In finishing the story of Saint Thorlak, the final step came down to last week’s elephant. How shall I mention autism, when it is not so much an explicit event in his story as it is one of many characteristics of how he lived his story out? This last piece called for careful discernment as I pondered the responsibility I have to both my subject and potential readers in my choice of words.
I decided to include “autism” in the subtitle. The question remaining was how.
I look nothing like this when I write.
As a contemporary biographer of a medieval bishop, I am already in unfamiliar territory. Saint Thorlak’s life is not easily told in twenty-first century context, nor does our present understanding reflect the way things were seen, said and done in his day. Yet, I still believe his life has much to teach us, and his story offers great benefit to each one of us who will take the time to know him for who he was.
It is clear to me, the school psychologist, that he had autism. It is just as clear to me, the biographer, that autism did not define Saint Thorlak’s life, nor did anyone in his lifetime deny the fact that he behaved, thought and taught divergently from his peers. How does his story fit onto autism’s philosophical spectrum, where the range starts at denial, moves slowly toward awareness, then on toward acceptance, then further on to increasing calls for remediation, and finally reaching the radical push for cure and eradication at the other extreme?
It seems impossible to place Saint Thorlak anywhere on that curve (at least with the kind of accuracy I demand of myself). He lived his autism as a person, not as a person with autism. He did not deny his differences, but he was not aware of them in the ways we are today… neither did he wish them away or try to fix anything.
Seventeen years ago, I faced a similar philosophical situation. I worked as a school psychologist in a neighborhood with a high incidence of violent crime, addiction, unemployment and underemployment. I could not say our students were that much different than those found in any other school, but they did know more about life’s hardships than children from more stable, more affluent neighborhoods. Calling them “poor” and “at-risk” did nothing but highlight these hardships. Calling them “ordinary” seemed unfair, especially when some of their personal stories were anything but. Calling them “extraordinary” felt like a bitter compliment, especially when their circumstances were nothing worth celebrating or drawing attention to. Yet I saw their situation as an opportunity waiting to be unpacked, if only I could find the right words.
I hit upon the idea by accident, as I was trying to talk to a group of students who ate their lunch in my office to talk about the things at home that posed difficulties for their performance at school. I looked them each in the eye as I acknowledged their challenges as real, beyond their control, and not likely to go away any time soon. I said out loud that it would be foolish to pretend these problems can be brushed aside. Then, I said it would be just as foolish to let these problems define them and their behavior. Every one of us has some kind of challenge. Every one of us has our own kind of sorrow we carry in our hearts. What if we stopped trying to ignore or exalt our problems… and, what if we instead looked them square on and decided, together, to rise above them?
It resonated both with the students and with me. I thought more on that phrase for several weeks. Rise above. Neither deny nor define, neither exalt nor excuse. Rise above.
In a philosophical sense, rise above means seeking a path of higher virtue so that we may advance in our journey instead of exhausting ourselves or growing stagnant in our challenges. It acknowledges the hardship without seeking to change, fix or destroy it. It enacts no protest against difficult things. In fact, it affords our struggle value as a nudge reminding us to lift up our heads, to stretch out our arms and seek the updraft that can give us the respite or perspective we need to refresh and renew our resolve to continue on our journey.
In life, triumph very rarely eradicates challenge. The majority of our successes come in small, incremental steps as we master and grow within the settings we find ourselves. Rising above hardships does not remove the challenge, erase the suffering or circumvent the hard work needed to keep moving forward. “Rise above” is not a gaming cheat, a power-up or an express pass to completion. It is more of a perspective-shift which reveals a less visible route for moving forward on the same journey. One can ford a river by crossing directly on foot, or by walking along the bank until a more favorable passage is found, or by employing help from horse or raft or other travelers. How often do we look upward, to see if there might be a bridge, or a vine, or a span of branches in the canopy that might get us where we are going through a different kind of work? Each choice has its cost, and each has its challenge. Likewise, seeking higher virtue takes work, and costs whatever the price may be in humility, caritas and willingness to need. Rising above is an active choice, not a passive process.
“Rise above” was such a different concept from the support groups I had been running that I spent an entire summer building a program around it. That program became a success on many levels. Not only did the students begin to feel empowered by choosing the good, but the teachers also came to see how this subtle shift in mindset had widespread and lasting effects on the culture at large.
Nearly two decades later, I looked my manuscript and recognized the same dilemma. What would be the phrasing to reflect the reality of Saint Thorlak’s struggle without defining him or his story by them?
