Trusting God with the small things.

It is natural to call out to God for help when faced with a challenge or circumstance that stretches our capability. It is obvious that we need Him in those moments and that we need to trust Him. But it can be much harder to remember to trust God with the small things that make up day to day life. A lot of what we do is easy and enjoyable, or else seemingly insignificant and dull. Failing to trust God with these can lead to not trusting Him with a large proportion of our lives. So, if we want to trust Him fully and genuinely, it is equally important to look to God with the small unremarkable things as it is with the big challenging things.

A practical reason for trusting God with the small things is simply to establish a habit of turning to Him. We expect ourselves to be able to trust God when something big happens, but often we aren’t prepared for being able to look to Him. If we don’t share our enjoyable moments with God and fail to trust Him with the slightly uncomfortable daily tasks, we are teaching ourselves that God doesn’t care and might not show up. How, then, can we expect to trust Him and believe He is present in something very challenging? The practice of trusting God with the pleasant and the small things establishes an attitude of openness to Him. It also develops a reliance on Him that removes the barrier between us and God that our natural self-reliance creates.

Another practical reason to trust God with the small things is that nearly every big challenge breaks down into lots of small steps. Navigating a difficult circumstance will usually involve working through a series of mundane steps. If we fail to trust God with the small things as we work through a challenge, we may reach the end of it and realise we never got to the “thing” itself, and so never exercised trust in God. Like when you see a mountain in the distance, it looks like a single distinct peak, but when you start walking up it, it becomes a series of bumps and troughs, and each false summit leads onto another, until suddenly you’re at the top without realising you’d made it.

Our attitude towards God in the small things might tell us a lot about our genuine attitude to God in our lives. We can often be tempted to think we should manage the small things alone. It’s easy to assume they are silly or petty, and that it isn’t worth bothering God with them. But this is a serious mistake of failing to recognise how much God cares about us. We may have experienced people being harsh or frustrated with us for struggling with supposedly easy things, but God is not like people. He knows every part of us, so He knows what is difficult and what is easy for us. Autism, as well as physical and mental health problems and disabilities, can make simple things challenging, especially when several of them need to be done at once. God understands and never forgets our capabilities and limitations. Therefore, He never overestimates or underestimates us, and He will never dismiss us as incompetent or demand something impossible. This means that we can and should trust Him with all the small things, good and bad, regardless of how we think we should perform.

When we withhold the small things from God and try to be independent, it can lead to ignoring God and can make us feel cut off from Him. Our own attitude is excluding God from our lives, so we feel like God is not interested, and this feeling of separation can reinforce the difficulty of trusting Him. If something challenging happens when we have this perceived separation from God, it can make trusting Him feel like another task to be achieved. Trusting does take effort, but when we think about it as a project, there is a danger of removing it from the context of relationship. Without relationship, it can cease to be real trust and become more about utility, or seeing God as a resource only in times of difficulty. But genuinely trusting God isn’t about getting through hard times. It is about a constant and deepening relationship with Him. For this relationship to flourish, trust needs to be in all circumstances. We do this by sharing every moment with Him.

Trusting God with the small things and in every moment requires giving up control and relinquishing the standards we impose on ourselves. This can be extremely difficult because fear, self-interest, pride, or low self-esteem can all make us think we should be able to cope alone, and stops us from believing that God cares about every detail of our lives, and wants to be with us in every circumstance. But these difficulties don’t need to interfere with our relationship with God. We can turn to Him with the difficulty we have in trusting Him, and we can offer Him the pain it causes, as a deliberate act of trust. This simple act helps to re-orient ourselves to God, and to invite Him into the situation.

The key to trusting God under every circumstance is faith. We need to truly believe that God is real, attentive, loving, and cares about our welfare. The good news in the face of difficulty in trusting and believing all these things is that faith is a gift from God. He gives us the ability to do it; we just need to accept it and use it. When we feel discouraged by lack of faith and trust, we can remember that the fact of our having even the tiniest faith and desire to trust is evidence that God is with us, is giving the grace we need, and inviting us into relationship with Him. We can turn to God and ask Him to increase our faith, and have absolute confidence that He will give us what we need, because our asking shows that He is already giving it to us.

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Real life trust.

I used to think that trusting God meant never worrying about things or getting anxious. I thought it meant perfect calm and peace of mind, and not reacting to anything that happens. But now I think I was completely wrong.

My biggest mistake was thinking about trust as a feeling rather than a choice or act of will, in the same way that we so often mistake love for a feeling. Trust isn’t feeling good, or never being anxious or uncomfortable. It isn’t constant serenity and peace of mind. Trust is choosing to believe in and rely on God, the only one who is totally trustworthy and reliable, even when you can’t see how things will be OK. It is choosing not to rely on yourself. Trust is a big decision to let go of control to God, then hundreds of smaller decisions to maintain it when you are tempted to start pulling back control. This requires faith: believing in God and in His goodness and care. If we don’t believe, we will not be able to trust Him. Trusting God might lead to feeling calmer and safer, but that isn’t the purpose or measure of it. Wanting to feel good is thinking about self rather than dependence on God. Trust is about loving God and repeatedly saying “Yes” to Him.

