Stubborn Faith in a Heavenly Vision

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A chilly morning in Emmitsburg, Maryland

Here they are: our six kids. All sitting quietly at the grotto on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “The Grotto” (a replica of the Lourdes grotto in France) has been a place of quiet, prayer, and reflection for students and pilgrims for decades. Many were the afternoons and evenings I spent here during my college years, and I feel blessed to be able to bring my kids up here every now and then.

It’s a lovely sight, isn’t it? Anyone passing by would look at them and think nothing but warm and comforting thoughts. “What a wonderful family! They must be the most prayerful, holy, and well-behaved kids. Their parents must be awesome saints!”

Ha!

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Of course my kids are wonderful. They’re loving and kind and generous and good-natured. I’m crazy-proud of all of them. But angels? Don’t fall for it. They’re everyday kids with all of the challenges and temptations that their peers experience. They all have a checkered history of both fighting these temptations and giving in to them–sometimes very eagerly. They’re kids; what do you expect?

But they’re not just everyday kids facing everyday temptations. They’re also autistic. Every one of them. And that adds layers of complexity. This past Sunday morning was a prime example of these layers—and the reason why we ended up here.

A Familiar Drill.

Two of our kids had a tough Sunday morning. It began early for them. And by early, I mean six-o’clock early. I don’t want to go into the details, but suffice it to say that when one kid’s specific autistic traits trigger another kid’s specific autistic traits, it never ends well. And it rarely remains contained between the two kids. The disturbance spills over to at least one more, and that’s when the fun really begins.

So by the time we should have been leaving for Mass, four out of the six kids had been triggered in one way or another (another one would have been triggered too, but he just hadn’t gotten out of bed yet). With the melt downs and resulting emotional chaos, it became clear that Mass wouldn’t work. They were too keyed up, their emotions too raw. So we activated Plan B. We loaded everyone into the van, and headed for the Grotto. It wasn’t hard, either. By this time, they know the drill. They know that a quiet time in the mountains is much easier than sitting in a crowded church wondering if Dad was going to spring a pop quiz on them based on the Scripture readings for the day.

Once we got to the Grotto we did a few things. First, there was quiet time in the Grotto itself. Then, walking the path out toward the main entrance, we prayed a bit of the Rosary—but just three Hail Marys each instead of the traditional ten. Then, just off the main entrance, we stepped into the Chapel on the Hill, where we read the first reading from Mass, and I said a few words about it. That was it: forty-five minutes of God stuff. And not once did I have to deal with any major objections, melt downs or triggers. They were good as gold. Just as I had suspected.

Visions of Heaven.

I think it was significant that the passage we read (Isaiah 11:1-10) spoke about God’s desire to restore creation to its original harmony. The reading is filled with images like the wolf and the lamb living together in peace and a baby playing by a cobra’s den. It talks about there being “no harm or ruin” and about the earth being filled “with the knowledge of the Lord.”

We normally read this passage as a depiction of heaven. But during Advent, the Church plucks this vision out of the distant future and tells us that Christmas is a partial fulfillment of the promises. It tells us that we don’t have to wait until we die to find the kingdom of God. Right here, right now, we can take one or two steps closer to the kind of peace Isaiah talks about.

This is what I told the kids in the chapel. I told them that I’m not giving up on this vision, and neither should they. God has promised, and I’m going to hold him to his word. I will keep teaching and supporting and encouraging them to become the best version of themselves possible. Even if the forces arrayed against us are large and intimidating, I am still going to lean on God and his faithfulness. I am still going to do everything I can and trust that God’s plan for my family mirrors the plan described in this passage.

Stubborn Faith.

This may sound unrealistic or heroic, but what other choice do I have? Ours is far from a typical family. We have so many challenges distributed across so many different personalities that we would never survive without faith in a generous, loving God.

I don’t mean a generic faith. I don’t mean a naïve faith that is really an abdication of responsibility. I mean the kind of faith that lets you yell and cuss at God when things get out of hand. I mean the kind of faith that believes in God’s direct intervention in our lives—according to his inscrutable wisdom and on his unpredictable schedule. I mean stubborn, grit-your-teeth-and-believe-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary faith.

