This week for my One Faith, Many Paths series, I’m interviewing Aimee O’Connell, a Lay Carmellite.
1. How has your childhood shaped your interests and pursuits as an adult?
I have always been an observer, soaking in my environment with wonder. Being an only child gave me plenty of opportunity for quiet, reflective time in which I asked questions in my mind and imagined how other people live. I have always been very curious, so it is no surprise that I pursued a career in psychology, with focus on human development, neuropsychology, and learning.
2. If you could have any author or artist depict your life story, who would you choose?
I am equally torn between Flannery O’Connor, whose unflinching way of revealing our true selves would be a gift of great spiritual insight, and Jim Henson, who would get to the very heart of who we are in a very joyful way to see.
3. What are 3 words that characterize your strengths growing up?
Curious, Creative, and mirthful.
4. How did you become a Christian?
My faith formation was interesting, in that I was raised Catholic, but brought up Protestant. My father was solidly Christian and looking for a denomination that felt right to him academically, and my mother was a cradle Catholic who felt bewildered by the modernization of the church that happened in the 1960’s, so she was also exploring denominations by the time I was born, yet she still held to the doctrine of the Catholics, and imparted that to me even as we ultimately settled into the Episcopal Church. By the time I was college-aged, I read with great interest about what separated Anglicans from Roman Catholics and found that most of my beliefs were Catholic, particularly my belief that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist, so I met with a Catholic priest, and expressed interest in becoming Catholic. I was received into the Catholic Church in 1992.
5. How did you become a lay Carmelite?
Along the same lines as I’ve described, my mother taught me about the lives of the Catholic saints, and I felt a strong affinity for the life of St. Therésé of Lisieux from a very early age. Her spirituality and manner of loving God resonated within me for many years. But my introduction to Carmelite life is a much more personal story! I found myself in 2002 searching for a deeper spiritual life, and I attended a 9-day mission as part of that. Toward the end, I felt desperate need to keep the momentum going and took it to prayer. As I prayed before the tabernacle on the last day of the mission, someone I had just met interrupted me to someone. I was, frankly, irritated. Couldn’t she see I was praying? But she insisted, so I let her lead me all the way to the other side of the church, and there was the woman she wanted me to meet. As this woman shook my hand, she said, “If you want to keep the momentum of this mission going, you would do well to come to the Carmelites.” I was shocked, because I had not told anyone of my prayer, and to encounter that exact wording was a direct answer! I found it very intimidating to think that I was being offered the opportunity to join the same religious order as that of St. Therese of Lisieux and the other Carmelite saints, but I did so with the child-like confidence Therese described in her own life, and was received into the Carmelite Third Order in May of 2006.
6. What’s your favorite bible passage and why?
Matthew 7:7 is the passage that finds me here today. When my mother was in her 6th month of pregnancy, she suffered a significant hemorrhage which left me still afterward. The doctors cautioned her that they could not detect a heartbeat and that I had likely died, and there was no fetal movement after my mother returned home. She opened her Bible and it fell on Matthew 7:7. My mother says she prayed that passage and asked for my days to come…and at that moment, she says I leapt wth a fervor that looked like a Loch Ness monster trying to escape her abdomen! Every breath I take is a proclamation of Matthew 7:7.
7. Who’s your favorite biblical figure besides Jesus?
Elijah, because of his unfailing confidence in God and His willingness to put himself on the line publicly to prove it. But as we continue reading, we see his very human side–his fatigue, his need for reassurance, and the evidence that confidence does not come with fear, but rather in spite of it.
8. When did you learn you were autistic and how did you feel?
I learned as an adult, after years of harboring a sense of shame for being an extremely introverted, systematic and quiet teen who did not fit in anywhere in high school. I was always a strong academic, so nobody thought I had any problems. “She does fine in school, she’s just shy! ” was the usual conclusion, yet I felt something very deeply wrong with me. I was more than just lonely…I was searching for a way to express the difficulty I had speaking, the difficulty I had socializing, the anxiety caused by crowds and noise and trying to understand things other people my age liked. I was consistently told there was nothing wrong with me, which left me feeling worse than if anyone had ever acknowledged these things as legitimate challenges I had. It fostered a sense of shame, since the adults in my life kept insisting “you’re okay”–as if admitting my challenges would make me “not okay” . It was not until I had my masters degree in school psychology that I learned what autism is, and what it is NOT, that I was able to name what I am and know that it is nothing shameful.