Trust in God and trust in yourself can be easy to confuse. It’s a strange thing that often I think that if I don’t trust my own ability or know exactly what I need to do and how, then I can’t trust God. This is illogical because in order to trust God, I only need to trust God. When I feel the need for confidence in myself or a clear understanding of how to proceed, that is self-reliance and it takes an act of mental gymnastics to make it appear like trying to trust God. It is really saying, “Yes I’ll trust you, but only if you show me every detail up front so I can choose whether to accept or reject it”. This isn’t really trusting at all, and demonstrates a lack of faith in God. This temptation might be a significant challenge for autistic people. I find the unknown and the unpredictable very stressful: I like to know exactly when and how things will happen, I use lists and schedules and get anxious when I deviate from them, and I like to know exactly what other people around me are going to be doing. This all helps me feel more grounded and safe. It is caused by genuine cognitive difficulty, but results in control freak behaviour. This is not always appropriate or kind towards other people, and it definitely isn’t appropriate towards God. I have limited knowledge, poor judgement, and don’t always know what’s good for me. But God knows everything, wants the best for me, and is totally reliable.

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Psalm 56:3

Trust is active and alive when circumstances are hard or feel impossible. It is real when we feel anxious or afraid. If there is no challenge, we cannot know if we are really trusting God. When there is a test we can choose to trust God, and only then will we find out whether or not we really do trust Him. Times of difficulty can even be accepted as a gift because they are an opportunity for deepening our relationship with God. This is because relationship and the ability to trust are a gift from God. He always offers what we need, but we must accept it and cooperate with the grace given in those times. Although it might be very uncomfortable, a few weeks of anxiety and difficulty can lead to more development of relationship with God than years of ease and comfort. There are some things about relationship and love that we might only be able to learn through suffering, so it can be a time of enrichment and growth. This doesn’t mean that God wants us to suffer, but because He loves us so much He will use even the most unpleasant and challenging situations for our good.

Sometimes during difficult times God can feel very distant. He never leaves us, but occasionally it seems like God hides or speaks more quietly. It is easy to think He has gone away, but I think it is an invitation to come closer and rely on Him even more. When a person whispers, you lean forward to hear them better. When God becomes quieter, He invites you to lean closer to Him.

Autism and trust

Autism can create many challenges throughout the day, and make lots of ordinary things stressful. This might be from the effects of executive function deficit, perseverative thinking, social difficulties, or simply getting exhausted. People with and without autism might experience anxiety for lots of different reasons. This doesn’t mean we can’t trust God. The difficulties won’t disappear the moment we begin to trust, but we can be confident that God is present in them and will help us. Because trust is an act of will, things can be very challenging and uncomfortable, but we can choose to trust anyway. The best way to do this is to pray, simply telling God what is hard, saying that we are afraid, and asking for His help to trust Him and to do what is needed. This doesn’t need to be in words, He understands any form of reaching out to Him. Sometimes, when things seem particularly difficult, I find it helpful to list the reasons I have for complete confidence and trust in God. Doing it as a prayer and thanking God for all the reasons for being able to trust Him keeps my focus on Him, and stops it being just a mental exercise. We mustn’t be afraid to complain and tell God just how hard things are and how much we don’t like it. Telling God what’s wrong isn’t a lack of trust, because it requires trust to be confident that He will listen and care. The psalms are full of people doing just that. We can tell God exactly what is going on and how horrible it is, but must try not to stop there. If we are struggling to trust, we can say sorry and ask for help to trust more. It is an opportunity to choose to let Him be in control.

An example of real life trust.

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(CF Matthew 14:22-33)

Peter was afraid and thought he was going to drown. He had trusted Jesus enough to get out of the boat and walk towards Him on the water. But then he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the storm. Peter’s trust withered, but he still had enough to call out, “Lord save me!”, and Jesus did so “immediately”. Jesus chided Peter for having little faith, but he had trusted more than the others, he was the only one to get out of the boat and try. It’s easy to think Jesus was rebuking him for absence of faith and trust, but He said little faith, not no faith. It seems Jesus was telling Peter how much more he could have. And indeed, Peter’s trust did grow through Jesus’ intercession and his receiving the Holy Spirit, to the point where he could shepherd the infant church and eventually give his life as a martyr.

I find this Gospel event very encouraging because it means that a lapse of trust is an invitation to persevere and grow, rather than a cause to give up. It is a powerful reminder to keep one’s eyes on Jesus whatever is happening and to have the courage to “get out of the boat” and go to Him. Jesus did eventually calm the storm once they were back in the boat, but He rescued Peter while it was still raging. Trust begins and strengthens while things are still difficult. It begins the moment we turn to God believing He is only good.

Prayer: series wrap up.

