Pray for Us Sinners . . .

My little girl (10) was having a rough time at Mass this morning. Anxiety about other family members’ struggles became too much, and she couldn’t get seem to stop the negative thoughts. Misperceptions and anxieties then led to her acting out in an angry/sad combination that had begun to wear me down as well. She feels everything so deeply that it’s like she takes on everyone else’s burdens.

But then halfway through the Mass, she asked if she could go to the back of the church, where a little alcove dedicated to the Virgin Mary is (pictured above). “I can’t stand being here,” she snapped.

“Only if you promise to come back,” I said. I didn’t want her just wandering around back there. She grunted in assent, and stomped off. She loves drama.

While she was gone, I took the opportunity to try to reset myself in prayer. Heart rate came down. Breathing became more regular. Lumpy throat diminished. A good start.

Five minutes later, as the homily was wrapping up, she came back. Stepping lightly. Smiling. She gave me a big hug and said she was sorry. The rest of the Mass passed uneventfully. Peacefully, even. I felt another lump in my throat, but this one was okay.

After Mass, I asked her what she did in the back of the church. “I just sat there for a few minutes and looked at the statue of Mary.” Innocent. Matter-of-fact. No drama.

“Do you know what happened?” I asked.

“What?”

“You went to Mary, and she prayed for you. She prayed with you. And Jesus answered her prayers and yours. How else can you explain the dramatic change?”

“I guess you’re right,” she shrugged. Then she went off to grab a donut—as if nothing had happened.

Everything Happened.

Now, it would be easy to attribute my girl’s change to her taking a break. It would make sense if you wanted to say that getting away from her siblings and changing her environment was all she needed to do her own reset. But the change in her demeanor was so dramatic that this can’t be the only answer. Not to mention how little time it took for her to turn around.

Besides, as a Catholic I believe in the Communion of Saints and the special role that Mary plays as our spiritual Mother. In fact, many are the Rosaries I have prayed asking for her maternal intervention in my kids’ lives. And on more than one occasion I have experienced blessings from her myself.

That’s the thing about faith. It doesn’t need to “disprove” the other explanations that may be out there. It’s not as if it’s a zero sum game, where you have to ascribe everything to either psychology or spirituality. Faith is capacious, generous, encompassing. It’s also humble. It doesn’t feel threatened when other possible answers are put forward. The Bible may describe God as a “jealous” deity, but this is not the kind of jealousy it’s talking about.

Every special-needs parent has to find the best way to help his or her children and to deal with the unique challenges that he or she faces. As for me, I can’t imagine walking this road if I didn’t have recourse to prayer. I can’t imagine being left with only medical, psychiatric, and pharmacological answers. If my kids have taught me anything, it’s that there’s more to them than the sum of their various material parts. There’s a longing to belong. There’s a drive toward unity and community. There’s a capacity to love and to receive love that goes beyond simple reciprocity. There’s a “fittedness” for heaven that I can see in their eyes.

So it makes perfect sense that when my girl went to spend time with Mary, Mary spent time with her. And prayed for her. And blessed her.

My girl may not think that much happened during those five minutes. But I know that everything happened.

Both to her and to me.

 

Thanks, Mom

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There she is. Mom.

This picture was taken back in 1996, during one of my visits to her and Dad’s home in Sarasota, Florida. I have another picture of her from two years later that means a lot more to me. But I’m reluctant to share it because it contains our entire wedding party, and I try not to post pictures of people without their permission.

Anyhow, the story I want to tell has to do with my wedding to Katie in 1998 and the role Mom played in making it special—as well as the role she continues to play, even though she has long passed on.

A Special Wedding Gift.

Two months prior to our wedding, Mom was pretty sick. The leukemia she had lived with for years was beginning its final march on her system. We weren’t sure she would make it to the wedding. We even began looking into moving the wedding to Sarasota so she could be with us. Continue reading

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 Unfortunate Theory of “Spiritual Autism”

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So this was fun—not. Last Thursday, a Catholic blogger named Gregory Popcak posted an article titled “Spiritual Autism and the Catholic-Evangelical Divide.” In his article, Popcak describes people on the autism spectrum in the following way:

Their brains tend to see people the same way they see objects. They aren’t good at picking up or even appreciating the need for emotions and emotional cues.  In fact, the emotional demands of relationships often feel intimidating. Because of this struggle with the relational dimension of their experience, they tend to become fixated on curious hobbies and obsess over minute details.

Needless to say, I was offended by this characterization, and I found it to be demeaning of people on the autism spectrum. My children definitely do not look at Katie and me as objects. They may struggle with relationships, but not for the reasons Popcak states. If anything, the “Intense World Theory“ explains their struggles much better than the “Robot” theory he is espousing. The same goes for the many other autistic people I have come to know. They know the difference between a person and a thing, and they know how to treat people like people. Again, they may have some struggles in knowing how to relate or in regulating their emotions—causing them to shut down or retreat into their shells—but it’s not for a lack of trying.

What’s worse, Popcak uses the term “spiritual autism” to describe a certain deficiency in some Catholics’ spiritual lives—that they favor ritual and routine over relationship and interaction. That may well be the case for some, but it’s unfortunate that Popcak links this spiritual “deficit” to autism. It gives the impression that autistics aren’t capable of religious sentiment or spiritual experience. Again, it may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. (As an aside, I’m not a fan of his theological premise either. It sounds as if he is setting ritual in opposition to relationship, which isn’t wholly the case. But that’s for another time and another place.)

