An important note at the start.
We’re getting into the area of the heart, now, and a few things need to be pointed out. While these articles are meant to offer support and practical advice, as well as a sharing of experiences that may help us all, there is much, much more that can be said about the heart and the mind and to get the mind in the heart.
It is important to realize that autism is a brain difference, not a mind difference. Since the mind is very closely connected to the brain, it manifests itself more prominently there, but the heart also uses the brain. We process things differently, and that applies to both heart and mind.
The pitfall here is thinking that the heart itself, while unaffected by autism – our potential to connect to God is NOT affected by autism – can without exception be reached in the same way as everyone else. The ‘how’ of reaching the heart may be different as well, since again, it also uses the brain.
This is largely unexplored territory, and the very reason to start this blog in the first place. Many of us have suffered in church; some of us no longer manage to attend church at all. If it were a simple matter of following instructions and our autism would disappear, we wouldn’t have such trouble. Our children wouldn’t have such trouble. Many things about autism are still unknown. Adults in general, and women in particular, are groups that are only now starting to be noticed on the autism spectrum. The transition of recently acquired insights from the psychiatrists’ office to the world in general, and the Church in particular takes far longer.
It is also why these blogs are speculative in some ways. They are based on experiences and knowledge of autism – I’ve worked with autistic children for years before being diagnosed myself – but it is also an area that has never really been explored.
The number one tool to connect to God is, of course, prayer. To connect to someone you’re going to have to talk to them, somehow.
Prayer comes in many forms and flavours as well. Pre-written prayers and services that the Church has been using for centuries, our own prayers, as well as prayer that is action. The Orthodox Church does provide ‘action’ as prayer, as we make the sign of the cross, light candles, venerate icons, kneel, prostrate, and basically, kiss everything in sight.
We’ll always be encountering a combination of all of this. Even neurotypicals have their ‘preferred’ form of prayer, so it is hardly surprising to find the same variation with us.
Take your time to find out what works best for you. Again, the goal is to connect to God, and we’re all looking for the right tools to do so.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
A few words on this important prayer. The Jesus prayer seems to have become the ‘golden standard’, not just for monastics, but for all Orthodox Christians, and even beyond. Catholics use it, and even some protestants have discovered its use in one form or another.
It may seem, due to the emphasis on its practice, that the practice of the prayer is an absolutely vital element in achieving communion with God.
No doubt, it is a very powerful tool. By now, the benefits of its use are well-documented. There was, however, a time when its practice was not as widespread as it is now, and people still managed to achieve sainthood.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because it is the most powerful tool, and the most widespread, that it is the ONLY tool…or that not being able to work with this particular tool means achieving salvation is a hopeless business.
Right, then! What can we say about the Jesusprayer?
We can only speak from our very limited experience. I can do the Jesusprayer when I’m digging up the garden. Using a prayer rope distracts me from the prayer, because the sensations of the beads (I cannot bear the feel of wool, so I use a wooden one) override the far weaker grasp I have on anything verbal. Seeing the words ‘written down’ in my head already helps.
It is – and do not be shocked by this and call me a heretic – actually possible that this form of prayer doesn’t suit all of us. It may suit some of us extremely well; the repetition, the rhythm, combined with a physical object like a prayer rope might be heaven to some of us. If it is, wonderful! You have an amazing and effective tool at your disposal.
If, however, it isn’t, then ask yourself if the frustration of trying to learn to do it the ‘right’ way is bringing you closer to God, or is just taking up a lot of energy with no real results. Do not give up too quickly. It is perfectly sensible to make an effort to master this particular tool, since it is very powerful if you can get it to work, but be practical. If you find another form of prayer that allows for much easier interaction with God, why on earth would you discard a perfectly good tool that you know how to use, for one that barely functions for you, just because the general consensus these days is that it is the only way to achieve a connection with God?
For example, in our parish, all priests and quite a few of the people speak several languages, and at times we need to try and find a common one. Sermons almost always require translation. I speak very little Russian. Some people speak very little Dutch. All of us speak at least some English, although for few of us it is our native language. So we frequently communicate in English.
When communicating, we need to find a common language. The same goes for communicating with God, although our task there is made easier by the fact that God speaks EVERY language, and we just need to find the one *we* speak, preferably our native one. Our mastery of another language, try as we might, will never be as complete. And learning an actual new language – I am working on Russian – is far easier than to try and learn another way to communicate, since our autistic brains are ill-suited to adapt that much. We may learn some, with various degrees of success, but we’ll never completely master them. So why would I speak Russian to someone who also speaks Dutch, when Dutch is my native language?
Phoebe: When visiting at the monastery, the service I find most difficult is Matins. It takes over an hour and half, and there is a lot of listening involved. Occasionally one of the sisters will let me stand next to her and read along. When, at Compline, there is only one sister to read the service, I sometimes get to help read it, and I find reading prayers with someone else much easier. Seeing words on paper is so much more efficient than listening to them.