Christmas musings.

This is not my usual style of blog post. It is my unresearched and unfiltered musings about the incarnation, and some related things I’ve been thinking about recently.

I’ve naturally been thinking about the incarnation a lot during Christmas. And during advent we were encouraged to think about when Christ will return. These themes led on to thinking about a third way in which Christ becomes present; the moment when Jesus becomes real to the individual. A sort of “personal incarnation” or “third coming” of Christ.

There has to be a moment for everyone when God becomes real. When Jesus stops being an idea and becomes a living person. This may happen suddenly and dramatically, or it may be in stages with some going back and forth, or perhaps so gradual that you can’t tell when it began. Maybe it was when you were so young you can’t remember anything else. Or maybe it hasn’t happened yet and you still aren’t sure if it’s all real.

Whenever and however it happens, when Jesus becomes a real person, and there’s no doubt left about the existence of God, it changes everything. For me, it meant realising and feeling the depth of my most fundamental human need for love and acceptance, and simultaneously knowing that God was meeting that need. Things that previously seemed important don’t matter anymore. And things I never considered before have become important. He turned everything upside down. But because I’m afflicted with concupiscence, like everyone else, I need to put effort into making and sustaining those changes and not drifting back to old habitual ways. It takes work, and sometimes means choosing not to do things I like. But there’s no contest between God and worldly distractions. Making these choices and sticking to them is only possible, and only makes sense, if it is done in the context of a vital relationship with Christ. Without the relationship, it’s just rules and stress. With the relationship, it’s a natural desire to give everything to the one you love, and a receiving of infinitely more than you can give. These changes of trying to live according to the will of God are also the evidence of the relationship. “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth.” 1 John 1:6

I sometimes struggle with the purely abstract. How do I know whether something is real or just imagery? I used to think how can I know whether God is real or just a helpful system of thought? But then He “showed up”, when I wasn’t looking for Him. Then He became real, “incarnate” for me. And He keeps on showing up; revealing more of Himself, and also showing me more of myself in the safety of being immersed in His merciful love.

God knows we can need tangible physicality in order to relate to Him. I sometimes hear that this is more so for autistic people, but I suspect it’s true for most people, and that’s why God worked through visible signs like the burning bush and the pillar of cloud. That’s why He was born to Mary, a real woman, and lived in the world. And that’s why He comes to us in the sacraments today. He’s hidden or veiled, because no one could stand contact with Him otherwise. Regular meetings in the sacraments helps refresh and deepen the relationship, and will prepare us for that face to face meeting that will come after this life.

Jesus is hidden in the sacraments, but He is there. Most particularly in the Eucharist because there He is wholly present to us. He gives Himself to us; body, blood, soul, and divinity. I haven’t yet received communion, and am longing for that meeting, but overwhelmed by what it means. It might seem strange that what looks like bread is in fact God. But when Jesus lived in the world, He was just as hidden. He simply looked like a man. One could have passed Him in the street without any idea He was God. The Eucharist is Christ, just as Jesus in Palestine 2000 years ago was the same Christ. It is the same meeting. I kneel before the man who is God, I kneel before the sacrament that is God.

So as Jesus was born to Mary, He becomes real to us individually too. And once we know Him, He keeps coming to us in a tangible way in the Eucharist in order to sustain and nourish our relationship with Him, and to help us grow to readiness to be with Him face to face.

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Prayer: During a meltdown.

If you’re autistic it’s very likely you’ve experienced a meltdown, and possibly even if you’re not. A meltdown is a moment of complete overwhelm when you stop being able to think or talk or function. It is not a temper tantrum, being difficult, or a choice. They can be brought on by sensory input, too many things happening at once, or a build-up of unrelated stressors. It often involves tears, snot, and physical actions that help to re-integrate yourself (e.g. curling up on the floor, pacing, hand/arm flapping, hitting or biting oneself). People witnessing someone having a meltdown often want to ask what’s wrong and how to help. They mean well, but it is usually not possible to explain at those moments. The best thing you can do is wait quietly. It may be helpful to stay nearby, the presence of a friendly person can be comforting especially in public, but it depends on the person and situation. Just wait quietly, and if you must say anything don’t phrase it as a question and make sure it is reassuring and accepting.

A few days ago I had a meltdown during a class because someone was wearing a strong perfume. I probably should have left sooner before it got too much, but I find it hard to judge my limits of toleration and so don’t know when I should stay and put up with something or when I need to leave. Also, the class was very interesting so I didn’t want to miss it. First I moved seat away from the person with the violent perfume, but it didn’t make enough difference. There was a staircase leading down to an entrance hall and I ran down there to recover once I could no longer cope. Fortunately, I noticed before I lost the ability to decide to do that. The teaching assistant followed me down, and after eventually giving up trying to get me to explain what was wrong, she sat quietly on the stairs until I felt better enough to talk. Then she came up with a plan and I followed her suggestions instead of grabbing my stuff and running, which is what I’d usually do. I stayed the remaining 20 minutes of the session in a far corner of the classroom, and then spoke to the teacher before leaving to explain what was wrong because the teaching assistant though it would be good for the teacher to understand the effect of the perfume since it has happened a couple of times before. I then left and recovered very quickly. Every time I’ve had a meltdown before, I’ve been unable to explain myself, unable to follow advice, had difficulty talking for quite a long time, and been completely exhausted afterwards. So this was very different. Also, for the first time ever I didn’t feel embarrassed, and I didn’t give myself a hard time thinking it was pathetic or stupid.

