What freedom there is in opening a new calendar. No scribbled out changes, no limits yet on what we can do or what opportunities will come. Within hours we will gather up our promises, obligations, hopes and commitments, planting them among the dates to anchor us along the way.
We lead off this new start with this challenge: Who are we saving our best for?
Different occasions call for our best. As children we are taught a “best behavior” which requires extra mindfulness of our actions to make sure they are pleasing to others. It is implied that we don’t live this way routinely, and it almost seems exhausting to imagine doing so. “Best behavior” is usually in direct opposition to “relaxing” and “enjoying ourselves.”
Sometimes, our “best” is not the kind of “best” like the fine crystal in the china cabinet. Sometimes “best” means “this is the most I can offer.” When we have masked anxiety with all our might, when we have spent hours following social scripts to perfection… when tension and frustration and exhaustion threaten to overload the circuitry already loaded with “best” expectations … our other emotions may begin screaming to be addressed, and this can spill over into literal expression very easily.
Notice we don’t explicitly say “autism.” Exhaustion is exhaustion, whether it is autism-induced or caused by any of the hundreds of other conditions of being human and being asked to perform. For that matter, tension and frustration are also tension and frustration. People without autism face all of these challenges too; sometimes, just as frequently.
Bottom line: best behavior takes hard work, much attention and care to which we are not ordinarily accustomed.
Back to the china cabinet for a moment.
Most of us use plastic cups more frequently than fine crystal. Few occasions, for that matter, call for fine crystal. It makes more sense to bring plastic cups with us to school and work or out for a run; certainly not fine crystal. Why is this? Obviously: because fine crystal is expensive and fragile… but not because crystal is unsuitable to hold water.
More truthfully, though: If we carried fine crystal with us wherever we went, we would have to treat it with our full attention and care. We would have to invest time and effort in using it well, slowly and thoughtfully. It could be done. We choose not to.
Another argument says that cheap occasions do not warrant fine crystal. The effort to use fine crystal, and the act of appreciating its uniqueness and careful design, is wasted on chugging water out of the cooler and soda from the can.
Is the same true, then, of our best selves? Do we not routinely give our best because we would have to invest time and effort in spending ourselves well, slowly and thoughtfully? Is the effort wasted on eyes and ears who won’t pause to appreciate our uniqueness and careful design?
How often do we consider the person in front of us and immediately think they are worth investing time and effort into spending ourselves well, slowly and thoughtfully? How often do we pause to appreciate their uniqueness and careful design, before chugging with a glance and moving along?
One could argue that plastic cups exist out of laziness more than matters of practicality, portability or affordability. But then, how is it any fault of ours if we find ourselves starting with a cabinet full of plastic cups and not a drop of crystal?
No matter. The issue is not what we have; it is the care and investment with which we have it.
If our china cabinet is a cardboard box and our best is a plastic cup, it still holds water. If a guest arrives at our door, we can turn them away because we do not have crystal, or we can offer them a drink from “this cheap, disposable plastic cup,” or we can invite them in and say, “Care to share a drink with me?”
The issue is not that we live in a world which has embraced plastic cups. We do not suggest bringing fine crystal into situations just to say it’s fine crystal. Rather… we see a world of plastic cups and wonder if we can elevate it to equal footing with fine crystal. In the end, it matters not one bit what it is made from or how it was made. It matters what we do with it.
What if we take exactly what we have, act as though it is worth our time and care and personal attention – and then share it with the people around us?
The ordinary stays ordinary. Plastic is still plastic. Crystal is still crystal. Everything gets treated with the same degree of careful, thoughtful appreciation.
Appreciation. That is something we can all strive for, no matter what our state in life might be.
Who are we saving our best for?
Once we begin sharing it routinely… the answer will be right in front of us.
Pray: Loving God, You supply us abundantly with evidence of You in the people around us. May we learn to recognize your signature, even if we have to seek slowly, thoughtfully and with our full attention and care. Give us, then, the privilege of seeing Your design in ourselves.
Contemplate: How will seeing God’s design in ourselves make us less inclined to save our best only for certain people or occasions?