9. How did you meet your husband?
Here is another great testimony to directly answered prayer! Freshman year of college found me just as lonely as I felt in high school, still with no idea that my challenges were a normal part of being autistic and no character flaws I had to keep hiding. I prayed hard to meet someone I could relate to and feel comfortable with, and I felt an overwhelming sense of “yes, someone is here on this campus for you.” I kept that in my heart, believing it fully, but not knowing how it would be revealed. A few weeks later, my roommates were making prank calls to unsuspecting people on campus. They dared me to make one, and I told them it was unkind and immature, but I did it anyway. When I heard the voice of the unknown victim, it clicked in my mind: this is the person! It seemed absurd but I just knew it, and so after the call ended, I resolved to find this person and introduce myself by apologizing for making that call. It took about 3 weeks , but I did find him, and I did convince him that I was telling the truth. He agreed to meet for pizza and that was the icebreaker. As we talked that night, we discovered we had many common interests, and for each of us, it was like discovering a best friend. 6 years later, we were married!
10.What do you do as a lay Catholic?
The Carmelite charism is one of contemplation, which makes it an interesting challenge to live as an uncloistered layperson! The short answer is one I borrow from Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, which is simply to practice the presence of God in everything I do. More concretely, this means structuring my day around prayer and turning my mind toward God and His works in all that I do. Beyond that, I do what I ordinarily do in my daily life, Which at the moment is home schooling are 3 children and creating content for the Autism Consecrated website.
To structure my day around prayer,I listen to morning and evening prayer from the liturgy of the hours as often as I enabledI listen to morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours as often as I am able; I meditate on Scripture; I offer everything I do to god for His purposes, that he’s great love maybe revealed by my actions; I live my life for God and God alone. I seek out God intimately, Responding with my whole heart to the tremendous love heResponding with my whole heart to the tremendous love He has for me and for all humanity.
11. Tell me about St. Thorlak and why people think he was autistic?
Thorlak Thorhallsson Was born in Iceland in 1130Was born in Iceland in 1133 to a merchant seafarer. He grew up in a setting where survivalHe grew up in a setting where survival depending on farming and fishing under heart climatic conditions,So you can imagine there was not a whips so you can imagine there was not a great emphasis on literacy and academics at that time. Yet, remarkably with few books available and fewer adults to teach him, Thorlak taught himself to read my memorizing the Book of Psalms before he was 4 years old. He did not play much but sat and ask questions of the adults around here with a depth and wisdom that made people marvel. When he was 9, his father’s business failed and his parents broke up the household in hopes of finding foster care for their children. Because of his exceptional abilities, his mother was able to take Thorlak and his sisters to Oddi, A center of political power in academia.
Thorlak became the protege of schoolers there while his mother and sisters lived as servants. His mentor wasHis mentor was both scholar and priest, and by the time Thorlak was 15, he was ordained a Deacon of the Church. Hi attainded priesthood at 18 and was sent to France and England to study theology and canon law. All of this was fun survive little benefactors who expected Thorlak to go on to represent a diplomatic interest overseas, but Thorlak took his role as priest very seriously and devoted himself to serving the poor and marginalized in Iceland instead. Hi quickly fell out of favor with he’s been a factors, yet heHe quickly fell out of favor with he’s been a factors, yet he remain undaunted in teaching about God’s loving mercy, Bringing the Icelandic Catholics to deeper understanding of church teaching and moralityBringing the Icelandic Catholics to a deeper understanding of church teaching and morality.
Throughout his story, there are manyThroughout his story, there are many indicators of autistic traits, from his early academic aptitude, to the literal responsibility with which he approached his vacation, to the documented difficulty see had with speaking and social, to the literal responsibility with which he approached his vacation, to the documented difficulties he had with speaking and social engagement, to the divergent ideas he had about teaching the faith to the people –Which were quite innovative, considering that he preached and them street had mercy in a time in the medieval church is better known for preaching justice and wielding excommunication as punishment to unrepentant sinners. Well beyond his life is the way thatWell beyond his life is the way that artistic Christians relate to Thorlak’s ways in our time. Mini people find the is an example in spiritualMany people find the is an example in spiritual advocate for autistic fingers today, and I can personally say that his story is help me see that god loves me as at his dick as I am. For me it was a huge breakthrough to understand that god embraces me and can accept what I offer from my autism.For a long time, I thought god needed me to conquer my autistic traits first, before I would be acceptable as a member of the body of Christ. Thorlak’s story has helped me see that autism is a living, vital part of the body of Christ–Not an exception, and not a condition which needs to be excluded. On the contrary, autism presents and to me this year our gifts interest in talents and, our needs for connection in a different and beautiful way.
12. Do you have any children?
I have 3 children ages 10, 13, and 15.Until I had children, I worked full-time in a day treatment setting forUntil I had children, I worked full-time in a day treatment setting for adult with cognitive and emotional impairments, and before that, I worked full-time as a school psychologist in the cluster of inner city elementary schools.Now, I stay home with them full time, and we have opted to home school because we believe that learning happens best when it is route to in the joy of self -Perfectpaced discovery that cannot be accommodated enlarge settings.