Over the past few weeks we have talked about different needs brought to our attention by real people across our readership. From the outset, this Mission has existed to bring the voice of Saint Thorlak out from under the snows of time to speak to our century with his distinctly autistic look at faith and pastoral administration. The “faith” end has been covered fairly thoroughly in our discussions of the Way of Saint Thorlak, which has freed us up these past few posts to talk more about administrative aspects of addressing the needs of people seeking spiritual nourishment.
There is a very popular meme which reads “Autism Does Not End At Eighteen.” Likewise, the pastoral needs of autism do not come to a close when a person successfully receives the bulk of their sacraments, be that at Confirmation or Matrimony. In fact, the needs continue week by week as autistic individuals seek to receive the Eucharist and participate in parish life. In this sense, people affected by autism are exactly no different than any other person, typical or otherwise. Every human person seeks to understand God using the faculties they have. Engineers find God in a more formulaic, orderly fashion than artists who find Him in the nonverbal emotional palette. Extroverts find God more readily at coffee hour, and introverts find Him in the silence of the chapel. Autistics… well, I can’t speak for all of us, that’s for sure. I can only speak for myself, and then I can generalize some of my own observations and curate some of the comments I have gleaned from conversations over the years. But absolutes? No such thing. Each person with autism is as uniquely varied as the next.
I boil it down to this: As we relate to others, so we relate to God. By “we,” I mean human beings. Including those with autism.
As we learn how to relate to others… as we learn how others react to us… as we experience others… so we experience God.
I think this about summarizes every pastoral need, and every effective pastoral approach to our needs.
As others are merciful to us (that is, as they are able to welcome us EVEN WHEN we drive them to the limits of their comfort), so we learn how God shows us mercy.
As others take an interest in our thoughts, our lives, our loves, our needs: so we learn how God takes an interest in us.
The patterns we observe in others are those we apply to the universe, and to God.
Thus: As others demand conformity and compliance and perfection, so we assume that God does, too.
As others avoid us, forget to include us, or assume that we don’t want to be invited even if we are going to say “no”… so we assume that God feels that way about us, too.
As we correctly or incorrectly conclude acceptance or rejection from those around us, so too, we conclude God follows suit.
Pastorally, that means: Parish staff members model God to us.
If a parish staff member takes the time to understand our needs, we see how God understands our needs.
If accommodations or modifications are not possible because of space limitations, lack of resources, disruption to the liturgy or invalidation of sacramental norms… and a parish staff member explains that to us in a way that is clear and honest… we see how God is not a mythical genie who grants wishes, but rather, a wise Father whose solutions to our needs often require trust on our part that He desires what is best, even beyond what we thought that was.
What do autistic people need, pastorally speaking? Very simply:
This week, I uploaded three of my talks relating to this topic. They can be found here. In these talks, I specify the obstacles that are most likely to exist between autism and fully experiencing our faith. Next, I propose that “social skills” are the foundation for the next level in our developmental hierarchy: spiritual skills. Lest it seem like a daunting task to have to create such a program, never mind train people and implement it, I dare say it already exists in our pastors and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Everything we need is already there, if someone will take the time and walk us through with caritas, voluntary humility, wonder and demonstration by example. St. Thorlak pioneered this method eight hundred years ago. His administrative genius has been recognized in the Canon of Catholic Saints; shall we now avail ourselves of his formula?
I have begun speaking. I do not intend to stop any time soon. How very autistic of me.
If you would like to hear more, please, contact me with the needs you have. It is my Mission.
Pray: Heavenly Father, show us the needs we have, and lead us to ways to address them, together.
Contemplate: Is there a distinct “autistic spirituality” in the same way we hear there are autistic approaches to other fields, such as industry, service, design and implementation?
Relate: As others experience us, they experience God. Be aware of this as we go about our week.
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