Relate: Go for it. Put out your best to the first person who comes along. Then, again, with the next. Start small with the hope that one day it will become a habit.
Iceland is probably best known by others in the world for its remarkable natural beauty; perhaps, too, for having the world’s oldest parliament, for their meticulous preservation of Norse culture and literature, their admirable national literacy rate, and their exemplary system of renewable energy. Iceland is not, however, particularly known for its noteworthy figures in Catholic history. In fact, few people know much about the Catholic Church in Iceland beyond those practicing the Catholic faith there now, comprising less than five percent of Iceland’s entire population, and consisting largely of immigrants.
Every part of the world has seen its share of holy men and women over the centuries. The very idea of being Christian is to live a life of virtue and charity, so, arguably, the Canon of Catholic Saints is like a “Who’s Who List” of model citizens to emulate from among the hundreds of thousands of other solidly good-living people in human history. It can furthermore be argued that one need not be Christian to lead a virtuous and charitable life, and we say this to emphasize that we are all part of a common humanity called to be generous in caring for one another before we call ourselves anything else.
Iceland saw its native son, Thorlak Thorhallsson, make this list in 1198. Eight hundred and nineteen years ago, in the thick of the Middle Ages, before the big name saints even came onto the world scene... tiny Iceland notched a bona fide canonized saint.
In the same historical period that would later record the lives of household-name saints such as Francis and Clare, Bernard, Benedict, Dominic, Rita and Joan of Arc in other parts of Europe, Thorlak of Iceland got there first.
How did it happen, then, that Thorlak made it into this Who’s Who, the Canon of Catholic Saints, in 1198… and yet is barely known today?
It’s all about timing and placement, even with Catholic saints. Keep first in mind that Thorlak was locally canonized in 1198, as the Pope then was not a world traveler as he is today, and Iceland was extremely isolated geographically. Local canonization was the norm around the world, not just in Iceland. Thorlak’s canonization was thus valid and recognized throughout Europe. However, it did not stop there. In 1984, Pope John Paul II officially recognized Thorlak as a Catholic saint and declared him Patron Saint of Iceland. This statement is a magnificent data point. A pontiff, who himself would be declared a saint, acknowledged and reaffirmed the holy example and patronage of Thorlak seven hundred and eighty six years later. Talk about staying power!
Proclaimed by John Paul II! What an achievement!
Why is Thorlak not widely known?
Timing and placement: Thorlak was a beloved figure in Iceland until the 1500s, when the Catholic religious establishment was razed in the Protestant Reformation. Catholic traditions were obliterated for many years before they would be re-examined centuries later to glean any spiritual good from the remnant of their memory.
We can gratefully thank the diligent Icelandic historians for preserving Thorlak’s name and legacy. As time will do, though, his life’s color has grayed into the shadow of medieval memory. He is catalogued as a strict, no-nonsense bishop who established and enforced rules. He is noted for taking on politically powerful chieftains over their refusal to cede property to the diocese and their reluctance to conform to church rules regarding their behavior. This characterization fits well into the old order, and he certainly did do these things. Iceland, unmatched in maintaining their historical identity, has ensconced him as their Model Medieval Bishop. December 23, the feast day of Saint Thorlak, is marked as a cultural holiday, Þorláksmessa, commemorating him even to this day.
As a Model Medieval Bishop.
It’s pretty hard to relate to that today. It’s harder, still to live it up in celebration of someone who cracked the moral whip and demanded property. And it’s nearly impossible to do so when it is exactly one day before Christmas Eve.
How do we make a meaningful feast day for a saint who did… (what did he do, again?)
We can’t read from his writings. They have been pillaged or destroyed by fire.
We can’t venerate his relics. They, too, were pillaged and destroyed.
We could have a meal that hearkens back to the past, but what we end up commemorating is the preparation for Christmas Eve, not Saint Thorlak himself.
How do we toast a Model Medieval Bishop when his life has absolutely no common context, no application whatsoever to our lives today?
By bringing him present with us. That’s how.
By knowing him. By knowing his story. By realizing his light.
By doing what we call Missionaries of Saint Thorlak to do every day.
To simply notice him and ask: “Can you be our friend?”
