This week, we take on our toughest questions.
Q: Is this Mission only for people with verbal skills?
A: No. Just as anywhere else, speaking skills are helpful for our Missionaries to have, but they are not necessary. Many people with autism are considered nonverbal or not yet verbal. Can they still pray, contemplate and relate? Absolutely. Can they combat spiritual starvation? Absolutely. Are they human, and do they have needs? Absolutely. So far, “nonverbal” does not disqualify anyone! If a person who has difficulty speaking wishes to be part of our Mission, we welcome them and everything they bring of their talents.
Q: I have autism, and I feel completely spiritually fulfilled. Why do you presume people with autism are spiritually starving?
A: We do not make that presumption. We know that many people with autism do experience disconnection, but we also know that large numbers of people without autism also feel disconnected spiritually, and many people are fortunate enough to be well connected on a regular basis. If you have good spiritual grounding, you are all the more able to help those who do not. We would love to have you on our team.
Q: My social impairments are very real and very painful. Your approach seems to be “just go greet people,” as if it is mind over matter. That feels insulting and invalidating. How do you answer that?
A: Autism and social anxiety are NOT mind over matter. If you look closely, you’ll see that our approach to greeting people is to come from a place of need. Social impairments certainly do create need, so we inherently acknowledge this difficulty and seek to use it rather than deny or eliminate it.
Here is an example: It is possible to approach someone with eyes averted and say, “I am not able to look you in the eye right now because I’m too anxious. Will you still speak with me?”
Another example: What if you are not ready to approach someone greeting? Our purpose is not to “therapize” you, but rather, for you to find a way to acknowledge the other person. Think of this as a “Yes, and” approach. Social anxiety? Yes, and there are numerous and creative ways to make a meaningful gesture of greeting.
Q: I’m not interested in God, religion or anything spiritual. Why do you only talk about spiritual things?
A: Spirituality is at the core of our Mission statement. We exist to discuss spiritual matters, and we do so under the banner of the One, True God. This may not fit well with some people’s beliefs, and we accept that. If it does, then here we are.
Q: A lot of what you suggest hinges on the other person being welcoming and warm. In my experience, people are not interested in talking to me. Many of them are rude and hurtful. How is that supposed to feed me, spiritually?
A: Rejection does not feed anyone. But remember: Your Mission is to feed others spiritually. Even if your greeting is rejected or ignored, who is to say that it did not give spiritual nourishment? Just as God is unseen to us, so too is the effect of our spiritual effort.
It takes a great amount of practice to field rejection and indifference. We are here to provide support and encouragement especially to those whose greetings fall by the wayside or are met with hostility. Many people are not used to sincerity, and it takes them time to lower their defenses. People are grouchy when they have not physically eaten well, and people are grouchy when they have not been well spiritually fed. Be patient, and trust that you are doing good service even if others do not immediately take the spiritual food you offer them.
Q: I am perfectly happy being an introvert. Why should I conform to how you think I should socialize?
A: Introverts are just as helpful to our cause as extroverts, in the fullest expression of their personality styles. We go back to our core steps, pray-contemplate-relate, and see no exclusion of introverts or extroverts in that formula. Introverts welcome, extroverts welcome. As for conformity, we do ask that everyone follow the same steps, but we encourage people to do so in as many diverse ways as we have Missionaries helping.
Q: This material seems too far over our heads. Why not use simpler methods?
A: The biggest chunk of audience is comprised of adolescents and young adults. If any portion of our material is too challenging, we are very willing to work with individuals in different formats to make it more accessible. However, we want to afford adolescents and young adults the dignity of aspiring to their maturity level. We are not geared for younger children. There is a wealth of materials written for lower levels, but we wish to fill the niche for teens and beyond.
Q: I don’t get it; I thought you were here to help me with my autism.
A: If you refer back to our Mission statement, we are here to help combat spiritual starvation. So, if you have autism and are spiritually hungry, we are here to help; or, if you have autism and are here to join the cause, we are glad to have you on our team. (We think both ways help with autism).
Do you have questions we have not covered?
We are very open to hearing them and responding. Please send them to us:
Q: How do I become a Missionary of Saint Thorlak?
A: To become a Missionary of Saint Thorlak, it is necessary to study the principles of the way of Saint Thorlak (as outlined last week), and then commit to putting these into action in your daily life, wherever you are.
