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.
We begin this week with some housekeeping items.
First: The Mission of Saint Thorlak now has a phone line receiving both voice and text messages at +1 (585) 568-7147.
With this comes some important notes:
1) This line RECEIVES MESSAGES ONLY. We maintain strict confidentiality among those who contact us, and at this time, our system does not allow for adequate privacy for us to make voice calls. We are able to reply by SMS text to mobile phones, or to respond to messages using email, but we are not able to respond by voice.
2) This line is for FEEDBACK AND QUESTIONS. We will check messages weekly and respond as we are able, and as we feel is appropriate. We may not necessarily respond to every message. If we do respond, it will be either by email or SMS text.
3) This line is NOT FOR EMERGENCIES OR CRISIS SITUATIONS. We are not able to monitor this line with enough regularity to assist with immediate needs.
As with all new features, there are bound to be glitches here and there, so we thank you for your patience as we establish this phone line as part of our regular offerings. We apologize in advance for any inconvenience created by our policies, but privacy is of great importance to us, and in our current physical location, we cannot yet guarantee the degree of privacy our standards require.
Fourth: For those who have asked if anyone makes icons of Saint Thorlak, the answer is – Uncut Mountain Supply! The link may take a day or two to become active, so check back if it is not yet available… but we have it on trusted word that Thorlak is at last part of their icon catalog.
Good things are coming, and for this we thank all of our fellow travelers, and thank God for the grace to travel this journey together.
We leave you with a reflection written in recognition of the recent visit of the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux and her recently canonized parents, Louis and Zelie, to Iceland in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary Jubilee of the Diocese of Reykjavik. We keep the Diocese and all of Iceland in our daily prayers!
For plain text of this reflection click here.
A request has recently come to the Mission of Saint Thorlak for a prayer suitable for children. What a beautiful thought, and yes, certainly, something that is much needed.
We are very pleased to introduce A Child’s Prayer to Saint Thorlak, which is written in simple verse and evocative of the special relationship we Catholics feel with the holy departed. Despite the title of the prayer, Catholics do not pray TO the saints in the sense that we hold them up as idols or lowercase-gods. We do not believe saints have any more power than we do because the saints are people, just like we are. Nobody goes to the Father except through Jesus (John 14:6). However, as we ask our tangible friends to pray for us, we too ask the departed souls – whom we believe live on intangibly after bodily death – to pray for us. Saints are those whom the Church has carefully scrutinized and determined to be examples of virtue worth looking up to, and whom we believe to be in the company of God in eternity.
“A Child’s Prayer to Saint Thorlak” reads like a conversation with an invisible friend, and how very appropriate for those of us on the autism spectrum. Many autistic children enjoy friendships in their imaginations to much great benefit. An imaginary friendship is non-threatening and proceeds at the pace of the child’s comfort. It can be just as helpful in developing social skills as tangible friendships, so long as the child eventually seeks to apply these skills toward actual connections. And, to be perfectly frank, it’s not only children who imagine friendships. Autistic teens and adults do this too, though likely in secret because of the fear of the shaming we would receive if anyone found out we still do this at our age. In its purest form, this sort of fancy is little different than the “imagery” used by athletes to help improve performance between games, or the “envisioning exercises” cultivated by entrepreneurs to hone their business models long before seeing them through to reality. “Imagination” has been reduced in American English to meaning “make-believe,” but in its essence, this word is much more.
Contrast “Imagination” –
What a pity, that we can have imagination powering great ideas, but reduce it in an instant with a twist of grammar to something that is not true, and will never exist beyond “fancy.” Yet, how powerfully we know those people we hold in our minds and hearts – in other words, in our imaginations!
Linguistic nuances aside, let us look at the Catholic saints again. These are the saga-heroes of the Christian faith, great women and men and children who lived ordinary lives with extraordinary virtue. Catholics profess at every Mass that we believe in “things visible and invisible,” and “life everlasting.” The saints are more than just static characters from the past; they are alive, invisible, and interceding for us before God.
Perhaps that is a better term than “imaginary.” Yes. Invisible. Just out of sight.
Like so many of us: known better by minds and hearts than by eyes.
Just as real, just as needy, just as valuable. Just as hungry to be known for who we are.
Just out of sight.
Pray: Heavenly, Invisible Father: May I remember that You are there, as I am here, in mind and heart. Help me to know those I do not see… and those who do not see me.
Contemplate: “Imaginary friends,” by linguistic definition, cannot be real. “Invisible friends” can be. Who are our own invisible friends? Are we, perhaps, an invisible friend to anyone else?
Relate: How do we keep our “invisible” friends from becoming “imaginary”? How do we keep ourselves from becoming invisible?
