The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking: Body and Soul
Q: Of which must we take more care, our soul or our body?
A: We must take more care of our soul than our body.
Q: Why must we take more care of our soul than our body?
A: In losing our soul, we lose God and everlasting happiness.
For concrete, linear thinkers of the 21st century, these statements beg for argument. We are conditioned to see body and soul as interconnected, if not equal in importance. How many products and services assert their superiority by being “good for body and soul”? Moreover, the principle of self-care has gained great support in recent years. Few can argue with “you cannot pour from an empty cup” and “taking care of yourself shows self-respect,” and those of us on the spectrum know that anxiety and constant self-monitoring takes a hard toll on our physical health.
Losing our soul does sound frightening. But… how did we get there in just one question? And where is the accompanying information, such as:
As we progress on our journey into the Baltimore Catechism, it becomes more and more apparent that writers take a very parental tone. This is not at all surprising, considering the structure of the Catholic Church is often seen as parental. In the historical time periods when parental authority held high esteem, this analogy was coherent and harmonious with the prevailing culture. In the past sixty years, however, Western culture has seen a huge shift in how parenting is viewed. Individuality and personal choice is championed over obedience and the sense of being shepherded. In part, this is why many of us feel such a disconnect with Catholic catechesis. We are conditioned to question authority before deciding how we feel about something. But aren’t there still matters where the voice of authority takes precedence over values clarification, particularly where danger is concerned? It would not be useful to question the declaration of a state of emergency, for instance. Doing so would put our lives in danger and unnecessarily deter others in their ability to seek safety. If we give the writers the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they felt it more important to get our attention right to the point rather than lose us in a logical but lengthy buildup.
Our over-arching question here is whether or not those questions above are addressed anywhere later on, or if we are simply expected to take this by itself, without elaboration, as a warning given in our best interests. The Baltimore Catechism does get into these things, but in a way that is widely distributed throughout the contents of the document, not as directly as we asked them. Therefore, we will take these questions on in the coming weeks’ posts before going any further.
Keep in mind our purpose remains to create a Catholic catechetical commentary compatible with autistic thinking. If anyone wishes to take a more direct route and, say, look at a more up to date catechism, the Vatican website offers the most contemporary catechism here. Another good resource is the Youth Catechism, YOUCAT, easily found by online search in print and electronic formats. We assure readers that the Church is not hopelessly dated and out of touch; we simply chose to use a catechism in the public domain. Bear in mind it is not the Church or its catechism which has changed over the years; it is the diversification of the ways people think.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking:
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Calling Writers and Bloggers!
Is there a section of the Baltimore Catechism you find particularly suited to commentary and annotation through the lens of autistic thinking? We welcome submissions and may publish your idea or article in a future Missionary Thought! Send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now there is a loaded question, and one asked in many senses. Why are we “here” – right here, right now, in these circumstances? Why are “we” here – why us? And why does God wire some people to have autism? Is it preplanned? Is it a deliberate system hack embedding a hidden superpower? Is it a functional design flaw? Is it a variation? Or is it out of God’s hands, the result of some consequence of the imperfections we must accept living in a fallen world?
“God does not make mistakes!” is often heard where such questions arise. We could rightly spend pages and pages looking at the theology of variation, of suffering and healing; and just as rightly strive to characterize autism as a state of being that includes both strength and weakness. Autism does not predict happiness or success any more than eye color or shoe size, nor does it suggest propensity toward or immunity from the suffering that comes with the human condition. Life is hard. Life with autism is hard. But so is life with size ten shoes. Perhaps it is good to look at why God created any of us, and then consider how our individual variations fulfill that purpose.
Question Six of Lesson One of the Baltimore Catechism may be the best known, most-memorized line of the entire book. Why did God create people? To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy forever with Him in the next.
What does all that mean? Why does that leave a lot of people feeling dissatisfied, unsettled, even angry?
Let’s be real. If we read it with 21st century eyes, we are likely to think God is a narcissist who created us to admire Him and do His bidding. And then, as we pull that thought out further, we consider all the things we are asked to do in the name of God and religion – like pray, go to Mass, and deny ourselves pleasures because God says they are sinful – and many of us want out before we even get started. Add in the hard stuff, and it really starts to look like God has a cruel streak!
