December 23, Thorlaksmessa, is the grand feast of Saint Thorlak, observed annually in Iceland with festive gatherings, shopping and dining, concluding by toasting one another in friendship.
Funny, in so many ways, how these celebrations reflect little, if any, on Thorlak Thorhallsson, patron of the feast.
Bishop Thorlak of Iceland was known for his quietude, the depth of his spiritual wisdom and his love of souls. He was, however, not comfortable in social settings. Large gatherings taxed him greatly. Priestly functions and formal ceremonies were hugely challenging for him.
Shopping, of course, was not a custom of his time. Farmers and fishermen were grateful to survive each season. Gifts were lovingly handmade, usually woolen garments of some form, and were begun weeks ahead of Christmas. Last-minute gifts were conveniences unheard of.
The culinary traditions of Thorlaksmessa are not, in fact, related in any way to St. Thorlak or his time. Fermented skate wing and potatoes is a meal carried over as Icelanders from the Westfjords migrated gradually inland but retained their eating habits, especially those preceding Christmas. Skate was particularly preserved in anticipation of the pre-Christmas fast in the Westfjords, and over time, the mingling of regional practices melded into one. Thus, the strong ammonia of fermented skate became associated with St. Thorlak – who, himself, ate very little and fasted much in his lifetime. He also abstained from alcohol, which would exclude him from the Brennivin toast which almost always follows the meal.
At which point, then, do we honor Thorlak, in the great tradition of Thorlak’s Feast?
Ironically, Thorlak is there, for the most part, in passing mention only. Few Icelanders know his actual spirituality or contributions to the Catholic Church. Many have an image of Iceland’s patron saint as a staunch reformer with a mighty Viking spirit.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If people took the time to get to know this man they commemorate, their celebrations would look drastically different. Thorlak, the man, was gentle… quiet… contemplative… deeply spiritual… and very timid.
That, there, is the likely sticking point. Who wants to celebrate someone who hides in the shadows, overwhelmed by large gatherings, unsure how to speak, and unable to live up to the image pasted up by those who define a hero by his aggressive confidence and physical presence?
In Thorlak, autistics have a patron long looked for, hoped for, searched for. Father Mark Nolette, Catholic priest in the Diocese of Portland, Maine, is himself autistic, and has this to say about the petition to see Thorlak declared Patron of Autistic People:
“There is a pastoral need. If current estimates are correct, there are about 76 million people in the world who have some form of autism. This would include about 10 million Catholics. In Iceland, about 4,000 people would have autism, which would include about 150 Catholics. It is a worldwide phenomenon.
Because autism was identified only in the last 80 years, research on it is still relatively new. Many people do not have a good understanding of the challenges that autistic people face. There is currently no Patron Saint for autistic people. If the Church named such a Patron Saint, it would be a strong sign that Mother Church welcomes and embraces her autistic children no less than all her other children.”
Father Mark continues:
“St. Thorlak is an appropriate choice for Patron Saint of autistic people. It is impossible to prove scientifically that someone who died over eight hundred years ago was autistic. Nevertheless, when we read about the life of St. Thorlak, he showed personality traits that resemble those that are common among autistic people. Autistic people who read about St. Thorlak see in him someone who they understand and who would understand them. St. Thorlak’s challenges and difficulties in his ministry were also similar to those that many with autism face.”
Finally, he concludes, “Many people with autism have prayed for the intercession of St. Thorlak for a number of needs, and he has responded to them in definite, powerful, and varied ways. I myself am autistic and know this to be true in my own life.”
In order to be formally declared Patron of Autistic People, a bishop or leader of a religious congregation would need to step up and back our petition with his endorsement. So far, none see what we see; no bishop yet believes Thorlak fits the image of a patron saint for autism.
Perhaps, to their defense, they simply can’t see it. Only autistics can see what autistics can see.
Is there a way to show the Catholic hierarchy of bishops, and eventually, the Roman Curia, that this quiet, gentle, brilliantly holy bishop, who still hangs back from the mainstream 826 years after his death, would, in fact, be an ideal and beloved patron?
