The Word of God for those who have no words

An old picture of my boys from a couple of years ago.

It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.

When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.

There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?

As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.

And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.

Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.

Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?

How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?

“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.

I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.

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The air is Catholic

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Recently, I had the rare experience of having a Sunday off. Since my wife was away, I had the boys to myself and decided to take them into the backyard to play with the hose. This is a more trepidatious procedure than you might at first imagine. Both of my boys, ages 7 and 3, are autistic. Among the many difficulties that are part of that is the fact that they will not necessarily come to me when I call them. Since they also often do knuckle headed things like swallowing rocks or running out into traffic, I have to be all over them when we are outside of the house. And since there’s two of them, I do not often take them outside when I am home alone with them since they could run in opposite directions. But on this particular morning, I decided it was worth the risk. I set up a barricade that kept them either inside our screened in porch or in the backyard and watched them play. While my oldest made the water from the hose shoot up and around in all directions, I helped my youngest draw circles on the porch floor with blue and yellow sidewalk chalk. It was an unusually peaceful time with my boys, and I allowed myself to drink that in. I smiled when they laughed. I smelled the sunscreen I had rubbed on their faces and the grass clippings from the previous day’s mowing. I breathed in the moment, trying to hold onto the feeling, allowing my lungs to fill with warm summer air.

It occurred to me later that there was something essentially Catholic about that experience. That may sound odd since obviously a man need not be a Catholic or even any kind of Christian to enjoy a Sunday morning with his children. Yet what I experienced was not just the joy of the moment itself but the way in which that joy is connected to the whole of God’s good work in the world. I felt a profound sense of connection. The sweetness of the air and the sounds of my kids playing were somehow tapped into the mystery of salvation. There is an endless continuity between that moment in time and the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord.

A lot of Christians, including many liturgical Protestants, have been taught that the word catholic means universal. That is true up to a point, but it is not quite as accurate as it is to say that catholic means according to the whole. That is what the Greek words that make up our word catholic, κατά and ὅλος, mean literally. When we say that the Church is Catholic, we mean that she is whole, she is full. When we say that we are Catholic, we mean that we share in that wholeness and partake of that fullness. And that means that our entire experience of creation is part of the deal. The boundaries of our faith are far more expansive than what we might otherwise imagine.

One of the things that is often hard to communicate when evangelizing is the fact that Christianity is a way of life far more than a set of theorems. To be sure, there is a rich and vibrant intellectual life in the Catholic tradition that builds off of the foundation of basic doctrine. Nevertheless, having all the basic doctrine boxes checked will not make you a Christian, nor will reading every word of the Summa Theologica give you a Catholic mind and heart. People today want sound byte answers to their questions about life, faith, God, and all the rest, but what they need is to live inside the heart of God. This is why I think that some of the best evangelism today comes not from having the slickest pamphlets with the best answers but from being forthrightly and unabashedly strange. Consider this:

Undoubtedly weird to see eucharistic adoration happening in a public place, yet by allowing the sacred to invade and inhabit the every day, we begin to wake up to the reality that everything is being made holy by the presence of Christ in the world. In a Catholic worldview, the whole world participates in the life that God has given and restored in Christ. The air is Catholic. The trees are Catholic. The act of walking down the street, of buying a slice of pizza, of feeling the sun on your face is Catholic.

The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it brings together all that is true and good into one whole. It integrates and it elevates. There is truth and goodness to be found in a marketplace, and in a classroom, and in a church, and in the backyard with the children on a warm summer day. The Catholic faith takes each of those goods and binds them together through the heart of Jesus so that they all flow forth with His life. In the light of Catholic truth, every moment becomes eucharistic.