For the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at the book How to Welcome, Include, and Catechize Children with Autism and Other Special Needs by Lawrence R. Sutton, Ph.D. This book, published in 2013, highlights the success of a parish-based sacramental preparation and religious education program designed to give autistic children an opportunity to engage in learning about their Catholic faith which recognizes and celebrates the traits which distinguish them from non-autistic fellow Catholics. Dr. Sutton is an autism specialist who is also an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church.
The book is a fast read and is organized, as its title suggests, as a practical guide for other parishes to consider implementing programs in a similar fashion. The conclusion points to an actual curriculum which arose from Dr. Sutton’s pilot project and may be purchased through the book’s publishing company, Loyola Press; however, the book stands on its own points quite well and does not come across as a promotional tool.
We thought it would be helpful to review the ideas in this book from the different perspectives of those who are most likely to pursue this topic in the first place. This week, we hear from an autistic Catholic adult.
"Lawrence Sutton directs much of his writing toward championing the children likely to struggle in a classroom setting because their processing styles are not compatible with that mode of teaching and learning. He does so in a wonderfully descriptive and supportive way by discussing behaviors which might be pegged as disruptive, but instead explains how these behaviors function as means of coping with the sensory and emotional overload of being autistic in a large group setting. He never once characterizes these behaviors as problematic. Rather, he emphasizes that autistic children quickly reach their limits in large settings and rely on stimming to modulate their anxiety and increases focus. In many settings, through no fault of anyone involved, stimming creates distraction and discomfort for those in charge and those in attendance. He places no blame on either side, which gives the book a very positive and encouraging feel without compromising anyone’s needs, be those the needs of the child or the needs of the teachers to comfortably maintain focus.
Reading this book brought several thoughts to mind from my own experiences growing up. I dreaded youth groups and religion classes because the setting overwhelmed me and I made minimal connection with the material being presented. I was more the type to hide in the background; my anxiety did not create any disruptions or distractions because I coped by trying to be invisible. As a result, the sense of being part of the parish community was never real to me. I felt like a visitor in my own church, week after week. Dr. Sutton’s approach addresses this need equally well. From the very first chapter, he emphasizes that religious education and sacramental instruction, at their very foundations, are based on relationships: between parish staff and parishioners, between parishioners, between teachers and students, between mentors and mentees, and, ultimately, between each individual and God, who is revealed ever more fully in each sacramental encounter. Group instruction, in his estimation, should come together only by leaders and attendees knowing each other as individuals in the same community. Therein lies the greatest value of this book, in that it does not attempt to fit autistic children into yet another group – it spells out how to know each autistic person one at a time, and thus celebrate their presence by meeting them wherever they are in their ability to participate.
I am far past the age of sacramental preparation and religious instruction, so I read this more as a spectator than one who would benefit directly. That said, Dr. Sutton’s philosophy inspires me to the point where I would gladly help implement programming like this in my own parish… which speaks volumes, since I am just as reluctant now as I ever was to be visible among large groups. The program described in this book would be wonderful to see in action, and I would gladly volunteer my 'autistic expertise' in teaching others how to understand people like me. In that sense, then, Dr. Sutton’s approach benefits all, including autistic adults like me, who are still seeking new ways to experience God in the life of the parish."
Last week, we made the distinction between praying for healing and praying for cure. There are many occasions when cure is appropriate and desirable to pray for – namely, when looking at an otherwise healthy system that is being eroded by disease, illness and imbalance. Healing, on the other hand, is appropriate and desirable for anyone at any stage of wellness or illness. Healing is a restoration, a refurbishment, a renewal of something that is already whole but has experienced physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wear and tear.
When it comes to disabilities, many people think to pray for cure. We must acknowledge a certain logic to this, if the person praying for cure is the disabled person. There are plenty of disabling conditions which create hardship and impairment to the point of chronic pain, unhappiness and loss of livelihood. It is reasonable to think that some disabled people do desire radical change beyond a restoration to their baseline – they want renovation. It is just as reasonable for a person to ask for this kind of miracle in their prayer. We see this happening in Scripture, and we see Jesus affecting cures of many chronic and disabling conditions.