Yesterday, I wrote Popcak an e-mail stating my objections and asking him to either reword or remove his piece. I also posted a brief comment objecting to the article on his Facebook page. We’ll see if and how he responds. I’ll keep you posted. In the mean time, feel free to post your own comments on his page if you want. Just be sure to keep it civil and short. I don’t want to start a hate campaign against the fellow. He’s just misinformed, and a sloppy writer. He should know better than to paint with such broad—and harsh—brushstrokes.

Do They “Get” Religion?

We had quite a bit of drama last Sunday over getting the kids to church. One in particular—our second, a 12-year-old girl with Aspergers—gave us a lot of grief. First, there was the feigned illness excuse. Then there was the pulled muscle stratagem, in which she faked a sore back because she had been throwing the football with her brothers the day before. Then, when all else seemed lost, she pulled a very clever ploy: the constipation gambit. Just one minute before we absolutely had to get out the door, she ducked into the bathroom, locked the door, and protested that she really had to go, warning us that it would take a long time.

By this point, I was done. I had been working with the others, trying to get them ready, all the while fielding this girl’s anxious protests. So by the time she played her final card, I gave up and told her to stay home. I also made sure that the computers were not accessible. I may have been done, but I was not going to be anybody’s fool!

Then came the afternoon, when she was set to go to Sunday school, or CCD as we Catholics call it. She had sworn up and down all day that she would not try to get out of it, but as soon as the time came, the same old excuses came up. Only this time with far more emotion: desperation, anxiety, fear, anger, recrimination, exaggeration. You name it, she threw it at us. Again it was clear that, short of physically throwing her in the car and dragging her to class, it just wasn’t going to happen. (Note: she’s big for her age, and not all that easily moved. If I were to try the physical approach, I would likely look like an abusive dad.)

This was all so frustrating for me. This girl is getting close to her confirmation, and to this point everything related to God or faith or the Church has been a struggle. As you can guess from previous posts, I take my faith pretty seriously, and one of my highest goals is to see all my kids come to a personal embrace of their faith, just as Katie and I have. But this is probably the best picture of how this girl’s guardian angel must feel on Sundays.

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Literal Brains, Spiritual Truths.

It took me a few years to get to the point where I’m not all that surprised by this. For quite a while I tried to force my expectations on them, wondering if they would ever accept the faith that is so important to Katie and me. It’s hard to admit that this may never happen because of their ASD, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a very real possibility, if not a downright probability.

After all, teenagers on the autism spectrum tend to have a harder time with religion than their neurotypical peers. ASD kids are very concrete thinkers. Inference and abstraction are foreign concepts. So the thought of an invisible Person whose presence and influence can be detected by intuition and emotion can seem absurd. Aspies tend to be fiercely independent and unwaveringly evidence-based, so there’s not much room for faith in a brain like that. There’s not much room for the idea of submitting one’s heart and mind to an exterior, mysterious God. If my girl were in the upper room with St. Thomas, she would have outdone him in his demand to probe the wounds of Christ before believing that he had risen from the dead.

All this can make the whole idea of a religious service, whether it’s a solemn Mass or a nondenominational electric guitar-fueled gathering, extremely foreign. Then, when you consider all the sensory issues involved—incense, lots of unfamiliar people, loud music, all that sitting and kneeling and standing—it’s a melt down waiting to happen.

At times this has left me wondering if I should even bother to teach the faith to my children. Maybe it would be better just to aim for good, moral kids who stay out of trouble. If their brains are wired so differently, why pretend they’re going to “get it” anyway?

Meeting God.

But I just can’t do that. I may have to accept a different script for my children’s lives than I had intended, but I’m still not giving up. For all the trouble it can cause, and for all the creativity it can demand to get them to Mass, I still believe it’s worth it.

That’s because I believe in a God who acts—and who acts dramatically. You see, while many of my convictions about religion were formed by the Catholic intellectual tradition—I studied philosophy and theology at a Catholic liberal arts college—these convictions came to life for me because of a deep interior conversion experience.

It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that when I was a junior (32 years ago this month, in fact), I had an experience of God that was intensely personal. Everything I had learned in my brain became real to my heart, and I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was real, that Jesus loved me, and that his Holy Spirit was alive and working in my life. I felt a joy I had never known before, as well as a freedom from guilt and a new sense of purpose to life. I’m convinced that without this experience, I would have lost interest in God years ago.

That’s why I’m not giving up. I know that God is bigger than ASD. I know that he loves my kids. And if he loves them, he can’t help but want to show them his love. So I believe that somehow, somewhere, in some manner, he will do for my children what he has done for me. He’ll make himself known and touch their hearts. I don’t know when. And I certainly don’t know how. But I believe deeply that he will do it. I just have to adjust my expectations of what that will look like.

Doing My Part.

So in the mean time, I’ll keep doing what I can. I’ll keep making sure that they have the data in their minds so that when God moves, it can transfer to their hearts. I won’t try to force faith on them. And I certainly won’t get my expectations too high about their emotions or their spiritual intuitions. Where some of my friends’ older kids are beginning to own their faith, I’m not expecting my kids to do that any time soon. At this point, my main concern is to make sure that the information is there. It’s to help them feel as comfortable as possible in church. I know they may never be all that comfortable. But at least it’s a start.

So here I am doing my part. The rest is up to you, God. Good luck!

And if it never happens for them, if they never “get” the experience I had, I won’t sweat it. As I said above, God is bigger than ASD. He’s also bigger than any one model of religious experience or salvation. Even if they can simply come to accept the premises of faith and try their best to live an upright life, I’ll be happy.

Because you made them the way they are. You know who they are. And you won’t let them down.