Remarkably, if anyone should take the time to pick up the historical texts and start reading, we see what made him a saint in the first place. He was not named “saint” because he was a Model Medieval Bishop. He was recognized as a holy man because he bucked this establishment.
Saint Thorlak’s entire priesthood – in a remote land bound by the Medieval Church – was indeed one of establishing and enforcing rules. But he did so with unprecedented mercy.
Mercy. Now, there’s a word we have all heard. In fact, in 2015, Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, calling on people worldwide to rediscover and embrace compassion, understanding and forgiveness… to reconcile with one another, and with God. To stop living like rule-bound Pharisees and live like Jesus, loving others because we love God and we affirm the presence of God-in-others.
“Mercy” is not a word we associate with the Medieval Church.
Saint Thorlak lived his entire priesthood with unprecedented mercy – at a time when mercy was not widely taught, and was not widely shown… in a country used to making its own rules, whether the Medieval Church agreed or not… in a powder keg of power clashes waiting to happen.
Saint Thorlak lived mercy. He established rules by demonstrating the spiritual motives behind them. He expected the best from his countrymen – but he knew how high the moral standards of the virtuous life were, and how powerless most of us feel to reach that high. He knew the rules, he knew the reasons, and he knew the harsh penances to be assigned to those who didn’t reach them. (Those were not just legend; they were reality.) So, what did he do? He counseled people individually about living more virtuously, determined their penance, and then assigned them a fraction of the prescribed debt of prayer or fasting. The remainder, he took upon himself, and completed for them. He slept little and ate little, between the prayer and fasting he did on behalf of his flock, but worked no fewer hours because of it. He simply denied himself leisure.
Folks: Did you get that? St. Thorlak was a serious, dour-faced bishop because he saw how difficult the Church’s punishments were, and he performed them for us.
Penitents saw what he did for them, and it made them pause. Here was someone with the right to lord power over them and to exclude them from good standing, from the one institution that could help families barely surviving on a remote island that was subject to harsh seasons, rough seas and dangerous weather. Instead of shaming and scolding people for their weakness, he shared in it – without compromising the morality he was teaching. He did not excuse immorality. He pointed it out and proclaimed the better way. But he took the punishment. In everything he did, he showed mercy.
Thorlak lived mercy in many other ways. He personally invited destitute and diseased people to dine and stay with him in his own residence, but he did so in secret, so as not to draw praise for something he felt he ought to do as a matter of course. He championed the dignity of women, taking political leaders to task who openly kept numerous mistresses while wife and children were used for show. He set up funds for poor families so that they could remain together rather than split apart for lack of provisions.
Where are these remarkable stories of Saint Thorlak? Are they legends, exaggerated with retelling, romanticized over time?
No! They are found throughout the same texts cited by historians, starting with The Saga of Bishop Thorlak. They are all right there, in plain sight!
Saint Thorlak is not hidden in the shadows of time. It is, rather, that few people take the time to see the light of his mercy, which was far ahead of its time.
Perhaps the light of Saint Thorlak has been hidden in the shadows of time because he was more a saint for our time.
Last week, we proposed marking Þorláksmessa by letting those in our path know how they bring light to us. Not only is this consistent with the way Saint Thorlak lived, but it brings to life the timely verse from Luke 1:78 as we head toward Christmas: “In the tender mercy of God, light from heaven will break upon us, shining on those who dwell in darkness.” (Since we’re talking a feast day in Iceland, we can’t help but notice the play on words at a time when Iceland receives just over four hours of total daylight).
We close with this miracle account from The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, a very literal case of light rising from Iceland: “During the winter, the eve of Maundy Thursday after the death of Bishop Þorlákr, a farmer called Sveinn saw such a great light in Skálholt over Bishop Þorlákr’s tomb that he could hardly see the church for it” (chapter 20).
May we all be witness to this light rising from Iceland. May we be part of it. May we contribute our own light to this celebration of mercy and love of God through the way of Saint Thorlak.
Skálholt in Winter
There will be no Missionary Thought next week as we pray with everyone around the world: Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth, PEACE to all people of good will!
Ah, at last, we get to the “how” of our Mission. How do we propose to take on spiritual starvation? By the way of Saint Thorlak.