Yes… yes. I ran the scenario in my mind. Yes, this fits. The traits that caused Saint Thorlak the most difficulty did not particularly define him, but they affected how he navigated his life, and they offered him the opportunity to reach higher toward the virtue that would lift him above the obstacles threatening to stop him from making further progress. He did not seek to eradicate the things that could have shut him down. He looked out over the horizon and, letting go of certainty, reached for the updraft and rose above them.
His way of doing so is what this Mission is all about.
Pray: Heavenly Father, teach me how to “rise above” those things that limit me by reaching for the virtue to help me persevere through them and learn from them.
Contemplate: Rising above hardship is accomplished by reaching toward virtue. How is doing so an active choice and not a passive process?
Relate: Explain this idea to someone else.
When I sat down at last to write Saint Thorlak's story, I had a tote bag bulging with research and solid sources to keep me grounded. I found enough background to shade the existing factual dot-to-dot image of the historical man with the depth and emotion that the academic works lack, and I had the entire body of blog posts to help characterize his spirituality. As I set forth corraling it all into paragraphs and pages, I saw that everything was carefully accounted for: the physical setting, the chronological timeline, the social context…
Everything but the elephant.
That is to say, the elephant in the room. The one asking if I, the head writer for the Mission of Saint Thorlak, would get through the entire story without mentioning AUTISM.
Autism is quite the elephant, indeed, wherever it shows up. To deny it is folly. To ignore it is detrimental to everyone involved. And to indulge it is to risk obstructing our ability to see anything else.
To mention “autism” in a story of a twelfth century cleric would be about the same as bringing an actual elephant to Iceland in any period of time.
What wonder, what scurry of activity, what sensational novelty it would be to bring an elephant to Iceland without preparation or prior announcement. The elephant would get all the attention, and the person tending it would be largely overlooked.
So, what, then – leave the elephant out?
As one who sees autism in Saint Thorlak, and is so deeply impressed with how it both permeates and refines his ministry as to devote my free time writing for an online apostolate in his name, I cannot fathom doing that.
Yet, nobody prior to me has referenced autism with respect to Saint Thorlak. The word appears in no source material. People have outright said they are very uncomfortable calling Saint Thorlak autistic because it feels like violating or exploiting his vulnerability. Of course I see that, and empathize greatly. I do not want people exploiting me, or my autism, or my eye color, or anything else, for their gain without consulting me first.
Then again, the Catholic saints fall into a special category of people whose lives we are explicitly encouraged to study and emulate. The vulnerability of the saints is what makes them most human, most relatable, most powerful in teaching us the ways we also can rise above life’s obstacles by reaching for the supernatural grace wrought through seeking, self-sacrifice, humility and radical acceptance.
Would Saint Thorlak have been diagnosed autistic if that term was around in his time?
Would Saint Thorlak have embraced that diagnosis if he had been given it?
We have no way to know either.
Besides being a writer, I am also a certified school psychologist. I have the qualifications to make diagnoses. It is the same process for a tangible person as it is a figure from long ago: it requires gathering data and synthesizing a person’s story. The data I use in school diagnostics consists of social histories gathered by parents and teachers, and observations of the student in the school environment. There are also interviews and checklists given in dialog with the students themselves. The psychologist takes it all into consideration and makes a decision based on the likelihood that the patterns match.
I can say with confidence that I have done this with Saint Thorlak – even more thoroughly than I have ever done with any students I have helped. Professionally, he fits the pattern. Professionally, I conclude he is a man who had autism.
But, in writing his biography, I can say with equal confidence that nobody in his lifetime knew what autism was or might be. It comes down, then, to the voice I use to tell his story. Will it be a universal narrator, journeying with him through his twelfth century life… or will it be me, now, teaching and explaining each frame of the filmstrip?
Much as I would enjoy the latter, the result would be one more academic work… and one more missed opportunity to know Saint Thorlak simply for who he is, as a person.
The world does not need another autism case study. Nor does the world need another static image of Saint Thorlak, even if this one were to be accompanied by a brand new set of encyclopedic facts.
The world needs Saint Thorlak. The person.
And so, I wrote the story of Saint Thorlak, the person.
As for the elephant, after much prayer, I realized that it is perfectly sound to mention his autism in the book’s title and let his life’s story do the telling of his autism for itself. In a time when there was no such word, a person with autism would be… a person.
And I have striven to tell it exactly like that.
Continued next week.
Pray: Dear God: You have known my story from the very beginning. May my story as a person bless those who know me, and those who will come to know me.
Contemplate: How is knowing someone’s story different from knowing facts about them?
Relate: Take the time this week to better know someone through their story as a person.
