The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Four of the Baltimore Catechism turns now toward God’s creatures. The first two questions review:
32. Q: Who created Heaven, Earth and all things?
33. Q: How did God create Heaven and Earth?
A: God created Heaven and earth from nothing, by His word; that is, a single act of His will.
Now it gets a little more interesting.
34. Q: Which are the chief creatures of God?
A: The chief creatures of God are angels and humankind.
35. Q: What are angels?
A: Angels are pure spirits without a body, created to adore and enjoy God in Heaven.
36. Q: Were angels created for any other purpose?
A: The angels were also created to assist before the Throne of God and to minister unto Him; they have often been sent as messengers from God to humanity; and are also appointed our guardians.
37. Q: Were the angels, as God created them, good and happy?
A: The angels, as God created them, were good and happy.
38. Q: Did all the angels remain good and happy?
A: All the angels did not remain good and happy; many of them sinned and were cast into Hell; and these are called devils or bad angels.
Angels are certainly well-depicted in pop culture. As most imagery goes, angels are large, winged, human-like creatures said to come down from the heavens. They can be visible or invisible, and are most often (but not always) benevolent. Pop culture’s angels are the celestial counterpart to fairies, who are smaller, winged, human-like creatures said to rise from the earth and can likewise be seen, unseen, kindly or malicious.
The Baltimore Catechism speaks of none of these attributes, instead stating that God created the angels for His delight in Heaven. Implied in questions 32-38 are several points of note:
Let us look now systematically at the attributes which the Catechism names regarding angels.
This entire topic seems by itself an interesting study in God’s creatures. However, it sets the stage for understanding what the Catholic church teaches about the roots of good and evil in the tangible world we live in. Though the existence of angels and devils remains unseen and cannot readily be proven using the scientific method, accepting their existence does provide a logical foundation for much of what is to come. For many, it is a stretch. For all, it is why we call it “faith.”
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Three of the Baltimore Catechism takes on the mystery of One God in Three Persons. Scholars and theologians have worked with this conundrum since the beginning of Christianity. While we claim no superiority or edge in offering our explanation, we hope that we can present the concept in a way that enhances our pursuit of faith.
21. Is there but one God?
22. Why can there be but one God?
The Catechism says there can only be one God because God is supreme and perfect, and has no equal. It is a matter of definition. Since God is the exemplar of perfection, and is the source of all else that exists, He is a single point which cannot be duplicated. If we were talking branding, which we certainly are not, God is universally recognized as unique and unable to be repeated. His perfection (and the fact that He is the creator of all things) transcends patent, trademark and copyright. There is no possibility of a knockoff, clone or generic formula which could even come close enough to be called “God.” It is not a matter of supremacy; it is a matter of recognition by all of creation that God’s essence is beyond anything which could ever be manufactured.
23. How many persons are there in God?
A: In God there are three divine persons, really distinct and equal in all things: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Catechism adds in Questions 30 and 31 that we can never fully understand how this is; only in partial glimpses and analogy. The full comprehension of this concept remains a mystery, which is defined as a truth we do not yet understand.
There is so much already written about the Trinity that readers are better off exploring this on their own than trying to learn it here. The better part, here, is to present a recurring theme in the Catholic faith, which is comfort with the unknown.
Autistics are known for concrete, predictable and logical thinking. Uncertainty can be an autistic’s archnemesis. So, the first point we want to make is that there is no uncertainty in discussing the Trinity. We are quite certain that there are three distinct and equal persons in one God. This, to us, is not up for question.
The HOW becomes the sticking point. Many want a solid explanation in order to accept the conclusion. But, just as scientific research must accept in part the unknown, so too our faith must accept that we humans have neither terminology nor paradigm to relate to something as utterly impossible as one entity consisting of three distinct, equal persons. Every known creature has a one-to-one correspondence with its essence, whether human or plant or animal. No species has been discovered which has multiple distinct, separate and equal essences. Even if we looked to the extremes, we’d find that polymorphic organisms or multiple personalities do not express the full criteria of distinct, separate and equal all of the time. Scientific research requires faith, or trust that a truth exists even if we have not yet reached it. Our second point is that something is not negated just because its explanation has not been found.
