We lead off this week with a quick word association exercise. Ready?
Imagine you could make a generous contribution toward helping people with ASD. “My focus would be AUTISM _____________ .”
Let us guess. Among the answers that are not registered trademarks, the most common are:
These are all worthy causes and vitally important concepts.
But not ours.
Please, don’t get us wrong. We endorse each cause named above. Who wouldn’t? Acceptance recognizes the triumph of individuals’ efforts to live their best lives under the differences and difficulties that characterize autism. Awareness is an open invitation for others to take the time to understand what living with autism looks and feels like. Treatment offers relief from distress and raises competence in coping. And, although there is no known “cure” for autism as yet, biomedical research continues to advance the three other previously named causes, giving many hope that one day the debilitating symptoms of autism can be eradicated.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak approaches autism by following the lead of our spiritual patron, who met things head on where they were… learned from them… and reformed them.
Wait: AUTISM… REFORM?
Stay with us. You’ll see.
When St. Thorlak was consecrated Bishop of Skalholt, his superior, the Archbishop of Norway, was pleased to have found someone who shared his (unpopular) passion for moral reform in the church. Thorlak was already familiar with the anything-goes mentality of Icelandic priests and leaders. He tried for many years to demonstrate through his own actions that clergy were obligated to observe a higher way of living through serving others, not their own pleasures. He understood that appointment to higher office meant you were chosen and your work to be set apart, made sacred, and dedicated to God’s use.
Now hold on. We realize that autism is not a calling, and not an honor. It is a yoke under which people are placed by the mere configuration of their genes, developmental circumstances and confluence of all other factors which contribute to autism’s expression.
Public office, too, is a yoke. High titles bring privilege, yes, but also obligation, for humble servants and hedonists alike.
Yokes. We’ve heard this before. Who was it that said “Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”?
Is this true? Can we trade in the yokes we are dealt and take up the Yoke of Jesus Christ instead?
The answer is YES. We can. We accomplish this through an act of the will, a conscious choice to take something ordinary, lift it up in prayer, and dedicate it to serving and glorifying God.
Taking your yoke, whatever it is and however burdensome, and dedicating it to the sacred service and glorification of God, is accomplished through consecration.
Historians reflecting on St. Thorlak’s legacy summarize him as “a reformer.” Did he set out with that explicit intention, or was that the consequence of how he lived out his vocation? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that St. Thorlak was a man of voluntary humility. He was strongly convicted and uncompromising, but he was not aggressive. He came from need, not demand.
If St. Thorlak accomplished reform, it was through consecration.
St. Thorlak felt a great love of God from his earliest age. He responded by consecrating his life to God’s service. He never sought high titles, but he did accept them with trepidation and indebted loyalty to the One who commissioned him: first a deacon, then a priest, then a scholar abroad, then an abbot, then a bishop.
St. Thorlak – socially paralyzed, impaired speaker, lover of learning – consecrated what he had to serving God and serving God-in-others. He felt pain when his kinsmen suffered. He hurt when people in authority gave poor example by their greed, unethical dealings, dishonesty, lustful indulgences and disregard for the dignity of women and children. He wanted to help bring remedy to these injustices and help those who suffered the consequences.
St.Thorlak, with the authority of a cleric, dedicated himself and all that he had – ordinary objects, land holdings, people under his tutelage – to serving God-in-others. He dedicated his struggles, triumphs and ordinary daily rituals. He consecrated all to serving God-in-others.
And, people noticed.
People in places high and low noticed he lived differently… quietly… contemplating something bigger than that which was before them. At times he appeared overly serious, and he had an unusual love of rules and order, but he still had a memorable effect on people. He was an unexpected blessing, a gentle burst of oxygen that remained even after he left. He stirred people to see themselves differently because he approached everyone he met as a gift.
Yet - this is someone for whom speaking, even eye contact, was painful!
How did he do it?
He gave himself, struggles and all, in loving obedience to serving God-in-others – and it went from something painful (and something most take for granted) to being a source of blessing for him AND all who received it. Each ordinary, painful encounter became a blessing which brought God-in-him to God-in-others.
Back to us, and our exercise, now.
Bringing God to people in a way that gets their attention… taking real, painful impediments and circumstances, and converting them to pathways to blessing… Yes. That all sounds like “reform.”
And so, our angle, our contribution to helping those affected by autism, is, in fact, “reform.”
Reform, through consecration.
Let us then finish the phrase: Our focus is: Autism CONSECRATED.
Take what we have, however poor, however painful, and dedicate it completely to the service and glorification of God. In America alone, one in 48 people are affected by autism. If we consecrate that, then one in 48 will be blessed… and will bless untold others in each of their circles.
It CAN happen.
If we hear the call.
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