Ah, at last, we get to the “how” of our Mission. How do we propose to take on spiritual starvation? By the way of Saint Thorlak.
This will sound familiar because it makes up everything we do, and many of our previous Missionary Thoughts have discussed this in bits and pieces. We have not, however, presented it in its entirety as a concept. This is the week we do.
When we examine a “way” in which someone lived, we seek to identify those signature characteristics which set the person apart. In most cases, the “ways” of admirable people are variations on themes common to all of humanity. In the same manner there are many routes from all directions to get to single-point destinations, there are many “ways” to carry ourselves from one stage of our life to the next. In the Christian worldview, all of these individual “ways” point ultimately toward the one Way, the Divine Person of Jesus, who identifies Himself explicitly as The Way to God, our Heavenly Father (John 14:6).
Think of it like the American highway system:
This denotes a local route number of a road that begins and ends across a small area.
This is a larger route that connects different areas.
This is an Interstate route that connects to a master highway
ultimately connecting large parts of the entire country.
The ways we take in our individual lives are local routes.
The mentors who guide us are larger routes connecting different areas.
The saints map out Interstate routes, tested and determined to connect directly to the one, true Way.
The way of Saint Thorlak, therefore, bears Interstate insignia. His way was determined by ecclesial authorities to connect directly to the one, true Way of God by faithfully following the example of the Gospels. Thorlak, himself a regular man, ushers us to the way of Jesus, who takes us to the Heavenly Father.
As states across America each have numerous routes connecting to the Interstate, the Christian world has numerous saints offering ways to connect to God. Some of the more familiar ones are the ways of St. Francis (… Franciscans), St. Dominic (… Dominicans), St. Benedict (… Benedictines), St. Ignatius of Loyola (… Jesuits), St. Teresa of Calcutta (… Missionaries of Charity) and onward. These holy people are all on par with one another, all on the same team, all providing us a way to serve others and see the goodness of God. Thus, the way of St. Thorlak may not have the same familiarity as those enjoyed by the followers of Sts. Francis, Dominic or Teresa, but it is no less of a way – and it is, in fact, highly specialized for what he did best: battling starvation.
The Way of Saint Thorlak begins by consecrating everything – everything we are, and everything we are not; everything we have, and everything we lack – to God’s service. We accomplish this through caritas, voluntary humility, a contemplative sense of wonder, and leading others by the example of our daily doings.
Sounds simple. Guess what? It is. It is a way of life that anyone can attain by being ordinary. The catch is, it really touches on our humanity. Caritas concerns our hearts and minds with the well-being of others. Voluntary humility asks us to be exactly who we are, with no pretense or attempt to hide our needs. Wonder requires giving ourselves permission to be child-like in admitting we like when things make us stop and take in the big, big picture without sarcasm or cynicism. And, leading by example means a willingness to be seen.
It is a formula within reach of anyone, and it is proven to counteract spiritual disconnection. It is the way Thorlak Thorhallsson lived every day of his sixty year lifetime, back in the twelfth century. He never planned to become a “way” – he simply lived, as he was, where he was, and invited others to become signposts themselves connecting others to the abundant life… in other words, an Interstate, to the One, True God.
We could leave things here: The way of Saint Thorlak is an easy, accessible manner for connecting our lives with God. What excites us more, however, is the realization that this formula is particularly useful as a spiritual guide for people with autism – something that has long been lacking, but has been sought by thousands. We believe: here it is!
Why is the way of Saint Thorlak especially well suited to people with autism seeking spiritual direction?
Because it addresses the spiritual needs of people with autism in a way that is not overwhelming. It fosters connection from within each individual, rather than beginning in established community. It teaches WHY people with autism are taught social skills – for the benefit of helping others (caritas) and advocating for our own needs (voluntary humility). It celebrates sharing factual knowledge (wonder) and calls on us to behave deliberately and visibly (leading by example). It offers a way to be pleasing to God, and pleasing to others, which does not require us to wait for a certain degree of mastery or perfection to begin. We may not have the emotional resources to do much right now. The prospect of going out, of speaking, making eye contact, remembering all that we have to do to be socially acceptable – all of these may still be far out of our reach. But this way of Saint Thorlak, of going with what we do have and offering it to God as all we’ve got – THIS is within our reach. It is marvelous in that it does not include failure because our needs are our tickets to social connection and feeding others spiritually. When we go forth with our needs in hand, we either come home with those needs met, or with the same batch we started out with. Both outcomes guarantee connection. For people who are accustomed to constant scrutiny and demand to perform up to standards painfully higher than our capabilities, this is sweet relief.
In fact, the way of Saint Thorlak was described in just that way, albeit not in the context of having autism. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak relates this, about the earliest part of his career as a priest living as an assistant to the cleric at the church-farmstead of Kirkjubær, where the two men “experienced that which God says: that ‘my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ … they bore it easily, for they then started to bear nearly all the responsibilities on behalf of all those people inhabiting the districts close by them. …They took upon themselves in a remarkable way those names by which Almighty God called his apostles the light of the world, because they lit up the path of mercy which leads to eternal rejoicing, both with their excellent teaching in words and with their glorious examples” (pp. 5-6).
If you are expecting a blockbuster tale of suspense and high drama, Saint Thorlak’s saga will be disappointingly ordinary, save for the fact that he sounds like a person with autism by modern criteria (… and, the list of recorded miracles at the end is eye-popping – literally!). No matter. We see something extraordinary. Saint Thorlak’s way has been kept quiet, as he himself was, for nine centuries, waiting for the right point in human history to speak up and be noticed.
That time is now.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us the way to You!
Contemplate: How often have we dismissed our own lives as being too ordinary, too difficult, too messy? Is it up to us, or up to God, to decide the value of what we have to offer?
Relate: Take time this week to appreciate the ordinary ways the people around you are valuable to you.
Þorláksmessa: The Feast of 23 December
But what if this year were different? What if this year, we marked the anniversary of Saint Thorlak in a way that reflects who he really was, and what he really stood for? What if each one of us made an effort on December 23, in some small way, to tell someone in our path: “You bring light to me”? Doing this, paradoxically, will give light to the heart of the person who hears it... which is what Saint Thorlak was all about. Then, with hearts thusly lit in all parts of the world, we can silently turn in our hearts and say to the memory of Saint Thorlak, in joyful unison: “You bring light to us. Thank 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