So what was different? Prayer, and knowing that God was with me. I wrote last time about living in the presence of God, and I have been practicing it daily as my highest priority. I am still learning and finding ways that help me to remember and be more consistent. I’ve discovered that using a pre-selected invocation, a very short phrase that sums up my intention, very useful because it removes the cognitive effort of trying to think what I want to achieve/express. But more than any technique, I find that more prayer leads to more prayer, because God always answers. Simply praying in various ways regularly throughout the day, and remembering God’s presence as often as possible, makes it easier to do. So when I went to that class and was overwhelmed by the perfume, I knew that God was with me. Even when I was a complete mess I knew God was with me, and I wasn’t scared. That’s the first time I’ve felt God’s presence and been unafraid during a meltdown. Usually I’m too busy panicking about where I am and what to do.

When the perfume first started to bother me I asked God for help, and kept offering the pain of it (physical and emotional) to Jesus. That made me know I wasn’t alone and that it wasn’t wasted, and made it possible to cope for longer. During the actual meltdown I couldn’t think and had no words, but I didn’t feel alone. I knew God was with me and I didn’t feel unsafe. Afterwards I thanked God for being with me throughout, and for giving me the courage to stay and do the right thing. I am certain that it only worked out like that because of developing the habit of frequent prayer and awareness of God’s presence. During acute distress like that I am not capable of communication, with people or God. It was God’s kindness to me to remain with me in a way I could feel, and I was able to let Him because of making it an ongoing practice. It was a good lesson in the fact that God doesn’t love me for what I can do or achieve or how well I perform. He just loves me, even when I’m crying and chewing my fingers at the back of a classroom.


This is part seven of a series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part six

Prayer: The presence of God.

“Prayer must precede everything you do from now on.”

A friend recently gave me this wise advice, and I’ve been trying to follow it ever since. I turn to God briefly before starting anything, try to remain with Him throughout the task or activity, then pray again when I’ve finished. This means that I can do even the most mundane tasks for God and with love for Him. It makes me remember He is always present and cares about the tiniest details of everyday life (Luke 12:7). It helps me be aware of and remain in God’s presence by maintaining attention on Him. As I wrote in the previous post, we are always present to God, but our awareness of His presence depends on our attending to Him*.

I don’t always remember to pray before starting something. I haven’t been doing it very long and I think it will take time and effort to become habitual, but I can’t think of anything more worth the effort. I try not to be discouraged when I notice I’ve forgotten, but instead thank God for reminding me, and simply return to Him. I’ve noticed that some activities make it harder to maintain attention on God. Not surprisingly, social media is one of them. Yesterday I spent a few minutes scrolling through Instagram and realised I had not prayed and was no longer aware of God’s presence. At first I was disappointed in myself, but then I just said sorry to God and thanked Him for letting me see the distraction and for welcoming me back. Even though Instagram pictures of knitting projects and pet rabbits are innocent, I allowed looking at them to distract me totally from God. This practice of attending to God is changing how I evaluate what I want to do. I’m not only asking what’s good or bad in an objective sense, but also is it helpful or unhelpful, is it healthy or not to developing relationship with God? Sticking with the Instagram example; I am going to continue using it because I enjoy it and find a lot of project inspiration, but I’ll try to do it with choice and conscious awareness. Most importantly I want to do it, and everything else potentially distracting, with God. This means doing them less overall, choosing when to, praying before beginning, doing the activity with God, and then praying again on completion. If any activity doesn’t seem compatible with prayer or doing in God’s presence, I probably shouldn’t be doing it!

Being in the presence of God is a wonderful gift, so I am thankful whenever I’m aware of it. When I remember to pray and remain with Him, I am grateful because I can only do so because of His help. When I forget or do something that takes me away from His presence, I am sorry for it but recognise that’s how I’d always be without His help. Without it, I’d never be aware of His presence, and never give Him attention, and always do and think things contrary to Him. So each remembering and returning is evidence of His love for me and the grace He is giving me all day every day. Thinking about it that way round makes every return a joyful moment rather than a miserable time of self-recrimination. I want to do better of course, I want to be more consistent, but that is motivated by love for God rather than fear of failure.

Autistic in the presence of God

Doing all things for and with God transforms them. I find a lot of mundane tasks very difficult and tiring because of autism and attention deficit; basic things like showering, dressing, getting ready to go out, organising my days/weeks, having conversations, and being around people. Often I see these as challenges that are either worth the effort for the good aspects of them, like conversations because they are enjoyable as well as challenging, or necessary things to be endured, like getting ready to go out. There are many tasks every day that are discouraging and exhausting, and often I only manage those and don’t get as far as the “good stuff” like being productive or creative in some way. But now I can do all things with God, in His presence, and for Him. It doesn’t make them easier or more fun, but they have value now, and so aren’t a waste of energy. For example, before going to brush my teeth I will briefly turn to God and say (but not necessarily with words) that I will do the task with Him and try to do it well because I love Him, and if it feels daunting ask for help too. I then go and do it trying to remember that God is with me throughout. Afterwards I’ll briefly thank God for any successes, e.g. having remembered Him, doing it efficiently, or just getting finished in the end no matter how difficult. Or I’ll say sorry for any failures, e.g. forgetting Him for a while, getting frustrated with myself when it was difficult, or getting frustrated with other people if they accidentally interrupt or somehow made it harder. Either way, I’ll thank God that I was able to do it, and for being able to come to Him in that moment regardless of what happened before.

Living in this way makes everything a prayer, everything worthwhile, and everything meaningful. It makes being in the presence of God, and doing everything with and for Him, the goal. It makes the “why” of activity more important than the “what”. Success or value stops relying on whether I’ve managed to do some work or go out etc., and starts to rely on whether I’ve done what I have done with God and for God. It’s too easy to believe that our worth comes from outside; from productivity, or from having an important project to do. But living in the presence of God shows that we don’t need to wait for externals, don’t need to have that job or project to be living with purpose and serving God. In fact, gaining the job or project can’t change our worth or relationship with God. The “big thing” will only have value if it is done in the presence of God, done moment by moment with Him and for Him. I could work for some dramatic achievement without a thought of God and it would be meaningless. I could struggle through a “bad attention day” at home achieving nothing more than getting dressed, but trying to do it in the presence of God and with prayerful intention to spend it with Him and do everything out of love for Him, and it would be meaningful, worthwhile, and precious time spent with God. Living in this way makes it easier to see that each moment is a gift from God, and something I can give to God. It makes it possible for every activity to be a prayer that is building up relationship with God (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). It makes it possible to spend every moment with the one I love.