But what about autism? Should there ever be prayers to cure autism?
The simplest answer: Only if I am autistic, and I would like my autism to be permanently transformed into neurotypical wiring.
In all other cases [i.e., I am not autistic, or I would not want to be neurotypical], the answer is “no, thank you.”
HEALING, on the other hand, is nearly always reasonable to pray for, either on our own behalf or for another, autistic and non-autistic alike.
For the most part, these guidelines jibe with most people. However, there are some who will make the case that there are severely disabled people who cannot effectively communicate their desire to be prayed for. Consider, for instance, the nonverbal autistics who are unable to express their thoughts and emotions in ways most others understand. Do those people long for a cure? Is it appropriate to pray for their deliverance from that which impairs them to such an extent that they cannot even pray on their own behalf?
There is a safe response, in that we who petition Almighty God for healing and cures know that He knows best. Sometimes, when our cure will bring us closer to God, it will be granted. Other times, our disability serves a greater purpose than we can see, and cure is not given us. And so, if we errantly pray for someone’s cure, the outcome is not ours to decide.
The bigger issue is whether we should presume that person wants what we feel is best for them. Once again, we offer the simplest response: if we base our prayer on what WE FEEL is best for others, we risk offending their right to seek God’s will for themselves. If our prayer is based on what TRULY IS best for them, we cannot err.
We conclude with some concrete suggestions on the points mentioned above.
Helpful ways to pray for others:
It is better to rethink our intentions if our prayers:
Continuing our thought from last week, the need for prayer is one that all humanity shares – yet can become a source of discomfort, isolation and marginalization if those praying for us fail to see what our actual needs are.
“Prayer for Healing” is ubiquitous among cultures and gatherings, usually at the top of our petitions. And, why not? As many things as we are able to control, our physical and mental health remains a wild card. Unexpected accidents, illnesses and circumstances take us by surprise all the time and seem the least fair of any of our challenges. How many times do we lament that we have done everything right, and still, [fill in the diagnosis] appears on the scene and wreaks havoc with our health and our plans?
Many people see autism this way, particularly in the lives of the very young. Parents, grandparents, older family members and caring adults see signs of distress in an otherwise healthy child and, rightly, take steps toward early screening and intervention. It is most often this distress which raises our own distress as caring adults. Who among us does not feel stirred to act when a child is struggling?
As a matter of course, the signs of autism do not make it to a diagnostician unless they are causing distress. We never hear of parents bringing their child to a clinic for evaluation of their high reading level, astonishing aptitude for retaining and applying information or their indescribably deep emotional reactions to the situations they observe going on between others. It is always a case of malfunction: not being able to speak, not being able to calm their agitation, not able to follow public expectations.
Caring adults have a very full bag of emotions. Empathy for the struggling child is often very high, but there is also the frustration of not being able to help the child and the feeling of responsibility for the behavior that does not conform. There is internal pressure to maintain control, external pressure via the critical looks and comments from others, and then, there is the sheer humanity of being overwhelmed and overloaded ourselves when the children in our care are unable to regulate themselves.
These dynamics feed into prayer gatherings, which ought well to be havens of support, encouragement and hope. By praying for one another and our collective needs, we come together as a community and experience the promise of better days ahead, assuring one another that “this too shall pass” and that God “heals the brokenhearted and binds our wounds” (Psalm 147).
So sets the stage for the person who stands and prays for someone to be healed, or cured, of their autism.
As Missionaries of St. Thorlak, we commit ourselves to assuming the best in everyone, to searching for their best intent even in the things which perplex and infuriate us.
Not every person praying for someone’s autism is insensitive or coming from superiority. The majority, we are guessing, come from a place of empathy with the suffering that comes from autism, and a feeling of helplessness to remove that suffering, particularly from those who are younger. Philosophically, there is that fine line between the suffering that impedes a person and the suffering that fosters growth and perseverance, and most times, people who pray for cure are asking that the debilitating suffering be gone.
(So, then, why don’t they just SAY that, instead of making autistics feel like freaks, or burdens?)
