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Archive for November, 2010

Advent Thoughts

At this time of the year, Christians throughout the world are observing Advent, the season of preparation for the Nativity of Jesus. Western Christians celebrated the beginning of Advent this past Sunday, but in the Orthodox East, Advent has been underway since November 15, the day after the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle. Eastern Christians sometimes refer to Advent as Philip’s Fast because it falls after St. Philip’s Day and involves a discipline of fasting similar to Great Lent.

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding fasting in the Orthodox Church. First of all, the purpose of fasting is not to suffer or in any way “punish” the body, but to strengthen one’s discipline and willpower in fighting off gluttony and greed and similar temptations. Also, fasting is never done in isolation, but in conjunction with prayer and almsgiving. Indeed, when one eats more simply, one should end up with some extra financial resources which can be given to the poor or to some form of charity. One very important detail in the fasting discipline of the Church is that there are many levels and degrees of fasting, tailored to a wide variety of individual abilities and circumstances. The image often used to describe this is a “ladder of observance”. One must not try to scale the ladder too quickly, lest one fall short of one’s expectations and become discouraged. Instead one must undertake only the level of fasting recommended by one’s spiritual father or mother rather than trying to come up with a program of fasting on one’s own. 

In addition to (or in some cases, in place of) fasting, one may elect to take up a spiritual discipline. Again, the same cautions apply regarding doing too much too soon. I have decided to begin a practice of saying the Jesus Prayer according to the Rule of St. Pachomius. (Some more information and one form of reciting the Jesus Prayer may be found here: http://www.saintjonah.org/services/stpachomius.htm) Like other spiritual disciplines, the Jesus Prayer is not to be used in isolation, but as a part of the total liturgical life of the Church, and in consultation with a competent spiritual director. There are authorities that would argue that the Jesus Prayer should not be used apart from the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church, but in fact, there are many non-Orthodox Christians who have profited from the Jesus Prayer. My personal advice to any who would wish to undertake a discipline of regular recitation of the Jesus Prayer, whether Orthodox or not, is to be active and involved in the life and worship of one’s congregation or parish community and to maintain a working relationship with a competent spiritual director who can give helpful advice on how one may best put into practice one’s spiritual discipline.

I will close with a meditation on the O Antiphons, which are used in the Orthodox Western Rite (cf. http://members.cox.net/frnicholas/OAntiphons.pdf), as well as in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, at Vespers during the latter part of Advent (typically, especially in Roman usage, from December 17 to December 23 inclusive).

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.
O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(This particular English version, which does not always literally follow the Latin, is from the Church of England’s Common Worship liturgy, as quoted on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_antiphon).

Best wishes for a joyous and blessed Advent season.

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My thoughts have turned to the subject of spirituality and the autism spectrum, in part because I recently read a book by Abe Isanon, entitled Spirituality and the Autism Spectrum: Of Falling Sparrows. Of course, the subject is of more than casual interest to me since I myself am located on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum and live with the unique gifts and challenges of being outside the neurotypical (or “NT”) mainstream. I generally approach my predicament from a perspective that takes a positive view of neurodiversity, an idea which asserts that atypical neurological development is a normal human difference that is to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. (An interesting article on the subject may be found here: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9C07E0D9143CF93AA35756C0A9629C8B63).

As a child, I began my education in classes for people with learning disabilities, but later in elementary school, I was “mainstreamed” into regular classes. When I began junior high school, I started having difficulties, so a psychologist was brought in to give me an evaluation. I was told that I was “gifted”, and I was admitted to accelerated classes for the academically gifted. My progress in junior high  and high school can best be described as uneven. I excelled in some classes, but I did not do quite so well in others. Eventually, though, I went on to university and received a B.A. (in International Studies), and I also pursued some coursework in linguistics and anthropology at the graduate level. However, I was unable to follow through on my graduate work, since I was unable to follow through in research on areas not of immediate interest to me. I suspect that this was in part due to my autism, which was undiagnosed at the time.

Ultimately, I came to understand that some of my challenges in life were rooted in the fact that I do not have the same cognitive style as the majority of people, and therefore, I have a difficult time keeping track of certain matters which seem to be second nature to most neurotypical people. This is particularly true of such areas as body language and facial expressions, as well as conversational rhythms and certain social interactions. I have learned over the years to compensate for my challenges, and most of the time, I can pass for “normal”, but of course, this takes a considerable amount of hidden effort on my part.

I am still exploring what all of this means for me, both in my day-to-day life and in my spiritual practice. Abe Isanon alludes to a “spirituality of touch” and a “spirituality of solitude” in his book. Touch, in particular, is very difficult for people on the autism spectrum, due to such issues as sensory hypersensitivities, which render certain sensations difficult to tolerate for autistic people. One of my friends has nicknamed me “Mogwai”, after the mogwai creature named Gizmo in the Stephen Spielberg film, Gremlins, who is unable to tolerate bright light and reacts to it in panic, shouting “Bright light!” in a high-pitched voice. I have been known to react similarly, even though I do not think my reactions are quite that extreme.

In general, I tend to shy away from the more “extroverted” styles of spiritual practice, and I would feel very uncomfortable in spaces where a loud, flashy type of worship is the norm, particularly if I felt pressure to participate in kind. I do respect the more emotive style common in certain Evangelical circles from a distance, but the emotionally charged, “in your face” style will all too often send me into sensory overload. Therefore, I lean more toward the quieter, more contemplative spaces, and I find serenity in the measured rhythm and cadences of the Orthodox liturgy. This also explains some of my attraction to the more contemplative modes of religious life, such as monasticism.

At this point in my life, I do not pretend to have all or even many of the answers, but my autism does give me a unique window on the world. I am still trying to sort out what it means to be on the autism spectrum as a person of faith, and thus far, I have only begun to scratch the surface. Astute observers will of course notice that my point of view is not quite that of the neurotypical mainstream, and even though I cannot easily step out of my perspective, I am arriving at a place in my life in which I no longer feel the need to apologize for marching to the beat of a different drummer.

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