 

* What is presence? I’ll try to define it through examining presence in human relationships. It isn’t proximity. It is possible to be in a packed bus and not be aware of the presence of any of the other passengers, even those pressed against you, each person is isolated together in a small space. On the other hand, it is possible to speak on the phone to a relative on the other side of the world and through giving full attention, and shared care and enjoyment of each other, to be very aware of their presence. It isn’t activity. It is possible to work all day with someone without any real sense of their presence despite interacting or even relying on each other to succeed. Or you can be in a room with a good friend each working silently on a separate task but both very aware of each other and finding companionship in it. So if it doesn’t rely on proximity or activity, it must be a relational aspect of attention given to one another. I attend to you as a person who means something to me, and you are present to me. If I don’t, you are not present to me whatever the circumstances. A mutual sense of presence requires attentive awareness from both parties.


This is part six of a series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five

Prayer: The absence of God.

We hear a lot about the presence of God. It is uplifting, joyful, inspiring, life-giving, humbling, and wonderful beyond description to be aware of the presence of God. Prayer is communication and relationship with God, a lifting of heart and mind to Him, and it’s often described as being with Him in His presence. But what about when it’s not? Feeling separated from God isn’t a popular topic, and in some churches it is quite stigmatised. But it is a normal part of Christian experience, so I think it should be openly discussed.

Sometimes God feels very far away, or just plain absent. What’s going on when I feel like that? How can I pray when I feel like that? Has God stopped loving me?

First, and most importantly, God has not stopped loving me, or you, or anyone else. That isn’t just a matter of faith, it’s impossible because God doesn’t change and God is love. It simply isn’t possible that He doesn’t love us. However hard it is to believe, or however distant God may feel, we can be 100% certain that He still loves us. Even if God feels absent to us, we are present to Him. The feeling of distance or absence is our perception, not His.

There are lots of reasons for having times of feeling like God is absent. It is complex and individual, I definitely don’t fully understand it. But I do sometimes feel like that, and I think it can be related to my autism. In fact I don’t know what it’s like for people without autism, so I will only be thinking about it from my perspective as an autistic Christian. Here’s some of the most common causes I’ve identified for me feeling that God is absent:

  • Overloaded/overwhelmed by people, sensory input, and executive function demands. The world can just be too much, too painful, and I want to shut it all out and hide. I hate to admit it, but this includes God. I want to shut out everything by hiding in solitude, or under headphones and projects and dim light. I don’t want any external input at all. No communication of any sort, no interaction. The instinct to protect myself from overwhelm makes me feel quite hostile to anything and anyone that intrudes. When I feel like that, even God feels like an intrusion and I shut Him out too. But that is making a mistake. Because God can be the still quiet presence, He can be gentle and calm and healing. He will be present without hurting us, and not asking for what we cannot cope with in that moment. Because He knows, understands, and loves us. I need to try and remember that and not be afraid that He will hurt me like everything else does.
  • Acute meltdown or shutdown. We’ve all had these, sometimes embarrassingly publicly! I don’t think there’s anything to do during these moments. If I were capable of rational decision or action, it wouldn’t be a proper meltdown. I think God knows that too, so rather than feeling bad about it, I can just trust that He is still there, still cares, and still wants me. God doesn’t think I’m an idiot or not a proper adult because I had a meltdown. I can trust His love and just return to Him afterwards, and believe that He never left me.
  • Chronic stress or anxiety. Many things in life are stressful if you’re autistic, things that don’t bother other people. If there is a stressful situation on top of the ordinary stressors, it can quickly get too much. I find that too much stress starts to become self-perpetuating. My body gets stuck in “stress mode” and it takes a lot of effort to get out of it again. When I am stressed or anxious, I tend to avoid the outside world and want to be alone. I can want to close off to everything including God, similar to the more acute overwhelm already described, but this can last for weeks or months and leads to a sort of low level constant avoidance that ultimately makes me feel a lot worse. when I notice myself feeling like that I have to make myself continue to pray and go to church etc. The other thing that gets in the way of feeling God’s presence is that I tend to want to be self-reliant. I go back to my old pre-Christian ways of feeling in control or feeling better. It’s understandable that I do this because they are automatic and habitual responses, plus chronic stress reduces one’s ability to think clearly and choose. But it is a lack of trust in God, and I must make myself return to Him whenever I notice what I’m doing. It feels rubbish and perhaps shaming, but I have to trust God enough to turn back to Him, say I’m sorry, and ask for His help; help to return, help to trust, help with the situation, and help healing from the chronic stress.
  • Intense interests or obsessions. Sometimes intense interests can get in the way of prayer and relationship with God. I hate the term “special interest”, but it is a thing. Mostly it’s a good thing; enjoyable, productive, useful, calming. But it can become an obsession that excludes everything else from mind including God. I find that having a prayer routine helps because I have reminders throughout the day to look up from whatever I’m absorbed in and turn to God. When I do that enough, it becomes possible to share the interest/project with God and invite Him into it.

It is very difficult to pray when God feels far away. It’s even harder if I’m feeling guilty about turning away from Him or have fallen into sin. But it is vitally important to pray anyway. It’s the only way back into relationship with God and to begin feeling His presence again. Don’t wait to try and sort yourself out first, or get your priorities and thoughts in order. Just run to God and ask His forgiveness and help. He wants us to return to Him and is waiting to come out and meet us, like the father going out to welcome the returning prodigal son.