The three fundamental steps are:
Each step connects to the next in a continuous chain:
PRAY [Relationship with God] -> CONTEMPLATE [Relationship to self] -> RELATE [Relationship to others]
PRAY: Each Missionary needs to be open to daily prayer. There are so many aspects to this one concept alone that we might discuss, but for now, what we require is a regular effort to be in touch with God, the One, True God of the Holy Trinity. Everything we do must begin, be experienced, and end with an active awareness that God is present (as we pray), is eager to know us for who we truly are (as we contemplate) and is eager to greet us in other people (as we relate).
You will note that we do not mention prescribed words or prayer quotas. We feel prayer should cultivate an intimate relationship with God. Just as people don’t use scripts in human friendships, there is no single formula when it comes to experiencing God. It must be a spontaneous, genuine and deeply personal experience, as individual as each one of our Missionaries. For some, this is reading; others, song; others, memorized words recited in the comforting rhythm of praise. Others prefer completely impromptu thoughts, remarks and recollections along the activities of the day.
Some people have not spent much time thinking about God. Some have no real idea what God is all about. Some feel God is unapproachable, or judgmental, or distant. All of that is okay, so long as you call this your starting point. All we ask is that you get to know God, so that He can get to know you.
CONTEMPLATE: Our Missionaries need to be learners: thinkers, artists, ordinary workers, puzzlers, dreamers, improvisers, makers and doers. The key is to approach our learning with wonder, not as a chore, always finding the end in discovering something about God and His designs – and how these relate to who we are, and who God created us to be. Whether our concepts are quickly understood or slower to make sense, they can still be pondered, imagined, tested and considered across the situations we experience each day. We do not memorize and move on; we seek to uncover the principles of spiritual nourishment in as many settings as we can.
Please note: Some people are very comfortable studying things, and others are not. There is just as much beauty in simplicity as there is in complexity. “Learning” takes countless forms. We are confident that, if you have the desire to be one of our Missionaries, you are already able to learn and contemplate; how else could you be considering our Missionary work in the first place?
RELATE: By definition, all missionaries are sent out to connect with others. In the manner of St. Thorlak, however, we specifically use Matthew 18:20 as our Missionaries’ guiding principle. It is written that when he was appointed prior over the brothers of the monastery at Þykkvibær, Iceland, St. Thorlak “at once ordered their life so beautifully that it was remarked by wise men that they had never seen such good conduct where there had been a regular life for so short a time as there.” Later, when he became Abbot, St. Thorlak “began anew to hold a remarkable rule over the brothers over whom he was set. He commanded them to maintain love and concord between them and explained to them how much was at stake, since the Son of God says that wherever two or three gathered together in his name that he would be among them” (The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, p. 7). Matthew 18:20 brought something remarkable to the brothers at Þykkvibær, and we want it to bring something remarkable to our Mission: God Himself. When we connect with someone else [relate], we share in their ideas [contemplate] and bring God present to us [pray].
And, that’s it. That is how to become a Missionary of Saint Thorlak.
We just have to stop and ask – really – can there possibly be a more rewarding Mission than to bring God Himself to the people around us, simply by letting Him greet us in them?
As yet, we do not have any more formal structure than this. A “Guidebook for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak” will be available for download in the near future, as will “A Manual on Spiritual Starvation.” These can be used individually or in small groups, and will be designed to be locally available and self-directing.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is meant to be accessible to anyone, anywhere. It is a way of approaching the life we live, in whatever our circumstances are, in wherever our geographic location happens to be. The digital age has greatly helped make such causes possible. It may well be that we grow to a point where we have a centralized headquarters and a large staff, and that one day we will resemble other missionary outfits from around the world. Our organizational structure is less important to us than putting our message to work. All we need to begin is two or more people in any given place, bringing God present there. The fundamental simplicity of a voluntary humility mindset allows us to get right to business. If it makes the positive impact we expect, we are prepared to expand with our numbers. Why make things more complicated than they have to be?
We have no intention of stopping short of solid establishment and long-term success. Formal structure will continue to take shape as our Mission grows; you can be assured of that. For now, though, spiritual starvation remains a real problem… and we’re not willing to wait any longer.
*This question refers to the Active Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. If your circumstances prevent you from being an Active Missionary, you may wish to help us as a Domestic Prayer Missionary of Saint Thorlak. To learn about this very much needed aspect of our ministry, please see this link.
Q: What do Missionaries of Saint Thorlak do?