This week, we offer a site tour for any who find that interesting or helpful!
Our website is a collection of information, initiatives and interactive features emulating the example of Saint Thorlak of Iceland. Hopefully, these are organized intuitively and are easy to navigate.
We have been working this week on optimizing our layout for mobile devices, and we have seen some improvement. If there are any pages that give particular difficulty, please let us know, and we’ll make the necessary tweaks.
Our target audience is anyone, although we generally find higher numbers of visitors who are in some way affected by autism or seeking to know more about our spiritual philosophy. We also meet a good number of people who are curious about Saint Thorlak, as he is still relatively unknown in the world of saints and famous figures from medieval Nordic history.
And now, without further ado, clicking here will take you to our video site tour!
As our apostolate continues to grow and reach new people, many have asked about the Mission of Saint Thorlak website. It seems like a good time to pause and take a look around. This week we will talk specifically about our blog, and next week will be a site tour and walkthrough.
A recurring theme in the comments we hear about our website regards the visibility and indexing of our blog. The format we currently use is fully integrated with the website but not the easiest to navigate, especially in trying to reference past posts. Our “blog” is more of a running instruction manual for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, and less a running commentary. It consists of specific thematically sequenced reflections to help familiarize readers with our Missionary mindset. Thus, we place our weekly posts under the header “Mission Activities” and refrain from calling it strictly a blog.
When this apostolate first started out, we very literally began from nothing and built our way up. We needed framework and context for the concepts underpinning the choices and ways of interacting that emulate the example of Saint Thorlak and seem particularly effective for helping autistic people connect more meaningfully with others, and, ultimately, with God. We decided to roll these ideas out one at a time, week by week, gradually introducing our purpose, mission statement and objectives, striving for a good balance between abstract and concrete. This would be accomplished by sharing our thoughts – our Missionary Thoughts – and would serve both to communicate our reasoning and provide enough of a glimpse that the thought could then be emulated in readers’ minds and actions. We purposefully use the heading “Contemplation in Action” because this further reinforces the idea that we aim to present ideas that are at once spiritual and practical. In doing so, our model hopes to imitate the ideals of a good prayer life.
We have acknowledged the need for better indexing and referencing, and so have created a table of contents by date and topic on our “Missionary Thoughts Archive” page. Behind the scenes, we are working to formulate these posts into a Missionaries of Saint Thorlak Guidebook which will be made available in print and e-book formats for easier reference.
Please, keep the feedback coming. We are here to serve. It is an exciting place to be in terms of this apostolate, as our inventory has affirmed that our foundation is in place and looks to be solid. We can now start building real, tangible ways to help people connect spiritually, across the globe and in our own regions. It’s here. It’s time.
Along with the site tour, we are also working on rolling out a Google Voice phone line that can receive voice mail and text messages, and then, we are very serious about writing an annotated catechism for those affected by autism - and, anyone else who finds that format more readily applicable to engaging our faith.
Keep us in your prayers!
-Aimee O’Connell, T.O.Carm.
A funny thing happened during our August hiatus here at the Mission of Saint Thorlak. A flurry of "Contact Us" forms began coming in from different regions of the world, surprisingly all from people seeking spiritual direction. The timing of this coming during our inventory clearly pointed to this being a theme needing to be addressed, and so we started doing our homework in our weeks off. Where might we look to assist teens and adults who have real and relevant questions about how to better experience God, both personally and as part of their faith communities?
Bottom line: There is not much out there.
There are several options for social stories and manipulatives which younger children may use and bring with them to church services. There are growing numbers of churches offering "sensory-friendly" services or worship spaces to help accommodate those who need quieter or more kinetic space. But what is there to help the autistic older children and adults who seek to comprehend the spiritual purpose for coming to church in the first place?
One adult who contacted us has graciously permitted us to quote her requests directly. Her words describe the need much better than we could summarize.
Wow. This is just one person!
Other dilemmas that have been brought to us concern relationships with difficult people and how to reconcile the need for healthy boundaries with Christian teachings. Still others have shared deep pain about participating in the Catholic sacraments. Verbal limitations are a huge obstacle to the sacrament of Confession, for instance, where the normal expectation is to speak directly to the priest. The matter of anxiety and scruples just complicates things all the more. It seems to be random luck as to whether or not a parish has a priest who is familiar enough with autism to know how to comfortably address these practical issues among those who think, feel and experience life as people with autism. Furthermore, the majority of spiritual teachings not only defy ordinary logic, but they tend to evoke emotions which people on the spectrum process differently than most others. If we are missing bricks in our foundational experiences of our faith, we have all the more difficulty grasping what these practices are supposed to look like and feel like.