However unworthy or crappy we feel, trust in God’s love and forgiveness. However absent God seems, have faith in Him and call out to Him anyway. Times of absence are the times to exercise faith, and trust that God is still there and still cares. We don’t have to know how to make things better or feel close relationship again. No amount of confusion, isolation, fear, guilt, shame, pain, or anything else is too much for God to deal with. It’s tempting to hoard the pain and hide away, but offer it to Jesus instead and ask His help. Asking His help is a prayer and an act of trust, then we can ask Him to help us continue to pray and trust Him more. He knows what we need when we don’t know, He knows what the real problem is far better than we can, and He’s waiting for us to let Him help us. It can be very hard to return after a time of feeling absence, and it can be very hard to pray for lots of different reasons. But just do it, start to pray again in whatever way you like best. It doesn’t matter whether it feels right or good or awkward or sad, just do it and keep on doing it. I find the rosary very helpful for reconnecting with Jesus and what He’s done for me, it makes Him real and relevant again if I’ve ignored Him for a while. I find praying the psalms in the liturgy of the hours helps change my mind-set, and the prescribed times help me make sure to do it even when I don’t want to. Perhaps hardest, but perhaps most important, is just talking to God in your own words/thoughts, telling Him what’s going on, and asking for His help. Pray without worrying about deserving to, or whether you’re getting it right, or whether God is listening. He is always listening, and always longing for us to return just as we are.


This is part five of a series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Prayer: The Rosary

 

 

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What it is and why I love it

The rosary* is a form of meditative prayer focusing on the life of Christ. It is constructed from repeated prayers that act as a foundation for communication with God. It is prayed using a set of beads, also called a rosary, that allows you to keep track without having to count or remember where you are. It starts with the sign of the cross, then the apostle’s creed. This means that from the very beginning you are looking to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and re-affirming belief, trust, and commitment in Him. It ends with the Hail Holy Queen which sums up being made part of God’s family and trusting in His goodness, His grace, our interdependence in Christ, and the special role of Mary in this family. The body of the rosary is made up of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. These three prayer together express confidence and trust in God and His love for us, and our love, praise, and worship of Him. Each Hail Mary re-affirms the reality of the incarnation, God’s love for us, and the wonder of being in the family of God. The centre of the Hail Mary is “blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus”. This means that the name of Jesus runs through the centre of the rosary prayers like a heartbeat, reminding, confirming, and inviting trust in Him and what He did for us. There are four sets of mysteries, traditionally prayed on specific days of the week, each one focusing on a different phase of Jesus’s life, ministry, and the plan of salvation. Meditating on these mysteries embeds one in the gospel and makes it present and real and relevant. The structure of the rosary prayers make it with Mary, and about or oriented to God. That in itself reminds us of our real inclusion in God’s family, and is a way of experiencing unity with and participation in the rest of the Body of Christ. One focuses on and can sense God our Father, Jesus our saviour, the active presence of the Holy Spirit, and Mary our mother.

The rosary when everything’s falling apart

I find it very difficult to pray and focus on God during times of intense stress, anxiety, or when the world is overwhelming and inhospitable. He feels absent rather than present, although He hasn’t changed or turned away; it is me who is closed off and feeling disconnected. Feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed are common for me (and probably most autistic people, as well as many non-autistic people), so I had to find a way to pray and stay connected to God during these times.

The answer I’ve found is the rosary. Meditation on the mysteries makes the reality of Christ present again. The structure of the prayers provides a scaffolding for this meditation that is otherwise impossible at times of distress. It powerfully facilitates reconnecting with God, particularly in the person of Jesus, and supports remaining in that awareness and presence for the duration of the prayer. It creates an awareness of the broader story of salvation and God’s goodness to His people and, if I’m willing to see it, reminds me of His love for me as an individual. This gives me a more realistic perspective on things because when I’m stressed and overwhelmed the world tends to narrow to only what is distressing me. Even if it only lasts for the duration of the prayer, it is a valuable reality check.

Sometimes during the rosary something will come up. Maybe one of the mysteries makes me see the current difficulty differently, or helps me see where God has been with me all along, or demonstrates that Jesus understands and experienced similar feelings. When that happens, I pause and pray about it either in words or silently “holding” it and entrusting it to God. I still habitually think I need to articulate prayers clearly, but I’m learning to trust that God doesn’t need me to do that and understands anyway. These insights and prayers help to work through things a bit and begin healing, they are a precious gift from God. If I don’t think of myself at all during the prayer it is still healing because it is looking up from myself and re-orienting to God. Often on rough days the 30 to 45 minutes of praying the rosary is the only time of peace and security I’ll feel. When I feel like I’m falling apart, the rosary holds me together at the seams. It is a welcome and necessary time of connection with God, rest, healing, and gaining perspective.

The feel of the beads and the repetitive prayers are soothing in a stimmy sort of way which helps being able to do it at times when other forms of prayer are outfacing and impossible. The repetition of a small number of prayers makes them easy to learn. I’m terrible at learning words and remembering on demand, but I’ve managed to learn it well enough to use reliably without notes. And if I do forget a part, I don’t worry about it and trust that God knows what I mean anyway, and knowing that Mary is praying with me means I don’t have to cope alone. That’s part of the beauty of structured/formulaic prayers, the whole intention and meaning is there to use and isn’t dependent on ability or imagination at a time when I feel I have neither.

Adapting the rosary for autism and executive function deficit.

I found the rosary difficult at first because I have very poor working memory (the number of things one can hold in mind at once) and attention difficulties (concentrating and staying focused). It requires doing multiple things at one; remembering and reciting prayers and thinking about a prescribed mystery. I could see its potential though, and so asked advice and experimented until I found ways that work for me. I’ll share what I’ve found works, and I’d love to hear if you’ve found a method that helps.

