The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Lesson Two of the Baltimore Catechism outlines the characteristics of God which most of us have heard in one way or another. Most of these qualities are beyond anything we can relate to in human terms:
Without anything like this in our concrete reality, it falls to our imaginations to construct our idea of God. That presumes, however, that we have a well-functioning imagination. Many of us do not, and even who do still find this far past the range of speculation. It often seems that our concept of God comes out like the mythical gods of long ago: Giant, thunderous, demanding, frightful in abject perfection (with ourselves, by comparison, looking like wretched fools or worse). In other scenarios, God ends up like a forerunner of Santa Claus, a benevolent grandfather figure who sees everything we do, knowing all that we feel, think and say, and exists to dispense gifts to us based on our merit. Imagining God can feel like living in a snow globe, existing solely for God’s amusement – or abandonment when He tires of watching us. It gets to be such absurdity that we eventually dismiss the whole thing as either too big to imagine, or outright fiction. Autistics particularly struggle with the contradiction of concrete realities which consist of abstract qualities. Perhaps, then, we might start with the implications of God rather than trying to comprehend His descriptions. St. Augustine took this approach in his teachings, and over the centuries, he would influence many others, including our own St. Thorlak. How did he – a scholar, and also a likely autistic – present these heady realities of God to the medieval Catholics of Iceland, few of whom were literate, all of whom labored day and night to survive on fishing and farming in an unreliable and punishing climate?
Thorlak’s intellectual leaning was a peculiarity to his fellow Icelanders, including those at the Oddi, the center of Icelandic scholarship. He found his niche 1,359 miles (2,187 km) abroad, studying theology at the renowned Abbey of St-Victor in Paris. He never intended to subsist on academia, though. Thorlak was eager to return to his homeland with the mission of bringing this marvelous knowledge of God to those unable to pursue theology. And, in the way many fellow autistics have of drawing out profoundly simple yet powerful solutions to confounding complexities, Thorlak showed a way to see the unseeable God by using the backdrop of His purpose: LOVE.
In that manner, then, let us employ the Catechism’s list of attributes to understand not a demanding deity, not an indifferent toymaker in the sky, but One who embodies and defines the essence of love.
We, being human, have the limits of our minds and senses; thus, the first three attributes reflect the limits to how we can know God. God is spiritual, perfect and infinite. Spiritual suggests He exists within the interior and unseen realm, the experience itself of being. One of the earliest translations of “spirit” is “breath.” We can think of God as the breath that says “yes” to all that has existed, exists now, and will exist far beyond our participation. Perfect means complete, whole, without flaw. Infinite: God encompasses the totality of all that is. Since creation is very much alive and unfolding, that totality is not finished, nor can we comprehend how far back it goes or how far ahead it will go on.
Without beginning, without end… everywhere… all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful: These are, in one sense, embellishments on the notion of being infinite. God’s essence and intentionality infuses and sustains all creation, which includes us and the world around us and the universe in which our world exists. But more specifically, these reflect the intentionality of God. He exists not just to exist, but to be, see, know and act. Why?
What if the answer is love? If God is love’s very essence, then creation is the expression of joy so ripe that it had to be given form. The “love” that is God is that creative love underpinning the interests which propel our spirits. God’s love is no mere greeting card sentiment. God’s love is all-consuming, all-knowing, all-seeing and without end. God’s love of the very notion of humanity and earth and universe, and all its intricacies, is indistinguishable from God Himself, and exceeds the capacity of God to remain statically fixed or detached. It is such a burning drive that God, unable to be contained, brought it all into being to experience it.
Repeat: God did not simply imagine us. The delight He took in imagining us was so consuming that He was moved to experience us. Hence, God actively sees, knows and empowers what He has given form and substance.
Autistics know the difference between thinking about something and experiencing that intense rapture which drives us, draws us forward, consumes our minds and feels like the meaning of life itself. Onlookers call this our “special interest.” We go along with that terminology because it avoids degrading our joy into something pejorative, like “obsession,” but it grossly dismisses how greatly that joy affects us. (To the point, who would ever gaze upon a loved one and whisper, “You are my special interest?”)
With “love” as God’s backdrop, we see that he is neither dictator nor spy in the sky. God supplies all, designs all and sustains all because He is love which cannot be contained.
This may still be too much to comprehend or believe, especially when we look around and see everything that is NOT love. Where did all the mess come from, and why does God not step in and clean it up for us? We will continue this discussion as we explore more of the Catechism. In the meantime, let us recall that list in answer to the question, “In what manner does God love us?”
Spiritually. Perfectly. Infinitely. Without beginning or end. Everywhere. Seeing and knowing all, and loving us with all His power.
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