Maybe we can help by gently, positively outlining a few talking (or reading) points.
First, autism does have some very distressing elements, but it is not a disease. It is a neuropsychological variation of heightened sensitivity across all our processing channels. By comparison, a disease is something that erodes a working system. Autism does not erode our system. It IS our system.
“Cure” implies disease. It also implies a permanent change. Someone with a malignant tumor is right to pray for a cure, because permanent change is very desirable when it comes to disease. Please, God, stop this attack on an otherwise working system, and stop it permanently!
Healing, on the other hand, does not imply cure or permanent change, even though many of us use “healing” and “cure” interchangeably. It is equally important for autistics to know the difference as it is for those who pray for us.
Healing is a constant and ongoing process in everyone, no matter how we are wired, no matter what our circumstances may be. Healing, in a very real sense, is our routine maintenance. For as long as we live in this world and encounter other people, there will be wear and tear on our bodies, minds and emotional health. Healing is the process of attending to the rips, dings, bruises and wounds we acquire along the way. Prayer is a wonderful means of healing and routine maintenance which benefits everyone, both those who pray and those who receive the graces from those prayers.
Whenever anyone offers to pray that our autism may be healed, is it possible they mean to help us with the routine wear and tear that arises from being autistic? If we were automobiles, autism would be much more reckless of a driver than neurotypicality. Figuratively, our brakes, tires, valves, cylinder heads and shock absorbers bear the brunt of the intensity of the autistic lifestyle, meaning our self-care and maintenance needs are higher and more frequent. Think of healing prayer for autism as complimentary maintenance being offered to us, rather than someone telling us that our car is a clunker by praying for a trade-in or an upgrade.
Next week: Talking points on praying for healing vs. praying for cure, when it comes to autism and disability
For anyone expecting an invocation of the Heavenly Powers to step in and rescue us from the dreadful specter of autism, we apologize. Our post this week begins with a gerund, not an adjective. Our intent is to suggest ways that prayer for autism might be healed. Why? Ask any autistic. There are few things which feel more alienating than having someone approach us with such pity that they feel it necessary to plead with the very fabric of the universe to fix what went wrong in the making of us… to cure us of the things that seem so frightfully different… to step in on our behalf – because, somehow, we are impaired to such a drastic extent that we can’t see or make these requests for ourselves.
Exaggeration for effect? Or brutal honesty? Perhaps a little of both. And most definitely not a condemnation of intercessory prayer. The gesture of praying for one another is a beautiful and life-giving aspect of community and belonging. It is foolish to say at any moment that we are not in any need of prayer, as we all have some need or another – and prayer, in its purest form, is both conveyance of gratitude and acknowledgement of our interdependence. But it happens, more often than not, that autistic people find offers of prayer more jarring than encouraging. For that matter, any manner of disability runs the risk of being marginalized by prayer.
Why is this so? Scripture contains many references to disability and disabling conditions. The language is stark and candid: a man born blind; a woman with a hemorrhage; a crippled beggar. The disabled have their own community within the bigger community, even with a well-defined manner of livelihood (even if only begging in the temple courtyard). When Jesus arrives in the story, he brings a supernatural gift of healing – the long-awaited sign of God among us. How does He go about this healing? He does not do so from superiority or pity from above. He asks first. He listens. He responds to what the person wants or seeks. He forgives sins.
---- Forgives sins? Yes. And He also casts out demons, in some instances. We are not looking to go down the theology of each of these, nor to deny the literal reality of both. Yes. Jesus did both of those. But it is extremely important to recognize that He did not do so in every case. He did so when it was called for. Yet we should not overlook the significance of each of these examples. When Jesus forgives sins, He is not stating that the sinful behavior of the person being healed caused any particular malady. He is, however (… at the risk of oversimplifying theology), starting with psychological and emotional healing that, in the spiritual life, takes precedence over physical impairments. How many of us live in anger and unhappiness because of the stumbling blocks we attribute to God making the rules too difficult, or even arbitrary in our minds? Again, we are not delving into the theology behind these gestures, but rather, noting that they have significance in Scripture and relevance to our potential for spiritual growth even beyond the literal significance we see here. Perhaps we can summarize forgiveness from sins as being a first step in healing from the fallen ways we respond to the hurts in our lives.
