When do people experience God most fully?
Is it during our childhood, when we are free from responsibilities and cushioned from many of the betrayals we will come to realize as we mature? Is it when we realize our vocation in life? When we pray? In times of silence? In the morning, in the middle of the night, when we are happy…?
We think the answer is whenever we have permission to be authentic, wherever we are, however old we are.
The Online Etymology Dictionary characterizes “authentic” as a sense of being real and accepted as factual. It is rooted in the pairing of auto (self) and hentes (being).
How many times do we routinely find ourselves allowed to be completely authentic?
In childhood? Very many.
As we grow in years? Fewer and fewer.
From our formative years, we learn what pleases others and what does not. We gradually figure out how to express who we are within the confines of maintaining peace, order and pleasantry, whether this is following the rules in kindergarten or earning promotions in the workplace. It is also discovered within our relationships as we learn how our actions attract, influence or alienate others.
As we grow, we hear the echoes of many well-intentioned people who have helped us learn how to behave politely around others – whether or not we have autism.
We also hear the echoes of our rebukes: being told to stop crying, for instance; or, that our fears are ridiculous, or that our deep love of academia is boring, or that our silence hurts people’s feelings, or that our moments of overload are an embarrassment to our families. Adolescence alone is a pressure cooker for the conflict between being ourselves and being acceptable to others.
Whenever motivation is extrinsic – that is, when we act in order to earn something good or avoid something unpleasant – our authenticity decreases. This can be as large as the difference between a forced apology and sincere regret of having hurt someone else, and as subtle as wondering if you just smiled at another person because your speech therapist taught you to do it, or because that other person made you feel like smiling.
Are we ever taught how to be authentic?
Do we know how to be anxious, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed or confused, without fearing that we will offend the people who are important to us? Have we been so “good” for so long that we have no idea what our moments of authentic need should look like?
The reason we ask is found in our Mission Statement and Objectives; specifically, that Missionaries of Saint Thorlak seek:
- To teach people to see how God sees them, and how God sees those around them
- To encourage people to live as God sees them
- To teach people to gently encourage others to live as God sees them -
First, by the example of their own lives;
then, by friendship to them;
then, by words.
Most of us struggle to be authentic even before God because we know our imperfections. The way we believe God sees us is heavily influenced by the way we believe others see us. Yet God Himself is the One – sometimes, the only One – Who sees us as we truly are, and Who knows us down to who we were created to be. He knows what we really look like and how much effort we put into living the way He intends for us to live.
God always gives us permission to be authentic, because in His infinite love, He can see us no other way.
The others around us vary greatly in their capacity to meet us where we are. Those who do are like oxygen to our souls. Our true friends never leave us in our dark places, but they oxygenate us until we are ready to move forward to better spiritual ground (…even if we don’t want to go there).
But – where are these people? Who brings oxygen to MY soul? Who gives ME permission to be authentic?
If you’re counting on one hand, you’re in great company. If you’re struggling to think of more than two, you’re in even greater company.
Not to worry. Missionaries of Saint Thorlak know a fast way to oxygenate a room with authenticity and to equip everyone we meet with tanks of their own, if they wish. We know the way to begin experiencing this permission to be authentic in all of our relationships, paralleling the freedom we felt in our most innocent childhood days.
Our secret? Start giving others permission to be authentic.
If we approach everyone with complete permission to be authentic, with our only plea being “show me your true need, with no filter!” – we will find it nearly impossible to resist being authentic ourselves. Our hesitation to be seen by God will likewise start melting away.
How is this possible? As simply as Matthew 18:20. When you give someone else permission to be authentic, you open the door for God to greet you, authentically, through them. You will begin experiencing God, authentically, as Jesus is brought present to you.
It may take work. You may have to catch yourself before you toss out a barb to people with different opinions, or you may have to squelch your urge to wonder if people are telling you the truth. Remember, you aren’t guaranteeing authenticity – you are simply permitting it. You are offering a forum for no-penalty honesty. You are freeing the people in your circle from having to perform to receive their reward, because you reward them with your authenticity. You are leveling the playing field and expecting only the best… because you do - or, if not yet, because you want to… and, because you hope people will assume the best in you. You want to teach people to see how God sees them, and how God sees those around them. You want to encourage people to live as God sees them: first, by the example of your own life; then, by friendship to them; then, by words.