  1. Get familiar with the beads. The beads remove the need to keep track of where you are in the prayer, so becoming familiar with them removes a significant cognitive load. Choose a rosary that you enjoy the feel of, it should be pleasant and comforting to hold and manipulate. There are loads of different sorts available, or you can make your own, so there will be one you like.
  2. Learn the constituent prayers. Once the basic “building blocks” are memorised, you are free to concentrate on the mysteries rather than reading the prayers or struggling to remember them.
  3. Use notes. Use notecards, booklets, any prompts that help remember the mysteries of the day and the order of the prayers. There is no need to have it all memorised perfectly, and it takes nothing away from the prayer to look at notes.
  4. For meditation throughout the whole prayer use a book. There are books of scriptural rosaries and illustrated rosaries available that give a bible verse before each Hail Mary, and pictures for the mysteries. These help meditate more deeply and consistently on the events, and make it easy because you don’t need to remember anything. I like these very much, and it can be a beautiful time of deeper insight into the gospel. But with this method a rosary takes me well over an hour and is quite tiring, so I don’t do it very often. There are free ones available online too, but I don’t like looking at a screen.
  5. Don’t try to multitask. My biggest breakthrough with the rosary came when someone told me you don’t need to keep the mysteries in mind for the whole time. It’s enough to pause at the beginning of each decade to meditate on the mystery, and then proceed with the prayers on their own. The brief period of meditation is valuable and can still lead to deeper awareness of God, understanding of the mystery, or appreciation of Jesus’s presence in your own life. The prayers have value on their own because they are in the context of the whole rosary prayer, you have the intention of spending time coming closer to God, and they have intrinsic meaning. This is the form I do most often now. It is manageable even when I am feeling very stressed/rough and unable to pray, it helps me reorient to God, and it helps me be aware of His presence and everything He does for me.
  6. Add in little reminders to yourself. If your mind wanders a lot and it is very difficult to concentrate, it can be helpful to remind yourself of the mystery part way through. One way to do this is to pause and bring it to mind again, then proceed as before. Another way is to add a relevant descriptor after the word “Jesus” in one or some of the Hail Marys. For example, you might say “and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, true God but with the humility of a child.” I sometimes find this useful, but don’t find it easy to think of the extra words. If I do it, it’s usually only once per mystery and I use the effort of it to deliberately re-focus myself.
  7. Stop for spontaneous prayer. If something comes to mind, maybe a question, concern, new understanding, or gratitude, stop and pray about it. Use your own words or any remembered prayer than feels appropriate, or no words at all. Keep your fingers on the bead so if you want to return to the rosary you will easily find your place. If you don’t want to return, that’s ok! The purpose is to draw closer to God, so listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and bringing them to God in your own prayer is making good use of the rosary.
  8. Do what you can. If you are tired, finding it hard to concentrate, or are extremely busy, you can choose to do part of a rosary. I start with the introductory prayers, then pray one or more decades, then finish with the concluding prayers. Even praying one decade is valuable because it is making time to come to God in prayer, meditate on Jesus, and place yourself in His family. I do need to do this sometimes, but I often find that the days when I most don’t want to because of feeling overwhelmed or stressed are the days when I most need to pray, so it is worth persevering.
  9. Pray where you are most comfortable. Go where ever you are comfortable and relaxed praying. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a church, your room, or outside either sitting or walking. Some people do it while driving or standing in queues, but I don’t have the working memory capacity to do it at the same time as anything else. When I use a scriptural rosary, I like to be in the quiet of my room or a chapel, but for the easier version I quite like to be outside walking. The added movement helps me relax, and I often feel less stressed just being outside so that helps me focus too.

 

* I won’t explain how to pray the rosary in this post because there are lots of excellent free resources available. A good starting point for finding out more about the rosary is this letter by Pope St John Paul II. If you would like me to recommend books, ask in a comment and I’ll share my current favourites.


This is part four of a series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three

Abbey retreat: an aspie’s paradise.

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Last week I went to Pluscarden Abbey in Morayshire for a retreat. It’s a beautiful restored abbey that originated in 1230. I can describe what I did in one sentence: I just went to the offices in the chapel, walked back and forth to the accommodation for meals, wandered around the grounds, read a bit, and prayed. But the experience was so much more.

The environment, daily structure, and quiet of the abbey were perfect for me. I arrived stressed and exhausted after a busy month and the difficulty of packing. Usually I leave a holiday wrecked and need weeks to recover, but this time I left feeling much better than I arrived. Even more special than physical health, I felt normal while there. Not disabled or different.

The day was rigidly structured around times of prayer, everything else fitted around that. It meant I didn’t have to be constantly making decisions and juggling priorities and trying to remember what I was meant to be doing. All I had to do was keep an eye on the time. Normally each day feels like a battle; struggling through all the distractions and demands and confusion to get from morning to night, and try to achieve the tasks I need to accomplish, and look after myself. At the abbey, there was nothing to fight against and I could completely relax. Silence and space were big factors in making the week so comfortable. There was no need to talk to people for much of the time, so there was no stress from having to manage conversation, and no distraction from people asking me questions while I’m doing something and the ensuing anxiety of trying to remember what I was doing while also trying to attend to the person. But it wasn’t lonely, there was a feel of community without having to be constantly talking and engaging with others. The other guests were friendly and good company but allowed a lot of space and freedom. Everyone did their own thing in parallel. The guest master was very welcoming, friendly, and attentive, but again was unobtrusive and allowed space. The balance was perfect for me. A wonderful side effect of this quiet was that when I did have conversations with people, they were easy and pleasant and I could give my full attention and enjoy it. One morning there was a bible study for the guests led by Fr Abbot. I was able to follow the discussion, and even join in fully. It is so rare to be able to talk that easily, especially with a group of strangers, that I can distinctly remember all the occasions in my life when it’s happened. I think the complete lack of stress that week combined with not needing to use up mental energy just coping with daily life, allowed me to fully engage with the conversation. The peace and social engagement were very special, but the very best part of the week was prayer.