One (autistic) person’s suggestion of the HOW of the Trinity employs geometric imagery:
Finally, WHY? Why have three distinct, equal persons? Well, we don’t know… not definitively, anyway. But, sticking with our answer from the past two posts, we believe it fits our notion that God is the essence of love, personified. Love cannot exist by itself; neither can God. Once again, there is much to be explored by readers on the theme of love within the Holy Trinity. Two such articles, written by our spiritual director Fr. Mark Nolette, explore this topic in greater detail:
First, by way of the teachings of Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love” :
Then, this, by way of reflecting on the Gospel of John:
Most Holy Trinity: Enlighten us!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
In exploring God’s infinite perfection, the Baltimore Catechism leads us to three more attributes to ponder, and all in one sentence. Question 20 of Lesson Two explores the style in which God governs his creation by asking if God is just, holy and merciful. The answer given is a threefold, interrelated “yes,” with each attribute explicitly defined:
Just: Providing what is deserved, whether merit or punishment
Holy: Exalted in goodness
Merciful: Less exacting than justice demands
The Baltimore text gives an example of a judge in a court of law who is motivated by wisdom and virtue. A criminal found guilty in this court will be sentenced according to what is right – no more, no less. Occasionally, circumstance will arise where the person’s guilt is mitigated by factors beyond control, such as impaired thinking, ignorance of the law or extreme and immediate need. In such cases, a just judge would show mercy by overriding the typical sentence with something more fitting, and in no way does this suggest the judge is corrupt or bending any rules. A just judge follows the rules. A holy judge asks what is morally right. A merciful judge considers each person’s humanity and frailty, and keeps or adjusts decisions based on what will lead that person to a better way of life.
When taken together, these three attributes form a solid platform of checks and balances. Any overreliance on one detracts from the ability of the others to achieve their intention. God’s justice is no less real than God’s mercy, yet neither dominate, nor do they switch off and on. All three operate simultaneously at any given moment: justice and mercy bound together in holiness. However many sermons, books and homilies may focus on one aspect over the other, the reality is a constant, perfect and simultaneous triad.
Our post last week considered God in the spiritual tradition of St. Thorlak, which portrays Him against the backdrop of His purpose, which is LOVE. God brought creation into existence with love, through love and for love… so, it ought to follow that God governs creation likewise: with love, through love and for love. This is where we can find a solution among those who assert one aspect of God’s governance over another (that is, the fire-and-brimstone image on the one hand, and the none-are-ever-condemned image on the other). LOVE is what motivates and binds justice, holiness and mercy into one cohesive truth. 1 John 4:18 shows how this works: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” If God is wrathful, there is reason to be afraid – either fearing God’s punishment for what we have done, or fearing that we can never reach or maintain a level of goodness to stay in the safe zone out of God’s way. Likewise, if God holds none of us to any standard of virtue, nothing in any other part of the catechism, or any religious teaching, makes sense. Some will say that Jesus’ death erased sin and guarantees salvation for all, even to the point of eliminating the concept of hell or damnation. That also fails to hold up under scrutiny and test, and it gives rise to a different kind of fear – that of everyone making up their own rules, justifying themselves without consequence, and gradually losing sight of the common good.
Perfect love casts out fear. If God is the essence of love, there ought to be no fear or chaos in God’s governance. The triad of justice and mercy bound by holiness is perfectly balanced, with neither fear of wrath nor moral chaos. Loving justice defends those who are abused and restores what is taken by holding abusers accountable. Loving mercy considers those who stand accused and invites them to choose the better way before the evil of their actions is locked in. Both exist simultaneously. Nobody loses. Those who decline God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of justice… and, those who accept God’s invitation to holiness reap the fullness of mercy.