The most ordinary daily processes are already more difficult to master, more deliberately studied, more cautiously approached and less obviously understood for autistic people than nonautistic people. Something as abstract – and so very, very serious – as faith is easily brushed aside as one of the optional things in life that we might get to if we can solve all those other, ordinary things first.
Well: If it’s optional, then, what about those of us who opt to pursue it?
Besides those already named, here are some more topics that could use better, more concrete explanations:
The longer the list, the more it resembles some sort of “Catechism for Autism”… and, the more we realize that there really could be such a thing, one day, if anyone takes the time to compile such a resource: an explanation of the faith, using words and examples and suggestions for accommodations to make spirituality more accessible for those who desire it but cannot yet grasp it.
Someone has to start somewhere.
Pray: Heavenly Father, let there be a way we can better know You!
Contemplate: What are the areas of our spirituality that pose the greatest difficulty in our connecting with God and others?
Relate: Ask others these same questions, and realize they are more common than we might have first thought.
Tantrums go by many names, with many connotations. Toddlers have “temper tantrums,” expressing outrage over their inability to achieve what they want. Older children and adults have “meltdowns,” suggesting that frustrations have built past their ability to cope and hold off their impulses. The term “overload” can be equally applied to those whose sensory processing systems are hit with too many urgent needs at once, triggering outbursts of behavior which often take onlookers by surprise.
It seems that terminology shifts based on the expectations of others. The word “tantrum” becomes prickly when applied to older children and adults, and even more pejorative when aimed toward autistic people who genuinely experience sensory overload through no fault of their own.
Why in the world would we use that term here?
We chose that word precisely because of the sense of shame it evokes. Babies may be excused for not yet having the skills to cope under pressure, but older children and adults are held to higher standards. Even though everyone loses their composure from time to time, habitual outbursts are looked down upon as poor coping skills. Worse, meltdowns are not very polite in mixed company. Onlookers feel highly uncomfortable when someone rages. Screams intuitively signal danger deep within each of us. Nothing provokes soldiers like the roar of a drill sergeant, and nothing incites a riot like a battle cry. There is no pause for compassion or understanding when rage catches us off guard, whether our own or that of someone nearby. And then, there is the unspoken sense that older people are aware enough of their own actions to “know better,” to stop themselves before they lose control of their emotions.
Yes, we deliberately chose the most uncomfortable word for this week’s thought. No couching, no mitigating; just out with it, like the word itself implies: tantrum.
How can we encounter God in anything associated so plainly with rage and shame?
Simply, by looking at the truth of who God is.
The very idea of bringing God into a tantrum only seems to taunt us with impossible maxims. Love your neighbor. Honor your mother and father. Turn the other cheek. Peace be with you.
When we are overwhelmed enough to lose composure, the last thing we want to think about is God and the ideals we’ve just blown to bits. The last thing we want is anyone to remind us how wretched we are.
Except: God is there. Unavoidably. Right there, present with us, as we rage.
God does not flinch. God does not shrink.
God, the Creator of all things, whose universe produces lightning and storms and seismic upheavals and volcanic eruptions, does not require quiet to be with us.
God, who knows our hearts and minds, who sees what leads to our outrage, who cringes when we are slighted, when our plans go awry, when friends betray us, when strangers insult us, when hunger overtakes us, when fear unravels us… that same God is always with us.
If we have been taught how to recover from a meltdown by acknowledging our behavior and how it has affected the people around us, apologizing where we need to and asking forgiveness, and by being welcomed back into the circle with love and compassion, we learn to control our impulses, ask for help, and eventually recognize signs of building tension before our behavior alienates us from others.
If we have been conditioned to expect punishment, mockery and alienation following an episode of emotional overload, we either learn to avoid others when we feel upset or we accept that we will be rejected as we flail and fail and wait for the storm to pass.
So, where does God stand while we tantrum? Far back, waiting for us to calm down? Shaking His head in disappointment? Removing Himself until we apologize?
No. God stands with us. Our God is not a shaming God. Nowhere in any recorded Scripture does God mock, shame or alienate anyone.
How do we encounter God in the tantrums we have, or the tantrums we witness? By acknowledging His presence. By not flinching. By not shrinking. By realizing that, on whichever side of the tantrum we stand, God is standing with us, embracing and accepting us in our weakness. For, what is a tantrum but supreme weakness? Composure means we’ve got it together, we’re coping with whatever life is dishing out at us. Lost composure means we’ve been swept under a tidal wave so strong that we no longer have control over our most basic ability to reach out to another person.
