Prayer: The Rosary

 

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

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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.

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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

Prayer: Pray without ceasing (especially when you don’t want to).

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


This is a “quick and dirty” post because I am exhausted; I’m just back from a weekend away, the other people in my house are packing to go on holiday, all my routines have gone to pot, and I am feeling overwhelmed and generally rough. None of that is to complain though, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to write about how to pray without ceasing even, and especially, at times like this when I cannot focus, feel ill, and just want to hide away.

So, what does it mean to pray without ceasing?

St Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”, or to “pray constantly”. It can’t mean formal prayers or in depth verbal prayer, because that would be impossible. I think it means learning to develop and maintain an openness to God at all times (see previous post). Trying to keep heart and mind turned towards God whatever you’re doing and however you’re feeling. Maybe it’s more keeping heart and mind open a crack to allow God in, rather than making constant effort towards Him. Its aiming for an attitude that says to God “I want to be with you and let you be within me, even now when I feel ___ (happy/sad, energetic/exhausted, confident/overwhelmed, excited/depressed, strong/ill etc.).”

How do you do it?

The first thing is to begin trying and practicing when things are relatively easy and you feel fairly good. I need it at the moment, I can’t manage any other sort of prayer while I feel like this. But I can only do it because I’ve already put in the effort to learn. There is no magic formula because it is just maintaining an openness to, and desire for God. It is an attitude and relationship rather than a process or technique. I realise that’s not very helpful, so here are links to some resources that may help. They are all ways into learning and developing the internal attitude, they aren’t the thing itself, so try different methods and see what works:

  1. This short video gives a simple and concrete method to choose to spend time with God. It’s a good starting point if you have no idea how to begin. 
  2. “The practice of the presence of God” is a small book containing the collected works of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk. He lived his whole life in the presence of God, even when doing mundane work and when he was ill and weak. I find this book encouraging because he wasn’t a great saint or mystic, he was limited both physically and mentally like me, but he loved God in an all-consuming and active way, all of the time. This book is one of my absolute favourite books on prayer. This edition is unabridged.
  3. There is an ancient Orthodox prayer called the Jesus Prayer that is used both during dedicated times of prayer, and while going about daily activities to keep an awareness of God. The whole prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s simplicity is both it’s challenge and it’s power and effectiveness. There are a lot of books on the subject, here’s two I have seen that I think are useful. The Jesus Prayer by Bishop Kallistos Ware is an inexpensive and informative booklet. Using the Jesus Prayer by John Twisleton  is a more descriptive book of how it can be used and applied to different circumstances.

What happens when we pray without ceasing?

The longer quote from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 is “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It doesn’t magically make everything easy and wonderful, but as I become more aware of God’s constant presence, it is easier to thank Him whatever is happening. Thanking and praising God is closely linked to trusting Him. I have to trust that God is with me even when I can’t feel it. When I thank Him for being with me even at times I feel alone, it is an act of trust as well as praise. Trust and love and praise don’t have to be nice spontaneous feelings. They are an act of will, a deliberate choice. They are just as real (if not more so) when we choose them, as when they pop up spontaneously. Whatever I am finding difficult or overwhelming, I can thank God and praise Him for the quality in Him that makes Him bigger than my circumstances and shows He is the answer. For example, if I feel confused, He knows everything; if I can’t cope with the world, He holds the world in His hand. Making the deliberate act of praise is choosing, almost forcing myself to trust God and believe what Jesus showed us of Himself. So, by practicing this sort of prayer I do gradually become more aware of God’s presence and goodness, learn to trust Him more, and desire to follow Him more closely.

Prayer: What is it?

This is part two of a series on prayer. See Part One


Prayer is often defined as a movement, or lifting up, of heart and mind to God. I like this definition because it indicates relationship and getting closer to God, but it doesn’t specify or limit how this can happen.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has one of the best, and most autism friendly descriptions of prayer I’ve seen. The section called “what is prayer” describes prayer in three ways: as a gift from God, as covenant, and as communion. I’m going to look at one paragraph from each in relation to autism. (You can see the whole section online here.)

Prayer as God’s gift

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer, Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.” (CCC §2559)

I love the emphasis on humility as the foundation of prayer. Prayer is in no respect about my own ability or effectiveness in communication, understanding, or “goodness”. This truth levels prayer for all people regardless of age, ability/disability, intelligence, personality, or spiritual state. Every person needs to admit that “we do not know how to pray as we ought”. When we come to God in prayer we are all equally unable to pray as we ought to, and so we all equally accept prayer as a freely given gift from God. He gives us the desire to pray, He gives Himself to us in prayer, and teaches us how to give ourselves to Him.

Prayer as covenant

Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. (CCC §2562)

This paragraph could have been written for me as an autistic person. “Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays.” It is the whole person who prays, it is not about words or specific methods. The methods are just the means for expressing what is happening in the heart. Because of this, it doesn’t matter at all how well or badly I use a specific method. I do not, as I used to think, need to be able to eloquently compose speeches to God in order to be praying effectively. Realising this allows me to accept and enjoy the gift of praying to God.