Let us pray! And, let us find out. Here is a first step: Contact the Diocese of Reykjavik, Iceland, with your thoughts on St. Thorlak's patronage. Click here to email them your own experiences directly, or, feel free to copy and paste this simple statement:
“Your Excellency: I am writing to let you know that Saint Thorlak is already a special and powerful patron to autistic people. Please support his petition, that the Catholic Church may formally recognize and declare his patronage to autistic people worldwide.”
A happy, blessed Thorlaksmessa to one and all!
The Mission of Saint Thorlak wishes everyone blessings and joy this Christmas. We will return in 2020 with new posts and reflections. God’s love be with you!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
What better time to introduce this next part of the Baltimore Catechism than the week before Christmas? Lesson Seven delves into the Incarnation of Jesus, which makes up the essence of the very season being celebrated.
“Incarnation” literally means “taking on flesh.” Jesus’ Incarnation is that moment when God took on human flesh – fully God, fully human. As with our discussion of the Holy Trinity, these tenets of the Catholic faith are impossible to state in the kind of factual terms we might use to describe the natural world. The Catechism is not a scientific proof; it is an outline of what is offered when we accept the invitation to believe. There are no words or experiences with which to relate supernatural realities beyond our own. Instead, we are invited to believe in Jesus Christ, God-With-Us, God-Made-Flesh, as proof of God’s love of, and investment in, humanity.
Lesson Seven goes into much useful detail about why the Incarnation took place, and it is well worth reading. [Link here - search “Lesson 7”]. But what of our annotation for autistic thinkers? How do we truly make a connection with something this inexplicable, yet – especially at this point in December – visibly depicted everywhere we look?
The Annotated Catechism approaches matters of faith by asking, “What is being described? How does this pertain to me as an individual, and what is my role?” Simply: our role is to be human – to have a soul and a body, to have free will and curious intellect, deliberately and individually designed, and given by God.
Within that makeup, however, is the stain we inherited from our ancestors’ disobedience, resulting in a distrust of humanity’s goodness and doubt surrounding God’s designs. God warned that the consequence of disobedience would be death… not immediately, but instead of enjoying perpetual blessing, disobedience forfeited our bodily protection from pollution, decay and death.
Few reflexes are as primal and universal as the way we recoil in the presence of rot and flinch at imminent death. “Thriller” films and novels evoke adrenaline for some and horror in others, but the same instinct is at play. Even as many of us believe firmly that crossing over is the pathway home to God, there is an instinctive bodily opposition to pain, suffering and, ultimately, death. This brings us to that paradoxical statement we sometimes hear in the course of evangelization: “God was born so that he could die.” In all truth, that is a good way to sum up the Incarnation. We also hear that “The sinless Jesus bore the stain of sin for us.” But what does that mean?
Our Mission’s patron, Bishop Thorlak of Iceland, was deeply influenced by the theology of Hugh of St. Victor, who explains the Incarnation in systematic terms of God’s desire to break through our barrier of distrust with demonstrable love. The following insights come from Hugh of St. Victor’s De Sacramentis, Book Two, Part One.
First, some relational definitions. Since God is Creator of all and Authority over all that is created, He cannot obey, as there is no authority outside Himself. He cannot be sent forth, as there is none who might send Him. He cannot choose between right and wrong, because He is Truth and Knowledge itself. And, God cannot die, as He is all in all of all.
Next: Our relationship with God was broken when our first ancestors disobediently ate the fruit which awakened the choice of exploiting God’s goodness for our own, solitary gain. This gave rise to vice, which is the natural consequence of sin, and brought bodily death upon the human race as the final means by which our disordered inclinations can cease to plague our senses. Humans have no natural ability to liberate ourselves from this inherited pattern.
God, grieving this consequence, knew that the only way to change this sequence without unraveling the makeup of humanity would be to somehow graft our broken nature back into the Godly line. The logistical problem is that our nature is human, not Divine; and only God is God.