What God would watch us drown? Not ours. Not from spite, not from apathy, and certainly not from abandonment.
The next time we hit overload and lose our composure, remember this: God loves us before, during and afterward. A meltdown can no more strip us of the dignity of being God’s child than the screaming toddler in the grocery store is discarded by the parent pushing the cart.
The next time someone nearby hits overload and loses composure, remember this: God loves them before, during and afterward. If they are having a hard time seeing God, we can always be His reflection standing by, recalling that person’s dignity as a beloved child of God.
Let us be clear: Unchecked rage is not healthy. In no way should we celebrate meltdowns or the damage they cause. As anywhere else, when people or things get hurt, repairs have to be made. Messes have to be cleaned up. Circumstances have to be examined. We are all accountable for what we do, even when we have passed our limits. But, if we can assess the damage and approach the aftermath with a deliberate plea to be shown how to rebuild with love, we are very likely to encounter God. It is the one prayer He can never refuse.
Pray: God, hear our plea: Show us how to rebuild with love after composure has been lost!
Contemplate: When have we ever imagined God standing by during a meltdown? How would doing that change the situation?
Relate: The time to practice this week’s missionary skill is now, not when a meltdown is in progress. Practice by imagining how we would reflect God during someone else’s meltdown, and practice by imagining God ready to embrace us when we feel ourselves losing control. Practice this enough times to be ready when overload hits.
Readers might recognize that the Catholic Sunday Gospel reading is very well suited to this week’s thought. This tiny snippet from the Gospel of Mark is found at chapter 10, verse 15: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
For the autistic among us, childhood is already a thorny issue. Our chronological age never seems to match up with our interests. Sometimes we are drawn to things the world has designated as best for preschoolers, even if we seem too big to wonder at colors, shapes and familiar rhythms. Toddlers are allowed “imagination time” – should we not have that same permission to use objects to inspire our thoughts? Other times, we thrive being around adults, especially those who stop and listen to us and genuinely share our curiosity. Adults can be a lot easier to be around than children, who can be loud, kinetically unpredictable and impatient dealing with people who need a little extra time. When we feel the full extent of our feelings, we are told to “grow up,” and when our reactions don’t match those of the people around us, we are called “immature.”
Childhood on the spectrum is no better or worse than for those of any neurotype. But, in a very broad sense, it is very likely that the formative events of autistic people are different than those not on the spectrum. Our learning sequence may take many more detours and roundabouts than the straight road that is supposed to go from the sensorimotor stage to pre-, concrete and formal operational processing in child development.
Silly question of the week: At which developmental stage should we receive the Kingdom of God like a child?
By now, the point has become completely lost in the details.
Likewise, most of the other, less academic considerations we give this Gospel passage become waylaid by our attempt to define and apply what we think childhood means. In doing so, we completely miss the exhortation: Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.
Receive the Kingdom like a child.
This is what separates children from adults: DEPENDENCE.
Adults are those who have reached the stage of independence where they are expected to get and do things for themselves. No more do they need guardians to sign off on activities, provide for necessities or guide in making decisions. Adulthood, in a very simple sense, is the shift from primarily “Please help me, I need” to “I want, so let me go get.”
An adult’s wants and needs are the responsibility of that adult to pursue.
A child’s wants and needs are obtained at the mercy of others.
Saint Thorlak worried toward the end of his life that he had never had a childhood. He was required at a very young age to become very responsible so that he could one day provide for his family in the absence of his father, both materially and spiritually. As Thorlak was dying, he fretted about this Gospel passage, fearing in his literal mind that he squandered his opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God having spent his childhood as an apprentice adult.
Instead (as the story goes), God revealed that Thorlak had, in fact, demonstrated his childhood every time he depended on others for his material and spiritual well-being. Like a child, he received: education from teachers impressed with his aptitude; instruction from priests who marveled at his wisdom; companionship from adults who delighted in telling him stories of their legacies; and strength from people who struggled in one way or another, showing him that he was very much an important part of their daily lives.
Need draws provision, and the meeting of the two is the experience of God. This holds true whether the need is met well or poorly, expediently or reluctantly. However long the path to provision, the meeting of the two reveals where God was theretofore hidden.
Whether we receive the Kingdom of God through sensory channels, imaginary role play, hands-on experimentation or conceptual book knowledge is not relevant. What matters is that we do not insist on doing so by ourselves. We must voluntarily depend on others to reveal God.
Put another way: Our physical childhood begins at birth and culminates when we achieve independence. Our spiritual childhood, then, begins after we have achieved independence and gradually start learning how to depend on others– until at last we receive the full experience of the Kingdom of God.
