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.