THORLAK OF ICELAND
Available on Amazon
In February of this year, I was asked a simple question: What source material have I seen that sheds light on the life of Saint Thorlak? Fair enough, considering that I oversee the online apostolate in his name and frequently reference his teaching and example in our weekly thoughts. I responded with a list of citations I would recommend to anyone wanting to become familiar with Iceland’s patron saint. I commented that the sources in English are greatly limited, and that, unfortunately, the closest we have to a comprehensive biography is the hagiographical Saga of Bishop Thorlak, preserved from the 12th and 13th centuries and thankfully translated from the original Icelandic. It is a marvelous document, but admittedly not a smooth read.
The discussion might have ended there, had the query not come from a book publisher. His response was one of those astonishing turns we rarely experience. His interest was more than academic. He wondered if I would be interested in writing a contemporary biography of St. Thorlak for his publishing company. Within days, we crafted an ambitious outline and set a rough goal of finishing “by the end of the summer.”
For the next six months I used that outline as my road map, seeking every accessible resource in English that would journey me to twelfth century Iceland. I repeatedly examined the same encyclopedic facts through lenses of geography, economy, family, climate, historical period and politics, hoping that all these slices taken together might produce a precisely computed tomography of the heart and mind of this great saint. I spent the springtime highlighting, referencing, cross-referencing and corroborating. My hand-drawn chronological timeline blossomed with yellow sticky notes as I read article after article on the lives, politics and careers of the Nordic 1100s.
Then, I put it all aside, and began talking.
For two straight months I refrained from writing. Instead, I called everyone in my path my audience and breathed wordly life into the two-dimensional stack of historical data I had gathered. I went full hog: I recited the types of grain which grow in semi-frozen acidic soil with only one season of sunlight, but then I explained why it was relevant to a family of five whose father was very frightened after the fishing season failed. I described the uniqueness of medieval Iceland being a parliamentary commonwealth among European monarchies, and considered how that might impact the development and experience of the Catholic Church. I reflected on how political change can be effected both from the top down and the bottom up. I mused that the paved streets and stone architecture of Europe must have been overwhelming to those who came from a land of low turf houses, unhewn basalt cliffs and stratovolcanic mountainscapes. I talked about the pressure one must feel to please those who invest their hopes, and their money, in their education. I wondered why some people are labeled as difficult when their studies lead them to realize how things might be improved for the greater good, if only their questions did not threaten the status quo.
So many of us on the spectrum possess, and profess, great volumes of encyclopedic knowledge. Why? Perhaps because our bliss is in knowing something slice by slice, from every angle, as thoroughly as possible. Each fact may start out flat, but when we give these facts the breath of our words, they come alive, in three dimensions, through us.
If anyone will listen.
How often we wish others would be this thorough in wanting to know us, especially when so many are content with just the outer slice of our behavior. How we long to be seen in more than one dimension.
Back at my writing desk, the image of Saint Thorlak’s statue from Christ the King Cathedral in Reykjavik meets my eyes in his fixed, two-dimensional gaze. Most everyone knows him in two dimensions: one, the historical man, born 1133, died 1193; two, the bishop known for his clerical reforms and pious habits, canonized in 1984.
What if we took the time to think about him through those other dimensions: family, childhood, politics, geography, physical health, educational experience, tensions, hopes, disappointments, dreams?
He might not seem so flat. He might seem more like a person.
Continued next week.
It has been a very busy time behind the scenes at the Mission of Saint Thorlak, and we are most happy to be back with our weekly thoughts. We have numerous topics to discuss in the coming weeks and have honestly missed the interaction with our worldwide community.
Taking inventory has provided us with valuable information about this apostolate and what we hope to accomplish. We are seeing a steady increase in requests for individual spiritual guidance and support. We are seeing a consistently positive response to the story of St. Thorlak, whether through website content, the Novena prayer or through the interest in the upcoming release of Thorlak of Iceland, the new biography due out in October. More people are asking to be Domestic Prayer Missionaries, and as a result, more people are experiencing the transformative power of praying for one another as we walk the same path at different places.
We are very grateful to be here, and to be back.
Our first post ahead will go into more details about the book and its genesis, and how we feel it embodies the very Mission bearing the name of its subject. After that, we will talk about where we encounter God in our relationships, and where we may not expect to find rich and abundant sources of spiritual nourishment. We also have a thoughtful discussion to come on spiritual childhood.
Throughout the season ahead, we look most forward to hearing from those who are journeying with us, to gain the insights and supports and every benefit in between of knowing and being known. You will see on the right sidebar two new contact forms: A suggestion box for topics to cover, and an opportunity to submit guest blog posts to our Missionary Thoughts.
All in all, a great season is here at hand, and we are very glad to know you!
-Aimee O’Connell, T. O. Carm.