I have been writing a series about prayer because it is an important topic for the purpose of this blog. I have enjoyed thinking and writing about it, but now I want to move on to other topics for a while. In this final post of the series I will try to emphasise the theme that I think is most relevant to the blog objectives.

I started this blog to discuss Christian faith in the context of being autistic. It was in response to hearing frequently that we autistic people are unlikely to believe in, and more importantly that autism makes us unable to relate to God. I couldn’t find much information on the topic when I was searching a few years ago, and most of what I did find was inaccurate and discouraging, so I decided to try to write what I would have found helpful back then. I think prayer is a key aspect of faith for addressing the claim that we can’t relate to God, because prayer is fundamental to the human relationship with God. It is the means of communication and of growing closer to Him, and what equips us to live with and for Him.

Some people have great difficulty relating to God, and some find it much easier. Some people find it easier to relate to God than to people, and some are the other way around. Relating, or entering into relationship, is all about love; accepting love and learning to love in return. There are many reasons why a person might reject relationship with God, but it is important to remember that God invites all people to relationship with Himself (1 Timothy 2:4). One reason people resist God is simply sin, and the sad fact that many of us choose to live according to our own desires and want God to act on our terms if we are going to take any notice. In this state, it is impossible to encounter God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Another reason that might impact on accepting relationship with God is individual experience. If, for example, someone has been badly treated, marginalised, and has not experienced real love from people, it might be harder for them to accept that God loves them and that they can trust God. But it could also be that they find it easier to trust God than people. Neither of these is directly related to autism or disability. There are disabled people who relate easily to God, and able people who cannot relate to God at all. There is no type of person who is good or bad at relationship with God, and the good news revealed by Jesus is that God wants to bring everyone into His family and will reach out to us individually with a loving invitation (Matthew 18:12-14).

The need for relationship, that is for love, is fundamental to all humans, and this need is not dependent on ability or disability. Being loved by God and loving Him in return is even more fundamental than human love, because it is the source of human love, that which makes us human. When a person is judged as to their likelihood of being able to enter relationship with God based on disability, it is in a sense judging their humanity. And if that judgment leads to excluding those people from the Body of Christ and being helped to meet God, it is ignoring their most fundamental need and ignoring Jesus’ own words (cf. Mark 9:42). Judging people’s capacity for relationship in this way doesn’t work anyway, because it is measuring the wrong thing. People see the visible difference of autism and disability and don’t realise the invisible depth of experience the person may have. Some people are very empathetic and have easy conversation. Personally, I have communication difficulties but can compensate well and appear quite “normal” when needed, and often only people who know me well or understand autism can see my difficulties. There are autistic people who cannot talk and are profoundly disabled [1]. On the surface these three groups of people might appear to have very different capacities for relationship and experience. But it is a big mistake to try to judge someone’s interior experience by outward appearance. To do so is to measure human functioning by conformity to a human or worldly standard. But our wholeness and capacity for relationship is conformity to Christ, and that begins inside and has little to do with cultural ideals of success and ability.

For this reason, I find it particularly sad and discouraging when Christians claim that autistic people, or any other group of people, are unable to relate to God. There have been studies done that found low incidence of belief in God among autistic people, but they have flawed methodology, for example recruiting participants from online groups that have an atheistic culture. I would love to see more robust and sensitive research on this subject to counter those studies. Even more, I would like Christians to stop blindly using those data, and falling into the trap of seeing people as the world sees rather than as God sees. I acknowledge that it is difficult because we are all shaped by our experiences, and it is very hard to see one’s biases and assumptions and so avoid acting on them. Because of that, I try to write descriptively and make it clear I’m drawing on my own experience rather than being authoritative. Also, I am careful to never say “this is how autistic people are” or “this is how we are different from other people”, because every individual is different whether autistic or not. I find being told how I should be often leads to confusion and self-doubt, because most of the time I am not that way at all. I aim to acknowledge individual differences whenever I talk about traits, and not to pigeonhole people, whether autistic or not. I tried particularly hard to do this while writing about prayer because communication with God is intensely personal and cannot be prescribed according to any category or characteristic.

I hope that what I have written about prayer demonstrates that autistic people are capable of a real relationship with God. We are capable of it for exactly the same reason as anyone else: because God wills it and is giving Himself to us. Nobody reaches God by their own ability. God invites, we respond. He understands that response perfectly whether we are autistic or not, and whatever our experience of human love. God initiates and sustains the relationship. We accept, participate, and persevere with commitment to Him. Without God’s loving gift, not one person would be able to relate to their creator.

 

[1] For a first hand description of the interior experience of a very disabled autistic person see The Reason I Jump: one boy’s voice from the silence of autism by Naoki Higashida


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

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.

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 an eight part series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part six

Part eight

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 an eight part series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five

Part seven Part eight

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 an eight part  series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four

Part six Part seven Part eight

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 an eight part  series on prayer. Part One Part Two Part Three

Part Five Part six Part seven Part eight

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/