Next week: The Holy Trinity
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Two of the Baltimore Catechism outlines the characteristics of God which most of us have heard in one way or another. Most of these qualities are beyond anything we can relate to in human terms:
Without anything like this in our concrete reality, it falls to our imaginations to construct our idea of God. That presumes, however, that we have a well-functioning imagination. Many of us do not, and even who do still find this far past the range of speculation. It often seems that our concept of God comes out like the mythical gods of long ago: Giant, thunderous, demanding, frightful in abject perfection (with ourselves, by comparison, looking like wretched fools or worse). In other scenarios, God ends up like a forerunner of Santa Claus, a benevolent grandfather figure who sees everything we do, knowing all that we feel, think and say, and exists to dispense gifts to us based on our merit. Imagining God can feel like living in a snow globe, existing solely for God’s amusement – or abandonment when He tires of watching us. It gets to be such absurdity that we eventually dismiss the whole thing as either too big to imagine, or outright fiction. Autistics particularly struggle with the contradiction of concrete realities which consist of abstract qualities. Perhaps, then, we might start with the implications of God rather than trying to comprehend His descriptions. St. Augustine took this approach in his teachings, and over the centuries, he would influence many others, including our own St. Thorlak. How did he – a scholar, and also a likely autistic – present these heady realities of God to the medieval Catholics of Iceland, few of whom were literate, all of whom labored day and night to survive on fishing and farming in an unreliable and punishing climate?
Thorlak’s intellectual leaning was a peculiarity to his fellow Icelanders, including those at the Oddi, the center of Icelandic scholarship. He found his niche 1,359 miles (2,187 km) abroad, studying theology at the renowned Abbey of St-Victor in Paris. He never intended to subsist on academia, though. Thorlak was eager to return to his homeland with the mission of bringing this marvelous knowledge of God to those unable to pursue theology. And, in the way many fellow autistics have of drawing out profoundly simple yet powerful solutions to confounding complexities, Thorlak showed a way to see the unseeable God by using the backdrop of His purpose: LOVE.
In that manner, then, let us employ the Catechism’s list of attributes to understand not a demanding deity, not an indifferent toymaker in the sky, but One who embodies and defines the essence of love.
We, being human, have the limits of our minds and senses; thus, the first three attributes reflect the limits to how we can know God. God is spiritual, perfect and infinite. Spiritual suggests He exists within the interior and unseen realm, the experience itself of being. One of the earliest translations of “spirit” is “breath.” We can think of God as the breath that says “yes” to all that has existed, exists now, and will exist far beyond our participation. Perfect means complete, whole, without flaw. Infinite: God encompasses the totality of all that is. Since creation is very much alive and unfolding, that totality is not finished, nor can we comprehend how far back it goes or how far ahead it will go on.
Without beginning, without end… everywhere… all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful: These are, in one sense, embellishments on the notion of being infinite. God’s essence and intentionality infuses and sustains all creation, which includes us and the world around us and the universe in which our world exists. But more specifically, these reflect the intentionality of God. He exists not just to exist, but to be, see, know and act. Why?
What if the answer is love? If God is love’s very essence, then creation is the expression of joy so ripe that it had to be given form. The “love” that is God is that creative love underpinning the interests which propel our spirits. God’s love is no mere greeting card sentiment. God’s love is all-consuming, all-knowing, all-seeing and without end. God’s love of the very notion of humanity and earth and universe, and all its intricacies, is indistinguishable from God Himself, and exceeds the capacity of God to remain statically fixed or detached. It is such a burning drive that God, unable to be contained, brought it all into being to experience it.
Repeat: God did not simply imagine us. The delight He took in imagining us was so consuming that He was moved to experience us. Hence, God actively sees, knows and empowers what He has given form and substance.
Autistics know the difference between thinking about something and experiencing that intense rapture which drives us, draws us forward, consumes our minds and feels like the meaning of life itself. Onlookers call this our “special interest.” We go along with that terminology because it avoids degrading our joy into something pejorative, like “obsession,” but it grossly dismisses how greatly that joy affects us. (To the point, who would ever gaze upon a loved one and whisper, “You are my special interest?”)
With “love” as God’s backdrop, we see that he is neither dictator nor spy in the sky. God supplies all, designs all and sustains all because He is love which cannot be contained.
This may still be too much to comprehend or believe, especially when we look around and see everything that is NOT love. Where did all the mess come from, and why does God not step in and clean it up for us? We will continue this discussion as we explore more of the Catechism. In the meantime, let us recall that list in answer to the question, “In what manner does God love us?”
Spiritually. Perfectly. Infinitely. Without beginning or end. Everywhere. Seeing and knowing all, and loving us with all His power.
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