Although prayer is a gift from God, we must play our part. “If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” I often find it too easy for prayer to fall into autopilot, ticking it off the to-do list. When that happens, my heart isn’t in it. But I think it is worth persevering through times when it becomes automatic and “dry”, because without sticking to a routine I would soon stop doing it all together. I think the main thing for me is trying to notice when I’m not engaged, and making that part of the prayer. Admitting I’m not doing very well and asking God for help. That way my failing becomes part of prayer, and recognising it lets me say I do not know how to pray as I ought.

Prayer as communion

In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Kingdom is “the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity . . . with the whole human spirit.” Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ. Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love. (CCC §2565)

Prayer isn’t a chore or an obligation, it is a joyful privilege and the foundation of “the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit.” Through the effectiveness of baptism, we can have confidence in the objective reality of this intimate union with God. It’s a wonderful thing to remember at times when I don’t feel close to God, or when I think I’m not managing to pray well enough, or when life is confusing and stressful and I feel isolated even from God. But that’s not all; the love of God doesn’t end with one to one personal relationship. It “extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love.” I often find it hard to fit in and make friends and get to know new people. Busy noisy churches can be uncomfortable places for me. Communal prayer can be challenging because it often relies on verbal methods I find difficult. But sharing prayer with others can emphasise the relationship of all being members of the Body of Christ, and be a shared activity that helps build social relationships too. So, I find it worth persevering and finding groups and methods for communal prayer that are more accessible. However hard it feels to join in, the fact of being a member of the Body of Christ means we are given unity with other people that is created and sustained by the love of Christ. It may not make talking to a stranger any easier, but it gives me more courage to try. It makes me feel more like I belong since, regardless of my social skills, unity with other Christians is an objective reality.

Prayer: My experience so far

This is part one of a series on prayer. See Part Two Part Three


I grew up thinking spontaneous verbal prayer was the only one way to pray because of the Christian tradition my family comes from. I struggle with spontaneous verbal prayer because of my communication difficulties so I’ve always found prayer challenging.

When I was in my 20s I went on a retreat prior to baptism. It was run by two semi-retired Anglican ministers in a beautiful village in North Wales. They introduced me to different ways to pray including methods that involve the senses and allow silence. I immediately liked them, but didn’t learn them well enough to be able to use by myself. Later I began to see different ways to pray at the Baptist church I joined in Wales. Evening services often had prayer activities that utilised various creative methods. I enjoyed these, but again I didn’t learn them well enough to use on my own. I find it hard to generalise new information to different situations. So, doing something in the context of a service is completely different from using the same method at home on my own. I didn’t know how to choose a method, when they were appropriate to use, or how to fit them into my day. I found it very confusing so stuck with what was familiar.

Thankfully this has all changed. The first significant thing was being diagnosed with austism spectrum disorder. I learned that there was a reason why communication so often goes horribly wrong. And I realised that other people don’t find talking and communication so hard. The second significant thing is that when I returned to belief in God, I didn’t just jump back in where I was before. Once I was sure Christianity is true, I started over from the beginning learning about different traditions. This helped me see the wide variety of ways people pray and worship, and that no one way is necessarily better than the others. I also realised that prayer is the foundation of relationship with God; it is communication but it doesn’t require words. I had a chance meeting with someone on a train who told me about Christian meditative prayer. He explained enough for it to make more sense, and to be clearer how to use it than I’d previously been able to understand. I decided to just do it and stop worrying about doing it “right”. From that day, I’ve been allowing more and more silence in prayer. I no longer think I need to use words all the time because I realise prayer is communication that doesn’t rely on my ability. The form or method of prayer is more for our benefit than God’s, because He understands perfectly and knows all our intentions. This realisation gave me permission to start evaluating how and why I do things and looking for ways that work better for me.

I often find using words is like praying in a foreign language. It creates a barrier between me and God because translating thoughts into words and trying to tell if I’m expressing myself clearly forces me to focus on myself instead of Him. I’ve begun using pre-written prayers that express what I feel or mean, this helps because someone else has done the hard work. I sometimes use physical or gestural methods, I like ways that engage the senses such as sight and touch. Most of all I like silence. This new approach has led to a deepening relationship with God that is unimpaired by autism.

It isn’t as easy as that of course. I often slip back into habitual old verbal methods that don’t work for me, and I get tied up in an anxious knot trying to express something important and knowing I’m not managing to say what matters. When that happens it’s easy to feel cut off from God. In reality I’ve got caught up in myself and have stopped looking to Him. I’m trying to rely on myself instead of trusting Him and remembering that He is a loving Father who delights in His children. Learning to trust God is probably the biggest lesson I’m learning through changing the way I pray; slowly learning to rely on Him instead of myself even in communication.

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I am going to spend some time looking at prayer in a series of posts. I want to explore more of what it is and why it’s essential, ways to do it, why it can be so hard, what listening in prayer means, and look at ways my autism impacts the way I pray. Please leave a comment if there is an aspect of prayer you’d be interested in reading about.

