Loneliness and lockdown.

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One of the hardest things about lockdown is the isolation. I think a lot of people have been struggling with loneliness to some degree. In Scotland, we are now allowed to meet up with people from one other household outside, keeping the 2 metre distance. This is wonderful, and I have been making the most of it, weather permitting. But it is still hard. You can’t hug your family and friends. Being out with people feels quite normal, then after your one permitted meeting of the day you’re back to being alone, and it can feel more intense than before the meet up. I think this is true for a lot of people, autistic or non-autistic. But for autistic people loneliness can be a significant problem.

I have experienced a lot of loneliness in my life, starting as a very young child. I’ve always had difficulty connecting with people, and felt on the outside of groups. This is due to my autistic communication difficulties. I learned to mask my difficulties at a young age, so most people don’t recognise I have difficulties. This can help in some situations, but it also creates problems because people don’t make allowances for me, and I might give the impression that I’m not interested in them. I have always struggled to become part of a group and often feel marginalised. I don’t blame anyone for this. I am lucky to have made some very good friends over the years, inside and outside the church, people who accept me as I am.

I think many autistic people have similar experiences to some degree. Non-autistic people can struggle with loneliness and disconnect too, although the reasons may be different. Lockdown isolation can trigger and accentuate old feelings of loneliness as well as causing new experiences of it. The combination can be difficult to cope with.

There is a longing for connection with others that is built into us. We are made for connection and communion. In the beginning, God made man and woman saying it is not good for the man to be alone. God wants us to have relationships and companionship. He wants us to be friends and families, and to receive joy from each other. This means it is natural and normal to feel loneliness when we don’t have connection with others. It also means we should reach out to others whenever we can and help them to feel welcome.

There is an even deeper longing for connection that other people can’t answer. This yearning can only be filled by God. God is three persons in one being. This means the nature of God is loving relationship. “The Father loves the Son, and the Son returns that love to the Father as his only begotten Son, the Spirit is the love which is shared between them in a dynamic movement of love between Father and Son. The Spirit unites us into the mystical body of Christ so that we are drawn into the relationship that the Son has with the Father, and therefore draws us right into the heart of the Trinity. Because of this we can call ourselves the children of God.”[1] And as children of the loving God we are never truly alone.

 

[1] Thomas Ruston 2020

Faith in lockdown

Image: Public Domain Pictures [1]

Faith looks very different in this time of isolation. We have no church services to attend, no prayer groups, no bible studies, and no church socials. Our private prayer might have become sporadic because of disrupted routines, and “attending” church and bible studies online can feel less special, or less set aside for God, than going in person. This can be discouraging and isolating, and make us worry about the state of our faith. But the extra effort required to pray alone, and watch services and meet up with others electronically, might strengthen our faith rather than it being a sign of it weakening.

Every time we choose God, we are making an act of faith. This means that every time we watch a service with the best attention we can manage, or meet with others online for prayer or bible study, we are telling God that we love Him and want to spend time with Him, and are welcoming Him into our day. The same is true for private prayer. Whether you use a liturgical prayer like the Liturgy of the Hours or the Book of Common Prayer, or you always pray spontaneously, you are opening yourself to God and inviting Him into your heart.

Routine can be a big help, especially if you have impaired executive function like I do. Having time set aside for prayer at different points of the day can make it much more likely to happen. I am finding being organised very challenging at the moment because I have no externally imposed structure to my days. I have written myself a timetable and try to stick to it – with varying degrees of success. I find that if I don’t at least try to stick to a schedule, nothing gets done, including prayer.

Another obstacle to faith is our feelings. We might have high anxiety because of what’s happening around us, disrupted routine, or existing mental health issues. Autistic difficulties can predispose us to anxiety. We might also experience a lack of feeling in prayer, a sort of dullness or numbness. Both anxiety and lack of feeling can be upsetting and make us think we are going wrong in our relationship with God, but both can be opportunities to grow in faith. Choosing God doesn’t have to mean big actions and intense feelings. Small acts of faith when you’re really struggling can sometimes be the most powerful. Calling out to God in a dark moment when you’re unable to cope is an act of faith because you believe He will hear you. Asking God for help when everything is falling apart is a strong act of faith because you believe that He will hear and answer. It doesn’t even have to be a verbal prayer. You can look at an icon or image of Jesus and silently reach out to Him. Prayer in faith is simply turning your heart towards God. The harder it is to do, the stronger the faith that enables it. This faith is a gift from God that we can choose to receive, and then offer back to Him. This time of lockdown has stripped away a lot of our activities and distractions and so gives us a possibly unique opportunity to turn inwards and meet God in our hearts.

