Max’s autism made it especially tough for him to grasp the reality of God. But when Max had to altar serve alone for the first time, our parish priest’s friendship and wisdom drove home for both of us the one thing that really matters.
by Becky Arganbright
There was a time when I wondered whether my young son, Max, would ever know God. Like so many children today, Max has ASD (autism spectrum disorder). He is a literal thinker, grasping what he can see with his eyes, but struggling to understand anything imaginary or spiritual.
For Max, “God” was an object, like a crucifix or a holy card. I didn’t realize this until one day when we happened to say a prayer without a crucifix around. Max said, “God isn’t here.” It was a knife to my heart to hear these words.
I had hoped that, through stories and pictures, Max would eventually come to understand that God was more than an object. But eventually I gave up trying to teach him the facts of our faith, focusing instead on one thing: that there was a God who loved him.
A Little Help from Father John
Over the years, I’ve had lots of help in teaching Max that one thing. One of the people who made a special effort to reach out to Max is our parish priest, Father John. (I’ve changed his name at his request.) He and Max hit it off from the start, quickly forming a warm friendship—a real boost for Max, who shuns friendships with other kids.
Pretty soon, Max was saying he wanted to be an altar server. I couldn’t have been more surprised—or doubtful. Max normally didn’t want to be involved in anything outside his comfort zone.
With Max’s delays, it took many, many training sessions with Father John to get the routine of altar serving down. We also paired him up with another altar server, who would help him with whispered prompts and directions. Eventually, his younger brother, Luke, became an altar server, too. Max and Luke made the perfect team. Over the course of a year, I watched with pride as Max grew in both faith and confidence.
Things were going really well. Then came the day that Max decided to serve on his own.
The Only Direction Max Needed
An hour before Max and Luke were supposed to serve together, Luke came down with a fever. I quickly made a bunch of phone calls to try making other arrangements, but had no luck.
“God, what do we do?” I prayed. Max had never served on his own before, and it made me sick to think of Max trying to handle both his and Luke’s duties when he could barely remember his own.
I suggested that he sit this one out, but he shook his head. As nervous as he was, Max still wanted to serve. Minutes before Mass was supposed to begin, he still hadn’t decided.
“It’s up to you.” I told him, and then I left him with Father John as I went to find a seat with the other kids. I was half-hoping he’d slide into the seat next to me, but that’s not what happened.
I had mixed feelings as I saw Max processing down the aisle, holding the crucifix high over his head. I found myself holding my breath as I mentally went through Max’s duties along with him: “Now go get the cruets…and now the chalice and paten . . . go back to your seat—but don’t forget to bow toward the altar!” . . . and on and on it went.
Eventually, I began to relax as I saw that Max seemed to be completely at ease and doing just fine. I also noticed that Father John was whispering to Max any time they were together—no doubt reminding him what his next duty was, I thought. Neither one of them looked too stressed out, and actually, Max would sometimes even smile at something Father John said.
Before long, Mass was over. I congratulated Max on a job well done and told him I was proud of him. He looked happy as well, and told me that Father John had given him a big hug after Mass.
“What kind of directions was Father John whispering to you during Mass?” I asked casually on the way home.
“He said that Jesus loves me,” Max said, matter-of-factly.
Jesus Loves You—and That’s All That Matters
“Wait, what? He said what?”
“He said Jesus loves me.” Max repeated. “All throughout the Mass, he kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, Max, Jesus loves you!'”
My mind flew back to the Mass and all the times when I noticed Father John whispering to Max. A whispered word when Max held the Lectionary; a whispered word when Max brought the water . . . always met with a smile and a nod from Max.
He wasn’t being reminded what to do, but reminded that God loved him—no matter what mistakes he might make.
Max laughed at the expression on my face. “Every time he was near me, Father John was telling me how much Jesus loves me. Even before going back to his seat after his homily, he stopped to see if I was doing OK and then told me that Jesus loved me.”
Yes, I remember Father John whispering something to Max then, I thought to myself, stunned.
I felt deeply humbled. I had been so focused on what Max couldn’t do, I forgot what he could do, and that was “to love and to be loved” (cf. John 15:12).
And then I remembered the thought I had had years ago: Max may never totally understand all the details of the faith, but he is capable of knowing God’s love.
I also remembered a conversation I had had with Father John when I was worried about the many mistakes Max was making during Mass.
“I’d rather have an altar server who loves God and makes many mistakes,” Father John had told me, “than an altar server who did everything perfectly and didn’t love God.”
Now I looked again at Max, who was beaming with pride. The same boy who had once told me that God couldn’t be real because he couldn’t be seen had become living proof that everyone is able to know God’s love, no matter what their ability or disability. And in the end, we won’t be judged on what we know, but on how much we loved.
“Yes, Max, Jesus loves you,” I said. “That’s all that matters. And with his love, you can do anything.”