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The basic activity of each day was attending all the offices and Mass. They provided a focus and content for prayer. In between I spent time in the chapel or grounds in private prayer, often silent prayer. I read from the gospel of Matthew while I was there, and a little bit from “The practice of the presence of God”, and a little from a book about the Eucharist. I didn’t spend a lot of time reading though, only enough to have a “conversation” with God about what I was reading. I spent large parts of each day in silence not actively doing anything, but I was very aware of God’s presence so that was prayer too. Without all the distractions and pressures of normal life I found it quite easy to remember God’s presence throughout the day. It was as though everything I did was folded into a continuous prayer of relationship, praise, and communication. I can’t maintain that at home. Navigating the day with impaired executive function takes all my attention and so I must regularly stop and re-attend to God. It takes effort, and every switch of attention is difficult. At the abbey, there was no distraction or disruption. There is nothing better than being always aware of the presence of God, and living in a way that is totally devoted to Him.

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Latin: an unexpected delight.

All of Pluscarden’s services and offices, except for scripture readings and one Sunday Mass, are in Latin. I expected it to be awkward hearing all the liturgy in a foreign language, but I’ve fallen in love with it. Latin is beautifully precise, concise, and efficient. It suits my autistic brain wonderfully.

At secondary school I was repeatedly told off for not using enough words in my writing assignments. I would use the words necessary to convey the content and meaning, but none of the “extra” words that bring nuance and make writing flow. I have since learned to write properly, but still write the bare bones then go back and fill in the “extra” words. I also naturally talk in that minimalist way – although I didn’t know it was unusual until recently. Family and close friends are used to it and know I’m not being unfriendly. But I have offended a lot of people over the years without having a clue why or how, I now suspect it has something to do with my natural way of communicating. I have learned to speak more like other people do, but it takes a huge conscious effort. I habitually do it with strangers and people I don’t know well, but it’s hard work and I can’t keep it up very long without stress and exhaustion. My mum speaks to me in the way I prefer; very direct and concise. She says she’d never speak to anyone else like that because it would be rude. But I find it much easier to understand.

Back to the Latin liturgy. I think I love it because it’s more like my natural way of thinking and communicating. It gets straight to the meaning without all the confusing additional words that need to be sorted through. For me, Latin seems to be an ideal language for prayer. It’s a system of words that I can use more freely and naturally, and so put more attention on the meaning of the psalms and prayers rather than the words themselves.

Humility and disability.

The virtue of humility can be described as telling the truth about yourself. It is being honest about what you are and what you are not: strengths and weaknesses, abilities and challenges. It is knowing and accepting yourself as you really are, and being able to recognise, appreciate, and enjoy what is better in other people [1].

Humility relies on recognising that the strengths and abilities I and everyone else have are a gift from God. Therefore, they are a reason to be thankful rather than boastful. Part of gratitude for abilities is using one’s own well for the benefit of others, and allowing other people to use theirs well. This includes accepting help without resentment or embarrassment. Our goodness and ability is only because God is good and able. By extension the strengths of other people make us better, they don’t need to threaten our feeling of worth.

Disability presents challenges for practicing humility. Intellectual/developmental and physical disability can both make it necessary to accept more help than most people need. But recognising limitations, recognising where others are better at something, and allowing them to help, can be very difficult. You have to set aside resentment of your situation, wanting to be self-reliant, feelings of embarrassment and failure, and envy of other’s greater ability.

For several years, I was extremely limited by chronic fatigue syndrome and couldn’t survive on my own. To begin with it was very hard to let people help, even though I couldn’t manage even basic tasks like getting food. I was refusing to recognise what I could not do, or what others could do better than me, and I certainly wasn’t appreciating their greater ability. I was only feeling sorry for myself and alternately feeling frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t cope alone, and feeling bad that other people had to go out of their way to help me. I did not recognise that my worth is not based on what I can do, but is given by God. And I failed to understand that people want to help because they care and that refusing them isn’t being considerate; it makes them worry, and creates tension that spoils relationships. That period of illness has been a transformative time that I can’t regret because of all the valuable things I’ve learned.

I now recognise that I can’t live totally on my own because of my autism, but it took a very long time to understand and accept this. Apart from the more classic difficulties of autism, I have very poor or limited working memory (the number of things you can hold in mind at once), visual memory, and attention. Pre-diagnosis I didn’t have the information to understand why life was so hard, and why I couldn’t just do the basic things other people did without apparent effort. I could not keep on top of basic day to day tasks and the effort of trying repeatedly made me ill with chronic fatigue. Once I had a diagnosis, I began to understand what was happening but I thought I just needed to try harder, or discover the solution that would allow me to manage. I thought, or at least felt, that needing help to cope with daily chores or getting to bed at a reasonable time made me less of a person. Here I was beginning to recognise what I was not good at, and that others were better at it, but I wasn’t accepting it and I still wasn’t appreciating other people’s greater ability. Until very recently I thought I had to earn my worth through performance and productivity, so I was not acknowledging that all ability is a gift from God.

For some people with autism and specific learning difficulties, there is an additional challenge for knowing and accepting yourself as you really are. People often have what’s called an uneven cognitive profile. That means they are average or very good at some cognitive abilities, but below average or very poor at others. I have some very poor cognitive abilities, such as planning, prioritising, remembering, verbal and non-verbal communication. But I also have some very strong cognitive abilities, such as logical thinking, learning and understanding concepts, and verbal reasoning.

