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!
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