As our apostolate continues to grow and reach new people, many have asked about the Mission of Saint Thorlak website. It seems like a good time to pause and take a look around. This week we will talk specifically about our blog, and next week will be a site tour and walkthrough.
A recurring theme in the comments we hear about our website regards the visibility and indexing of our blog. The format we currently use is fully integrated with the website but not the easiest to navigate, especially in trying to reference past posts. Our “blog” is more of a running instruction manual for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, and less a running commentary. It consists of specific thematically sequenced reflections to help familiarize readers with our Missionary mindset. Thus, we place our weekly posts under the header “Mission Activities” and refrain from calling it strictly a blog.
When this apostolate first started out, we very literally began from nothing and built our way up. We needed framework and context for the concepts underpinning the choices and ways of interacting that emulate the example of Saint Thorlak and seem particularly effective for helping autistic people connect more meaningfully with others, and, ultimately, with God. We decided to roll these ideas out one at a time, week by week, gradually introducing our purpose, mission statement and objectives, striving for a good balance between abstract and concrete. This would be accomplished by sharing our thoughts – our Missionary Thoughts – and would serve both to communicate our reasoning and provide enough of a glimpse that the thought could then be emulated in readers’ minds and actions. We purposefully use the heading “Contemplation in Action” because this further reinforces the idea that we aim to present ideas that are at once spiritual and practical. In doing so, our model hopes to imitate the ideals of a good prayer life.
We have acknowledged the need for better indexing and referencing, and so have created a table of contents by date and topic on our “Missionary Thoughts Archive” page. Behind the scenes, we are working to formulate these posts into a Missionaries of Saint Thorlak Guidebook which will be made available in print and e-book formats for easier reference.
Please, keep the feedback coming. We are here to serve. It is an exciting place to be in terms of this apostolate, as our inventory has affirmed that our foundation is in place and looks to be solid. We can now start building real, tangible ways to help people connect spiritually, across the globe and in our own regions. It’s here. It’s time.
Along with the site tour, we are also working on rolling out a Google Voice phone line that can receive voice mail and text messages, and then, we are very serious about writing an annotated catechism for those affected by autism - and, anyone else who finds that format more readily applicable to engaging our faith.
Keep us in your prayers!
-Aimee O’Connell, T.O.Carm.
A funny thing happened during our August hiatus here at the Mission of Saint Thorlak. A flurry of "Contact Us" forms began coming in from different regions of the world, surprisingly all from people seeking spiritual direction. The timing of this coming during our inventory clearly pointed to this being a theme needing to be addressed, and so we started doing our homework in our weeks off. Where might we look to assist teens and adults who have real and relevant questions about how to better experience God, both personally and as part of their faith communities?
Bottom line: There is not much out there.
There are several options for social stories and manipulatives which younger children may use and bring with them to church services. There are growing numbers of churches offering "sensory-friendly" services or worship spaces to help accommodate those who need quieter or more kinetic space. But what is there to help the autistic older children and adults who seek to comprehend the spiritual purpose for coming to church in the first place?
One adult who contacted us has graciously permitted us to quote her requests directly. Her words describe the need much better than we could summarize.
Wow. This is just one person!
Other dilemmas that have been brought to us concern relationships with difficult people and how to reconcile the need for healthy boundaries with Christian teachings. Still others have shared deep pain about participating in the Catholic sacraments. Verbal limitations are a huge obstacle to the sacrament of Confession, for instance, where the normal expectation is to speak directly to the priest. The matter of anxiety and scruples just complicates things all the more. It seems to be random luck as to whether or not a parish has a priest who is familiar enough with autism to know how to comfortably address these practical issues among those who think, feel and experience life as people with autism. Furthermore, the majority of spiritual teachings not only defy ordinary logic, but they tend to evoke emotions which people on the spectrum process differently than most others. If we are missing bricks in our foundational experiences of our faith, we have all the more difficulty grasping what these practices are supposed to look like and feel like.
The most ordinary daily processes are already more difficult to master, more deliberately studied, more cautiously approached and less obviously understood for autistic people than nonautistic people. Something as abstract – and so very, very serious – as faith is easily brushed aside as one of the optional things in life that we might get to if we can solve all those other, ordinary things first.
Well: If it’s optional, then, what about those of us who opt to pursue it?
Besides those already named, here are some more topics that could use better, more concrete explanations:
The longer the list, the more it resembles some sort of “Catechism for Autism”… and, the more we realize that there really could be such a thing, one day, if anyone takes the time to compile such a resource: an explanation of the faith, using words and examples and suggestions for accommodations to make spirituality more accessible for those who desire it but cannot yet grasp it.