This can be difficult for other people to understand. They tend to see either only ability or only disability. For example if they see high intelligence, they are surprised when I can’t cope with basic daily activities, or are annoyed when communication fails because they think I’m being rude. This is exacerbated by the fact that I only usually see people socially when I’m managing well, they don’t get to see the bad times. But sometimes people do see my communication difficulties and confusion trying to do something ordinary and then they think I am not intelligent and won’t talk to me about interesting things, assuming I wouldn’t understand. This gets frustrating because it means I miss out on the part of social interaction I can do best. People have often thought I’m “dreamy” or “in my own world”, and then are surprised to discover a sense of humour and intelligence after getting to know me better. This has often led to feeling misunderstood, both overestimated and underestimated, often at the same time. Lack of humility meant I used to try extremely hard to keep up with conversation and appear to be managing whenever I was with people. It was exhausting and stressful, and I am gradually unlearning those unhealthy habits.

Another reason it is difficult for me is because I tend to generalise from whatever I’m experiencing at the time. For example, if I’m doing something I’m good at like studying, I overestimate myself and think I can manage anything on my own. Conversely, if I am struggling with daily tasks like getting ready in the morning or trying to organise laundry, I underestimate myself and think I can’t manage anything on my own. This might be due to impaired working memory making it hard to be aware of more than one thing at a time. Thinking I can do anything on my own is lacking humility because it is overestimating myself and crediting myself for my abilities. Thinking I can’t do anything on my own is lacking humility because it is not true, is self-pitying, and it often goes with reluctance to accept help.

As well as differing ability in different areas, my abilities vary over time. For example, some days talking is extremely hard, and other days it is (relatively) easy. And some days I am extremely distractible and can’t pay attention to anything or stay on track at all, and other days I can concentrate quite well for short periods of time. Sometimes it is predictable, e.g. if I’m very tired everything is harder. But sometimes there is no obvious reason for the fluctuation. If I push myself on bad days to do things anyway or try to keep up with other people, I get exhausted and then the next few days will be rough too. Sometimes it’s necessary to do that, but usually it’s only pride and fear of embarrassment that makes me do it.

Accepting limitations without embarrassment or defensiveness means stopping pretending to be other than we are. There’s big visible things like being unable to have paid employment because daily living uses too much effort, and there’s also smaller less visible things like not doing usual prayers because I’m too tired or distracted, or when I can’t hold a conversation successfully. Accepting this is difficult and at times painful, but even the difficulty of learning this lesson has value when offering it all to Jesus. Then I can know I’m still His regardless of what I can and can’t do. My value comes entirely from Him.

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Image: By Mission of St Thorlak [2]

Practicing humility means recognising weakness and accepting help, and finding ways of using strengths. Above all it means remembering to thank God for all abilities, our own and other peoples, and confidently asking Him for help in weakness because He loves us more than we can imagine.

 

References:

[1] Fr Mike Schmitz, (11.01.16). Podcast episode “I am not”. http://bulldogcatholic.org/i-am-not/

[2] Mission of St Thorlak via Twitter as @PatronOfAutism, (17.08.17). http://mission-of-saint-thorlak.weebly.com/

New blog schedule and my writing process.

I have decided to reduce the frequency of this blog to one post a month. The summer has had a lot of disruption to my normal routine, I have a lot of appointments over the next few weeks, and the idea of fitting in writing posts was becoming stressful. I want to continue the blog though, because I am still enjoying it and I have a folder full of ideas for things to write about.

I like seeing other people’s writing processes, so I thought perhaps others may be interested in mine. The way I write is very much affected by my autism and learning difficulties, although I have learned some very good strategies from educational support at college and university. I note down ideas for posts whenever I have them; sometimes just a vague topic, sometimes it’s quite detailed. Usually I will think about it for quite a while, days or weeks, until it is better formed in my mind. I add notes to the file during that time; I find “Notes” useful because it synchs between devices so is always available. When I begin actively writing a post I start with an outline and try to decide on a structure. First I have lists of bare content. Then I gradually write out the information into sentences and paragraphs, adding in the small words that make it flow and look like proper English. Then I try to add some personal interpretation or reflection. I frequently read it over to make sure it’s on topic and saying what I want it to say, relating it back to the title/theme I decided on. This is laborious because I can’t hold the topic in mind while working, so I have to be constantly checking back and analysing each part, as well as trying to make the piece a coherent whole. I like to finish writing a day or two before putting it on the blog so I can proof read it after a break. I try to check for the tone of the language because that doesn’t come naturally to me, and without care it would read like a dusty text book (perhaps it does!) in broken sentences.

Each post takes several days, and sometimes a few weeks, of work. When I am writing, it is the main task for the day. I find it very tiring and it’s hard to switch off from thinking about it the rest of the time. For that reason, I need to reduce how often I post to the blog. I was not giving myself enough time and energy for daily life and for any extra events that come up. But I do enjoy it, and I am still hoping that writing the information I wanted to see but couldn’t find a few years ago will be helpful to someone.

Truth. Love. Autism.

I often have very black-and-white, either/or thinking because of my autism. But the culture I live in taught me that loving people means uncritically accepting everyone and everything about them. It taught me that being a good person means not imposing an idea of truth on others, and that truth is not objective. I learned to adopt a relativistic outlook because that is the “good” way of thinking, and how to be “nice”.

In some ways, it was good. I learned how to think in less concrete terms and be more flexible, and nothing was a problem because there was no objective standard. But I found it very difficult in practice; it was confusing and stressful because there was no certainty in anything. And the flip side of nothing being a problem was that nothing was “right” or “best” either, also because there was no objective standard to measure by. That outlook combined with diminishing faith was very damaging to me. I took it to the logical conclusion: Since there is no absolute truth, there is no God, at least no powerful effective God. Without truth, there is no right or wrong, no sin, and no need for a saviour. God is reduced to no more than a possible cause to begin the universe, and a nice idea. Without truth and without God, there is no ultimate or lasting purpose and meaning to life and existence. It was a joyless time.