But just a warning: if every person should begin supplying the oxygen of authenticity to even a fraction of the full potential, we would find ourselves at high risk for a spiritual conflagration at the slightest spark of zeal… the likes of which we’ve been warned about in Luke 12:49.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, I stand before you today just as I am. Help me to experience You, authentically, and fully.
CONTEMPLATE: Do I give others permission to be authentic? What do I do or say that prevents this from happening? Am I aware that I do this? Is it necessary?
RELATE: Take tiny steps. Give one person, one time, permission to be authentic this week. Make this something deliberate. Observe how you experience the encounter. What do you notice about yourself?
It's here! The Mission of Saint Thorlak Group Leader's Guide may be downloaded for facilitating groups in your area.
The scene is a kitchen table, where you are sitting with someone from your family. This person is like the glue that holds the family together, even though you are a vast, widely scattered family with far-reaching branches. You are being given a long list of details the day before you all gather together for a weekend reunion.
Different family members are named, and requests are made. Aunt Margaret is sensitive to the sun, so make sure she has shade. Thad has an egg allergy, so no mayonnaise for him. The twins are very quiet, and they don’t like hugs, so be sure not to come on too strong with them, and they really hate being told how much they look alike. Uncle Bert is fun to be around, but please, no politics – he doesn’t know when to stop. Wendy is bringing her new boyfriend who is not too popular with the rest of the family. And please, be sure to congratulate Kevin on his new job. He’s very nervous about this promotion and we want to give him all the support we can. Oh! I think Ronnie is going to be there, but she’s coming alone – so don’t ask any questions.
Are you getting all this?
Depending on who you are, you may be eagerly taking mental notes, or zoning out. You might be ready to dive into the thick of things or wanting to run for the hills. Maybe you only married into this family and are completely overwhelmed. This seems like a high maintenance gathering, in any case.
This situation is purely hypothetical, but is a very useful parable to help illustrate what social skills classes are like for people with any degree of autism. The range of people with autism is a wide enough spread that it could include any of the reactions above, along with several hundred others. But it is all the same kind of experience: being instructed in the way other people hope you will act in situations that are somewhat predictable but, in the end, unable to plan down to each conversational detail. It is intimidating, and, unfortunately, in some measure, artificial.
The person giving the instruction in our scene probably has good reason. Two guests she named had medical conditions, after all, and presumably the others have track records suggesting how they might behave in group gatherings. The motive could be keeping the peace, or a genuine personal concern for the people involved.
We are putting you in this situation and asking you what you would do as a Missionary of Saint Thorlak. For, as it is a parable to social skills instruction, it is also a very useful parable for socializing in general.
A big chunk of our readers will have no difficulty answering. To them, we give a nod of appreciation and permission to coast through the rest of this article.
The other chunk are the ones who feel tension just imagining this. You are our intended audience.
It is very well for us to prescribe greeting others and letting God greet us through them. It flows naturally when socializing is easy and desirable. It is much more difficult – perhaps impossible – for those who find socializing difficult, or overwhelming, or even… irritating.
There are many, many people who find socializing irritating. Autism or no autism.
We could take the time to explore why this is – maybe these people are spent at the end of the day and want to retreat into solitude to recharge. Maybe they find human nature itself irksome and absurd, or maybe they are highly anxious and nauseated at the idea of socializing. Maybe they are genuinely depressed and do not have the energy or the empathy to reach out to others. Maybe the people surrounding them are hostile, or snobbish, or interested in things that are not at all appealing.
The bottom line: Nobody likes socializing when it’s forced, or when it feels forced.
We concur. In fact, forced socializing violates our requirement for sincerity in everything we do.
What, then, would a Missionary of Saint Thorlak do in this family reunion scenario, or any situation, if they sincerely have no desire to socialize?
Above all else: Do not socialize.
This is not a trick answer. It is given as sincerely as we expect you to act.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak does not promote socializing.
We promote connection.