This will sound familiar because it makes up everything we do, and many of our previous Missionary Thoughts have discussed this in bits and pieces. We have not, however, presented it in its entirety as a concept. This is the week we do.
When we examine a “way” in which someone lived, we seek to identify those signature characteristics which set the person apart. In most cases, the “ways” of admirable people are variations on themes common to all of humanity. In the same manner there are many routes from all directions to get to single-point destinations, there are many “ways” to carry ourselves from one stage of our life to the next. In the Christian worldview, all of these individual “ways” point ultimately toward the one Way, the Divine Person of Jesus, who identifies Himself explicitly as The Way to God, our Heavenly Father (John 14:6).
Think of it like the American highway system:
This denotes a local route number of a road that begins and ends across a small area.
This is a larger route that connects different areas.
This is an Interstate route that connects to a master highway
ultimately connecting large parts of the entire country.
The ways we take in our individual lives are local routes.
The mentors who guide us are larger routes connecting different areas.
The saints map out Interstate routes, tested and determined to connect directly to the one, true Way.
The way of Saint Thorlak, therefore, bears Interstate insignia. His way was determined by ecclesial authorities to connect directly to the one, true Way of God by faithfully following the example of the Gospels. Thorlak, himself a regular man, ushers us to the way of Jesus, who takes us to the Heavenly Father.
As states across America each have numerous routes connecting to the Interstate, the Christian world has numerous saints offering ways to connect to God. Some of the more familiar ones are the ways of St. Francis (… Franciscans), St. Dominic (… Dominicans), St. Benedict (… Benedictines), St. Ignatius of Loyola (… Jesuits), St. Teresa of Calcutta (… Missionaries of Charity) and onward. These holy people are all on par with one another, all on the same team, all providing us a way to serve others and see the goodness of God. Thus, the way of St. Thorlak may not have the same familiarity as those enjoyed by the followers of Sts. Francis, Dominic or Teresa, but it is no less of a way – and it is, in fact, highly specialized for what he did best: battling starvation.
The Way of Saint Thorlak begins by consecrating everything – everything we are, and everything we are not; everything we have, and everything we lack – to God’s service. We accomplish this through caritas, voluntary humility, a contemplative sense of wonder, and leading others by the example of our daily doings.
Sounds simple. Guess what? It is. It is a way of life that anyone can attain by being ordinary. The catch is, it really touches on our humanity. Caritas concerns our hearts and minds with the well-being of others. Voluntary humility asks us to be exactly who we are, with no pretense or attempt to hide our needs. Wonder requires giving ourselves permission to be child-like in admitting we like when things make us stop and take in the big, big picture without sarcasm or cynicism. And, leading by example means a willingness to be seen.
It is a formula within reach of anyone, and it is proven to counteract spiritual disconnection. It is the way Thorlak Thorhallsson lived every day of his sixty year lifetime, back in the twelfth century. He never planned to become a “way” – he simply lived, as he was, where he was, and invited others to become signposts themselves connecting others to the abundant life… in other words, an Interstate, to the One, True God.
We could leave things here: The way of Saint Thorlak is an easy, accessible manner for connecting our lives with God. What excites us more, however, is the realization that this formula is particularly useful as a spiritual guide for people with autism – something that has long been lacking, but has been sought by thousands. We believe: here it is!
Why is the way of Saint Thorlak especially well suited to people with autism seeking spiritual direction?
Because it addresses the spiritual needs of people with autism in a way that is not overwhelming. It fosters connection from within each individual, rather than beginning in established community. It teaches WHY people with autism are taught social skills – for the benefit of helping others (caritas) and advocating for our own needs (voluntary humility). It celebrates sharing factual knowledge (wonder) and calls on us to behave deliberately and visibly (leading by example). It offers a way to be pleasing to God, and pleasing to others, which does not require us to wait for a certain degree of mastery or perfection to begin. We may not have the emotional resources to do much right now. The prospect of going out, of speaking, making eye contact, remembering all that we have to do to be socially acceptable – all of these may still be far out of our reach. But this way of Saint Thorlak, of going with what we do have and offering it to God as all we’ve got – THIS is within our reach. It is marvelous in that it does not include failure because our needs are our tickets to social connection and feeding others spiritually. When we go forth with our needs in hand, we either come home with those needs met, or with the same batch we started out with. Both outcomes guarantee connection. For people who are accustomed to constant scrutiny and demand to perform up to standards painfully higher than our capabilities, this is sweet relief.
