Q: What is the connection between this ministry and Saint Thorlak? Are you Icelandic?
A: Our material and methods are patterned after the life and teachings of the Icelandic Catholic Christian Þorlákur Þórhallsson (in English, Thorlak Thorhallson). We are Icelandic in the sense that we are students of an Icelandic teacher.
Thorlak Thorhallsson was a Christian who lived in Iceland from 1133-1193. At that time, Christians there followed the rule of the Roman Catholic Church. Thorlak was a deeply spiritual thinker from boyhood with a love of the psalms and theology. He studied under the tutelage of Eyjólfur Sæmundarson, a renowned priest and scholar, and was strongly encouraged to enter the priesthood. He was ordained deacon at fifteen and priest at eighteen, which even then was considered unusually young. In his career, he would be parish priest, traveling scholar, abbot, and eventually, Bishop of Skálholt (1174-1193). He was a prolific teacher, writer and poet, and was widely known for his unwavering dedication to the Gospels. Thorlak was declared a saint by Icelandic clerics shortly after his death, and this declaration was reiterated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II.
It is a good spot here to pause and clarify just what we mean by “saint.” The title “Saint” is an honorary title, not unlike “Doctor” or “Captain.” It speaks to a majority portion of that person’s work, but it does not define the person or endow upon them magical powers. Just as a doctor is an ordinary person who masters and completes an intensive course of study, a saint is an ordinary person who is found to have lived a Godly life and is held up as an example of how other ordinary people might live well. Saints are not worshiped or prayed to; they are imitated, learned from, quoted and respected. Saints are believed to live on in eternal, unseen life, and are believed to be able to pray for us as friends and mentors, but are well beneath the Holy Trinity in the order of the universe. Saints are people, creatures, human beings. We might compare it to folk heroes and respected peacemakers throughout history. Hopefully, people don’t “pray to” or worship Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Isaac Newton, but their names, words and works are widely respected, and their images and names frequently adorn everyday objects to honor and remind us of their example. Thus it is with Catholic saints.
Going further, a “spiritual patron” or “patron saint” is an ordinary person who lived a holy life and whose example is particularly useful for a need at hand. Saint Thorlak is the spiritual patron of Iceland because he is most familiar with the Icelandic terrain, living conditions and cultural heritage. We also speculate that his teachings may one day sufficiently demonstrate he is just as greatly a spiritual patron of those affected by autism.
So, why should we be HIS students? Why should we emulate Saint Thorlak, out of all the other saints and learned people we could study?
1) Saint Thorlak was exceptionally talented at teaching and explaining theology to the people he served. Keep in mind that he lived in a time before print materials, mass media, and widespread education. The majority of people in 12th century Iceland were laborers who had little capability of academic study. Icelanders, including fellow clergy, were very much accustomed to making and following their own social customs – which were not always in line with Christian principles. Yet, one of their countrymen, Saint Thorlak, highly educated and refined in social standing, could explain spiritual concepts to them in a manner they related to, and many wished to imitate.
2) Saint Thorlak was very likely a man with autism. It is not so much the diagnostic label that matters to us, but the fact that he taught as he lived – like a man with autism. He not only spoke Icelandic and Latin, but he “spoke ASD” in his manner of presenting ideas. A master spiritual teacher whose methods were formed and filtered through his autistically-inclined mind could not only reach thousands of ordinary folk in his day, but would be a huge help to us if we could have him as a spiritual teacher to reach people with ASD today.
3) Saint Thorlak’s story is an anomaly. He had crippling speech impairments and social anxiety, yet he sought out people, befriended large numbers of people, mentored many young people, and volunteered under public scrutiny for the office of Bishop – knowing fully well it would be a monumentally difficult task. What motivated him? What permitted him to do these things in spite of his very real limitations? A close study of his life reveals that he found his methodology in the Gospels. He so carefully patterned his life on the Gospels of Jesus that he brought Jesus virtually present to those in his path. His most cherished Scripture passages were those which demonstrated relationships and their embedded blessings, and he was quietly elated to bring these blessings forth upon his countrymen. Who better to turn to, in emulation, than a man who broke the shackles of his social impairments through the power of the Gospels?
A very important point to keep in mind: We are here to combat spiritual starvation in our time. So was Saint Thorlak, in his time. He was out to connect every Icelander with the One, True God. We think his methods were spot on, and so, we have adopted them.
In recognizing that St. Thorlak’s struggles with autism enabled him to teach spirituality in a way that was remarkably clear and relevant, we reach out particularly to people with autism to be adjunct ambassadors of our message, in the same, wonderful manner of our spiritual patron.
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Let’s toss in some related questions, while we’re at it:
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a prayer ministry?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak Christian?
-Do people need to be Christian to partake in the Mission of Saint Thorlak?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak trying to convert non-believers to the Catholic Faith?
-Is the Mission of Saint Thorlak a faith formation program for children with autism?
Bonus question - if you've read this far, you've earned it!
Q: Is that Niagara Falls in the background of your webpage?
A: Icelanders already know this answer well. No, it is not Niagara Falls. The photo is Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, located in Northeastern Iceland. At this site in the year 1000, the Lawspeaker Þorgeir declared the Norse gods invalid. With that, Iceland embraced the One, True God as THEIR one, true God. As a demonstration of faith, Þorgeir threw the statues of the Norse gods into the waterfall - simultaneously enacting their burial and their baptism. We believe this is not only a magnificently beautiful image of our patron's beloved homeland, but a magnificently symbolic site for what it is we hope to do: connect people to the One, True God.
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