There is a huge fundamental difference between these concepts. People can socialize without ever connecting, and people can connect without ever socializing.
Socializing implies everything we think of in an interaction between people. It takes skill, work and time. It requires physical and emotional energy. It is the goal of social skills training and is often the only means people think of when they envision connecting with others.
Connecting means: joining, linking, uniting or bonding two or more things together (via dictionary.com).
[Did you catch that? “Two or more”? Are your bells ringing?]
The act of connection occurs when you, as you are, authentically experience someone as they are, in a shared moment. And, when it occurs as part of your consecration of yourself, as you are, to God’s service, Jesus is brought present.
A connection can be something as simple and fleeting as eye contact, or as complex as enjoying a lifelong friendship.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are called to connect. So, at this imagined family reunion, our Missionaries would be expected to connect, somehow, with those attending.
What does that look like?
It means, for our purposes, not focusing on the long lists of what to do, what to say, or how to act. It means approaching each person and engaging with them, as you are, as they are, as you are able.
“It means a lot that you are here.”
“You are an important part of our family.”
“I always remember the time you __________. It has stuck with me this long!”
“Are you glad you came?”
“Would you like some lemonade?”
These encounters are brief, but personal, and meaningful, and sincere. And, each is a moment blessing you and blessing the other person – by Jesus, Himself, present.
This feeds you spiritually.
This feeds the other person spiritually.
This takes less than ten seconds.
You could easily fulfill these connections and then retreat someplace alone, and still say with truth and satisfaction, "Mission Accomplished."
If you are someone who shudders at the idea of social gatherings, this is manageable. And it prevents spiritual starvation.
If you are someone who genuinely cannot enjoy socializing, after school or after work, wanting weekends alone to recharge, or feeling like you can barely get out of bed, you can still make sure you are spiritually fed, and you can still spiritually feed others.
This week, we ask you to replace “socializing” with “connecting” and see how that reframes things.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, please show me how to connect with the people in my proximity. Help me to remain sincere, and help me to experience what it feels like when You connect with me through them.
CONTEMPLATE: How well do I routinely connect with others? Is this because I have a misunderstanding of what “connection” means?
RELATE: Practice, practice, practice. Connect! And, if you’d like to have fun with this idea, make it a challenge to connect with as little as possible. How well can you connect in a glance? A smile? A nod? Can you connect in absolute silence? See how many ways you can surprise yourself.
We look more closely this week at what defines our particular approach as missionaries. You will recall that our methods are patterned after the late Bishop Thorlák Thórhallsson of Iceland, whose public leadership and ministry left a lasting impact on the faith of his people, and whose manner was uniquely marked by traits that today would be called autism, social anxiety and communication disorder.
It is the paradox of his success which inspires us to pinpoint the techniques he used with the limitations he had. Did he struggle in secret, or deny his difficulties? Did he rise above his symptoms through some miracle intervention? Was he cured? Did he simply exhibit heroic strength as he fought his way through each obstacle? Did he have parents who advocated for him, friends in high places, elaborate therapies applied to his skill deficits?
No. There was none of that.
Bishop Thorlak did something completely different: He consecrated himself, just as he was, to God’s service. To be sure, he did not know the clinical concepts we have today, and he did not explicitly have autism in mind when he chose how to live out his vocation. Even if he had, the process and the result would have been the same. We chose him for our mentor because his method is remarkably simple, accessible and powerful – and it works.
Some might say that Bishop Thorlak was naturally inclined toward everything that led to his success. He was fervent in his faith, loyal in his service and even-tempered in his diplomacy, all of which helped tremendously in his career and as a holy man of God. Yet there were plenty in his time who described Thorlak as somber, rigid, stubborn and headstrong. In other words, he was a saint in the eyes of the faithful, but not everyone enjoyed his company. (Sounds a little like us ordinary folk, no?) The truth is, he was as human as anyone else, with regular human failings amplified by the effects of autism. For everything remarkable he did, he likely had just as many moments of sensory overload and complete shutdown. We say this to head off any notion that we idealize Bishop Thorlak or portray him as someone above our own experiences. On the contrary, we believe Thorlak had a full range of emotions, traits, behaviors and foibles. Be sure to keep this in mind as you continue reading.