* This question refers to the “active,” regular Missionaries of Saint Thorlak. To learn specifically about Domestic Prayer Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, please see last week’s post.
A: Missionaries of Saint Thorlak do everything we usually do in our everyday lives; except, we choose to pray, contemplate and relate to others in a manner inspired by the way St. Thorlak lived out the Gospel call, for the purposes of combating spiritual starvation in our circles.
Let us break this down further.
“Missionaries” are people who set ordinary things aside, going to specific places to teach and serve, driven by a “mission” to dictate the way they speak and serve.
The ordinary things we set aside as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are our hesitance to need and our reluctance to act.
The specific places we go as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are wherever there might be people who are spiritually starving.
Spiritual starvation can be found anywhere someone might feel disconnected from others. If we tried to narrow down our target area, it would be: the part of the world we live in, and the circles we interact with daily. Our target audience would be: the people we live around.
Our Missionaries pray – that is, have a solid relationship with God, speaking with and listening to Him regularly. We contemplate, meaning that we turn ideas over and over in our minds and hearts, imagining and wondering and discovering truths and applications and patterns within these ideas. We relate, meaning that we deliberately interact with other people in a carefully studied manner that fosters true spiritual connection. This last component is the crucial one which sets our Missionary work apart from our ordinary manner of thinking. We intentionally see in others the opportunity to learn from, and to be greeted by, God Himself, through them. We feed others by seeking spiritual nourishment from them, making ourselves available through offering our need.
To accomplish this, we need to make sure we place ourselves around others. We cannot be hermits. We cannot decline invitations. We cannot claim seclusion as our default; solitude must be something from which we sip, judiciously, only when we need to recharge and not to our excess pleasure. We do not require Missionaries to be outgoing, extroverted, confident or booked socially solid. Introverts and homebodies are just fine; in fact, the quieter among us are often very well suited to our Mission work, so long as they do not give in to the urge to be alone, or occupied, all of the time.
It is a great advantage that our Mission work can be done wherever we happen to be: in school, at work, with our families, with our neighbors, with people standing in line and in situations we have never been before. The key is to do what we do consistently, as a habit of life. Our Mission is ongoing. Nourishment lasts only a short while before it is needed again; there will never be a lack of need.
As we have said, our Missionaries take the time to study the life and teachings of St. Thorlak of Iceland for our own personal instruction. He found a way to live and act that was quietly, powerfully effective in feeding his spirit and the spirits of everyone, wherever he went – even though he had debilitating speech impairments and social anxiety. He was never miraculously cured of his autism. Instead, he consecrated it, making it the source of his need, and offering it to others, everywhere he went. The result was abundant, nutrient-dense spiritual fruit that eventually found him worthy of the title “Saint.”
Let us end with these points.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is NOT:
-A cult following
-A fan club
-A role play or re-enactment group
-A religious sect
-A therapy program
-A special interest group
-A substitution for church or worship services
-Binding through laws, vows, pledges or restrictions
The Mission of Saint Thorlak IS:
-A way to grow closer to God
-A way to grow closer to others (even for the socially anxious)
-A way to combat spiritual starvation in the world
-A way to find good, nourishing fruit among the thorns of autism
Hmm. “The Mission of Saint Thorlak is a way.”
It is tempting to look at the litany above and ask why we are not simply “The Way of Saint Thorlak,” given that so much of our work is dedicated to prayer, contemplation and imitation. The answer is simple: We are more than just study and methods. We are contemplation PLUS action. We take what we learn about St. Thorlak’s way of combating spiritual starvation and apply it, here, today.
We are not just a way; we are a MISSION.
And we are unabashedly ambitious about it.
Q: Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a prayer ministry?
A: Everything we do begins and ends with prayer. We pray contemplatively. Our contemplative prayer is our commitment to developing and maintaining a connection to God. Our contemplative action is taking the fruit of this prayer to other people, and connecting to them... making a continuous chain that begins and ends with God, and continuously grows with each person who joins our chain.
This seems like a good time to discuss more about a specific arm of our apostolate, Domestic Prayer Missionaries, whose role it is to pray for those who come to us in need with requests.
Q: What do you mean, "Domestic"?