When I began re-examining whether or not God is real after years of perceived irrelevance, it coincided with questioning whether or not there is absolute truth. I realised quickly you can’t logically have one without the other; God without truth is irrelevant, truth without God has no foundation. I learned that truth is objective, and is discovered not invented; if it is invented it can’t be objective truth. I also came to realise there must be both God and truth for the world to make any sense, and for life to have meaning*. The obvious question after discovering that there is truth was: What is the truth?

The answer came in Jesus. It took a long time to decide Christianity is true, but when I got there, it answered everything. Jesus boldly claimed not just to know the truth, but to be the truth. He claimed not just to know a way, but to be the way. Jesus is truth incarnate. To know Him more, is to know truth more. To believe and accept the truth more, is to believe and accept Jesus more. Through the grace of God we can know Him in a real and personal relationship.  But as with human relationships, knowing about the person matters. I can have a personal relationship with the shopkeeper but I don’t know them or have any intimacy with them. That requires getting to know them and learning about them.

So how does one get to know God better? Through His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. How does one learn about Jesus? The bible.

Jesus is truth, so finding the best way to know Him is essential for knowing the truth. The bible is key for getting to know and learning about Him. But how can we be sure to understand it properly? Six people can read the same passage and come up with at least six interpretations of what it means about the person of Jesus and His will for us. We need certainty of accurately understanding the bible as well as simply access to it, because if Jesus is truth, and the bible is the best way to learn about Him, a valid interpretation can’t be subjective or “my version”.

Fortunately, Jesus didn’t leave us to fend for ourselves with only a book. He established a church, founded on the apostles, that He gave the authority to teach the good news. This authority to interpret and teach was passed to the successors of the apostles, down through the generations to this day. Its beginnings can be seen in the bible, and an understanding of that responsibility, authority, and purpose is clear from the very beginning of the church, even before the books of the new testament were completed. The passing on of this understanding is known as tradition, and the interpretation of bible and tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, is known as the teaching authority of the church. To know Jesus as fully as possible requires the bible, tradition, and the teaching authority of the church; all three are established, guided, and protected by God for His people.

Through knowing and following Jesus we can discover objective truth. The increasing certainty I found from this way of thinking was reassuring and inspiring. It made me want to start learning as much as I can about God, the natural world, people, everything really, because it all means something. But as I began to see things in more concrete terms again, I started to worry that disagreeing with other people’s opinions was being ungenerous, overly critical, and basically not nice. The prevailing culture says to accept everything, not to judge, and everyone can be and believe exactly what they want. Although I no longer thought the relativistic attitude is accurate or helpful, I didn’t know how to fit this renewed way of thinking with being kind, and I sometimes worry that trying to discover and follow truth might make me “hard”.

Once again, the answer is in Jesus Himself. When I worry about becoming hard-hearted by holding to truth, I look at Jesus who is truth: God as a helpless baby; God going to meet the weak, outcast, unwanted, sinful; God crucified. When we really know and follow Jesus, we become like Him and so grow in love. By His grace we will grow in both truth and love, and learn to manage the tension between them. When it seems impossible, look at a crucifix. There Jesus unites absolute truth and justice, with total love and mercy. Embracing and balancing truth and love, justice and mercy, are not abstract unattainable principles. They are made tangible and held together in the person of Jesus. No matter how challenging it is to balance truth and love, no matter how uncomfortable it is to follow truth, the person of Jesus makes it worth any sacrifice. And He showed us how by first sacrificing Himself.

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Image: “Cross Against The Light” by Jacky Weyenbergh, PublicDomainPictures.net

Jesus taught exacting standards for behaviour and even thought. But this didn’t make Him hard or unloving. He set the highest possible standards, asking for perfection, but He offered the deepest love and forgiveness recognising our weakness. Jesus reached out to sinners in love, but He didn’t leave them as they were, He always invited people to live in truth. Today we think pleasing oneself is freedom, and allowing it is kind. But taken to its conclusion, saying that it doesn’t matter what people do is saying people don’t matter, they have no purpose or responsibility or role to play. Jesus held the extremes and the perfect example of both justice and mercy within himself, He personified both truth and love. He could do that because He is life, He is truth, because He is God. We are called to follow Jesus in every aspect of life. That means including the seemingly impossible balance between recognising and holding to the absolute truth, and yet being loving and merciful at the same time. Following Jesus may seem more difficult than adopting a relativistic, “anything goes” outlook. It has very demanding challenges, but it makes one strive for the best, and do everything possible to help others along too. Relativism can only lead to confusion and doubt and emptiness because it is based on the idea that nothing is real. So, the choice is between God and reality, and a superficially comfortable illusion.

My specific challenge for embracing both truth and love is to recognise my tendency towards black-and-white thinking and notice when it is not helpful, either as not loving, or over simplified so not true. Also, I struggle to remember what is true and to hold that alongside acting in love; that is hard because of my difficulty holding multiple things in mind. I get sucked into situations and lose all awareness of my intentions. But I can ask God to help me, and be confident that He will because this is what He asks of us. These are my particular challenges because of autism, but I expect everybody has some pattern of thinking that gets in the way of either being loving and merciful, or recognising and holding to the truth of God. In a way, it’s helpful to know this difficulty isn’t specific to autism. It is a difficulty arising from being human. It is not meant to be easy after all, Jesus said that to be disciples we must deny ourselves and take up our cross daily and follow Him. But we can be confident in God’s help to meet the challenges all of us face to live in His way, holding fast to His truth and loving unconditionally.

 

*This new book contains good summaries of the arguments for why God is necessary for truth and for human purpose: Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley