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An Interview with Aimee O'Connell

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: How has being a parishioner of Saint Pius Tenth Church enhanced your spirituality?

Aimee: St. Pius X Parish is itself a living example of trust and healing. In recent years our parish has undergone several trials in terms of leadership changes, but the defining moment was undoubtedly the fire which unexpectedly destroyed our church in January, 2015 and the rebuilding process which followed. Our pastor at the time was newly assigned to us and immediately began pointing out all the ways that we as a parish live the faith we profess and the mercy with which God heals. It has been deeply moving to see the healing process in action, both in the raising up of the new church and in the manner in which we support one another as a parish family.

Gordon: What were some of the challenges that you faced growing up with autism?

Aimee: When I was very young, my academic strengths made it so that my parents and teachers were very pleased with me and believed I was a model student. It was not obvious that I struggled socially until I reached middle and high school, and by that time, my strong grade point average took the attention away from the fact that I was extremely lonely and isolated. I just could not figure out how to participate socially. I did not learn I had autism until I was an adult, and so I lived my high school years believing something must be wrong with me, personally, if my peers did not find me worth including in their activities.

Gordon: Why did you decide to earn a degree as a school psychologist?

Aimee: I have always been fascinated by how people learn, no matter what that learning might be. I am also amazed at the interconnection of body, mind and spirit. School psychologists employ their expertise in all of these areas to help students identify the barriers that might be interfering with their learning. I was very fortunate to work in the Catholic elementary schools in my Diocese and include the spiritual element in all that I did.

Gordon: Are there any specific people that you primarily help, and if so, why?

Aimee: In my professional roles, I have usually adopted the role of advocate and troubleshooter between clients, staff and families. A large portion of my work has been finding ways to communicate and articulate the particular needs at hand in ways that lead to practical solutions, and so my goal has been to help build relationships between everyone involved in a given situation. On a personal level, I find myself drawn to help those especially whose voices are not being heard or readily understood.

Gordon: What interested you in becoming a contemplative Carmelite ?

Aimee: From my earliest memory I felt a great affinity for St. Therese of Lisieux, and I held Carmelites in special esteem because of her example. In 2003, I attended a parish mission that gave me a new zeal for my faith that I wanted to continue well past the last date of the mission. I prayed especially for a way to be shown to me, and on the last day of the mission, a woman introduced herself to me and said nearly the exact words I had prayed: “If you want to keep this going after the mission ends, you would do well to begin formation with the Third Order Carmelites.” I had my answer, and as I completed my formation, I felt increasingly that I was finally on a path that would fulfill the call toward God I felt deep within my heart. In formation classes, I would come to realize I have always been contemplative in the way I pray and approach God – and so, I gained the structure and pattern I needed to adopt this way of living across my entire lifestyle.

Gordon: When and why did you launch Mission of Saint Thorlak ?

Aimee: I have felt for many years that there is a great need for spiritual resources specific to autism. It is not so much that we need a separate spirituality or that autism demands modifications, but more that there are spiritual needs and barriers which people with autism are more likely to experience, and I wondered how these could be addressed in the same ways I worked to address learning barriers with schoolchildren. Yet, it is important to realize that these autistic needs are fundamentally the same as the needs of any human heart. In my own life, I could say my faith was very strong, but my participation in the community was very weak. God did not create people to live in isolation. It was only when I discovered the life of St. Thorlak of Iceland (1133-1193) that I found a way of living that fit with the autistic thinking style and showed me the ways that God is revealed and made present in our relationships. Specifically, I saw that, as people experience one another, they tend to likewise experience God. If I live in isolation, I do not have the opportunity to fully experience God. The traits of St. Thorlak strongly suggested to me that he was a man with autism, rather like my own – high academic skills, but low social skills. I was fascinated by the question of how he applied his spirituality to experience God, even with his speech impairments and social anxieties. I gleaned what I considered the core elements: caritas (genuine concern for the well-being of others), voluntary humility (acknowledging his needs), leading by example before using words, and maintaining a contemplative sense of wonder (and being willing to not know things). St. Thorlak demonstrated merciful love, bottom-up thinking and servant leadership in a time when those concepts were not at all widely known. He lived mercy in such a way that the people in his districts sought after virtue by his example. He was a man of the people, even though it is clearly documented that he had a painful speech disability and overwhelming social anxiety.

Whether St. Thorlak had autism or not, we cannot say (even though I believe he did); but we can say that his ways are helpful for autistic people – and all people who hunger to know God. And so, I launched The Mission of Saint Thorlak in 2017 as a foundation for making his ways better known and encouraging people to adopt his approaches in developing their own understanding of God.

Gordon: What have been some of you most rewarding experiences of your mission to date?

Aimee: It has been my great joy to see this initiative reach individuals around the globe through our website and social media. The feedback we receive is overwhelmingly supportive, telling me that people really do see the treasure in St. Thorlak’s life and wisdom. It is no surprise that most people have never heard of St. Thorlak before hearing of our Mission, since he lived over 800 years ago and is patron of a nation which today has only a very small number of Catholics (mostly immigrants; very few native Icelanders are Catholic) who recognize his name. Therefore, a big part of our Mission is very simply to do for St. Thorlak what he is doing for those who have already found spiritual benefit in his ways: and that is, to help him become known for who he is. It was not until I learned how to be known for who I am that I experienced God most fully, and it is my wish to reciprocate that gift for St. Thorlak – and extend that gift as far and as wide as there are people who hunger for God.

Gordon: Thank you for an inspiring interview.

Aimee: You’re welcome.

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