A: The origins of the word point to these meanings:
The dictionary adds:
All of these senses of the word "domestic" can be found in the way we use the term. The Domestic Prayer Missionaries of St. Thorlak are missionaries-in-place. They do their praying right where they are, in their current circumstances, in their current frames of mind. They can be absolutely anywhere people live. This makes for a beautiful paradox: They are "domestic," meaning, in place; but they are everywhere... thus, transforming "everywhere" into one, common household, and validating our view of humanity as one family of one God.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries of St. Thorlak are servants of God's household.
They each also come from this one household, even if they happen to reside in various and different geographic locations at present. Therefore, they are all of home manufacture: God's home.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries are very much concerned with internal affairs. Their one job as Missionaries is to cultivate a strong internal connection between themselves, God and each person they pray for. They strive to keep their internal affairs in working enough order to carry on this mission day by day. Yes; they definitely are concerned with internal affairs.
"Domestic" Prayer Missionaries pray from where they reside, and not from a foreign place. Missionaries of St. Thorlak are not foreigners to suffering. We recruit 'em that way, and we're not ashamed to admit it. The world is full of suffering, and people who ask us for prayer are right down there in the mud. We want - no, we NEED - tough mudders on our team. People who are more than just sympathetic - people who have been personally affected by despair, struggle, confusion, failure, triumph in spite of ugly things, misunderstanding, disconnection, isolation, spiritual hunger, brokenness, anger... you get the idea. People for whom suffering is not one bit foreign, but where one resides. THOSE are the people we want to deploy to pray for those who ask for help.
"Involving home or family" - once more, we're talking in very broad terms. God's family. Humanity. The Mission of Saint Thorlak is out to connect people again, through acknowledging our humanity. We think that counts for the purposes of this definition.
Q: Is the Domestic Prayer ministry limited to people affected by autism, since autism is mentioned in your mission statement?
A: (Happily): NO!
We DO expect that some of our prayer intentions, as well as some of our Domestic Prayer Missionaries , will have some connection to one or more of the struggles associated with autism - whether experienced as a person with autism or supporting someone with autism. There are thousands of people affected by ASD, and prayers are always needed.
But, no, autism is not a requirement. One need not have autism to be a missionary of ours, or a supporter, or a beneficiary of our apostolate.
Spiritual starvation does not exclude anyone. Neither do we.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak exists to address spiritual starvation. Letting people with autism lead us on our way.
Q: If you exist for everyone – if you are not only an autism ministry – why is “autism” part of your mission statement?
A: Just as we are students of an Icelandic teacher, we are students of an autistic teacher. The methods of our spiritual patron reflect the processing and communication style of a man with autism. We see how his methods resonate with people with autism, and we want to apply them, widespread, to everyone. It is the principle of inclusive education, reversed. We are utilizing autism-specific instructional methods and “including” everyone else because it is a very helpful format for all learners. We gladly let people with autism lead us on our way.
Could this be a door opening?
If you are able and willing to pray for someone,
you are qualified to be a Domestic Prayer Missionary.
If you know suffering, and can pray from suffering,
you are all the more qualified. No matter who you are.
No matter your needs. No matter where you are.
Likewise, if you would like the support of a
Domestic Prayer Missionary’s prayers,
we invite you to contact us.
We thank you for trusting us enough to let us know, and we sincerely want to meet you.
No matter who you are. No matter your needs. No matter where you are.
If prayer is universal currency, we think this is a coin from which both sides can address spiritual starvation.
Q: What is the connection between this ministry and Saint Thorlak? Are you Icelandic?
A: Our material and methods are patterned after the life and teachings of the Icelandic Catholic Christian Þorlákur Þórhallsson (in English, Thorlak Thorhallson). We are Icelandic in the sense that we are students of an Icelandic teacher.
Thorlak Thorhallsson was a Christian who lived in Iceland from 1133-1193. At that time, Christians there followed the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Thorlak was a deeply spiritual thinker from boyhood with a love of the psalms and theology. He studied under the tutelage of Eyjólfur Sæmundarson, a renowned priest and scholar, and was strongly encouraged to enter the priesthood. He was ordained deacon at fifteen and priest at eighteen, which even then was considered unusually young. In his career, he would be parish priest, traveling scholar, abbot, and eventually, Bishop of Skálholt (1174-1193). He was a prolific teacher, writer and poet, and was widely known for his unwavering dedication to the Gospels. Thorlak was declared a saint by Icelandic clerics shortly after his death, and this declaration was reiterated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.
