We look more closely this week at what defines our particular approach as missionaries. You will recall that our methods are patterned after the late Bishop Thorlák Thórhallsson of Iceland, whose public leadership and ministry left a lasting impact on the faith of his people, and whose manner was uniquely marked by traits that today would be called autism, social anxiety and communication disorder.
It is the paradox of his success which inspires us to pinpoint the techniques he used with the limitations he had. Did he struggle in secret, or deny his difficulties? Did he rise above his symptoms through some miracle intervention? Was he cured? Did he simply exhibit heroic strength as he fought his way through each obstacle? Did he have parents who advocated for him, friends in high places, elaborate therapies applied to his skill deficits?
No. There was none of that.
Bishop Thorlak did something completely different: He consecrated himself, just as he was, to God’s service. To be sure, he did not know the clinical concepts we have today, and he did not explicitly have autism in mind when he chose how to live out his vocation. Even if he had, the process and the result would have been the same. We chose him for our mentor because his method is remarkably simple, accessible and powerful – and it works.
Some might say that Bishop Thorlak was naturally inclined toward everything that led to his success. He was fervent in his faith, loyal in his service and even-tempered in his diplomacy, all of which helped tremendously in his career and as a holy man of God. Yet there were plenty in his time who described Thorlak as somber, rigid, stubborn and headstrong. In other words, he was a saint in the eyes of the faithful, but not everyone enjoyed his company. (Sounds a little like us ordinary folk, no?) The truth is, he was as human as anyone else, with regular human failings amplified by the effects of autism. For everything remarkable he did, he likely had just as many moments of sensory overload and complete shutdown. We say this to head off any notion that we idealize Bishop Thorlak or portray him as someone above our own experiences. On the contrary, we believe Thorlak had a full range of emotions, traits, behaviors and foibles. Be sure to keep this in mind as you continue reading.
Bishop Thorlak, being fully human and fully fallible, took all that he was, and all that he was not… all that he could do well, and all that confounded him… all that was asked of him, and all that he dreaded in fear… and consecrated it all to God’s service. When he did that, a remarkable thing happened: His useful traits became a pleasing, acceptable offering by their own merits, and his (shall we say) less helpful traits were transformed from stumbling blocks into keys which opened doors for him, by way of voluntary humility. He assessed what he lacked and then chose not to curse his disabilities, but to offer his needs as a chance to learn from the people in his see. Rather than being a Bishop of high and removed social standing, he embraced mentorship as a way of life: first seeking mentorship from the people he served, and after receiving their friendship and wisdom, mentoring those in his own employ.
Consecrating ourselves to God’s service, in the manner of Bishop Thorlak, is as simple as starting with these three Biblical words: Here I am.
Here I am – just as you see me. Nothing polished or embellished, as in a job interview, but starkly honest, hiding nothing.
Here I am – and I need you. I need you to be a friend to me. I need your company. I need to experience God through you.
Here I am – with only that which I’ve got on me. My hands are rather empty. I imagine that I know what you are looking for, and I know I don’t have that. What I do have, I offer you… my skills, my ideas, or maybe just my company. I would love to feel like I am valuable to you, but I have no idea how to be. You tell me.
Here I am – and I am glad to be here. I have a lot to learn from you.
Here I am – and I have a lot of experiences which might be interesting or helpful to you. I would love to share them with you.
Here I am, God. What can I do that is useful for You, when I am ordinary and imperfect?
Here I am, God, and I’m watching and listening. Show me, by leading me to people around me.
Imagine presenting yourself to God, seeking Him to employ you. What do you genuinely have to offer Him? What do you feel holds you back? Ask God to show you… and He will, over time. Go slowly as you watch and listen for clues, and thank Him as you notice each puzzle piece.
Become aware this week of how God is mentoring you by speaking through others, and then, how God might be mentoring others by speaking through you.
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