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Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday and the Cross

Today is Good Friday; it also happens to be International Autism Awareness Day. How do we interpret the symbol of the Cross in light of a diagnosis of autism? What does the Cross represent and how are we as a faith community called to respond? Multiple questions arise such as how do we reach out and support the family who cannot attend Mass because it is too difficult for their child to manage? What about a parent's experience of alienation and disillusionment in the church because the one place they expected to find understanding, compassion and support is actually the place where they feel most alone? While it's important to add that this may not necessarily be the experience of all parents and families all of the time, I have spoken to enough families to know that such experiences happen all too often.

Perhaps we can begin by considering our own experiences of suffering and struggle. How do we make sense of it — or can we? On the night before his death Jesus' anguish is something we might resonate with at one time or another.In Mark (14:34-37)Jesus' suffering is recounted in this way: “…he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want…".

When Jesus asks the Father that the cup of suffering be removed, he models for us a prayer of lamentation—one not used in contemporary liturgical texts. Elizabeth Johnson in her chapter, “The Crucified God of Compassion” (from "Quest of a Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God",2008) talks about the “mysticism of lamenting unto God”. She states,“there is no positive meaning in unjust radical suffering that destroys persons. We must take the full measure of its negativity, refuse to ignore or spirtualize or glorify it. Then this affliction becomes a live question that must be addressed to God. In prayer we cry out, protest, lament shout indignation, say this should not be. In its own way this prayer is a “suffering unto God,” an active engagement with God uttered in anguished hope that there will be an answer. Rather than settle for neat theoretical solutions, it keeps the question open, living with the “not yet” of history while insisting on the promise of God… so to, suffering of past and present must drive us toward God protesting, complaining, lamenting, grieving, crying out of the depths, insistently questioning “How long, O Lord?” Rather than settling for rational explanations, lamenting unto God, unto God in spite of everything, keeps hope alive. Such prayer has the capacity to nurture ongoing resistance to the victimization of others, past and present…” (pp. 66-67).

I take heart in this kind of prayer because it is real. In crying out we are inviting God to be present to us. The Cross represents a God who is in heartbreaking solidarity with those who are suffering right up to the end. This is what we are called to be for one another: to be compassionately present to each other's suffering. We may not be able to take it away but we can stand beside and share the pain and grief. We are also called to recognize that the Cross is not the final event. The Cross is ultimately a symbol representing the birthplace of hope and promise.Jesus' faithfulness in his suffering was transformed into New Life — a promise given to each of us. A promise that our struggles and suffering in Christ will ultimately lead to a new and everlasting life.

So, holding this promise in our hearts, how do we do this for one another in the weary ordinariness of our daily struggles?

A father recently posted a comment on this blog asking similar questions (see his full comment in the separate entry below). In an excerpt of his eloquent comment he writes:

"... a diagnosis of autism goes to the heart of faith and living which is the mystery of suffering. A diagnosis of autism for a child focuses a parent's attention to this question and compels a parent, who suddenly is struggling with anger and grief, to find a way to incorporate this diagnosis into a positive view of living and faith. A diagnosis of autism entails a sense of isolation and separateness from others because of the differences which it presents. This awareness of separateness can manifest itself through school, church, or social settings with family and friends. A parent necessarily questions a loving God and struggles with relationship with God amidst the turmoil of the soul and spirit. A diagnosis of autism forces parents to have some tough discussions about having additional children and what will happen to their child with autism.

In addition to your ideas of the faith formation of children on the spectrum, it would be helpful if the Church developed a ministry to support parents to help them incorporate their family situation into an active faith development. I use the analogy of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They had an understanding of all that went on in the teachings of Jesus but were still disappointed and confused after the crucifixion. It was not until the encounter along the road with Christ that they understood not just in their heads but in their hearts what His teachings meant. In that same spirit, can the Church reach out to parents to help them understand and continue to celebrate the special gift which is their son or daughter?..."

As the Body of Christ, how can we reach out and support our families who have children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder? Using our Christian imagination and creativity what could our ministries of the Word, Worship, Witness and Welfare look like? I invite you to be a part of this vision. How do you imagine what we—as Church— are called to create? How can we be present to each other's narrative of struggle and hope?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


As an autism consultant for a public school system I began working with Justin just as he turned three years old. For nine years I consulted to Justin’s classroom monthly until this past year when he transferred to a private school specializing in autism. Justin communicates through single words, short phrases and gestures. It is not always clear how much Justin understands although time and again he surprises me.  Justin would often greet me by bringing his face within inches of mine, smell me, and then smile.  After a few seconds he would then say, “Hi Sue”. Sometimes after greeting me Justin would become so excited that he would push his lower jaw into his hands in order to regulate himself.

As often happens after working with a student and his family for years, Justin, his family and I had developed a special relationship. Two years ago at the request of his parents I supported Justin as he prepared to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. While it wasn’t easy Justin successfully made his First Holy Communion with the rest of his class. It was a momentous occasion for Justin’s family and I have no doubt that Justin understood that it was his special day and felt the joy of his family and friends.

My experience working with Justin and playing a part in his preparation to receive First Communion has had a profound impact on my own understanding of the Eucharist. Throughout Justin’s catechetical process it became evident to me that preparing Justin to receive first Holy Communion was more about the richness of his relationships with his friends, family, and community than it was about his conceptual understanding of the Eucharist. I realized that the most important part of the process was helping Justin foster loving and mutual relationships where he was an active and engaged participant in his faith community. And finally, I came to understand that receiving the Eucharist was about one’s willingness to sustain and be sustained by experiences of the Divine within the transcending moments of relating to one another.