Please note: We will be returning to our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking in September.
Quite a few people ask us questions about prayer. Very often, these questions center around conflict, mercy and forgiveness. Many of us who have endured criticism, misunderstanding, bullying, thoughtlessness and betrayal do not feel well-disposed to prayer. Even more pronounced are those who have the courage to say that they are too angry to pray – and this anger is often directed at God Himself. Life can be stacked very unfairly, and autistic life seems all the more so. A God who already knows how greatly we struggle ought to give us a break now and then, especially when it comes to things that are not our fault. Unexpected losses – from jobs to friendships to death – just add to the insults we find ourselves processing.
Injustices happen all the time. Unyielding hearts make our lives unbearably hard. Social cues are hard enough to memorize… and now we have to parse out which ones are the ones we stick to, and which ones we compromise, when it comes to “loving our neighbor,” “honoring our father and mother” and “forgiving seventy times seven times.” The Gospels preach mercy and love, oblivious to the pain we feel, and more oblivious to the minds of those causing us pain. We know the message. We know the challenge it presents. But when does it apply to the others around us? When do our friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors get to hear that the message is also for them, that they too are obligated to reach out to us, understand our limitations, accept our differences, extend to us seventy times seven more opportunities to get it right? And that we do not deserve to be talked down to, ignored, ridiculed or discarded?
This is where prayer short-circuits. Justice and mercy only make sense when they apply equally to everyone, not just some of us. It is all the more confounding to try and pray when we ourselves are wounded. It feels prohibitive, if not absurd.
The answers we provide as Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are not definitive solutions or platitudes, but rather, are reassurances and reminders of some key points about prayer itself. For one, prayer is nothing more than turning our mind toward God. Sometimes it involves words; many times, it does not. All times, it acknowledges on some level that God’s love for us is real and unconditional, even if we do not feel it, even if we do not understand it. We must concede that much as true. It may be that we do this grudgingly or skeptically, but there must be some form of accepting that God loves us no matter how messy things are at the moment of prayer.
Secondly, there are as many emotions resulting from prayer as exist in our human palette. Angry prayers are no less valid than joyful prayers. To expect happiness in every prayer is as unrealistic as expecting our daily conversations to be chipper and cheerful 100% of the time. God created humans as emotional beings. We glorify His design by embracing those emotions, authentically.
A suggestion we often give for a starting point in situations like this is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, since this is a relatively short devotion with easily memorized and familiar words. In the wondrous ways of the Holy Spirit, saying this prayer seems to open doors toward acceptance and forgiveness which ordinarily remain barricaded. Here is how we experience this working: the words themselves, when examined literally, are directed toward God – the Head, the Creator, the Designer – and refer to Jesus, the One who endured the worst of all human mistreatment. Jesus was sold out by his friends, shrugged off by his relatives, mocked by his superiors and beaten (literally) by the crowd… for nothing they ever consistently pinned down, other than the fact he made them see things they did not want to look at in themselves. The Divine Mercy Chaplet’s refrain says this: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!”
What this prayer does is take the injustice we hold and show it to God, begging Him to use it to make things right again.
“For the sake of all the horrible things people do, show us what good can come out of it!”
“For the sake of the greatest injustice of all, restore things to the way you intended them to be!”
“For all the ways people hurt one another, grab their attention and show them that enough is enough!”
Theologically, there is much more to the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ than these simplifications. But this is the essence of messy prayer. When we’ve been hurt and stepped on too many times, we aren’t in a good place where deep theological meditation is going to mean much. We need something for when we are messy. We need a prayer we can pray in hurt, just as well as in anger, just as well as in pleading, just as well as in praise.
“For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion” – so that Jesus won’t have put up with this horrible treatment for nothing – “have mercy on us, and on the whole world.” That includes having mercy on So and So, who refuses to help, who calls me horrible things, who mocks me to my face and behind my back, who won’t speak to me, who treats me like a burden, who is never satisfied. Have mercy on Those People, too, who infuriate me with their ignorance and refuse to listen to other points of view. Have mercy on the ones I can’t.
It’s shocking for many to imagine praying like this, especially when we have been taught to love and forgive. Yet, how quickly we forget one of the last prayers said by Jesus Himself as He was being dragged through the streets in public humiliation: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
Even Jesus Himself – who forgives people repeatedly, throughout Scripture – cannot, and DOES NOT, forgive those attacking him in his hour of disgrace. He delegates it to God, who is able to forgive outside the bounds of linear time, who will exist beyond Jesus’ last breath and who can wait eternally for these people to finally come to their senses and use that opportunity to see where they were wrong.
Yes, we are called to pray. Yes, we are called to love. Yes, we are called to forgive. But it was never said that it will not be messy. In fact, most authentic prayer in Scripture took place in very messy situations, if we read the stories. And, in all cases, messy prayer triumphed.
May we, then, help each other in our messy times, our messy lives, with our messy prayers… and, together, witness and experience the Truth and Mercy of God in our community.
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