Bishop Thorlak, being fully human and fully fallible, took all that he was, and all that he was not… all that he could do well, and all that confounded him… all that was asked of him, and all that he dreaded in fear… and consecrated it all to God’s service. When he did that, a remarkable thing happened: His useful traits became a pleasing, acceptable offering by their own merits, and his (shall we say) less helpful traits were transformed from stumbling blocks into keys which opened doors for him, by way of voluntary humility. He assessed what he lacked and then chose not to curse his disabilities, but to offer his needs as a chance to learn from the people in his see. Rather than being a Bishop of high and removed social standing, he embraced mentorship as a way of life: first seeking mentorship from the people he served, and after receiving their friendship and wisdom, mentoring those in his own employ.
Consecrating ourselves to God’s service, in the manner of Bishop Thorlak, is as simple as starting with these three Biblical words: Here I am.
Here I am – just as you see me. Nothing polished or embellished, as in a job interview, but starkly honest, hiding nothing.
Here I am – and I need you. I need you to be a friend to me. I need your company. I need to experience God through you.
Here I am – with only that which I’ve got on me. My hands are rather empty. I imagine that I know what you are looking for, and I know I don’t have that. What I do have, I offer you… my skills, my ideas, or maybe just my company. I would love to feel like I am valuable to you, but I have no idea how to be. You tell me.
Here I am – and I am glad to be here. I have a lot to learn from you.
Here I am – and I have a lot of experiences which might be interesting or helpful to you. I would love to share them with you.
Here I am, God. What can I do that is useful for You, when I am ordinary and imperfect?
Here I am, God, and I’m watching and listening. Show me, by leading me to people around me.
Imagine presenting yourself to God, seeking Him to employ you. What do you genuinely have to offer Him? What do you feel holds you back? Ask God to show you… and He will, over time. Go slowly as you watch and listen for clues, and thank Him as you notice each puzzle piece.
Become aware this week of how God is mentoring you by speaking through others, and then, how God might be mentoring others by speaking through you.
“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel: God-Is-With-Us.” – Isaiah 7:14
There is a secret code greeting between members of the Mission of Saint Thorlak: the numerical sequence 7-1-4. It makes us smile every time. It is a wink of solidarity between Missionaries because it is our shorthand for one of our core principles: God is always with us.
This week, we look at how this fits into the foundation of what we do.
“Spiritual starvation,” you will recall, is a state of disconnectedness from others, and ultimately, disconnection from God. We think of spiritual nourishment in terms of flowing through a continuous chain, with God at the source and each successive link either transmitting or impeding the flow of God’s love to the links ahead… eventually reaching completion where we are.
Some have wondered why we start with the image of a chain, which is linear, instead of the vine and branches (see John 15:5), or more of an electronic circuit. Our choice of imagery is deliberate for good reason.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak focuses on our interactions with others to address spiritual starvation. We pick up all the way down at end of the chain, where we are. Why don’t we direct address peoples’ relationships with God, at the front of the chain? Isn’t God the source of love and life?
Aha. Yes. And, that is why we start at the end: to get a good sense of just how well nourished we are spiritually. To do this, we need to stretch our connections into a straight line and see each link between ourselves, at the end, and God, at the source. It is not the number of links that matters; it is the degree to which God’s love flows through each successive link. If the people in our chain are open to receiving and transmitting God’s love, His love flows abundantly – whether the people themselves are polished or imperfect, poised or clumsy, introverts or extroverts, living with a condition or diagnosed with nothing at all. God works through all of us just as we are (… and, if we consecrate all we have to His service, we actively permit His love to flow through us at maximum power… but we will save that for another discussion).
There are, however, places along the chain where the flow becomes constricted. We do not live perfect lives, and even the most pious among us remains human, with human feelings and human failings. It is a dynamic flow that changes with our day to day openness and willingness and movements of the heart and reactions to people around us. It is only over long periods of time that the flow might become more permanently constricted, and rarely is it ever cut off completely – or irreversibly. The degree of spiritual starvation reflects the degree of constriction somewhere in the chain, and this is why it helps to see the chain at its full length, to better understand how to get that nourishment flowing again.