I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it many times in the future: I am convinced that this whole messy, beautiful, frustrating, agonizing, energizing, liberating thing is God’s doing. And so every time the challenges get too hard, or the weight feels unbearable, I know I have recourse. I can tell God, “This is the family you have given me, so I’m counting on you to give us what we need to make it through. You didn’t send your Son into the world just to tell us to pray more and try harder. So here I am. I’m waiting. Take your time if you want, but I’m not going to let you off the hook.”

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too cheeky. Too arrogant. But this kind of prayer has gotten me through some very rough patches in the past. What’s more, it’s the kind of attitude I want my kids to have: trusting in God, but also expectant; humble before their Maker, but with the familiarity of a child to his father; accepting who they are, but never settling for a “lesser” life because of it.

In other words, I want to teach them the same kind of stubborn faith I’m learning.

I think it’s working.

The Pyx in My Pocket

 

Pyx

Remember my post a few weeks ago about my daughter’s difficulty with getting out of the house because of her fear and anxiety? Well, something cool happened today.

Sunday mornings can be rough for my girl. She hates going to Mass now, because she’s petrified that she’ll have a seizure—and in such a formal, public place. So I’ve been letting her stay home, along with one of her brothers to keep an eye on her (no argument from the boys, of course). To make up for it, I’ve been bringing Communion to her and her brother every Sunday after Mass. I carry the consecrated Hosts back in a little pyx like the one in the picture, and we sit go sit on the back deck together. We read one of the Scripture passages from Mass, talk about it for a few minutes, pray the Lord’s prayer, and then I give them Communion. Short, sweet, to the point.

“I Don’t Want It.”

Today was different, though. She woke up deeply rattled by two separate nightmares. She had promised me that she would come to Mass today, but the nightmares did her in. There was no way she would leave the house, and there was no way I was going to push her.

So off I went to Mass with everyone else, carrying my trusty pyx in my pocket. In the Communion line, I presented my pyx to Fr. Keith and asked for Hosts for my two errant kids. I’m all too familiar with the drill, and so is he. So far, so good.

But when we got home, I discovered that my girl was too upset even to receive Communion. She was in our bedroom, curled up on the bed, her brow furrowed in fear. Her voice quavered as she begged me not to force her not to come downstairs for our weekly Communion service. “I’m just not stable now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me; my nightmares are getting worse, and I don’t want to leave your room.”

“There’s nothing wrong with praying and asking God for his help,” I said. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll feel better afterward.”

“I don’t know why, but I just can’t!”

She was nearly in tears, so I put my arm around her, and offered up a silent prayer. This was worse than I had seen in a long time, and I was at a complete loss. All I could do was hug my girl, with a “loaded” pyx in my pocket.

Ninety Short Seconds.

Then it dawned on me. Maybe the Sunday morning ritual we had established was just too intense for her today. The mere act of going downstairs, getting the Bible, and sitting on the deck was just too much for her to handle. It seemed so easy to me, but not to her. If she just stayed inert in our bedroom, she thought, nothing would change. She wouldn’t have to face her fears. She would stay safe in the little sanctuary she had built for herself.

So rather than coax her out into my world, I tried to enter hers. “I have an idea,” I said. “How about we sit right here on the bed, and I just give you Communion? We don’t have to read the Gospel. We don’t have to do anything special. Just a quick Our Father, and then you receive. Can you do that?”

“I think so,” she said.

It took all of 90 seconds, and we were done. And you know what? It made a huge difference. The anxiety faded. Her smile (a slight one, at least) returned. Her hunched shoulders relaxed, and she breathed a little easier.

The change was so dramatic that I was actually able to convince her to come on a couple of errands with me. Of course, I bribed her with the promise of lunch from McDonald’s, but her willingness to join me was still a marked contrast to how she had been just minutes before.

A Mini-Miracle.