While humans cannot become God, could God become human? Technically yes, but that would require his radically changing form and abdicating His Divinity, which would disintegrate all of Creation. In order to reverse the curse affected by our ancestors, God would need the capacity to freely choose and obey, which (as shown above) is not possible if he remains Divine.
However: A son bears the name and inherited essence of his father. A son with a human nature can freely choose to obey. A son can be sent to carry on a father’s mission and values, becoming his de facto representative where he is sent.
Thus, God did not come as Creator to our earthly plane. He sent His Son, born human of a human mother, with a human soul, free will, and earthly flesh. Being born of Mary, who was preserved from inherited (original) sin, the Son would not have the same fallen focus self-gratification that other humans have; yet He would physically exist within the parameters of humanity – including subjection to bodily decay and death.
So: God sent a Son, Jesus, bearing His nature, to the womb of a mother free of original sin, so that He could live as a human, and die as a human. God’s Son would act to reverse our disobedience, completely innocent of any vice but still obedient to the bodily the penalty of sin – death. It is the equivalent of an innocent man offering to take the sentence of a convicted criminal, and serving it faithfully to its completion.
We offer this admittedly oversimplified, but hopefully helpful analogy, addressing the question of God taking on the stain of sin and subjecting Himself to bodily death. Imagine God as an endless body of life-giving water free of all pollution. When humanity partook of sin, we became splattered and caked with toxic waste, with no way to purify ourselves. Dwelling directly with the water of God was no longer an option for us as we would poison all of Creation with our presence… but at the same time, that water is the only means by which we can detoxify from the pollution of sin.
How can we solve this conundrum? We can’t return to Him polluted, and if God Himself were to descend, He, being pure water, would devastate and drown us! But what if this pure water (God) could supernaturally take human form? He would be a living, infinite source of life-giving water, simultaneously existing as, and contained by, a physical human body. As God, He would be free of our pollution… but, would willingly mingle with us, acquiring more of our stain each time He infuses us with life-giving water. He will dilute our sinful inclinations, that is, our toxicity, to the degree we accept His gift. Some of us shrink back and say we are too dirty to ever think of mingling with God… some say that pollution is not bad and prefer to remain in the toxic state… and some will draw water from God’s Son again and again, wishing one day to return to that state of grace our ancestors knew before the stain of sin came into our line. God, for His part, gives without account, as often as we wish, as often as we trust, as often as we accept. He always invites, and never forces.
[Following our analogy to its conclusion: God’s human body eventually succumbed to the effects of our pollution. But, being supernatural, it was only the physical, earthly form that died. God knew that an earthly body could not live forever in our realm, so He made provisions for that in His scenario, which would include resurrection and establishment of a wider body, The Church. That is an entirely different discussion for future commentary!]
This is all little more than a sketch which cannot compare to the deeper theology at hand. For here, for now, let us conclude by revisiting our thought, “What is the Incarnation? How does it pertain to us, and what is our role?” May we find our answer close by, as Christmas draws near.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
In the Catholic liturgical calendar, December 8 marks the commemoration, or feast, of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. When December 8 falls on a Sunday, the feast is moved to the next day so that the faithful will not lose sight of celebrating this wondrous memorial. And so, we celebrate this feast today.
Catholic teaching on Mary is often a dividing line with other Christians, though it need not be. Those familiar with the historical story of Jesus will know that his mother was Mary and his birth came about through Divine intervention. Catholics do not worship Mary, but we do recognize her role in the story of human salvation – which includes the salvation of each individual reading this – and we understand that she has received the grace and privilege which comes with a role such as hers.
That word, immaculate, derives from Latin, and means “not stained.” Mary does not possess superpowers of her own merit; rather, she is as ordinary as any other person, but unstained by the splash of evil which spilled in the Garden when our ancestors’ eyes were opened to all that destroys love. Unstained = unaffected, untainted… and therefore, unflinching in her ability to love God and love like God.