What does all of this tell us about the way we ought to pray for, with and about disabling conditions? Many times, it is our prayers (or manner of prayer) which need to be healed BEFORE praying for healing can truly begin. And so, we offer here some suggestions and reflections to ask as we formulate our prayers, either for ourselves in our conditions or on behalf of others.
May these thoughts guide us on our journeys toward the healing we desire... and the healing we need.
by Guest Author Valerie Boles
Among Catholic families, few occasions come close to the celebrations of sacraments. Baptism, First Reconciliation, First Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders are all very special occasions for very good reason. Questions begin to arise, however, when an autism diagnosis enters the picture. Is the autistic person eligible? In most instances, yes. It is the preparation that is more often an obstacle than the sacrament itself.
To validly receive the sacraments, a person needs to have sufficient formation in their faith, information about the sacrament and an earnest desire to seek that sacrament. (Although infant baptism would seem to be the exception, that takes place with parents and Godparents pledging to fill those roles until the child becomes aware of its meaning and graces). There is nothing inherent in autism that would prevent any of these conditions from being met, even in light of the wide range of learning styles, cognitive functioning and communication needs we see in the autistic community.
The one point that repeatedly comes up is the matter of preparation. Nearly every Catholic parish follows the same path when it comes to preparing congregants for sacraments, and this is where autistic children, teens and adults run into difficulty. This week’s guest writer Valerie Boles takes a closer look at sacramental preparation among the autistic community.
The current state of our sacramental preparation is one that emphasizes large group activities and classes. There are ice breakers and crafts and loud games and quiet time. In trying to meet the needs of all backgrounds and all learners, there are frequent transitions and many volunteers.
The world of frequent transitions and many faces and many quick commands is not amenable to autistic people. It is not a learning environment. The most common way that both parish staff and parents approach the faith formation and sacramental preparation for autistics is to ground their efforts in integration, that is to do everything in their power to have autistic children and adolescents participate side by side with their typically developing peers by any means necessary.
This is a heroic, often Herculean task. Involving autistic people in our faith community is necessary for all of us.
This essay is not to say that there is anything wrong with integration; it is to propose a new way of looking at the faith formation of autistic people.
Our first priority cannot be integration. It must be a relationship with Christ.
Integration poses so many extraneous problems which may become obstacles to a relationship with God. The sensory and social difficulties and uncertainties have the potential to dominate the typical formation experience for autistic people. When our anxieties are high and we are just trying to make it through the day without a meltdown, there is a very small chance that we will be able to engage the existential realities our formation encourages us to think about.
Trying to make it through without a meltdown is the reality of many autistic people during our typical, loud, transition-riddled faith formation events. I am not saying that we should allow this to be an excuse for relegating autistic people to the sidelines. Everyone deserves to be a part of this chaotic community. What I am saying is that integration is insufficient spiritual formation for the autistic community. We must first always consider whether or not we are creating the space for autistic people to encounter Christ, especially during our spiritual formation activities.
There are as many ways to encourage faith formation as there are people. All ways must include two components: unconditional, predictable loving relationships and prayer. With Christ at the center in prayer and modeling Christ’s love in our own relationship with those we are trying to form, we demonstrate by experience what our faith is. We must demonstrate the beatitudes, not teach them.
One on one formation
The most easily implemented faith formation model to implement is a one on one relational interaction. This could be to meet and discuss issues of faith or to meet and discuss issues of life. It is important that we view this more as mentorship than tutoring. The person and their mentor (someone older and more mature in the faith) could meet in a coffee shop bi-weekly and just catch up on the events of the week and discuss issues of faith. When I did this, I always had something that was on my mind to bring to my student (the ten commandments, discerning right and wrong, the sacraments, etc.) but I would always start first with prayer and relationship. I have never read a Bible passage in which Jesus began teaching without first relating to his disciples. I would bring up our topic, explain it briefly and concretely and then just chat, allow the topic to sink in and let my student bring it up again when he was comfortable. The core of our sessions was prayer and relationship.
