Objective #4: To make people aware that resisting our need to be known, and our need to be loved, limits our experience of God.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak, in its public form, has existed for just over one year now. We showed up unannounced on the web and social media on March 1, 2017, and we have been broadcasting ideas about spirituality ever since.
Interestingly, we have received ZERO questions as to where we came from, how we got here or who contributes to our posts. We could easily have dropped out of the sky as no more than an experiment to see if anyone would notice.
Initially, yes, the website and its social media satellites were put up to see if anyone else saw the vision we did and felt it was worth following. But The Mission of Saint Thorlak is no experiment. It is exactly as it says, a mission – a quest to end spiritual starvation, commenced in the mid-1980s by a person with autism who has spent many hours searching for light in the shadow of disconnection, and now believes the formula can be found in the Way of Saint Thorlak.
That person is me: Aimee O’Connell.
I am Aimee, the one who writes the material posted here and on social media. I am a Lay Carmelite. I have autism. I also have a Master’s degree in school psychology and extensive experience working with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of skills and strengths within the context of the conditions bringing them into my professional path.
I am slow to speak and wage constant battle with social anxiety, but people do not realize it. I spent my childhood being different, my adolescence feeling defective, and my adulthood wondering how I can be so competent yet so completely unknown. All the while, the people around me persisted in saying there was nothing wrong. “You are smart… you are well liked… you are perfectly fine!”
And trapped, because I know the truth about me which nobody seems to recognize, acknowledge or believe. I can continue under the façade they give me, or protest, and lose their support.
I have always been more comfortable in the company of “broken” people – that is to say, people who recognize their needs and accept them. I refer just as squarely to people with disabilities as to people with full physical and emotional stamina who nonetheless recognize that life dishes out more challenges than consolations. I do not purposefully seek out people who struggle because I feel sorry for them… I gravitate there because I, too, struggle, and I draw strength from their example. I find spiritual nourishment being accepted by them. It is here I feel my most recognized – my most “known.”
For most of my life, I did not have words to describe what I meant. I came closer when I studied the work and writings of Jean Vanier and Father Henri Nouwen, who both do a wonderful job explaining the theology and psychology of brokenness and embracing exactly who we are, as we are. Yet the synthesis… the union of awareness and purpose, contemplation and action… did not take root in me until I encountered the quiet, unknown and little-understood Patron Saint of Iceland.
I was 42 years old when I first heard the name of Saint Thorlak. As a fifth generation American with no Scandinavian roots, I did not have much cause to consider Iceland or its saints until my homeschooled daughter took an interest in that country and I simply followed her curiosity.
The unassuming but holy life of Bishop Thorlak was recorded by saga-writers in the Icelandic Middle Ages for Icelandic posterity, not with any inkling that his story might have an impact in the 21st century. When I read this Saga, I did so with only historical intent. However, the more I read, the more I recognized someone with same challenges as me, who lived by a pattern that fulfilled the principles of Vanier and Nouwen. I felt great walls trembling within as I saw, in the life of St. Thorlak, that it is not fleeing from brokenness that creates barriers to being known and understood. It is failing to assert our place among the ranks of the broken because we mistakenly feel obligated to live up to the façades people want to see – denying our brokenness to allay THEIR unease.
St. Thorlak faced that, too, from the days of his precociously academic youth to his ascent in social and political rank as a cleric. Relatives and benefactors pushed him higher and higher, sending him abroad to study and urging him to pursue political alliances, Church appointments, even marriage, because he showed such “promise.” Even as he earned praise and opportunities to rise above the hard conditions demanded by life in Iceland, he was happiest among the broken, poor, infirm and ordinary right there in his homeland. He frequently invited outcasts to dine with him in his Bishop’s residence – not because he wanted to help them, but because he needed to be around people who would recognize and accept him as the bashful, struggling but affable man he really was.
The important people saw Thorlak as someone important… and so, they never really knew him.
In part, this is why I have kept my name out of the picture as long as I have. This Mission is the realization of my lifelong wish: to broadcast these ideas as far and as wide as there are people who find them useful, in a format that is easy to understand and universally accessible. I dread thinking that this effort might be taken as another achievement in a polished portfolio – another adornment on a façade imposed by those who do not truly know me. I will not let this Mission become another source of disconnection.
I am Aimee. I am just me. I struggle every single day, but rarely in sorrow. I struggle more as an aspiring athlete seeking to become stronger and endure longer with each trial. I am not competing for the top prize. I simply want to look back afterward and see that I did well by my teammates.
You – readers, followers, and every person I have not yet met: you are my teammates.
And, now that you know my name, let us get on with this Mission.
Pray: Dear God: I offer everything I am, exactly as I am, this moment, this day. Let it be YOU who greets me in the eyes and words of people around me, that I may more fully experience who YOU know me to be – and not limited by what other people want me to be.
Contemplate: Who do I know better: myself, as God imagines me… or the person others see when looking toward me? How closely do these two images match up?
Relate: When I encounter others, do I see them for who they are, or do I see them as I want them to be?
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