In fact, the way of Saint Thorlak was described in just that way, albeit not in the context of having autism. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak relates this, about the earliest part of his career as a priest living as an assistant to the cleric at the church-farmstead of Kirkjubær, where the two men “experienced that which God says: that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ … they bore it easily, for they then started to bear nearly all the responsibilities on behalf of all those people inhabiting the districts close by them. …They took upon themselves in a remarkable way those names by which Almighty God called his apostles the light of the world, because they lit up the path of mercy which leads to eternal rejoicing, both with their excellent teaching in words and with their glorious examples” (pp. 5-6).
If you are expecting a blockbuster tale of suspense and high drama, Saint Thorlak’s saga will be disappointingly ordinary, save for the fact that he sounds like a person with autism by modern criteria (… and, the list of recorded miracles at the end is eye-popping – literally!). No matter. We see something extraordinary. Saint Thorlak’s way has been kept quiet, as he himself was, for nine centuries, waiting for the right point in human history to speak up and be noticed.
That time is now.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us the way to You!
Contemplate: How often have we dismissed our own lives as being too ordinary, too difficult, too messy? Is it up to us, or up to God, to decide the value of what we have to offer?
Relate: Take time this week to appreciate the ordinary ways the people around you are valuable to you.
Þorláksmessa: The Feast of 23 December
But what if this year were different? What if this year, we marked the anniversary of Saint Thorlak in a way that reflects who he really was, and what he really stood for? What if each one of us made an effort on December 23, in some small way, to tell someone in our path: “You bring light to me”? Doing this, paradoxically, will give light to the heart of the person who hears it... which is what Saint Thorlak was all about. Then, with hearts thusly lit in all parts of the world, we can silently turn in our hearts and say to the memory of Saint Thorlak, in joyful unison: “You bring light to us. Thank you.”
Skaftafell Ice Cave - Iceland
We are almost done picking apart our Mission Statement and are about to move on to the Objectives, where the action is. Contemplation always sets the stage for all we do, and our readers have done a great job slowly mulling over the defining elements of our apostolate. That last piece, though, needs a glance, maybe even a fresh treatment before we roll up our sleeves.
“Letting people with autism lead us on our way” is what differentiates our approach from other (equally valid) forms of mission work, devotional activity and disability support. In fact, it strives to blend these elements seamlessly to form an entirely unique resource to address and prevent spiritual disconnection.
How is it, specifically, that we look to people with autism to lead us in our efforts?
We invite you to revisit this thought from June, 2017 if you would like to continue considering autism’s contribution to our Mission in more depth.
Autism is one of the hundreds of thousands of ways that the human condition is reflected throughout the world we live in. The tally of people affected by this condition is constantly growing. We dare say: so are the numbers of people who, for one reason or another, are disconnected from their Source, and disconnected from their purpose. We don’t have numbers yet to back up our claims, but if our instincts are correct, we’re going to need a huge number of people who can understand and recognize disconnection so that it can be adequately addressed and prevented. We’re going to need people who can expand our capacities for patience, understanding, empathy, gentleness and sincerity… to help make this a more human world once again. We’re going to need people familiar with needing help, who are not afraid to be humble. We’re going to need people well-trained in the “what and how” of human to human connection… who can show us best practices for getting the message out.
People with autism: Lead us on our way.
Pray: Father in Heaven, as we enter this season of Advent, help those of us beginning this Missionary journey in darkness to trust that light awaits us.
Contemplate: In philosophy, a “problem” is more like a puzzle or an inquiry than cause for alarm. How is autism a “problem,” philosophically speaking, in your own circumstances?
Relate: Who do you know that is affected by autism? How has connecting with that person changed you? (If you cannot think of anyone… hold this thought until the day you do. It will probably come soon.)
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