Someone has to start somewhere.
Pray: Heavenly Father, let there be a way we can better know You!
Contemplate: What are the areas of our spirituality that pose the greatest difficulty in our connecting with God and others?
Relate: Ask others these same questions, and realize they are more common than we might have first thought.
Tantrums go by many names, with many connotations. Toddlers have “temper tantrums,” expressing outrage over their inability to achieve what they want. Older children and adults have “meltdowns,” suggesting that frustrations have built past their ability to cope and hold off their impulses. The term “overload” can be equally applied to those whose sensory processing systems are hit with too many urgent needs at once, triggering outbursts of behavior which often take onlookers by surprise.
It seems that terminology shifts based on the expectations of others. The word “tantrum” becomes prickly when applied to older children and adults, and even more pejorative when aimed toward autistic people who genuinely experience sensory overload through no fault of their own.
Why in the world would we use that term here?
We chose that word precisely because of the sense of shame it evokes. Babies may be excused for not yet having the skills to cope under pressure, but older children and adults are held to higher standards. Even though everyone loses their composure from time to time, habitual outbursts are looked down upon as poor coping skills. Worse, meltdowns are not very polite in mixed company. Onlookers feel highly uncomfortable when someone rages. Screams intuitively signal danger deep within each of us. Nothing provokes soldiers like the roar of a drill sergeant, and nothing incites a riot like a battle cry. There is no pause for compassion or understanding when rage catches us off guard, whether our own or that of someone nearby. And then, there is the unspoken sense that older people are aware enough of their own actions to “know better,” to stop themselves before they lose control of their emotions.
Yes, we deliberately chose the most uncomfortable word for this week’s thought. No couching, no mitigating; just out with it, like the word itself implies: tantrum.
How can we encounter God in anything associated so plainly with rage and shame?
Simply, by looking at the truth of who God is.
The very idea of bringing God into a tantrum only seems to taunt us with impossible maxims. Love your neighbor. Honor your mother and father. Turn the other cheek. Peace be with you.
When we are overwhelmed enough to lose composure, the last thing we want to think about is God and the ideals we’ve just blown to bits. The last thing we want is anyone to remind us how wretched we are.
Except: God is there. Unavoidably. Right there, present with us, as we rage.
God does not flinch. God does not shrink.
God, the Creator of all things, whose universe produces lightning and storms and seismic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, does not require quiet to be with us.
God, who knows our hearts and minds, who sees what leads to our outrage, who cringes when we are slighted, when our plans go awry, when friends betray us, when strangers insult us, when hunger overtakes us, when fear unravels us… that same God is always with us.
If we have been taught how to recover from a meltdown by acknowledging our behavior and how it has affected the people around us, apologizing where we need to and asking forgiveness, and by being welcomed back into the circle with love and compassion, we learn to control our impulses, ask for help, and eventually recognize signs of building tension before our behavior alienates us from others.
If we have been conditioned to expect punishment, mockery and alienation following an episode of emotional overload, we either learn to avoid others when we feel upset or we accept that we will be rejected as we flail and fail and wait for the storm to pass.
So, where does God stand while we tantrum? Far back, waiting for us to calm down? Shaking His head in disappointment? Removing Himself until we apologize?
No. God stands with us. Our God is not a shaming God. Nowhere in any recorded Scripture does God mock, shame or alienate anyone.
How do we encounter God in the tantrums we have, or the tantrums we witness? By acknowledging His presence. By not flinching. By not shrinking. By realizing that, on whichever side of the tantrum we stand, God is standing with us, embracing and accepting us in our weakness. For, what is a tantrum but supreme weakness? Composure means we’ve got it together, we’re coping with whatever life is dishing out at us. Lost composure means we’ve been swept under a tidal wave so strong that we no longer have control over our most basic ability to reach out to another person.
What God would watch us drown? Not ours. Not from spite, not from apathy, and certainly not from abandonment.
The next time we hit overload and lose our composure, remember this: God loves us before, during and afterward. A meltdown can no more strip us of the dignity of being God’s child than the screaming toddler in the grocery store is discarded by the parent pushing the cart.
The next time someone nearby hits overload and loses composure, remember this: God loves them before, during and afterward. If they are having a hard time seeing God, we can always be His reflection standing by, recalling that person’s dignity as a beloved child of God.
Let us be clear: Unchecked rage is not healthy. In no way should we celebrate meltdowns or the damage they cause. As anywhere else, when people or things get hurt, repairs have to be made. Messes have to be cleaned up. Circumstances have to be examined. We are all accountable for what we do, even when we have passed our limits. But, if we can assess the damage and approach the aftermath with a deliberate plea to be shown how to rebuild with love, we are very likely to encounter God. It is the one prayer He can never refuse.