Now, I can interpret this episode in a number of ways. Maybe my persistence paid off. Maybe the memory of her nightmares had faded. Maybe I had chosen just the right words, and delivered them in just the right tone of voice. Maybe the good feeling she got from doing what Dad wanted softened her up.

Or maybe, just maybe, God actually worked in my little girl’s heart and calmed her fears.

This answer makes the most sense from a faith standpoint, but it also makes the most logical sense. The desperate scenario I described above was not going to change. My girl was far too anxious. The only variable that changed in the equation was the impromptu Communion service. She eased up only after she received the Eucharist—which we Catholics believe is the actual presence of Christ.

I know this sounds odd. I know it sounds like I’m trying to justify my faith. But I don’t care. As long as mini-miracles like this keep happening, I’m going to keep believing. As long as I find help and answers in prayer, I’m going to keep giving God the credit. As long as my kids can point to evidence of Jesus’ presence and his work in their lives, I’m going to go with it.

That’s why I’m keeping my pyx in my pocket.

Who’s Leading Who?

So today is Father’s Day. In honor of the day, I thought I’d dust off a post from a few years ago, update it a bit, and repost it. (That, and I’m too busy being a dad today to write something new.) So here goes:

Who’s Leading Who?

In one of the lesser-known resurrection accounts in the Bible, Jesus tells Peter: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” The passage goes on to explain that Jesus said this to signify “by what kind of death he [Peter] would glorify God” (John 21:18-19).

This passage has always had special resonance for me, to the point of being a kind of interpretive key to almost all of the major events in my life. It sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? All this talk about being led where you don’t want to go and dying—even if that death glorifies God. But that hasn’t really been my experience. Rather, I’ve found a surprise or two along the way as I’ve seen these words unfold in my life.

One major surprise came when I realized who it was who would end up leading me along unexpected paths: my own kids! Now I’m sure that many parents can relate. None of us really knows what to expect when we hold our first child. We can never fully appreciate how much our lives will change now that we have welcomed this new person into our lives. How much more when you are blessed with six children! And how much, much more when it turns out that all six children are on the autism spectrum!

Unexpected Paths.

I named an earlier post “A Little Child Shall Lead Them,” and I meant it as something more than a clever play on words. I can testify that my kids—all six of them—have led me in ways I never expected.

  • They have led me to the waiting rooms of psychologists and psychiatrists and speech and occupational therapists as I have sought to understand their challenges and help them make sense of them as well.
  • They have led me to school conference rooms, where I have advocated for them and labored mightily to convince unimaginative, one-size-fits-all educators to give them a fair shake.
  • They have led me to my knees in prayer—not desperate prayers for their healing, but impassioned entreaties that God will grant them a future full of hope, a future where their gifts are welcomed and where they can make a difference for other people.
  • They have led me down rocky paths as I have helped them work through sleepless nights; relationship challenges; full-scale tantrums; days-long depressive episodes; and anxious, hours-long perseverations.

Death and Freedom.

Now, Jesus told Peter this stuff as a way of hinting at the kind of death that awaited him. And that has proven true for me as well, in a more figurative way. No, I’m not writing from beyond the grave! But my kids have definitely led me to experience other kinds of “deaths”—

  • The death of my dream for a Brady Bunch kind of life. It was a pretty self-centered, self-indulgent dream anyway, and I’m glad it’s gone. Now I don’t have to worry about how clean or dirty the house is. Or about when my kids are going to record their first pop single.
  • The death of any rigidity or legalism I may have brought to my ideas of parenting. I have learned to become much more flexible and creative in my parenting. “So what if she wants to wear all black clothing to church?” “You want to stay in your bed to avoid the noise of the dinner table? Knock yourself out! Just make sure you eat afterward—and clean up your plate.”
  • The death of a few close friendships due to some people’s lack of willingness to “get” our family’s dynamic. This was especially hard at first, but I realized that it’s in times of difficulty that you learn what your friends are really made of. That’s when you have to decide who is really worth your time.
  • The death of a romanticized take on the spiritual life. There are no simple answers. There are no guaranteed formulas. And yes it’s true; sometimes God does give you more than you can handle. That’s why he gave us each other. It’s also why he created wine.

