by Guest Author Michael S. O'Connell
Thorlaksmessa, the feast of St. Thorlak, falls on 23 December.
While this post originally appears a few days early, Thorlaksmessa will arrive just before Christmas and our two -week holiday hiatus. Please enjoy the reflection here in anticipation of St. Thorlak's special feast day, and we will be back in 2019!
As we mark the 4th weekend of Advent this year, we pass through the day with the least amount of daylight and move ever more gradually back to more light with each successive day. Very appropriate that, after lighting the 4th candle, the Advent season ushers in Christmas Day. The beloved disciple John reminds us that the Christ-child "... was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
The day of the 4th Sunday of Advent this year, December 23rd, the 4th Sunday of Advent, marks the feast day of Saint Thorlak Thorhallson of Iceland. Long venerated by the people of Iceland and their Scandinavian neighbors, Thorlak was officially recognized on January 14, 1984 as Iceland's patron saint by St. John Paul II. What does this quiet medieval bishop have to say to our own times? Perhaps we can see through the Beatitudes of Our Lord.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” St. Thorlak, you were blessed with a keen intellect, and rose within Mother Church to the heights of the bishopric; yet whatever office you held, you sought out the lowliest in your humility, and served with a truly grateful heart for God. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted." St. Thorlak, you lived in a time where life could not be taken for granted and was more often than not cut short through disease or starvation. You endured your own crosses, from the breakup of your family due to financial concern as a young boy, to separation from them as Divine Providence would have you finish your education overseas. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the land." St. Thorlak, you guided your flock with attentiveness and humility. Your benefactors would provide material support for your rise in the Church, yet at the pinnacle of your education and prestige, you would turn to your homeland as a humble priest to serve your fellow countrymen. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied." St. Thorlak, you strove with all your heart to help those in need, feeding and clothing those who could not pay you back, bestowing kindness on your parishioners by building up virtue from the bottom up, and realizing that even as bishop you provided the model of a humble servant. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." St. Thorlak, in a time when mercy was not readily associated with the Catholic Church, you took it upon yourself to bear the burden of the penances of sinners who came to you in the sacrament of Confession. Even as you lay on your deathbed, you sought after those who by their own actions separated themselves from Holy Mother Church, showing Divine Mercy even then by providing a path back into the flock. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” St. Thorlak, you ordered your life faithfully around prayer: conforming yourself to the rule of St. Augustine and affirming the virtue of priestly celibacy at a time when cultural norms encouraged the opposite. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." St. Thorlak, you lived your life among rival chieftains who would seek to undercut the authority of the Church. You fought them through God's gift of wisdom, using the power of reason and love to change men's hearts. You appeared before a King to be consecrated at a time of active warfare between many in Norway and Iceland. You served the interests of peace with your disarming honesty and dialectical reasoning, assuring peaceful relations between the two countries for the balance of your bishopric. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." St. Thorlak, you would serve the Church with holiness, but would be opposed by those in power. They called you the fool for adhering to the laws of Christ's Church. They would even seek to end your life prematurely only to, as the Psalmist wrote, to fall in the pit themselves. Pray for us!
Illustration by Sigurbjorg Eyjolfsdottir
On December 23,1193, Thorlak Thorhallson entered into eternal rest. We rejoice and are glad, as his reward in heaven is great; we ask his intercession for us as his mission continues. St. Thorlak, pray for us, now and always!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking:
Basic Catholic Prayers
The Baltimore Catechism begins not with instruction but with the most frequently heard prayers in the Catholic faith. Why start here? What motivated the Catholic scholars to start with prayers before we even get into the premise of our faith? Wouldn't it make more sense to start by explaining God and what we know about Him before we dive straight into how to invoke Him and converse with Him?
When the Baltimore Catechism was first published in 1891, then again in 1921, the concept of a user's manual did not exist yet in the common American vernacular. Nowadays, manuals are passé. Most consumer products are designed to be user-friendly, plug-and-play, unbox and go. What we see more and more is a "Quick Start Guide" or reference card as an alternative to a more lengthy instruction book.
The choice to begin with prayer instead of doctrine is very much like a Quick Start Guide to the Catholic Faith. One could see simply the words to be memorized in order to fit in and participate right off the bat, or one could see what these words represent and glean the fundamental summary of our faith right here. In a sense, this echoes the experience of social skills instruction: we are taught basic stock phrases to use in certain situations and can skate by nicely if we learn to use each at the proper time, or we can more deeply consider what each means and why each evokes the response it does from those around us.
And so, the Baltimore Catechism introduces the prayers most frequently heard in the Catholic faith which also act to summarize the scope of our beliefs. We have the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles' Creed, Confiteor, and the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love as our Quick Start Guide. No time to unpack the finer elements comprising our faith? Then, become familiar with these prayers and recite them with sincerity to experience what being Catholic is all about.
It is greatly tempting to take any of these prayers and expound on their meaning; likewise, to write at great lengths about prayer itself, since that alone is a concept which confounds and has confounded people of all neurotypes from the beginning of time. Some people find prayer natural, and others find it impossible. Some pray primarily with words; others with actions; others with song; others by experience. It is said there is no wrong way to pray. Within the Mission of Saint Thorlak, we simplify prayer to mean: deliberate relationship with God. For those of us on the spectrum, this makes a bold clarification, as everything with us seems to come down to "relationship" and "relationship deficit."
"How do I know I am praying?" If we are engaging, or sincerely intending to engage, our thoughts and emotions with God, we are praying.