Another alternative would be to set up a community based activity that is more predictable and less fast-paced. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly with children. This could be a prayer group that meets regularly made up of people of different grade levels. The advantages of a program like this is that it is not expensive or exclusive to autistic people. This could be an advantageous program for anyone with or without a diagnosis.
Family based formation
Susan Swanson out of Boston College wrote several articles regarding a family based approach for people with more severe expressions of autism. Her program involves the catechist going to the home of the family and helping children label moments with their family which demonstrate the love of God. God often explains the love of Christ for the Church as a marriage. Swanson’s program capitalizes on a person’s experience of love within their family and broadens their understanding of family love to include God, especially the experience of God in the sacraments.
Parish Based Program
Deacon Lawrence Sutton details a parish based model which includes the entire family and peer mentorship. This is a very specific model in which the principles of the program balance catechesis and inclusion. The specifics of this program are outlined in the book, How to Welcome, Include and Catechize Children with Autism and other Special Needs. This program is more difficult to set up than some of the other alternatives we have discussed but this program is by far the most comprehensive. The program has gotten good results at a variety of parishes so if it is possible to set this one up, it is the Gold Standard.
Sensory Based Play
For younger children, a more multi-sensory approach may be useful. Catholicism includes within it many sensory experiences. The feeling of Holy Water, the smell of incense and the feeling of sitting and standing and kneeling. The faith is meant to be experienced and explored in a sensory way. Using a catechetical method like the Catechesis of the Good Shepard allows children to explore the faith in a developmentally appropriate way. This is helpful for children of all ability levels.
Valerie Boles is a graduate student of occupational therapy at Saint Francis University. She is passionate about finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel. In her free time, she enjoys camping, listening to podcasts and reading.
"I believe in the Holy Spirit... The Holy Catholic Church... The Communion of Saints..."
These words are repeated any time the Apostles' Creed is recited, and also through the more elaborate phrasing of the Nicene Creed at Catholic Masses every weekend: a chorus of voices forming one community comprised of individuals, families, friends and visitors of many walks of life and many stories coming together to celebrate and reaffirm the faith that holds all in common.
The Catholic Church is an incredibly large, diverse, worldwide community. From the very beginning, this Church has consisted of the most ordinary of people. The first Apostles were neither scholarly nor wealthy, and nearly every Scriptural figure had some need, foible or messy situation to which we can easily relate. Disabilities abound in Scripture, from physical impairments to neurological conditions. From merely an anthropological standpoint, we can deduce that the population back then had its own gradation from mainstream to marginalized for one reason or another, not terribly different from what we see today.
The stories in Scripture, especially the words of Jesus Himself, show not only compassion and empathy, but also a distinct celebration of the gifts that each of these individuals brought to their community. The faith of the early Church was enriched and embodied by acknowledgment of the frailties that drew out the humanity in each of its members. The same can be said of the body of the Church through each successive age and period in history: the poor, the vulnerable, the failing and the complicated exist side by side with the strong, the polished, the wealthy and the successful. Indeed, many moments of epiphany occur when strength encounters weakness and the true meaning of Christian love is revealed.
When the community affirms its belief in the Communion of Saints, we acknowledge those souls throughout time who have exemplified in their lives what Jesus intended our own lives to look like. Saints, even as a subgroup, have the same distribution of traits and circumstances as any other community, from privileged to disadvantaged and every degree of challenge in between. (For more on what makes a saint a saint, visit our previous Missionary Thought here. )
Patronage is a special designation among the canonized saints which recognizes their lives’ specialty or devotional association. It is rare that any given saint is not known as the patron of something, even nominally. A random search on lesser-known saints might turn up, for instance, those like St. Boris, who lived a pious Christian life cut short at the hands of his jealous pagan brother. His holy example is commemorated on the Orthodox calendar with feast days on May 2 and July 24, but his story does not lend itself to a cause more specific than pious Christianity itself, and he is not known for any specialized patronage.