The answer to these, and all other such concerns, can be found by knowing God. Like a list of ingredients, the item named first is done so to emphasize its importance: God made people, first and foremost, to know Him. God fashioned our combination of body and soul so that we might consider who He is and what He is like. No matter what issues or doubts we have, this is where we need to start.
How do we know God? How do we KNOW anyone? There are hundreds of ways, each with their own level of depth and detail. The origin of the word “know” suggests it is an act of comparing and contrasting, matching up similarities and distinguishing between differences. Knowledge can come through observation, pondering, reading, listening, discussing and doing. For those of us on the spectrum, factual knowledge is usually our strength. Knowing someone is a little more complicated: it requires proximity, social engagement and the ability to interpret the experience, whether through direct contact, observation or imagination. It’s hard enough to do that with the people around us. How can we engage with someone who is invisible, intangible and immeasurable?
Well, maybe it’s not THAT difficult. Just last week, in spelling out attributes of the human soul, we said: “Each person has a unique, essential spirit… that is invisible, intangible and immeasurable – but is expressed through all that we feel and all that we do.” Come to think of it, those invisible, intangible and immeasurable elements ARE how we know others!
Realistically, knowing others still relies on our five senses taking in data that is tangible and measurable. By seeing the actions, hearing the words and participating in the actions of others, we come to know their character. It takes significantly more detective work to know someone we cannot see, hear or physically engage with.
We really ought not to go any further in our assumptions or conclusions until we give this knowing a fair shot. It may take us awhile. What many people find helpful is not to look forward, but to look backward, back to a time when we might remember experiencing something that reminded us of God, or something someone said was what God is like. Most of us have some kind of notion of “God” from our early childhood, either from what we are taught or what we pick up from what we’ve seen and heard along the way. Many of us remember something that caused us to stop and feel a tremendous sense of awe, or wonder, or wish, that reached beyond ourselves and our senses into that unseen, unknown realm which we intuitively know is there but we just as intuitively know that nobody can see… yet.
If “knowing” is comparing and contrasting, we might do just as well to think of a time in our past when we felt like hiding, or shrinking away, or suddenly covering up something we love because we have a need to protect that love. Those are the moments autistic people know best when someone else makes a comment or a statement (or worse) that pierces a moment of our most oblivious joy with the sharp pain of their ridicule or misunderstanding.
What is it that gets pierced? What is it misunderstood, or ridiculed? Is it us, our very selves? Or is it that sense of joy, or insulation, or innocence, or immersion in something we love to the point of losing ourselves into it? Most of us would agree it is not us, per se, but the love we feel which is ridiculed.
Maybe we cannot sense God when things are running smoothly and people are treating us well. But when we are hurt, what is it that hurts? What is it that we seek after when we hurt, in our earliest childhood? It is an invisible, intangible, immeasurable something. Maybe we can’t define it, but boy, do we feel the pain when it gets injured. That innocent wonder which is wounded when love is ridiculed – it certainly fits the description we’re going for. Could that be God, or God’s likeness, or God’s echo?
If we are facing an obstacle to engaging with our faith, go back to the beginning. Worry about nothing else until we can say, confidently, that we KNOW God. Nothing else will work until that connection is working.
More to come!
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking: Lesson One - The Schematic Diagram
What a great time to begin at the beginning. Here we are, Baltimore Catechism in hand, ready to start unpacking the components of the Catholic faith as they were laid out for the people in America in 1885. The book reflects nearly sixty years of prior scholarly discussion aimed at creating a summary and explanation of Catholic doctrine easy enough to present to children and detailed enough to enliven the faith in those teaching it. The resulting work remains a timeless starting point for those seeking to conceptualize what choosing to be Catholic is all about.
God is presented as the Creator of all things: the physical world and the laws of physics; the spiritual nature of beings and the spirit dwelling within each living creature; and every variation of species therein, of both things we see and invisible essences we experience.