It’s ironic, but each of these deaths has made me feel a little more alive and free. Little by little, my kids have led me to a place of surrender. Not defeat. Not resignation. But acceptance. I have learned so much about myself; about human nature, both the bad and the good; and about God that I feel like I’m a very different person now compared to who I was when our first one was born. And that leads to the final part of this passage.

An Unforeseen Glory.

According to the story, Jesus was pointing to the way Peter’s death would glorify God. Well, I’m not about to think that I give God all that much glory. Not unless he is glorified in huge messes! But I do think that the deaths I listed above have helped me to see God’s glory in new, unexpected ways.

  • I see his light shining through my nine-year-old’s unassailable innocence, both when he’s in full melt down mode and when he’s completely aflutter with the joy of something as helping Katie cook dinner.
  • I see him shedding a tear when my fifteen-year-old gets himself tangled up inside and needs to be talked down from a ledge of self-condemnation.
  • I feel his arms around me every time I dive into yet another parent-teacher conference or begin yet another bitter disputation with the insurance company.
  • I see his covenant commitment every time I come home and watch Katie coaching the kids in homework, making dinner, and trying to help the six-year-old overcome his loud, insistent perseverations all at the same time.

So yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff that comes from these little, unlooked-for deaths. Leave it to religion to be so delightfully paradoxical!

This Is My Body.

 For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, so this last one comes from my faith tradition. More than anything else, I see God in the bread at Mass as he says, “This is my body.” But I don’t just see and believe. I’ve also found the audacity to pray in return: “Hey! Over here! This is your body, too—this precious family you have given me. We’re part of you, and we all belong to you. So don’t pass us over or forget about us. You made my kids this way, so you’re stuck with us.”

Then I go one step further and tell him, “And here is my body, my life. It’s nowhere near the image of you that it’s supposed to be. It’s still too much shadow and not enough light. Still, I offer it to you. Go ahead and keep leading me, even if it’s where I don’t want to go. With all of these little deaths, you have found so many ways to empty me. And I guess that’s fine. But now I need you to fill me and raise me up so that I can give myself—body and blood, soul and humanity—back to my children.”

And the Lord reaches out his hand to grasp mine, and responds: “Amen.”

Happy Father’s Day, everyone!

Hope. Faith. Love.

Groovy Love

For those who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, and I take my faith kind of seriously. I also like to laugh at how quirky Catholicism can be at times. Among all the Christian denominations, we have got to be the most precise bunch. It’s likely because of our ties to the Roman Empire. Compared to the Greeks, who tended to be more philosophical and flexible, the ancient Romans were legal-minded sticklers for precision. How else did they manage to conquer the world?

Off the top of my head, I can think of two ways that our Roman roots show up. First, there’s our almost innate desire to define doctrines to the umpteenth decimal point: mortal versus venial sin, degrees of cooperation with evil, specific requirements for fasting, for receiving communion, and all that. Then there are the numbers. So many numbers. Just look at the sevens for an example: seven deadly sins, seven corporal works of mercy, seven spiritual works of mercy, seven sacraments the Seven Founders of the Order of Servites. Then there are the threes: Father, Son, and Spirit; poverty, chastity, and obedience; Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. And, of course: faith, hope, and love.

It’s this last trilogy that struck me today. I recalled how St. Paul talks about faith, hope, and love being the only three gifts of God that last, and how “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And it got me to thinking about how these three virtues are the most important things we need as parents—and doubly so as parents of special-needs children. Forget Doctor Spock. Forget Doctor Phil. Even forget Doctor Who. All those self-help books at Barnes & Noble? Rubbish. All those listicles about parenting on Buzzfeed? Worthless. If you have faith, hope, and love, you’ll do just fine.

And because I’m Catholic, I will now tell you the right order in which you need them. *Clears throat*

Hope.