This is what the Baltimore Catechism says about Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
Q. Was anyone ever preserved from Original Sin?
A. The Blessed Virgin Mary, through the merits of her divine Son, was preserved free from the guilt of Original Sin, and this privilege is called her Immaculate Conception.
The Blessed Virgin was to be the Mother of the Son of God. Now it would not be proper for the Mother of God to be even for one moment the servant of the devil, or under his power. If the Blessed Virgin had been in Original Sin, she would have been in the service of the devil. Whatever disgraces a mother disgraces also her son; so Our Lord would never permit His dear Mother to be subject to the devil, and consequently He, through His merits, saved her from Original Sin. She is the only one of the whole human race who enjoys this great privilege, and it is called her "Immaculate Conception," that is, she was conceived—brought into existence by her mother—without having any spot or stain of sin upon her soul, and hence without Original Sin.
Our Lord came into the world to crush the power which the devil had exercised over men from the fall of Adam. This He did by meriting grace for them and giving them this spiritual help to withstand the devil in all his attacks upon them. As the Blessed Mother was never under the devil's power, next to God she has the greatest strength against him, and she will help us to resist him if we seek her aid. The devil himself knows her power and fears her, and if he sees her coming to our assistance will quickly fly. Never fail, then, in time of temptation to call upon our Blessed Mother; she will hear and help you and pray to God for you.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception cannot be explained much more directly than the Catechism itself. Many struggle to understand or believe what this means, as it is not something we can directly observe, experience or relate to. It is, quite simply, a matter of faith – which is our willingness to accept things beyond our experiences with confidence that such belief does not compromise our freedom or integrity in any way. Furthermore, it is a comfort to many to know that Mary is as human as we are, yet has the privilege to repulse evil with her prayer. Evil is ugly. Evil destroys. Evil seeks to break up what is beautiful for the sake of jealousy. Anyone who stands opposed to evil is on the side of what we’re all longing for. The Catholic Catechism assures us that Mary is humankind’s advocate against the division and destruction of evil by virtue of her unstained, unflinching love.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
The Baltimore Catechism lists seven “capital” sins as those which most blatantly present obstacles to our ability to trust God’s love. The term “capital,” as used here, comes from the same root as “captain,” which is a useful image of how temptations work. Beyond choices on a flow chart, each temptation acts like an enemy captain determined to undermine our loyalty to God. These “captains” subvert our trust in God by introducing resentment, jealousy and doubt to our daily doings. In theory, any temptation we name might be an agent of such things, depending on the circumstances. Even innocuous or essential items can subvert our love of God if viewed or used wrongly.
At any rate, these are the capital sins (or, chief temptations leading to sin) as listed in the Baltimore Catechism:
We now look at each temptation as viewed through the lens of living with autism.
Pride. Most of us are familiar with “pride” as a positive statement of celebrating our gifts. As embodied by social movements, pride is a way to showcase the best of who we are, as we are. However, we are vulnerable to two detrimental mindsets: competition, and focus on strength. The first can be avoided if we agree that every person has gifts worth celebrating — even those who do not share the particular views, attributes or talents we celebrate in ourselves. Unless we recognize that everyone has something valuable to contribute, we turn celebration into competition. “Pride” done right is about our gifts, not superiority. Secondly, we must include our weaker and less developed areas in presenting our gifts, lest we fall victim to the mindset that our worth comes only from our strengths - or worse, that we must minimize or camouflage our weak spots. Finally, we can find ourselves reluctant to celebrate others because of their strengths (jealousy) or because of their weakness (doubt). In all things, let our “pride” be in God’s designs and not our own desires.