Anywhere we go, we can find skills curricula and programs to help people learn independence. By contrast, it is nearly impossible to find any program teaching us how to depend on others. Usually, we wait until find ourselves in crisis situations to realize that learning these skills – how to trust, how to ask, how to be vulnerable – might have done us a world of good.
Maybe we should start earlier on.
We can begin by studying childhood.
Pray: Heavenly Father, our culture teaches us from an early age that is important to be independent. Help me to see how DEPENDENCE can be just as important a skill to have… and then, show me how to begin learning.
Contemplate: What does the Kingdom of God look like as I witness those who depend on others?
Relate: Try at least once this week to deliberately depend on another person… and then, watch for the signs of the Kingdom of God!
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.
When I sat down at last to write Saint Thorlak's story, I had a tote bag bulging with research and solid sources to keep me grounded. I found enough background to shade the existing factual dot-to-dot image of the historical man with the depth and emotion that the academic works lack, and I had the entire body of blog posts to help characterize his spirituality. As I set forth corraling it all into paragraphs and pages, I saw that everything was carefully accounted for: the physical setting, the chronological timeline, the social context…
Everything but the elephant.
That is to say, the elephant in the room. The one asking if I, the head writer for the Mission of Saint Thorlak, would get through the entire story without mentioning AUTISM.
Autism is quite the elephant, indeed, wherever it shows up. To deny it is folly. To ignore it is detrimental to everyone involved. And to indulge it is to risk obstructing our ability to see anything else.
To mention “autism” in a story of a twelfth century cleric would be about the same as bringing an actual elephant to Iceland in any period of time.
What wonder, what scurry of activity, what sensational novelty it would be to bring an elephant to Iceland without preparation or prior announcement. The elephant would get all the attention, and the person tending it would be largely overlooked.
So, what, then – leave the elephant out?
As one who sees autism in Saint Thorlak, and is so deeply impressed with how it both permeates and refines his ministry as to devote my free time writing for an online apostolate in his name, I cannot fathom doing that.
Yet, nobody prior to me has referenced autism with respect to Saint Thorlak. The word appears in no source material. People have outright said they are very uncomfortable calling Saint Thorlak autistic because it feels like violating or exploiting his vulnerability. Of course I see that, and empathize greatly. I do not want people exploiting me, or my autism, or my eye color, or anything else, for their gain without consulting me first.
Then again, the Catholic saints fall into a special category of people whose lives we are explicitly encouraged to study and emulate. The vulnerability of the saints is what makes them most human, most relatable, most powerful in teaching us the ways we also can rise above life’s obstacles by reaching for the supernatural grace wrought through seeking, self-sacrifice, humility and radical acceptance.
Would Saint Thorlak have been diagnosed autistic if that term was around in his time?
Would Saint Thorlak have embraced that diagnosis if he had been given it?
We have no way to know either.
Besides being a writer, I am also a certified school psychologist. I have the qualifications to make diagnoses. It is the same process for a tangible person as it is a figure from long ago: it requires gathering data and synthesizing a person’s story. The data I use in school diagnostics consists of social histories gathered by parents and teachers, and observations of the student in the school environment. There are also interviews and checklists given in dialog with the students themselves. The psychologist takes it all into consideration and makes a decision based on the likelihood that the patterns match.
I can say with confidence that I have done this with Saint Thorlak – even more thoroughly than I have ever done with any students I have helped. Professionally, he fits the pattern. Professionally, I conclude he is a man who had autism.
But, in writing his biography, I can say with equal confidence that nobody in his lifetime knew what autism was or might be. It comes down, then, to the voice I use to tell his story. Will it be a universal narrator, journeying with him through his twelfth century life… or will it be me, now, teaching and explaining each frame of the filmstrip?
Much as I would enjoy the latter, the result would be one more academic work… and one more missed opportunity to know Saint Thorlak simply for who he is, as a person.
The world does not need another autism case study. Nor does the world need another static image of Saint Thorlak, even if this one were to be accompanied by a brand new set of encyclopedic facts.
The world needs Saint Thorlak. The person.
And so, I wrote the story of Saint Thorlak, the person.
As for the elephant, after much prayer, I realized that it is perfectly sound to mention his autism in the book’s title and let his life’s story do the telling of his autism for itself. In a time when there was no such word, a person with autism would be… a person.
And I have striven to tell it exactly like that.
Continued next week.
Pray: Dear God: You have known my story from the very beginning. May my story as a person bless those who know me, and those who will come to know me.
Contemplate: How is knowing someone’s story different from knowing facts about them?
Relate: Take the time this week to better know someone through their story as a person.
THORLAK OF ICELAND
Available on Amazon