When I was a teenager, I went to a legalistic Baptist Bible Fellowship church that generously picked me up each Sunday in their van. To me, the legalism was refreshing. My family life was chaotic, and I had a hard time knowing what was expected of me. As an autistic child and teen, I was overwhelmed by the layers of emotions and choices that I experienced that other people seemed to filter out. To my extra-complex mind, legalistic expectations were a relief. Explicit teachings on how to behave that other teens might have found stifling gave me an external filter for my decision making that I had not yet developed internally at that time. They told me to read the Bible, so I did. They told me not to do ___ and to do ___, and I thrived. I would never have overcome the shame that came with the abuse I had experienced without that legalistic framework that told me that God had bound Himself to His word. He said He would have mercy and not put me to shame, so I believed Him, even though my trauma shamed me and my autism made every part of life more intense.
While I’m grateful for the kind people in that church who welcomed me and taught me and said that Jesus loved me when I felt the most unlovable, I did not stay long in that branch of the faith once I had other options. In college, I was captivated by the mercy and grace of God that I found in the United Methodist Church, which brought me through great healing and grief and through my Methodist clergy professors into the study of patristics. It was Methodist Christians who taught me about Theosis and virtues and mercy and the imago Dei. I learned about icons first from that renowned Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright. After his seminar on the Theology of Icons, I started praying with icons.
My husband and I soon felt the draw to the East, and we joined the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, which at the time leaned heavily towards the Eastern influences on the liturgy and prayer life in the BCP. That church was the first one we had joined that had an icon in the Narthex. We lit candles before the Holy Virgin every week. (Now they have a festal icon, too. Many lovely friends are still there.) We delved into liturgical life, praying the hours, singing Compline every night in our home, doing the Stations of the Cross and silent meals with readings from the Tradition on Fridays of Lent, and even doing crochet while listening to the Screwtape Letters one year in imitation of the Desert Fathers’ habit of working while praying. I’m forever grateful for the formation in the hours and common prayer in that church, as well as many friendships. After ten years there, we kept feeling the tug to the Orthodox Church. When my husband’s study of iconography put us in touch with a local Orthodox family who invited us to church with them, we knew we had found home.
It wasn’t just that the Orthodox Church had clear expectations for behavior and an emphasis mercy and a liturgically shaped life, all of which are welcoming to autistics. It was that every good that I had experienced a little in other places was fully present, was sourced, in the Orthodox Church. But beyond those qualities, I found two gifts of the Orthodox Church most helpful as an autistic person: First, the communion of saints and the prayers teach me to ask for help. Second, the iconography and full-body patterns of prayer allow and encourage me to think outside my own head. I’ll elaborate on what this is like below.
First, asking for help does not feel natural to autistics. It’s not that we think we can do everything ourselves or that we don’t appreciate others; we’re just not used to thinking of asking for help as a matter of course. We have to learn to ask for help and practice asking for help and ask ourselves when we’re feeling really down on ourselves and ashamed or sad or frustrated, “Hey, am I doing something wrong, or do I just need help?” Because the number one thing most of us get confused about emotionally is whether we’re sorry about something (Did I do something wrong? Why do I feel like I can’t get this right? Like there’s something I need to do right but can’t?), or whether we just need help. In a relationship with God, it can get really confusing if you don’t know you have to ask for help. It can be VERY confusing if you’re in a tradition that says God’s waiting to smite you. But the Orthodox Church prayers call God “the One Who Loves Humankind,” and every prayer emphasizes God’s mercy (One of my favorites is a nighttime prayer that speaks of God’s “usual love” for us.). The threat of smiting is taken away, which gives me room to feel the contradiction in my emotions and reality. Wait. Am I scared God is going to be mad at me because I did something wrong, or do I just need help? Even if I did something wrong, guess what? The Church teaches me through the prayers to ask for help! And not only from God, but from the multitudes of saints who love me and assist me. It’s hard to fall into this pitfall of my disability when I have saints standing round the pit warning me away from it, saints reaching down to me to pull me out of it, and saints with me boosting me up out of it, and my Lord Jesus Christ alongside me, lifting me out with His ready help.
Second, like most autistics, I have too much going on in my head to think inside of it. I need the whole room in order to think my thoughts and feel my feelings. One of the hallmarks of early autistic intervention is teaching my children to communicate with me and others rather than simply moving around a room. But because I’m also autistic, I understood what the children were doing. I was able to give them the freedom of pictures and words and companionship so that they could thrive. I didn’t primarily focus on ordering their time the way that neurotypical interventionists would, but I ordered their space, giving them resources for expression. I gave them places in the house to meet God. I gave them places to retreat, to rest, to play. I put their communication aids on surfaces around the house where they were needed, incorporating their (and my) natural way of thinking with the resources they needed to learn to speak and think more easily and to communicate with the people they love and who love them. I made love something they felt in the room, something they could touch, a game with clear rules of engagement, a song with their singable parts and movements patterned so they could join in easily. The external ordering, the scaffolding of love, were vital to teaching my children and bringing the three of them who were nonverbal into fully verbal abilities. The Orthodox Church does something like this for me, both bodily and spiritually. Every time I go to church or pray with icons, I experience a scaffolded spiritual love and joy, an embracing story that tells me I’m welcome and draws me further into relationship and communication with God, beyond what I could have guessed. Icons and the patterning of prayer to draw our bodies and spirits towards God are gifts that allow me to wander like an autistic child towards the love that is waiting for me, to learn while I am living in welcome, to feel loved and valued, and to learn to love Jesus even before I know Him fully. When you pray in a church or a prayer corner filled with icons, you start to understand that they are not only windows to heaven, but mirrors reflecting the reality that surrounds you. You start to feel part of the company of saints, like someone loved by God. You start to hear your line of the music and to join in the song. You start to know that you are good, you are loved, you are welcomed like a child; you are home.