Are saints like Boris simply unlucky, victims of antiquity and the long shadows cast by better-known saints with more popular devotions? Not at all. Sainthood is not a popularity contest, though proprietors of religious goods can attest that certain saints’ prayers and images are in higher demand than others. St. Peregrine, for instance, is the Patron Saint of Cancer Patients. St. Anthony is the Patron of Lost Items. St. Joseph is Patron of Workers, Carpenters, Fathers, Happy Death and The Universal Church, along with several locations and municipalities … and, off the record, many will attest, selling one’s home. If sainthood itself is akin to attaining an honorary rank of distinction, being awarded patronage is like earning clusters on top of canonization. In actuality, patronage is little more than specialization of prayer based on that saint’s unique personality and manner. Since St. Genesius was an actor, it is only natural that actors feel he can more closely relate to, and pray for, the needs of a performer than, say, St. Lydwine, who hailed from Holland and fell ill after an ice skating accident. She, unsurprisingly, is Patroness of Ice Skaters and the chronically ill.
Many canonized saints are patrons of the locations they are most closely associated with. St. Patrick has Ireland (though he was born in Britain) and St. Bridget has Sweden. A good number of saints are patrons of their geographic see. Such is the case with our namesake, St. Thorlak, born and raised in Iceland, where he would elevate the sanctity of this remote nation in the sixty years he lived.
And so, here we are, at the intersection of autism and spirituality. Whom shall we call upon in patronage? Who is the Patron Saint of Autistic People, that we might turn to that saint for inspiration, prayer, encouragement, and enlightenment?
(That’s right, not even Thorlak. There is currently no Patron Saint of Autistic People.)
To be most fair, there has never been as widespread an understanding of autism as what has taken shape in the past decade. Autism is an elusive and enigmatic condition that has run the gamut from shame to celebration over its years as a diagnosis. While we as a human race still have plenty to learn (and plenty of stereotypes to reconsider) about autistic thinking and neurodiversity, we find ourselves at a point in time more favorable toward autism than ever before. As life catches up with this trend, so, too, Catholics worldwide are beginning to understand and recognize autism as a valid and distinct variation within the community. It seems a ripe time to consider who might be “the” saint worthy of that official designation, “Patron Saint of Autistic People.”
We, of course, already consider St. Thorlak as our patron here, and, most definitely, a patron of autism. There is nothing preventing him from being that to us and to all who turn to him for inspiration and spiritual guidance. His manner and way of living feel autistic, sound autistic, and very likely would have been called autistic, had such a word existed in his time. Many autistics use his way as a pattern for connecting to God more meaningfully… for learning how to find strength in vulnerability… for coping with the days when overload tries to destroy our sense of wellbeing… for relating to people who do not relate to us… for understanding, recognizing, addressing and preventing the spiritual starvation many of us encounter on a daily basis.
As the Octave of Pentecost reaches its close, now is a very acceptable time for the Holy Spirit, through the workings of the Holy Catholic Church, to lead the community here toward the Communion of Saints. In designating a Patron Saint of Autistic People, the Church will both recognize the gifts brought by the autistic community to the Kingdom of God, and offer that same community the gift of our own decorated, saintly champion with clusters.
Let us pray that it happens soon!
JOIN YOUR VOICE TO THE CAUSE!
The Mission of Saint Thorlak is compiling a portfolio of written notes from readers around the world, stating why they feel St. Thorlak deserves the title Patron Saint of Autistic People. Specifically, we are seeking to answer the question, “In what way is St. Thorlak a patron for autistic persons?” Why St. Thorlak? Why autism? Notes need only be brief and heartfelt, and would be very greatly appreciated as we build our case. If you are moved to contribute, please send your note to firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!
The Missionary Thoughts blog, including our Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking, will resume in June.
In the meantime, please check out the insightful and autism-inspired posts by our Spiritual Director at The Anchorite!
by Guest Writer Valerie Boles
Grief is something no one likes but everyone experiences. It is a part of our human experience. We hurt when we lose something or someone. Usually when we think about grief, we think about the feeling we have after someone dies but we can grieve when we get seriously ill and can’t do the things we use to do. Whenever we lose something, we grieve.