There are three key points we need to make as we relate the idea of this chain to our Missionary work, and they reinforce the importance starting our work at the end of the chain, rather than the beginning.
1) God is the source of our life
2) His essence is part of each of us
3) God is alive and broadcasting His love continuously, simultaneously, across all Creation
Our life begins with God, back at the start of the chain. We do not call ourselves into being; God is the source, the origin, and the foundational link of our spiritual nourishment.
Although we each originate with God, our lives are not lived in the spiritual realm of The Creator – they are lived in the tangible realm of Creation. We live where God is unseen. How can He be the foundational link, if He is not seen? We are not tethered to God like astronauts on a space walk; we are living our lives here in the tangible world, physically separated from Him. So, how can God supply us with nourishment if we are separated? It is because all people, all created things, bear the essence of God.
Pause and ponder: Creatures bear the essence of God. Not simply an imprint or a trademark – but a bit of God’s very essence! God’s essence is in the fabric of each of His creatures. We can say this because God is Life itself… so, by receiving life from the Source of All Life, we are, by necessity, imbued with the essence of this “life” which comprises our souls. This is not to say that each one of us IS God, or is equal to God, but that the substance animating our souls contains God’s life-giving essence.
That essence in us not only enlivens us, but also gives hints as to how God imagines our potentiality. We might (rather poorly) compare this to the manner we say we resemble our ancestors through family traits and tendencies. Physical genetics play one role, but there are also intangible threads of personality and character which consistently express themselves through successive generations. So it is, also, with God: He imparts a bit of His character to us when he forms our souls. As we hear echoes of distant ancestors in our contemporary relatives, so too we can hear echoes of God Himself through those who make up our world – because each person bears God’s essence.
On to our next point: God is alive and present at all times, though He exists in a realm we cannot physically perceive. We conceptualize God constantly broadcasting Himself, and that signal reaching infinitely, though invisibly, throughout the totality of all Creation. God is perpetually present, and perpetually broadcasting, but we may only perceive Him during those moments we pick up and attend to His signal. If we were somehow able to perpetually monitor the signal, we could experience the truth that God is indeed perfectly and constantly present with us, “live,” in every aspect in which He exists… continuously, completely and simultaneously. This means God is “live” in His essence.
We imagine God’s broadcast signal as a quiet, steady, pulse of love, like a heartbeat, recalling that sense of perfect rest we feel when we nestle on a parent’s chest and hear the reassurance of their life inside them and instinctively know that we are not alone.
Therefore: If we are aware of God’s essence in us… and God’s essence in the people around us… we can experience God, “live,” by attending to God’s signal emanating in us and from them. We can experience God to the degree to which we receive the signal. And… the more people to whom we are meaningfully connected… the greater the chances of hearing it. Furthermore, if two or more join together, the signal is boosted.
Two or more? That sounds familiar. Hold on. We’re almost there.
Each person is different. Each moment for each person is different. Each circumstance is different. So, moment by moment, there are nearly infinite combinations of how we might experience God, or how someone might experience God through us. Sometimes it will be strong, and others it will be nearly imperceptible. Sometimes there will be interference. Sometimes we will forget to listen. Sometimes our own signals will dominate. Sometimes we will not recognize it. But none of this negates the fact that there is a signal.
Why do we ask our Missionaries to seek others?
= To give others the opportunity for God to greet us through them – and give them the chance to experience the signal.
By seeking their greeting, we boost the signal for them!
Our need calls God through them!
When the signal is perceived by itself, it generates great joy… but when it is received through another person, it activates Matthew 18:20, and God becomes present in Jesus… Emmanuel… God-is-with us.
"7 1 4."
PRAY: Heavenly Father, how marvelous are Your designs! You are alive and with us, unseen, as love broadcasting live, around the clock. Help us remember that, under the noise, under the static, You are there: clear and soft and constantly sending your greeting, in gentle rhythm, to our hearts.
CONTEMPLATE: Keep this thought in mind as you go about your week, and observe how it affects your thoughts, actions and feelings.
RELATE: Each time you encounter someone, silently realize: God’s essence is broadcasting to me, from within that person!
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