Pray: God, hear our plea: Show us how to rebuild with love after composure has been lost!
Contemplate: When have we ever imagined God standing by during a meltdown? How would doing that change the situation?
Relate: The time to practice this week’s missionary skill is now, not when a meltdown is in progress. Practice by imagining how we would reflect God during someone else’s meltdown, and practice by imagining God ready to embrace us when we feel ourselves losing control. Practice this enough times to be ready when overload hits.
Readers might recognize that the Catholic Sunday Gospel reading is very well suited to this week’s thought. This tiny snippet from the Gospel of Mark is found at chapter 10, verse 15: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
For the autistic among us, childhood is already a thorny issue. Our chronological age never seems to match up with our interests. Sometimes we are drawn to things the world has designated as best for preschoolers, even if we seem too big to wonder at colors, shapes and familiar rhythms. Toddlers are allowed “imagination time” – should we not have that same permission to use objects to inspire our thoughts? Other times, we thrive being around adults, especially those who stop and listen to us and genuinely share our curiosity. Adults can be a lot easier to be around than children, who can be loud, kinetically unpredictable and impatient dealing with people who need a little extra time. When we feel the full extent of our feelings, we are told to “grow up,” and when our reactions don’t match those of the people around us, we are called “immature.”
Childhood on the spectrum is no better or worse than for those of any neurotype. But, in a very broad sense, it is very likely that the formative events of autistic people are different than those not on the spectrum. Our learning sequence may take many more detours and roundabouts than the straight road that is supposed to go from the sensorimotor stage to pre-, concrete and formal operational processing in child development.
Silly question of the week: At which developmental stage should we receive the Kingdom of God like a child?
By now, the point has become completely lost in the details.
Likewise, most of the other, less academic considerations we give this Gospel passage become waylaid by our attempt to define and apply what we think childhood means. In doing so, we completely miss the exhortation: Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Receive the Kingdom like a child.
This is what separates children from adults: DEPENDENCE.
Adults are those who have reached the stage of independence where they are expected to get and do things for themselves. No more do they need guardians to sign off on activities, provide for necessities or guide in making decisions. Adulthood, in a very simple sense, is the shift from primarily “Please help me, I need” to “I want, so let me go get.”
An adult’s wants and needs are the responsibility of that adult to pursue.
A child’s wants and needs are obtained at the mercy of others.
Saint Thorlak worried toward the end of his life that he had never had a childhood. He was required at a very young age to become very responsible so that he could one day provide for his family in the absence of his father, both materially and spiritually. As Thorlak was dying, he fretted about this Gospel passage, fearing in his literal mind that he squandered his opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God having spent his childhood as an apprentice adult.
Instead (as the story goes), God revealed that Thorlak had, in fact, demonstrated his childhood every time he depended on others for his material and spiritual well-being. Like a child, he received: education from teachers impressed with his aptitude; instruction from priests who marveled at his wisdom; companionship from adults who delighted in telling him stories of their legacies; and strength from people who struggled in one way or another, showing him that he was very much an important part of their daily lives.
Need draws provision, and the meeting of the two is the experience of God. This holds true whether the need is met well or poorly, expediently or reluctantly. However long the path to provision, the meeting of the two reveals where God was theretofore hidden.
Whether we receive the Kingdom of God through sensory channels, imaginary role play, hands-on experimentation or conceptual book knowledge is not relevant. What matters is that we do not insist on doing so by ourselves. We must voluntarily depend on others to reveal God.
Put another way: Our physical childhood begins at birth and culminates when we achieve independence. Our spiritual childhood, then, begins after we have achieved independence and gradually start learning how to depend on others– until at last we receive the full experience of the Kingdom of God.
Anywhere we go, we can find skills curricula and programs to help people learn independence. By contrast, it is nearly impossible to find any program teaching us how to depend on others. Usually, we wait until find ourselves in crisis situations to realize that learning these skills – how to trust, how to ask, how to be vulnerable – might have done us a world of good.
Maybe we should start earlier on.
We can begin by studying childhood.
Pray: Heavenly Father, our culture teaches us from an early age that is important to be independent. Help me to see how DEPENDENCE can be just as important a skill to have… and then, show me how to begin learning.
Contemplate: What does the Kingdom of God look like as I witness those who depend on others?
Relate: Try at least once this week to deliberately depend on another person… and then, watch for the signs of the Kingdom of 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