This week’s Missionary Thought works on many levels. It functions as a tip for people with social anxiety. It gives non-anxious people an idea of how to approach someone whom they have passed by time and again without making it seem forced or awkward. It gives homage to our patron, St. Thorlak, who employed this action every day of his ministry and whose example we recognize as opening doors for people with autism spectrum disabilities. And finally, it is an actual testimony: something that a real person did, difficult as it was, and discovered how to disempower her panic attacks. By the time you’ve read this through, we hope you’ll understand the underlying premise of The Mission of St. Thorlak.
THE SCYTHE OF SAINT THORLAK IN ACTION
Let us review: The Scythe of St. Thorlak, which cuts through the thorns casting shadows of doubt in our unclear minds, is VOLUNTARY HUMILITY.
Here is one way to put this scythe into action, with a little imagination. For those times when you feeling awkward, anxious, withdrawn, unable to speak, or unable to find the on-ramp to join an existing gathering: put on your imaginary reporter’s badge, and go interview someone.
That’s right. Envision your very own press pass. Now, go get the scoop.
What is it about a press pass that emboldens reporters? Have you ever noticed how someone going for the big story has an overflowing measure of confidence? A press pass allows access where people are otherwise shooed away by security and people in charge. A press pass permits you to interrupt, cut in with a question, to be noticed, to announce that you have a need. Instead of being snickered at, talked over, brushed aside – press passes take precedence. They are respected. People not only notice press passes, but they pause to accommodate them.
You, then, take up your press pass. Go up to a situation – a conversation in progress, or a person you’ve never approached before, or a setting that you’ve always avoided – and grab that interview.
SEEK OUT THE STORIES FROM THE MARGINS
If you don’t have a real press pass, don’t forge one (please). Use the Scythe of St. Thorlak instead. Trust us… it will get just as much attention. Take up your willingness to be humble and resolve to learn from the people you approach. With a little prep work you can have some questions in mind and how you plan on asking them. Don’t worry if you are clumsy, if you stutter, if you get looks of confusion. Just go talk to them. Ask them questions. Show them, by asking, that they are a valuable resource to you… because they are!
There. Doesn’t that sound like a good tip for people with social anxiety? (We hope so; it is meant to be.)
Then again, it works for people who are not diagnosed with anything in particular, for those who are socially comfortable and have a solid group of friends and don’t really take too much notice of the people on the fringes, the people sitting alone, or, maybe, the people who really don’t look very approachable. It’s easy to pass by someone who really doesn’t like talking to other people.
Since when does any of that concern a reporter going for the exclusive interview?
As Missionaries of St. Thorlak, whether or not you have a diagnosis, your job – your OBLIGATION – is to look for people on the margins and seek out their stories. You want to come to know them as well as you know the people in your comfortable circles. You want to know what makes these quiet or off-putting ones tick. You also want to help them see that you genuinely notice them, appreciate them, and would feel their absence if one day they were gone.
So you, too, go in with your press pass, your voluntary humility, and tell those people on the margins that you really wish to know them better. Be willing to be rebuffed, mumbled-to, hedged-against and outright rejected... but more importantly, be prepared to be surprised by their candor, their delightfulness, their softness… and their likeness to you. Be committed to regularly speak with them at their pace, not yours, and be ready to find that you really enjoy their company.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ST. THORLAK'S MISSION?
St. Thorlak used this technique routinely in spite of many social limitations. He was a lover of learning. He saw volumes of stories, wisdom, experience and adventure in the people of his diocese. He wanted to understand everyone almost as fervently as he himself longed to be understood. If we are to follow his holy footsteps, it is up to us to imitate his example to the best of our ability. They may not have had journalists in his day, but they certainly had saga-writers and storytellers… none of whom had any material without people to inspire them. Go, therefore, and be inspired by the sagas of the people close at hand!
Why are we focusing on this? Why suggest something that could be found in the pages of a social skills manual, or a group therapy session for people on the autism spectrum? Why not promote something more deeply spiritual, since we are spiritual missionaries?
Because it IS spiritual… when it is consecrated.
Consecrated? A Postscript.
The "press pass" technique is a true story of a real person's effort to overcome suffocating and frequent panic attacks in social situations. She never had the benefit of therapy sessions or social skills curricula. Instead, she was met by adults and professionals who called her “shy” and “timid” and pushed her to “get past it.” This was more than just “anxiety” – these were racing heart, swimming head, hyperventilating, cold-sweaty panic attacks which plagued her throughout high school and beyond. Finally, this courageous soul rose above her disability with her own willpower… not by curing it… not by conquering it… but by consecrating it.
By dedicating what little she had to the service of God and others, her path finally came into focus. No more did she work to impress other people… no more did she try to prove herself… but rather, she entrusted her struggle to God’s service, as imperfect as she was, and her focus shifted away from herself.
By focusing on God, she found her way out.
This is by no means a condemnation of social skills curricula or self-esteem therapy. But it is, for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, a reminder:
Autism therapies are means to our end, which is: Service of God-in-others.
May we contemplate this idea in preparation of learning what it means to consecrate autism to serving God-in-others.
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