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.
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