Grieving is a process our minds, bodies and souls go through to deal with the loss of something good and important. When we are grieving, every bit of us can be affected; our bodies feel tired and weary, our minds can be preoccupied, we feel sad, we can’t do our work with the same excitement we normally do. Even when we’re not thinking about what we have lost, the world just doesn’t seem quite right. When we are grieving, it feels like we will never be the same again. It feels like the world will never, ever be quite right. Love is essentially God’s signature on the people and things in our lives, and our loves become a part of ourselves to the depth which we love them. God does not want us to feel incomplete forever. We are not stuck in this lonely feeling; together, with God, we can experience our grief and remember who, or what, we have loved as still a part of ourselves, even if now tangibly absent.
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge what we have lost and what we are feeling. We cannot hide what we are feeling from ourselves, nor do we need to.
Next, we need to commemorate the person (or, perhaps, the opportunity, the ability, the animal companion, or even the cherished object) we have lost. In grieving for those who have died, funerals and wakes are beautiful ways for us to commemorate our loved ones as a community. We can also commemorate people individually. Some people write beautiful stories and poems, others can make artwork, and some others might run races in honor of their lost loved ones.
The step that lasts forever is remembering. We always remember who and what we have loved. It is especially helpful for me to remember my lost loved ones in prayer and visit their gravesites on their birthdays and leave flowers. I also like to keep pictures up of my lost loved ones so I can remember them every day.
Sometimes, we can wonder, “Where is God?” and “Why did He let this happen?” These are hard questions and it is important that we share this pain with God and ask these questions in prayer.
God does not want death to occur. It was not in His original plan. When sin entered the world, so did death. Jesus’s response to death was to experience it for himself, with us. When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, He showed us that he is with us even when the worst things happen, even death.
We may not feel like God is with us when we are suffering loss, this is why Jesus gives us tangible things to assure us that he is with us. We can see Jesus’s death when we look at a crucifix and we can reflect on Christ’s death by reading the Gospel accounts of the passion. The most tangible way that we can experience God during these times of grief is through the sacraments. In the Eucharist especially, we can see, smell, feel and taste God even when we don’t feel God’s presence.
One of the most important things to remember during these times of grief is that Jesus did die and he did suffer with us but that is not the end of the story. Jesus rose from the dead. Even though the death of our loved ones is so painful, death does not have power over us. Jesus’s resurrection shows us that we do not need to fear death for ourselves or our loved ones. Even though we are separated from them now, we will not be separated from them forever.
For some of us, the idea of heaven is one that is easy to accept, maybe even obvious. That is an incredible gift. Others, find the concept extremely hard to believe. After all, we can’t see heaven. No one we know has ever come back from the dead and told us about it. It seems that we have no evidence for such an ideal. This is again where I point to Jesus, who tells us that he is preparing places for us in heaven. We trust him because he did rise from the dead! Jesus is our hope.
Valerie Boles is a graduate student of occupational therapy at Saint Francis University. She is passionate about finding creative ways to communicate the Gospel. In her free time, she enjoys camping, listening to podcasts and reading.
by Aimee O'Connell, T.O.Carm.
When Good Friday gives us pause to consider Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion, our attention is most naturally focused on suffering, even to the extent where the words “cross” and “suffering” have become intertwined in the Christian lexicon. For much of my life, I have equated “the cross of autism” with enduring the suffering particular to this condition and accepting it as my lot. Perpetual anxiety, painful sensitivities to light and sound, headache and nausea in noise and crowds, inability to express emotions, difficulty speaking… all of these have been realities for me, along with debilitating exhaustion and a heavy measure of self-loathing when I fall short in acting up to social expectations. All of this seemed in line with how I took Jesus’ Passion and Crucifixion to be. In my spiritual immaturity, I saw Jesus’ suffering as a demonstration of “walk it off.” Take what life deals us, even when it’s unfair, and carry on without complaining.
Perfection in suffering, to me, seemed that I should do it so that nobody knew I was suffering at all. I reinforced this idea with Mother Teresa’s admonishment to “do everything with a smile,” and with Matthew 6:17, which exhorts us to fast and sacrifice without making a show of ourselves. I also tried to rationalize this through St. Therese’s Little Way, proposing that “doing things with great love” meant doing them so as not to bother the people around me with my problems.