People are a subset of God’s creatures who have both physical (body) and spiritual (soul) natures, made especially for the purpose of knowing God and experiencing Him in a direct and specific relationship.
- Each person has a unique, essential spirit, characteristic of their “self,” that is invisible, intangible and immeasurable – but is expressed through all that we feel and all that we do.
- This particular spirit is not simply an animating force, but also contains the person’s core identity, their soul, which, as the Catechism states, “will last as long as God Himself.” In other words, each person’s essence lives forever.
- The soul is more than the energy enlivening the body; it has awareness of itself in relationship to God and the ability to make rational choices rather than encoding patterns purely on instinct or conditioned responses.
- The soul is designed to seek after higher things, better understanding, ever greater knowledge; but the soul cannot know everything by its own power alone. The soul requires God to lead, guide, teach and nurture these yearnings in the relationship for which it was designed.
- Every soul may freely choose to follow God’s order, or to go off on its own, risking the kind of harm that comes from disorder.
We need to pause here and reflect just a bit on the schematic as it relates to people on the autism spectrum. No two people are exactly the same, but within those infinite variations of body and personal essence remains the same purpose, which is growing in knowledge of and relationship with God. (We will get to that next week.) Autistic thinkers tend to approach both knowledge and relationships in our own autistic way, sometimes finding our particular wiring helpful (for instance, in the ways we reflect on and record information) and sometimes needing a little more engineering to understand things as easily as nonautistic thinkers do (such as when our linear, wired-in-series thinking struggles to comprehend the infinite, abundant and parallel functioning of God). Autistic wiring also seems to have unpredictably distributed areas of resistance, capacitance and conductivity, compared to the schematics of more typically wired thinkers. Our energy flow may seem to diminish faster than others, especially when we are functioning in social (parallel-wired) situations. The important point is to be aware of our own, individual wiring and to trust that it was designed that way by God – who did so deliberately, in hopes we would discover Him through that very way he wired us. Comparing ourselves and our wiring to that of anyone else is futile and pointless. If God had wanted us to think like someone else, He would have wired us that way.
Next week, we continue Lesson One, looking next at WHY God created us in the first place.
While this post originally appears a few days early, Thorlaksmessa will arrive just before Christmas and our two -week holiday hiatus. Please enjoy the reflection here in anticipation of St. Thorlak's special feast day, and we will be back in 2019!
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.” St. Thorlak, you were blessed with a keen intellect, and rose within Mother Church to the heights of the bishopric; yet whatever office you held, you sought out the lowliest in your humility, and served with a truly grateful heart for God. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted." St. Thorlak, you lived in a time where life could not be taken for granted and was more often than not cut short through disease or starvation. You endured your own crosses, from the breakup of your family due to financial concern as a young boy, to separation from them as Divine Providence would have you finish your education overseas. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the land." St. Thorlak, you guided your flock with attentiveness and humility. Your benefactors would provide material support for your rise in the Church, yet at the pinnacle of your education and prestige, you would turn to your homeland as a humble priest to serve your fellow countrymen. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied." St. Thorlak, you strove with all your heart to help those in need, feeding and clothing those who could not pay you back, bestowing kindness on your parishioners by building up virtue from the bottom up, and realizing that even as bishop you provided the model of a humble servant. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." St. Thorlak, in a time when mercy was not readily associated with the Catholic Church, you took it upon yourself to bear the burden of the penances of sinners who came to you in the sacrament of Confession. Even as you lay on your deathbed, you sought after those who by their own actions separated themselves from Holy Mother Church, showing Divine Mercy even then by providing a path back into the flock. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.” St. Thorlak, you ordered your life faithfully around prayer: conforming yourself to the rule of St. Augustine and affirming the virtue of priestly celibacy at a time when cultural norms encouraged the opposite. Pray for us!
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." St. Thorlak, you lived your life among rival chieftains who would seek to undercut the authority of the Church. You fought them through God's gift of wisdom, using the power of reason and love to change men's hearts. You appeared before a King to be consecrated at a time of active warfare between many in Norway and Iceland. You served the interests of peace with your disarming honesty and dialectical reasoning, assuring peaceful relations between the two countries for the balance of your bishopric. Pray for us!