"How do I know I am praying well?" If our attention is on God, or wanting to know God, or wanting to share ourselves with God, we are praying well.
"How do I know I am praying right?" If we are showing honesty, sincerity, commitment of our attention and desire to increase the trust we feel that God is real, we are praying right.
In contrast, the following factors have nothing whatsoever to do with gauging the quality of our prayer:
Here is where many autistics run into difficulty: Prayer is meant to be a mutual conversation between ourselves and God. Sounds easy… if conversation is something that comes easy. The advantage of having “prayers” (plural noun) is that they can assist our “prayer” (intentional action) in the same way reading scripted dialogue can help familiarize us with conversational skills, gradually leading us to where we can become more comfortable and more spontaneous. Furthermore, scripted prayers make excellent study guides so that we can know more about God before we jump into spontaneous conversation.
The downside is that the literal words might become distracting. For example:
Our Father – calls to mind our actual father and all the attributes we associate with him. It can be hard to think of God in any other terms than the image we associate with “father.”
Who Art in Heaven – means we can’t see him, and can feel like God lives in an invisible castle somewhere.
Hallowed Be Thy Name – what does that mean? (That the name of God itself stirs respect).
Thy Kingdom Come – is confusing to anyone not familiar with monarchy. Again, it calls to mind imaginary castles from storybooks.
In their fuller context, these words mean:
God, who loves us as His own children, who exists in a realm beyond what we can see: may you be loved every time we say your name! May your ways of love and mercy be known right here, right now!
Still finding it confusing? Don’t despair. The fuller manual is still ahead. Not everyone can jump in with just the Quick Start Guide, especially if it’s something completely unfamiliar. By the time we’re done, it might make more sense. Faith in God is something that will always leave people with more questions than answers, and that is, in many ways, reassuring. After all, a quest we never fully complete can never become stale or stagnant.
It's December! Don't forget: The SAINT THORLAK NOVENA is recited from December 14-22, with THORLAKSMESSA celebrated the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23.
We begin now an ambitious journey to see if it is possible to explain the Catholic faith in terms that resonate for people who tend to process life autistically. "Life"? Yes. This is, for all our purposes, a guidebook on the meaning of life, as revealed to the first Christians, and as conveyed by theological scholars throughout the centuries. It is simultaneously old and new. It is not any revision or update of the teachings of the Catholic Church, but more of a reflection and discussion of how these precepts are revealed in our daily doings and applicable our eternal existence. Not too ambitious there.
A few notes at the outset. First, this project uses the Baltimore Catechism as its foundation. The Baltimore Catechism is in the public domain and will not be explicitly copied, but rather, referred to, repeatedly, as the basis for discussion. Second, this is not meant to replace any of the existing Catechisms recognized and endorsed by the Catholic Bishops. It is intended exactly as its working title says: a set of notes (an annotation) on the existing Catechism, as one with autism might think about and understand each concept presented in the original. Third, the tag "for autistic thinking" seems the best way to communicate that this is suitable for a wider audience than simply those with an autism diagnosis. In presenting commentary in an autistically-minded fashion, it is readable by, and of interest to, potentially anyone.
What is a "catechism," anyway? It is a comprehensive collection of views and principles, often presented in question-and-answer format, as we did here. A catechism is rather like a wiki or FAQ that has been compiled, tested, revised, refined and certified by scholars as doctrinally accurate. Catechisms exist both as teaching tools and reference books.
The Baltimore Catechism is a reference originally published in 1885 and is based on the Small Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine. Its intention was to be a textbook on Catholic doctrine for North American schoolchildren. Our choice to start here rests mainly on its availability in the public domain, but also accounts for its integrity as a solid doctrinal resource and its simplicity in format. This was once the gold standard for religious instruction in schools, and generally speaking, we want something that is presented at a level anyone can understand. We do not expect most readers to have, or pursue, degrees in theology, and indeed, no-one should have to go to that extent to gain a working understanding of the Catholic faith.
One more question: What about our readers who are not Catholic? We have often said that our readers do not need to be Catholic in order to benefit from this Mission. We still, boldly, believe that to be true. This will not read like a history course, nor will it read like religious indoctrination. The impression we aim for is "This is what the Catholic worldview looks like." If the word "Catholic" is a sticking point, we propose thinking of it as a travelogue to someplace you have never been, or have visited without knowing a great deal about the history or culture of the place. Underline this enough times that it remains front and center: We are a Mission to end spiritual starvation. Nowhere does it say in our Mission Statement or Objectives that we are out to convince people to become Catholic. We are not about numbers. We are not sponsored by anyone, nor are we yet incorporated. We make no profit. We sell no products. We have no hidden agenda or ulterior motives. What you read is what we do. We unabashedly do all this in a Catholic mindset, finding great inspiration in the Word of God and the examples of the saints... and, if our readers find themselves nodding in agreement, then, that counts as one more thing we have in common within our humanity.
We look forward to getting started next week!
Pray: God, we ask your favor and blessing on this project, that our words may be windows of understanding between our hearts and Your ways, that we may draw closer in love and trust by experiencing You more fully. In Jesus’ Holy Name, Amen.
Contemplate: “As we relate to others, so we relate to God” has been our recent focus here. Does the inverse apply? Is it the case that, in the same manner we relate to God, we generally relate to others? We can only know this, and test this, if we know God. May this Annotated Catechism be a step toward better knowing God.
Relate: How often we think that our relationships might be easier if we, or someone we know, came with a manual! As often as we have had that wish, so too might God wish we could understand Him! May our study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church become like a manual for better knowing and recognizing God.