Through the grace of God, and the fruits of my time spent in prayer this Lent, I am learning to see now that this is not at all correct. It is an overly literal distortion of what is actually meant by each of those spiritual maxims. My view has been rooted in manipulation – that is to say, manipulating my suffering to such a degree that I denied it, and I denied myself the chance to experience it fully. In denying the truth of what I suffered, I paid the triple price of ordinary exhaustion plus the extra work of maintaining an untruth plus enslaving myself to standards I cannot possibly reach or maintain (and in the process, unfairly raising the expectations of others).
I see now that Jesus never “walked it off.” He knowingly faced his accusers with complete vulnerability. He told the truth of who he was, knowing it would be rejected, mocked, ridiculed and punished. He made no pretense that the scourging was mortally painful. He did not suggest he had the strength to carry the cross. He did not say he would not die if he was crucified. He knew every one of his limitations, and he offered them to the extent he could.
The actual cross of autism is embracing what I can and cannot do, in the same plain nakedness as Jesus. To do this, as St. Therese implores, “with love,” it is not to pretend it is fun or easy. Rather, it is to accept and believe that I am loved as I do. Even in my weakness and shortfall, God loves me fully… right here, right now.
And, guess what? This new way is harder. Walking it off is nothing compared to checking my pride and admitting that I can’t do something, especially when it’s someone I don’t want to disappoint, like a friend or a superior or a family member. Admitting the truth would actually spare me the pain of sensory overload and trying to do what I don’t have the energy or adequate capability to do, but it requires stripping myself of the clothing of my pride. In that moment of truth, it is so tempting to heed the voice of the thief tempting me to avoid the cross and save myself from revealing my vulnerability. But, as we saw with the two thieves beside Jesus, one embraced his need and brought God present; the other sneered, preventing God’s grace from saving him. Even on Calvary, where two or more acknowledge their need before God, there He is with them (Matthew 18:20).
The ordinary suffering of autism remains the same. The anxiety, the exhaustion and the sensory overload are part and parcel of our condition. But in the absence of acknowledging this truth about ourselves, the suffering becomes dead weight… a thankless burden we adopt in exchange for the chance to look strong, to avoid being naked in our need, to not be mocked, criticized, or accused of being lazy. Yet, we know what’s true. Are we willing to stand up for that truth, as Jesus did? We begin by accepting God’s immediate, unconditional love in these weakest, most naked moments of truth… and discovering, to our surprise, that God’s love alone is real and plentiful enough to withstand the insults of those who refuse to believe, and to sustain us through all of our needs – good measure, and flowing over.
May each of us experience the reality of this love, abundantly, as we meditate upon the mystery of the Cross.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Question 38 of the Baltimore Catechism explains that Satan and the fallen angels are real, as do many other sources within the Catholic and other Christian traditions. Rebel spirits go by several different names. Fallen angels, demons and false gods are some of the most common. In the interest of keeping things simple, it is accurate to say that these rebel spirits are an unseen force actively working against God. Demons cannot steal or destroy souls, but they can contribute confusion, division, frustration and temptation to our everyday lives in their ongoing aggression toward God.
Can a soul be “lost” as in no longer being able to have something? Or “lost” as in a battle?
God does not destroy what He creates and endows with value. God does not reject us. He does not even reject us when we waver or question. He does not even penalize us for acting in ignorance (for reference, see Luke 23:34). The only way our soul can be forfeited is if we, as its custodians, review the options and decisively reject God – whether as a solitary act or in a spirit of solidarity with the fallen angels. Yes… some people do choose to distrust, divide, rebel and oppose, usually for the chance to exercise maximum control. In seizing that choice, our soul is lost from our care – and forfeits eternity with God.
In sum: A soul cannot be lost if it chooses at any point to seek God, even if this is at the very last moment of earthly life.
A soul who is lost at the end of its earthly life cannot be recovered.
Where is our hope, then?
Learning to trust.
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