Every parent begins with this one. A child is born. He is beautiful, innocent, full of promise and potential. We look on this tiny person that is the result of our love, and we are gobsmacked. We have such high hopes for this little baby. Not necessarily that he’ll be an astronaut or a top chef or a CEO—although that would be great. We hope that he’ll grow and flourish and find happiness and love. That she’ll find her own special someone with whom she can make a family of her own. We dream of school plays and soccer tournaments and Christmas trees and family trips. We dream of (and dread) the driving lessons, the first date, the prom, and graduation day. Holding this little blessing in our arms, we can’t help but dream of the future.

Then the child grows up, and we see things that challenge our hope. Perhaps speech is delayed. Maybe he takes far too long to learn how to walk or use the potty. Maybe she doesn’t know how to mingle with her classmates in preschool. Maybe he always cries at the doorbell or any sudden noise. Something’s not quite right, and we worry about the future. Then the word “autism” enters our vocabulary, and we feel hope draining away. What about the prom? What about graduation? What about finding love? Is it all possible?

That’s when we look to . . .

Faith.

It’s faith that keeps our hope alive. Faith in our child’s innate goodness. Faith that he really does want to do well and to succeed. Faith in the team of care providers that we stumblingly assemble to give him every chance at a full and rewarding life—whatever that means. Faith in a God who would never abandon a child of his.

That faith sees us through the melt downs, the tantrums, the tone-deaf schools, and the unthinking or unaware neighbors. It lifts us up when our kid begins to go south, whether because of regression or oppositional behavior or depression or anxiety. It sustains us through the long, wearying days and helps us sleep at night. When hope begins to fade, faith tells us that despite what we are seeing now, better days are ahead. It gives us assurance that what we hope for will come to pass (Hebrews 11:1). It may not look like what we expected, but it will come. And so we press on, fueled by faith, toward that vision that we have hoped for.

But what happens when even faith wavers? What if the child we have worked with, prayed for, fought for, and even clashed with, simply is not making progress? Maybe he can’t overcome the next hurdle, or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Whatever the case, what do you do when hope has dissipated and you can’t place your faith in any of the resources you once relied on?

You still have . . .

Love.

And in the end, you know that’s all you really needed. Your dreams may not be fulfilled. Your doctors and therapists may be at an impasse. Your prayers don’t seem to be working. Nothing is going right, and you don’t know if anything good is on the horizon.

It doesn’t matter. He’s your son. She’s your daughter. And you can’t help but love. Even when you want to throw up your hands in despair, you know that this is your child, and that knowledge brings you back to sanity. It softens your heart, if only just enough to let you take the next step forward.

No matter what happens, love wins out. It may take years, but it will win. Because a child who knows he is loved, no matter what, will always have a glimmer in his heart, and that glimmer will offer some protection, some encouragement, some guidance in the dark days. Just as God looked at us and couldn’t help but love us, even when we felt lost and hopeless, we can’t help but feel love when we look at our children.

So even if he never learns to use the toilet, even if she never speaks a word, even if he ends up living all alone or in your basement, there’s always love. Good old, stubborn love. Because it’s the one thing—the only thing—that will matter in the end.

An Inspired Diptych

Pieta

So here we are in the middle of another Holy Week—the seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter. This is the time when Christians pay especially close attention to the stories of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. And as you might expect, believers conjure up beloved images during this time—images drawn from the Stations of the Cross or from a classic movie like The Ten Commandments or Jesus of Nazareth.

My favorite image, however, is a little different. I tend to think about Jesus’ mother, Mary, and especially that moment after the crucifixion that has been called the Pietà. See that picture up there? It’s Michelangelo’s rendering of the scene, and it’s on display in St. Peter’s Basilican in the Vatican. 

Anyway, the Pietà wasn’t always my go-to Holy Week image—at least not until something happened about four years ago. And since it’s Holy Week, I thought I’d share the story.

It had been a long evening—and it was only 6:30. Our second child had been fighting Katie over homework, fighting her older brother over the use of the TV, and fighting me over whether she was going to eat her dinner or just sit at the table and wail.

