Theologians outside of the Orthodox Church have begun to explore possibilities for a “theology of disability” in conversation with the developing field of disability theory. Orthodoxy in Dialogue publishes Ms. Spoor’s testimony as a call to Orthodox theologians, pastors, thinkers, health care practitioners, and persons with disabilities to collaborate in forging a uniquely Orthodox theology of disability.
The other day, I read the article Father Isaac Skidmore published on Orthodoxy in Dialogue about the church and mental health [On Mental Health Referrals by Orthodox Clergy]. It managed to drag up some memories of quite an unpleasant time some years back, which made me want to respond to and confirm what Father Isaac wrote in his quite excellent article from my point of view—the point of view of someone who has spent time with various churches, as well as mental health professionals, since around the age of 17.
My family didn’t go to church. I started going as a teen—got to get that teenage rebellion in somehow—and got a bachelor’s in theology at an evangelical Bible school. I converted to Orthodoxy about ten years ago.
One common denominator I found in all the various churches I’ve seen and attended is that every single one of them has huge difficulties with mental health issues. If there’s anything that can get Christians to tie themselves into a knot faith-wise, it’s being confronted by someone with a mental health problem who stubbornly refuses to be healed into an acceptable level of Joy In The Lord.
Unfortunately, this leads to many well-intentioned atrocities. I’ve been invited to take part in—and adamantly refused to take part in—autistic children being anointed and forcefully told they were no longer autistic. I have, in kind and not-so-kind words, been rebuked for suffering depression. (There have also been a few people who truly have been nothing but kind, and I still remember them fondly.)
I became Orthodox. Although our priest at the time didn’t outright state, “I forbid you to seek help from secular professionals,” certainly his “seeking secular help is unspiritual, they can’t help you, you need to go to this Orthodox person I know” conveyed the message quite clearly. Again, it probably was well-intentioned, but it was wrong. For a while I listened, until a year or two after chrismation I hit rock bottom, mental health-wise.
I left, literally to save my life. At that point I was outright suicidal. That I was unable to explain to my friends in the parish what was going on and why I had to leave meant they could not understand my decisions. That added to the stress of that period and damaged or destroyed many relationships permanently, including the one with my then-priest. I grieve for this to this day.
Finding proper professional help this time finally led to a correct diagnosis of autism. Entering a program aimed towards learning to recognize and live with my own particular brand of autism very quickly turned around the endless cycle of depression that started before I was 10 years old.
Oh God, the Church
That’s not to say it’s a happy ending. Autism in adults, particularly female adults, is still something that needs a lot more research. Only recently science woke up to the fact that autistic children grow into autistic adults, and a lot of adults haven’t been diagnosed as children. Finding our place in the “secular” world, where knowledge of autism is slowly trickling down, can be tough. Finding our place in the Church, where such knowledge tends to lag behind a long way and is sometimes even outright dismissed, can be even more tricky.
Even the Orthodox Church goes through hypes. We just do it more slowly. For example, right now the Jesus prayer is an important tool to connect to God. But it doesn’t always work for people with autism. I can’t use it, or use a prayer rope. It’s a powerful way to connect to God if it works, but if it doesn’t, it’s pointless to keep using it. Usually the reply is “try harder.” But do keep in mind that its use in this current form was, for the majority of the Church’s existence, not nearly as widespread as it is now, and people managed to get saved just fine. We need to find the right tools, not just the one currently popular.
Autism is a brain difference, not a mind or heart difference. There often seems to be an expectation among Christians that once our spiritual lives take off, autism goes away. It not only doesn’t, it needn’t. We can connect to God just as any human being, but the spiritual tool du jour of the Church might not work as well for us.
So far, though, the focus seems to be mostly on “How do we get autistic kids to be in church without bothering other people?” Very few go on to “How do we help autistic kids connect to God?” and even fewer to “How do we help autistic adults be included in church and connect to God?” It would be nice if church weren’t just something that we have to survive somehow.
What does all this have to do with Father Isaac’s article? Well, the points he makes are very true. We shouldn’t expect our priests to be experts on EVERYTHING. That’s not realistic. And priests who believe they are experts on everything can be downright dangerous. Priests who are willing to listen and learn can make a world of difference.
The Church needs the expertise of secular mental health professionals to include people whose brain works differently or who experience other mental health issues, in order to help people connect to God. THAT is the business of the Church; not the healing of mental health problems in this world, but the healing of the relationship between the person as they are and God.
It’s not the business of mental health professionals to heal the relationship between the person and God, but if mental health professionals have knowledge to offer that can aid in this, don’t be too proud to accept it from a belief that only the Church has all the answers. Learning why some things may or may not help someone can get rid of that horrible “you’re not spiritual enough, you’re not trying enough, you’re not…” kind of thinking that is so very crippling.
Speaking from my own “group”: parents with autistic kids often struggle to attend church, and over half of adults with autism attend services only very infrequently, or not at all. There’s not enough space for us in the Church—sometimes quite literally. Priests may tell us that part of economia is that we are excused from attending services because of the difficulties we experience. That, however, comes with its own pitfalls.
“Economia” cannot be an excuse for letting us go and thinking God will sort us out. (Which He will, no worries there). It is trying to be creative in finding ways to include us, not just in physically attending, but also in helping us build our relationship with God.
And please, consider the possibility that you’re not just doing it for us. We may need to find another way, but if you come along with us on that journey, you might even be confronted with a perspective you’d never considered before, and that you could find enriching.
Monica Spoor [in her own words] really has no qualifications at all, aside from being Orthodox, on the autism spectrum, and stumbling around blindly trying to stay friends with God. She is the author of Spirituality on the Spectrum: Having Autism in the Orthodox Church, and is currently trying to wrap her mind around the concept of writing about herself in the third person. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Theology from the Evangelische Theologische Hogeschool in Ede, volunteers with special needs children, does translations, and serves as secretary of the regional advisory board for the department of welfare. She resides in Veenendaal, the Netherlands.