Covetousness is the habit of looking unhappily at ourselves and resentfully at the gifts of others. Thoughts like these are common temptations and not sinful unto themselves; it is in entertaining them, and acting on them, that sin comes in. We are especially vulnerable when conditions are hard, when people are unkind, and when exhaustion sets in. When we find ourselves depleted, marginalized or overlooked, it seems all the more unfair that others are favored. Why are some people more easily accepted? Better able to function? Better liked? Temptation is ripe when we focus on the status of others. The antidote is remembering that social capital is an illusion of perception, not a reflection of our objective worth. Opinions change like the wind. Our value is constant. If we can persevere through fluctuations in opinions, we are less likely to wish for more than what we are.
Lust is a word we most associate with sexuality. However, it applies to anything we wish to take for ourselves, without giving anything in return, for our pleasure alone. In the throes of a craving, resentment, jealousy and doubt can sharpen the sense of scarcity while our focus (possibly even fixation) drives us to act. Lust underlies most addictive and predatory behavior, whatever the gratification may be - food, money, sex, power or social status. We resent the craving, we are jealous of anyone who has what we want, and we doubt anything else can satisfy. Lust is the opposite of trust, and the opposite of love. Lust not only harms the other, but the powerful rush of gratification sets up habits which are very difficult to change. The antidote is actively cultivating gratitude for what we have, trusting that God will provide what will bring us true joy over the long term, not just momentary pleasure. As lust develops by habit, so too does this mindset of gratitude.
Anger A sin? Not by itself. Anger is a human emotion, and part of our design by God. Anger is a useful and essential part of relationships and moral development. How else could we express outrage against aggression or violations of human dignity? Anger is a signal of wrong, a stir to corrective action and a protection against harm. Anger only becomes sinful when it is the product of resentment, jealousy and doubt. Dissatisfaction with what we are, or focus on what we are not, is more rooted in fear than justice. It may feel the same as useful anger, but the object of such resentment ultimately is God and His designs conflicting with ours. An honest look can tell whether or not we are drawing closer to God or departing from Him in our moments of anger, and that will determine if it is useful or sinful.
Gluttony is the temptation to take more than we need. It goes back to scarcity, which is rooted in doubt. Some of us genuinely struggle with knowing when we are satisfied and when we are not. Autistics in particular can have a tricky time moderating things that feel good, especially as they provide periods of relief to our perpetual anxiety. Sometimes we genuinely need others to suggest where healthy limits are so that we concretely see the cutoff between just enough and too much of whatever we enjoy — be that food, drink, music, screen time, reading, and anything else that delights us. A quick rule is: if our joy lingers after we stop, it’s more likely to be healthy than if putting it down makes us fret about craving more.
Envy is the temptation to resent other people’s happiness. When we are anxious and exhausted, it is challenging to see others at rest and not feel anger or hopelessness at our own condition. Autism is not for the faint of heart, and gratitude when our very bodies feel constantly under siege can be a long shot. How, then, can we counter this temptation? One thought is to remember that nobody is ever perfectly happy. In the same way our own struggles are often invisible, others also struggle unseen with their own hidden needs. It is important to remember that we are not losing the race if someone else is where we want to be; we simply are not there yet. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves these things hour by hour.
Sloth. Given this word’s association with laziness, we need to make the distinction between willful inactivity and actual, legitimate conditions under which autistic people are called unproductive. Lack of energy is a reality among autistics for numerous reasons: the drain of social demands, decreased muscle tone, variances in blood pressure and metabolism, migraines, connective tissue anomalies and chronic pain, just for starters. These are actual physical, cognitive and neurological conditions associated with autism and have nothing to do with our character. In fact, most autistics, if asked, will express the wish for more energy and the ability to do things on par with the rest of our communities! Sloth is the choice not to act when action is needed and we are capable of acting. It is up to each one of us to know in our hearts and minds what our capability is - and to be honest with ourselves in making these decisions. When we live congruently within our abilities and our limits, we have nothing to fear... and, we can (hopefully, politely) dismiss unwarranted criticism with a clear conscience.
The capital sins are by no means the last word on right and wrong, nor do they contain everything we need to consider when examining the morality of our own behavior. However, if we see these as some of the more common gateways toward seeking pleasure before seeking God’s design first, they make a useful starting point.
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