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." St. Thorlak, you would serve the Church with holiness, but would be opposed by those in power. They called you the fool for adhering to the laws of Christ's Church. They would even seek to end your life prematurely only to, as the Psalmist wrote, to fall in the pit themselves. Pray for us!
Basic Catholic Prayers
When the Baltimore Catechism was first published in 1891, then again in 1921, the concept of a user's manual did not exist yet in the common American vernacular. Nowadays, manuals are passé. Most consumer products are designed to be user-friendly, plug-and-play, unbox and go. What we see more and more is a "Quick Start Guide" or reference card as an alternative to a more lengthy instruction book.
And so, the Baltimore Catechism introduces the prayers most frequently heard in the Catholic faith which also act to summarize the scope of our beliefs. We have the Our Father, Hail Mary, Apostles' Creed, Confiteor, and the Acts of Faith, Hope and Love as our Quick Start Guide. No time to unpack the finer elements comprising our faith? Then, become familiar with these prayers and recite them with sincerity to experience what being Catholic is all about.
"How do I know I am praying?" If we are engaging, or sincerely intending to engage, our thoughts and emotions with God, we are praying.
"How do I know I am praying well?" If our attention is on God, or wanting to know God, or wanting to share ourselves with God, we are praying well.
"How do I know I am praying right?" If we are showing honesty, sincerity, commitment of our attention and desire to increase the trust we feel that God is real, we are praying right.
In contrast, the following factors have nothing whatsoever to do with gauging the quality of our prayer:
- How we feel before, during or after
- How we compare to others
- How loudly we pray
- How long we pray
The downside is that the literal words might become distracting. For example:
Our Father – calls to mind our actual father and all the attributes we associate with him. It can be hard to think of God in any other terms than the image we associate with “father.”
Who Art in Heaven – means we can’t see him, and can feel like God lives in an invisible castle somewhere.
Hallowed Be Thy Name – what does that mean? (That the name of God itself stirs respect).
Thy Kingdom Come – is confusing to anyone not familiar with monarchy. Again, it calls to mind imaginary castles from storybooks.
In their fuller context, these words mean:
God, who loves us as His own children, who exists in a realm beyond what we can see: may you be loved every time we say your name! May your ways of love and mercy be known right here, right now!
If that is still not clear, one of the shortest, valid prayers we can say is: JESUS.
How is this so?
-It calls Jesus to mind, which begins building a relationship.
-It literally means “He will save us.” Saying his name, therefore, is a declaration of faith.
-It brings Him present to us, the same way calling anyone else’s name gets their attention.
The Baltimore Catechism is a reference originally published in 1885 and is based on the Small Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine. Its intention was to be a textbook on Catholic doctrine for North American schoolchildren. Our choice to start here rests mainly on its availability in the public domain, but also accounts for its integrity as a solid doctrinal resource and its simplicity in format. This was once the gold standard for religious instruction in schools, and generally speaking, we want something that is presented at a level anyone can understand. We do not expect most readers to have, or pursue, degrees in theology, and indeed, no-one should have to go to that extent to gain a working understanding of the Catholic faith.
We look forward to getting started next week!
Contemplate: “As we relate to others, so we relate to God” has been our recent focus here. Does the inverse apply? Is it the case that, in the same manner we relate to God, we generally relate to others? We can only know this, and test this, if we know God. May this Annotated Catechism be a step toward better knowing God.
Relate: How often we think that our relationships might be easier if we, or someone we know, came with a manual! As often as we have had that wish, so too might God wish we could understand Him! May our study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church become like a manual for better knowing and recognizing God.
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.
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.
If you would like to hear more, please, contact me with the needs you have. It is my Mission.
Contemplate: Is there a distinct “autistic spirituality” in the same way we hear there are autistic approaches to other fields, such as industry, service, design and implementation?
Relate: As others experience us, they experience God. Be aware of this as we go about our week.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak