Photo: Deborah Cull
Max, with his mom Emily.
Max Dances On
By Felix Carroll (Oct 26, 2010)
He is well known here at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy. His name is Max. He's one of our favorite visitors.
Two things make Max different from most of the thousands of annual Shrine visitors. The first is that he has autism, a brain disorder that affects his ability to learn, speak, and relate to people. The second is that he's been raised an evangelical Christian, not a Catholic.
His experiences here at the Shrine and his affection for a prayer recited here daily have been captured in a new book, Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free (Zondervan, 2010). Written by Max's mother, Emily Colson, and his grandfather, Charles W. Colson, Dancing with Max tells the story of Emily's experiences as a single mother and the challenges and triumphs of raising a child with special needs.
The book jacket explains the powerful story this way: "As Emily recalls her experiences, we discover that Max's disability does not so much define who he is, but reveals who we are."
Included in the book is an entire chapter, titled "The Bridge," describing the Colsons' Shrine visits.
Drawn by the Chaplet
We remember Max's visits well. In 2006, Max climbed up the stone steps and entered the Shrine with the same degree of excitement most kids have when they arrive at Disneyland.
"He could not wait to be here," Emily told us.
With a wide smile and eyes beaming, he took it all in — the statuary, the stained glass, the image of The Divine Mercy, people praying, all the details he's seen on television each morning.
Max was 15 at the time. He's 19 now. His first visit to the Shrine came about because he watches the early morning broadcast on Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) of the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, which was recorded at the National Shrine. Emily explained at the time how Max refused to go to school until he watched the broadcast. He had memorized the prayer. He wanted to see the Shrine in person and to pray the chaplet with the Marians, which is done daily at the 3 o'clock hour.
So, in early May, 2006, Max and his mother, who live three hours away on the New England coast, took a trip to the Shrine, joined by Max's grandmother, Nancy Bursaw.
Emily happens to be the daughter of Charles Colson the former presidential aide to Richard Nixon and famous Christian commentator, author, radio host, and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Despite the Colsons' evangelical background, Max's love for the chaplet, a prayer given to St. Faustina that pleads God's mercy on the world, has been a welcome surprise in the Colson home.
Now that my son is 170 pounds — and I'm not — there is only one thing strong enough to pull him out of bed in the morning. He hides under his blanket, slowly emerges as a hunchback, and is finally upright by the time he reaches the bathroom. But no matter how painful, Max makes sure he's downstairs on time. Max's wake-up call, by his choice, is "prayer TV."
At first it made me laugh to see Max fixated on the Catholic channel, EWTN. After all, church had been as much of a struggle as any other part of his life. And then there is this tiny detail that we're Evangelical Christians, not Catholics. Clearly Max doesn't understand that there are different denominations.
In our interview with Emily, she said, "One of the things that I have valued so much about Max's appreciation for the chaplet is just watching this child who is so pure and without judgment, who doesn't see denominations, but rather a common denominator: a love for God."
It's a lesson for all Christians, said Emily — to embrace our many similarities rather than dwell on differences.
But why is it that Max finds such comfort in the chaplet? She explains in her book that, on one level, like many people with autism, Max craves repetition and familiarity. The chaplet, a meditation on the Passion of Jesus Christ, is intended to be repetitious. The fact that it's broadcast daily puts Max at ease.
But on another level, Emily is certain that the Holy Spirit moves in Max. If Max is drawn to the chaplet, she said, it must be God's will.
The Lord made it clear to St. Faustina that the chaplet is for the whole world. He attached extraordinary promises to its recitation. "Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death," He said (Diary of St. Faustina, 687).
"Our pastor once said that despite all of Max's communication challenges, the Holy Spirit speaks Max's language," Emily told us.
That language, she said, can be characterized as one of child-like faith.
His faith was clearly visible during his first Shrine visit. Each day at the Shrine, following the chaplet, pilgrims are invited to come up near the altar to kiss a relic of St. Faustina. When Max saw people lining up, he joined them without hesitation.
"He had no idea why everyone was walking forward," said Emily, "but he wanted to be a part of it. It reminds me of the kind of childlike faith God wants from us: to walk forward in the unknown trusting that He will show us what to do when we get there."
Emily writes in her book of a light-hearted incident that happened before leaving the Shrine that first visit.
My son noticed that the service didn't end exactly the way it does on television, which I'm sure in his mind was a glaring omission. So, from the back of the church, in a very unquiet voice, Max assisted the priest by finishing the service properly. "Copyright EWTN!" he yelled. "To order this or other religious broadcasts, contact ... ," and then gave the address, telephone number, and website. It was one of those perfect Max moments. I plastered my hands over my mouth trying to stifle the laughter.
The following year when the Colsons visited, the Shrine's Pilgrimage Coordinator Carol Scott arranged to have the chaplet sung exactly as it's broadcasted on EWTN — just for Max.
One of Emily's most precious memories of the Shrine was Max's encounter with a group of visiting nuns. When Mass was over, Max and Emily walked past them to the front of the church. Several of the nuns reached out for Max, to hold his hand for a moment or to stroke his shoulder.
"I saw the loving smiles on the faces of these nuns as one after another reached out to touch him," Emily told us. "They were extending more than acceptance for someone disabled. They were sharing the love of Jesus. I saw Christ's love encompassing my child through these beautiful women. I saw a glimpse of heaven."
Later, when Emily and Max were alone in the Shrine, Emily said she attempted to pray that Max would be healed. But she couldn't quite bring herself to make such a request.
"I was so overwhelmed by the love his disability and his pure faith have revealed in others that all I could do was to praise God for how He has used Max," Emily told us. "He is like a matchstick — when pressed against the harsh surface of the world, it ignites a flame of passion and light. Perhaps the healing that takes place is in the hearts of those of us around Max."
Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free is available through Emily's website, emilycolson.com.