 

[1] Padlock image

How I pray the rosary

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but never getting to it. Now that we are shut in, and life is so unsettling, it seems the right time to discuss my favourite prayer. I write as though encouraging others to try it, but I am also reminding myself.

The rosary is a wonderful meditative prayer that can help us draw closer to God and to Mary. (I discuss its benefits and use in this post.) Over the last few years of listening to other people, and trial and error, I have found a method that works well for me. I cannot meditate on the mysteries at the same time as saying the prayers because my limited working memory can’t cope with that. To begin with I thought the rosary wasn’t suitable for people like me, with autism and specific learning difficulties. But this isn’t the case at all. I have found a method that allows me to incorporate periods of meditation into the recitation of the rosary. It takes a bit longer to do it my way, but the rosary shouldn’t be rushed, and if you have limited time you can choose just to pray one or two mysteries. Although, right now time is something a lot of us have.

If you have never prayed the rosary before, here is a diagram explaining what to do and listing all the prayers and mysteries. You might find it helpful to follow along with a recording the first few times to get the feel of it. I used these videos to begin with. If you don’t have a rosary, you can still do it. Use your fingers to count to ten. Or tie knots in a piece of string. I suggest familiarising yourself with the basic prayers before trying particular methods.

Here is the method I have found to work well for me and my difficulties. Feel free to try any part of it, but don’t use anything that doesn’t work for you. It is a case of trying things until we are comfortable and able to listen to God.

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I find the rosary the best form of prayer to engage with when I am very distracted or feeling anxious. I think the physical aspect helps me to concentrate, and the set prayers mean I don’t have to work so hard on finding words. During the meditation, I often find new clarity on what is troubling me, or an issue I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes I see things in a new way that gives me peace or direction. It immerses me in the gospel, and applies the gospel to everyday life in a way that can be hard to do otherwise. When I am very tired or stressed, I might just recite the vocal prayers. This gives comfort and support, and because I usually spend time in meditation, it is still touching on that deeper communication with God and saying that I want to be with Him even though I’m not capable of giving more. Another wonderful aspect is that we pray the rosary with Mary. You never pray alone when you pray the rosary. It is a family prayer that connects us with the saints and the Church.

What ways have you found to pray the rosary that work well for you? What is your favourite prayer?

Paralysis: Procrastination 

Sometimes it’s the things we most want to do that are hardest to get started on. I’ve been wanting to start writing the blog again for months, but every time I think about it I get overwhelmed and feel an almost physical barrier. I don’t know what the reason for this is. It might involve lack of practice, wanting to do it well, or fear of getting it wrong. It definitely involves mental overload; when trying to think out what to do for the blog, the ideas multiply until I can’t keep track of them and my mind grinds to a halt.

Procrastination interests me because of its relationship to hyperfocus and special interests. When beginning a new task or subject of interest, it can be excruciating trying to get started. But once engaged in something it becomes all absorbing, soothing, endlessly interesting, and difficult to stop. It’s as though I have two modes, on and off. Switching between the two is very difficult and energy intensive, as well as emotionally demanding. I don’t have the grey area between on and off so it’s hard to keep up with ongoing tasks that don’t absorb me, such as household chores.

I also struggle with spiritual procrastination: pray later, read that spiritual book this afternoon instead of this morning. Later usually turns into never. When I’m in a good routine I can do these things daily and look forward to them. But when out of the routine, it becomes extremely difficult to reestablish it. I got out of my prayer routine when I was ill. I got out of all my routines. I am much better now, but am still finding it hard to start regularly setting aside time for prayer. I don’t know what the answer is apart from just keep on trying, and persevere until the routine is established once again. I know that prayer is the most important thing to do each day, and I want to do it. I need to ask God to help me over the barrier to beginning.

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.

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