She was nine years old at the time: a very pretty girl with big, ice-blue eyes; light brown hair with natural blonde highligts; and a fair face with a few freckles. When she’s not throwing a tantrum, she has a lively sense of humor and an innocent, even sweet disposition.

She also has Asperger Syndrome. Among other things, this means that her brain has a difficult time processing all the visual and auditory input that we neurotypical people take for granted. So after a full day dealing with the sights and sounds of school, she has had just about as much as she can handle. She spends six hours every day holding it all in, and it’s only when she gets home that she feels safe enough to let it out. And that’s precisely what happened this evening.

So there I was, taking my daughter from the dinner table and escorting her to her room—again. “Maybe if I sit with her for a few moments,” I thought, “she’ll be able to calm down.” So up the stairs we went, me tugging her as she reluctantly followed, crying and swatting at me. I sat down on her bed, held her in my lap, and tried to speak in soothing tones while she shook and wept. But it was no use. She just kept pitching back and forth, wailing and screaming until she fell asleep in my arms.

Recognition and Revelation.

I was lucky that night: she fell asleep quickly enough for me to make it to the prayer meeting I had been attending. It took place in the chapel of a large Catholic church. The chapel was dedicated to Mary, and it featured a series of stained-glass windows depicting various scenes from the Virgin’s life.

I got there a few minutes early, tied up in knots and on the brink of tears. Since only a few people had arrived, I found a quiet corner and knelt down for some private prayer.

As I bowed my head and shut my eyes tight, a host of anxious thoughts swirled in my mind. What was going to happen to my little girl? Would we ever find the right therapies and medications? How could Katie and I keep up? What about our five other children, all of whom are also on the autism spectrum?

But then I looked up, I saw that I had stationed myself right next to the stained-glass window depicting the Pietà. I saw Mary, a look of both resignation and surrender on her face as she cradled the lifeless body of her son, the image pierced my heart. I had just come from cradling the seemingly lifeless body of my child, and here was Mary doing the same thing.

It was a moment of recognition and revelation. My reaction to my girl’s suffering was tinged with bitterness, but so was Mary’s. Looking at her face, I could tell that she didn’t just shrug off what had happened with a sense of holy indifference. She was a real mother holding her own flesh and blood. As I kept looking at the image, I imagined Mary telling me, “It hurts, doesn’t it? It really hurts. I don’t have comforting words to offer you, except to say that I know how bitter it is—because I’ve tasted it. Does that help?”

An Inspired Diptych.

In that moment, I felt a sense of kinship with Mary that I still have a hard time putting into words. The best I could come up with was a diptych, a kind of two-paneled painting. On one panel, I imagined myself holding one of my children, much the way that Mary holds Jesus in the Pietà. As I contemplate this panel, I realize that, just like Mary, I too am sharing in my children’s pain and frustration and anguish. When melt downs like my little girl’s happen, I am just as helpless as Mary was, and the best I can do is keep vigil with them and pray for God’s strength to keep moving forward.

On the other panel, I see myself as the lifeless body, spent and exhausted, lying in Mary’s lap. I have given all I have to give, I have done all that I know how to do, and there’s nothing left. But Mary is there, accepting my pain, sadness, and helplessness as her own and ennobling it by turning it into a prayer that we offer to God together.

I realized that night that this is an okay place to be. If Mary is with me, I know I’ll find some kind of resurrection, some kind of divine grace to help me get up and take the next step. I saw that it’s okay to collapse upon occasion; someone will always be with me until I can rise again.

Rising to the Challenge.

What I learned—what I felt—as I looked at that stained glass window has stayed with me. My little girl is not so little any more. Her melt downs may not be as dramatic, but her challenges have become more complex. So too have our other kids’ challenges, melt downs, and rough patches. Frankly, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t get the chance to identify with one or another—or both—of those pictures on my diptych. And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I hope you have a happy Easter.

Come, Lonely One

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.