It is a good spot here to pause and clarify just what we mean by “saint.” The title “Saint” is an honorary title, not unlike “Doctor” or “Captain.” It speaks to a majority portion of that person’s work, but it does not define the person or endow upon them magical powers. Just as a doctor is an ordinary person who masters and completes an intensive course of study, a saint is an ordinary person who is found to have lived a Godly life and is held up as an example of how other ordinary people might live well. Saints are not worshiped or prayed to; they are imitated, learned from, quoted and respected. Saints are believed to live on in eternal, unseen life, and are believed to be able to pray for us as friends and mentors, but are well beneath the Holy Trinity in the order of the universe. Saints are people, creatures, human beings. We might compare it to folk heroes and respected peacemakers throughout history. Hopefully, people don’t “pray to” or worship Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Isaac Newton, but their names, words and works are widely respected, and their images and names frequently adorn everyday objects to honor and remind us of their example. Thus it is with Catholic saints.
Going further, a “spiritual patron” or “patron saint” is an ordinary person who lived a holy life and whose example is particularly useful for a need at hand. Saint Thorlak is the spiritual patron of Iceland because he is most familiar with the Icelandic terrain, living conditions and cultural heritage. We also speculate that his teachings may one day sufficiently demonstrate he is just as greatly a spiritual patron of those affected by autism.
So, why should we be HIS students? Why should we emulate Saint Thorlak, out of all the other saints and learned people we could study?
1) Saint Thorlak was exceptionally talented at teaching and explaining theology to the people he served. Keep in mind that he lived in a time before print materials, mass media, and widespread education. The majority of people in 12th century Iceland were laborers who had little capability of academic study. Icelanders, including fellow clergy, were very much accustomed to making and following their own social customs – which were not always in line with Christian principles. Yet, one of their countrymen, Saint Thorlak, highly educated and refined in social standing, could explain spiritual concepts to them in a manner they related to, and many wished to imitate.
2) Saint Thorlak was very likely a man with autism. It is not so much the diagnostic label that matters to us, but the fact that he taught as he lived – like a man with autism. He not only spoke Icelandic and Latin, but he “spoke ASD” in his manner of presenting ideas. A master spiritual teacher whose methods were formed and filtered through his autistically-inclined mind could not only reach thousands of ordinary folk in his day, but would be a huge help to us if we could have him as a spiritual teacher to reach people with ASD today.
3) Saint Thorlak’s story is an anomaly. He had crippling speech impairments and social anxiety, yet he sought out people, befriended large numbers of people, mentored many young people, and volunteered under public scrutiny for the office of Bishop – knowing fully well it would be a monumentally difficult task. What motivated him? What permitted him to do these things in spite of his very real limitations? A close study of his life reveals that he found his methodology in the Gospels. He so carefully patterned his life on the Gospels of Jesus that he brought Jesus virtually present to those in his path. His most cherished Scripture passages were those which demonstrated relationships and their embedded blessings, and he was quietly elated to bring these blessings forth upon his countrymen. Who better to turn to, in emulation, than a man who broke the shackles of his social impairments through the power of the Gospels?
A very important point to keep in mind: We are here to combat spiritual starvation in our time. So was Saint Thorlak, in his time. He was out to connect every Icelander with the One, True God. We think his methods were spot on, and so, we have adopted them.
In recognizing that St. Thorlak’s struggles with autism enabled him to teach spirituality in a way that was remarkably clear and relevant, we reach out particularly to people with autism to be adjunct ambassadors of our message, in the same, wonderful manner of our spiritual patron.
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Let’s toss in some related questions, while we’re at it:
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a prayer ministry?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak Christian?
-Do people need to be Christian to partake in the Mission of Saint Thorlak?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak trying to convert non-believers to the Catholic Faith?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a faith formation program for children with autism?
Bonus question - if you've read this far, you've earned it!
Q: Is that Niagara Falls in the background of your webpage?
A: Icelanders already know this answer well. No, it is not Niagara Falls. The photo is Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, located in Northeastern Iceland. At this site in the year 1000, the Lawspeaker Þorgeir declared the Norse gods invalid. With that, Iceland embraced the One, True God as THEIR one, true God. As a demonstration of faith, Þorgeir threw the statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall - simultaneously enacting their burial and their baptism. We believe this is not only a magnificently beautiful image of our patron's beloved homeland, but a magnificently symbolic site for what it is we hope to do: connect people to the One, True God.
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