves fall? How does this impact our relationships?
Objective #6: To encourage others to live as God sees us
It gets into strange territory to assume we will make mistakes. Lest anyone think we are lowering the bar or excusing bad behavior, we mean “mistakes” in the sense of sincere miscalculations or misinterpretations. We may make these errors ourselves or others may make them regarding us; both senses apply equally here.
Are we willing to take the chance that we are mistaken? Even horribly mistaken?
Are we willing to believe that the person insulting or ignoring us is really only using an incorrect formula, rather than deliberately seeking to hurt us?
Our spiritual patron Saint Thorlak knew plenty about being mistaken. He not only made mistakes, but he was often misunderstood and angrily accused of misunderstanding many. His teachings reflected the authentic Christian spirituality of the Catholic Church but were frequently challenged by people who found them difficult to practice or understand. He worked diligently to explain the theology behind the rules, and where he would not be heard, he lived them out by his own example, praying for the people who harassed and antagonized him. On his deathbed, he asked forgiveness from his closest associates for the times he caused them any vexation.
Caritas concerns our hearts and minds with the well-being of others. By giving others an allowance for mistakes, we encourage openness rather than cultivating fear, resentment and insecurity from behind closed doors.
Voluntary humility asks us to be exactly who we are, with no pretense or attempt to hide our needs. This is where we allow ourselves to make mistakes and actively trust others to support and guide us. Not everybody will, but those who do are the ones who will be most moved by our openness, and who will receive the richest spiritual nourishment in the process.
Contemplative sense of wonder means stopping to take in the big, big picture without sarcasm or cynicism, asking questions and pondering all possibilities. Try not to lock into assumptions. Ask why, ask how – because there will always be at least one explanation we have not considered. Understanding others does not mean saying they are correct – it means finding the algorithm they are using and realizing how they arrive at the conclusions they have.
Leading by example is both our willingness to be seen and our commitment to authenticity. It also means targeting only ourselves for change. Our job is not to correct others – it is to provide information. Give others the freedom to agree or disagree, and to follow along if they wish. Be willing to fail first so others can see it is not as devastating as they fear. Live out our belief in God’s forgiveness by being willing to be both wrong and forgiven.
Contemplate: Are we willing to be mistaken? Do others expect that from us? How does willingness to be wrong change the dynamics of our encounters?
Relate: Focus this week on one of the four Ways of Saint Thorlak (Caritas, Voluntary Humility, Contemplative Sense of Wonder, Leading by Example) in terms of being mistaken, and see how it impacts our interactions.
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