As the season of Lent begins, I thought I’d go link to a post on the website for the Jesuit magazine America. On their Scripture blog, Fr. Terrance Klein, a professor at Bonaventure University wrote:
The grace of insight often seems to accompany great sorrow, the sort we suffer alone, because no other can fully feel our pain. . . . The 11th century Byzantine Christian monk, Symeon the New Theologian, viewed suffering in deeply personal terms: the loneliness of suffering was a form of intimacy with God. In his prayer to the Holy Spirit, he wrote, “Come Lonely One, to him who is alone.” . . . When suffering cannot be avoided, the Christian should do more than accept it with resignation. However long and arduous the effort to do so, we should receive suffering as a call to intimacy with the Man of Sorrows.
I like this reflection, because the image that Klein paints—an image of suffering as a call to intimacy with God—helps me make some sense out of the difficulties that my kids on the autism spectrum are facing and will likely face in the future.
At the risk of sounding maudlin, I know that my kids are going to encounter more challenges, more setbacks, and, to put it bluntly, more suffering in this world than their neurotypical peers. It’s just the way things are. They will never quite fit in; they will likely have fewer friends. Some of them may never marry or have children. They will be more alone than most of their peers. The world is unfair, and in some ways my kids got the short end of the stick.
But it’s not just the social aloneness they will face. There’s also the aloneness that comes from knowing that you’re different. You feel that difference deep down. But if you have an autism spectrum disorder, you may not know how to process it. You sense that people don’t “get” you. You’re not even sure that you “get” yourself. Even though you sense that it’s not true, you still can’t help feeling “less” than the people around you, and that causes an inner isolation that can get right down to the core of who you are
Accepting the Invitation.
According to Fr. Klein, you have two options when it comes to responding to this kind of aloneness. You can shrug your shoulders and accept it with a sad resignation. Or you can receive it as an invitation from God. My goal as a parent is to help my kids accept the invitation. I want to assure them that no matter how different they may feel, no matter how harshly they are judged, no matter how little they think they fit in, there is a deeper truth at work in their lives, a much more hopeful truth than the false truths they feel tempted to accept.
Here are some of the dimensions of this truth.
• There is a mystery to their autism—a mystery that involves an invitation to a deeper relationship with God. In their aloneness, my kids have a great opportunity to identify with, and to discover more deeply, Jesus, who was the loneliest man in history. They have the chance to understand that Jesus was more different than anyone else who walked the earth, but he never let his difference isolate him. Instead, he continued to pour out his life for other people, hoping to bring them closer to God. All this means that my kids have the opportunity to find their stories in Jesus’ story. As isolated as they may feel, they have a unique opportunity to become men and women for others, just as he did.
• I believe that if they grow up in an environment of faith, people who face more than the “fair share” of hardships end up more reflective. They are able to look at the world from a critical distance, and to see life with a deeper and more stable set of priorities. This makes them more apt to come in touch with the deeper regions of the heart, where God dwells, and to find there the strength and good humor they will need for their challenging lives.
• Drawing from the writings of St. Symeon, Klein talks about the “grace of insight” that comes to those who suffer. It’s a grace that can make sufferers into prophetic voices and prophetic witnesses. This tells me that simply by the witness of their lives well lived, my kids can testify to a greater purpose and power than what the average person expects. They can point people to the deeper and more meaningful dimensions of life. In short, their inwardness, their relationship with God, can make my kids into signs of God’s presence and love—if they choose to accept his invitation
Why Not Why?
In an earlier post, I said that asking why so many of my kids have this challenge was not nearly as important as asking how I could help them make the most of it. Well, this post from Fr. Klein warns me not to be so sure. Why isn’t always a bad question to ask—and it’s not always a question God hates to answer.
And that’s a good thing, because the question won’t go away. Some of my kids are beginning to ask this question, so I may as well try my best to find some answers to help guide them.
In the mean time, it’s encouraging to know that God is with my children in a special way. As Fr. Klein wrote, no other person can fully feel their pain. But Jesus can. And he is inviting them to discover his answers to their questions. I only pray that I will be up to the task of helping them find the answers—to accept the invitation that God has given them.
So why did this happen? Is it possible that God has something important for my kids to accomplish? That he has invited them to know him with a special intimacy, and to become his prophetic voices in this world? I can’t rule this out. Of course, I don’t pretend that my kids are superior or more spiritual by nature. I have daily evidence to the contrary! But maybe, just maybe, they have a special calling to manifest Christ’s presence in the world. Maybe God gave them this cross so that his strength can shine through their weakness and otherness. Maybe he wants to teach them peace and intimacy with him in the face of their isolation so that they can radiate that peace to the people around them. In the mean time, I will continue to pray that Jesus, the Lonely One, will come to them when they feel the most alone.