In finishing the story of Saint Thorlak, the final step came down to last week’s elephant. How shall I mention autism, when it is not so much an explicit event in his story as it is one of many characteristics of how he lived his story out? This last piece called for careful discernment as I pondered the responsibility I have to both my subject and potential readers in my choice of words.
I decided to include “autism” in the subtitle. The question remaining was how.
I look nothing like this when I write.
As a contemporary biographer of a medieval bishop, I am already in unfamiliar territory. Saint Thorlak’s life is not easily told in twenty-first century context, nor does our present understanding reflect the way things were seen, said and done in his day. Yet, I still believe his life has much to teach us, and his story offers great benefit to each one of us who will take the time to know him for who he was.
It is clear to me, the school psychologist, that he had autism. It is just as clear to me, the biographer, that autism did not define Saint Thorlak’s life, nor did anyone in his lifetime deny the fact that he behaved, thought and taught divergently from his peers. How does his story fit onto autism’s philosophical spectrum, where the range starts at denial, moves slowly toward awareness, then on toward acceptance, then further on to increasing calls for remediation, and finally reaching the radical push for cure and eradication at the other extreme?
It seems impossible to place Saint Thorlak anywhere on that curve (at least with the kind of accuracy I demand of myself). He lived his autism as a person, not as a person with autism. He did not deny his differences, but he was not aware of them in the ways we are today… neither did he wish them away or try to fix anything.
Seventeen years ago, I faced a similar philosophical situation. I worked as a school psychologist in a neighborhood with a high incidence of violent crime, addiction, unemployment and underemployment. I could not say our students were that much different than those found in any other school, but they did know more about life’s hardships than children from more stable, more affluent neighborhoods. Calling them “poor” and “at-risk” did nothing but highlight these hardships. Calling them “ordinary” seemed unfair, especially when some of their personal stories were anything but. Calling them “extraordinary” felt like a bitter compliment, especially when their circumstances were nothing worth celebrating or drawing attention to. Yet I saw their situation as an opportunity waiting to be unpacked, if only I could find the right words.
I hit upon the idea by accident, as I was trying to talk to a group of students who ate their lunch in my office to talk about the things at home that posed difficulties for their performance at school. I looked them each in the eye as I acknowledged their challenges as real, beyond their control, and not likely to go away any time soon. I said out loud that it would be foolish to pretend these problems can be brushed aside. Then, I said it would be just as foolish to let these problems define them and their behavior. Every one of us has some kind of challenge. Every one of us has our own kind of sorrow we carry in our hearts. What if we stopped trying to ignore or exalt our problems… and, what if we instead looked them square on and decided, together, to rise above them?
It resonated both with the students and with me. I thought more on that phrase for several weeks. Rise above. Neither deny nor define, neither exalt nor excuse. Rise above.
In a philosophical sense, rise above means seeking a path of higher virtue so that we may advance in our journey instead of exhausting ourselves or growing stagnant in our challenges. It acknowledges the hardship without seeking to change, fix or destroy it. It enacts no protest against difficult things. In fact, it affords our struggle value as a nudge reminding us to lift up our heads, to stretch out our arms and seek the updraft that can give us the respite or perspective we need to refresh and renew our resolve to continue on our journey.
In life, triumph very rarely eradicates challenge. The majority of our successes come in small, incremental steps as we master and grow within the settings we find ourselves. Rising above hardships does not remove the challenge, erase the suffering or circumvent the hard work needed to keep moving forward. “Rise above” is not a gaming cheat, a power-up or an express pass to completion. It is more of a perspective-shift which reveals a less visible route for moving forward on the same journey. One can ford a river by crossing directly on foot, or by walking along the bank until a more favorable passage is found, or by employing help from horse or raft or other travelers. How often do we look upward, to see if there might be a bridge, or a vine, or a span of branches in the canopy that might get us where we are going through a different kind of work? Each choice has its cost, and each has its challenge. Likewise, seeking higher virtue takes work, and costs whatever the price may be in humility, caritas and willingness to need. Rising above is an active choice, not a passive process.
“Rise above” was such a different concept from the support groups I had been running that I spent an entire summer building a program around it. That program became a success on many levels. Not only did the students begin to feel empowered by choosing the good, but the teachers also came to see how this subtle shift in mindset had widespread and lasting effects on the culture at large.
Nearly two decades later, I looked my manuscript and recognized the same dilemma. What would be the phrasing to reflect the reality of Saint Thorlak’s struggle without defining him or his story by them?
Yes… yes. I ran the scenario in my mind. Yes, this fits. The traits that caused Saint Thorlak the most difficulty did not particularly define him, but they affected how he navigated his life, and they offered him the opportunity to reach higher toward the virtue that would lift him above the obstacles threatening to stop him from making further progress. He did not seek to eradicate the things that could have shut him down. He looked out over the horizon and, letting go of certainty, reached for the updraft and rose above them.
His way of doing so is what this Mission is all about.
Pray: Heavenly Father, teach me how to “rise above” those things that limit me by reaching for the virtue to help me persevere through them and learn from them.
Contemplate: Rising above hardship is accomplished by reaching toward virtue. How is doing so an active choice and not a passive process?
Relate: Explain this idea to someone else.
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