Unbelievable? The Conference 2017

 

The event

I went to the unbelievable conference on Saturday 13th May at The Brewery in London. It was a fantastic day of inspiring and thought provoking talks from Christian apologists and evangelists. It was hosted by Justin Brierly of the Unbelievable? podcast, and I heard talks by Andy Bannister, John Lennox, and Jeremiah J. Johnston. All the speakers were excellent. Andy Bannister spoke honestly but sensitively about suffering and why God allows it to happen. John Lennox spoke about why Christian faith makes sense of science rather than competes with it. He was refreshingly sensible but also entertaining. Jeremiah Johnston spoke about times when God is silent. I hadn’t heard him before and found his style very engaging and honest. I won’t go into detail of the talks because recordings will be available of them from Premier and I recommend listening to them.

Accessibility

I find going to big events, or any new event to be honest, rather challenging. It’s a normal part of being autistic. The conference was big, crowded, noisy, and hundreds of miles away from home. But it was very well set up and the organisers did a lot to make it accessible. I will describe my experience of the day, and hopefully it will help anyone who might consider going next year:

Before going I (well, actually my mum) arranged for someone to be available to show me around and explain what I needed to do on the day. I arrived at the venue and there was a man in a bowler hat directing people to the door. Inside was a crowded foyer with lots of people and tables. But I ignored all the people and just followed the instructions I had been given, and found the wonderfully kind and attentive lady who was going to help me out. I didn’t ask permission to name her here, so I’ll call her Volunteer Lady.

Having a helper felt a bit weird at first because I’ve never done that before, actually acknowledged how hard it is going to events and asked for help upfront. I normally think “I should be able to do this”, and either struggle through getting exhausted and not able to enjoy myself, or most often just don’t go. I wouldn’t have gone to something that big and that far away without support. It was helpful even before going because I didn’t have to try and figure out schedules or come up with contingency plans for if anything went wrong. It took the stress out of it.

Volunteer Lady was brilliant during the morning. The first part of the day was a blur. I just followed her around and did what I was told. She took me to the hall where all the stalls and refreshments were. She tried to show me around a bit, but it was packed and noisy and overwhelming. Eventually we went to the biggest lecture room for the introductory talks. It was a very big room on two levels, sitting in the back section was comfortable and there was enough space. Then we went to a smaller room for the first session with Andy Bannister. It was a very interesting talk and the speaker was easy to follow. He took email addresses to send out the slides so we didn’t have to take notes and could just listen (I had decided not to try taking notes anyway because I can’t write and listen simultaneously, but still appreciated this).

Then there was a break and I followed Volunteer Lady to the hall again. It seemed even more crowded, there were people everywhere talking loudly. It was quite unpleasant so having a helper was amazing, I just did what she said. Something funny happened while I queued for a cup of tea. Someone appeared with a clipboard and said something I didn’t catch, then Volunteer Lady disappeared with her, came back briefly and said something else I didn’t catch, then disappeared again. By the time I had my tea she was back and was sticking a book in my bag. I figured out later that my mum had pre-payed for a copy of the unbelievable book, and Volunteer Lady had got it signed. I had no idea what was going on, but fortunately she did!

After that we went to the next talk. It was painfully loud and I was getting really stressed so decided to leave. Again Volunteer Lady to the rescue, because walking out with her was far less awkward than walking out on my own (I always worry that it’s rude).

After a couple of minutes in the deserted hall I was beginning to feel better so decided to go to a different talk for the rest of the session. On the way through the foyer we met Justin Brierly, the host. Surprisingly he knew who I was from an article I wrote for the Premier blog. He was friendly and we had a good chat for a few minutes. Then Volunteer Lady and I continued to the biggest lecture hall to hear John Lennox.

After that it was lunchtime and I had figured out where to go and what was happening by then, so I went off by myself for an hour. I had a very pleasant time wandering round the stalls in the hall while it was quiet, it seems everyone had gone out or to an extra seminar. There were a lot of interesting things to look at, and some very interesting people. I had a good look round, spoke to a few people, and bought a couple of things too. I asked the man at the museum of the bible stall about the project, and it sounds really good. It’s not at all displays of dinosaurs and people together, but rather a serious look at what the bible is and what impact it has had throughout history and today. It sounds like it will be worth visiting once the UK site is open.

After lunch I was in the same lecture room for the rest of the day. That combined with knowing where everything was made the rest of the day easy. Volunteer Lady was still around though, and turned up for all the transitions. She made the day easy and pleasant, instead of effortful and stressful as it would have been without her.

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My haul from the conference (plus the sock leg I knit during the lectures).

The event was very well run; everything was on schedule, lots of staff in bright t-shirts directing people, free tea and coffee provided, jugs of water in every room. The volume of the talks was mostly ok; I went to three of the four lecture rooms and only one was too loud to stay. The video clips were too loud but they were all quite short so were tolerable. I don’t think the staff knew anything specific about communication aspects of autism, but they were kind and friendly and very helpful. The venue was a really cool building with lots of interesting architecture and sculptures. There were a lot of stairs but there were lifts, and there were a couple of wheelchair users attending so I think it was quite accessible. It’s in the same place again next year. If anyone is considering going next year, I highly recommend it.