Backward Thinking

Our diaconal mission should be secondary to our call as disciples

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We tend to get it backward. It’s certainly, in part, because of our upbringing in the American pragmatic ethos. It probably is due even more to our fallenness — the innate distortion of our God-given nature as men, an overcorrective response to our abdication of responsibility in the primeval Fall from glory. But the existential fact remains: as men — and deacons — we tend toward an action-first, mission-driven, get-things-done approach to life. And, willy-nilly, whether we are aware of it or not, we tend to find our identity in that which we do and accomplish.

“What do you do (for a living)?” has become nearly synonymous with “Who are you?” Utility — “Of what good are you?” — has supplanted identity. Usefulness becomes commensurate with value. The sanctified version is little better: “What do deacons do?” is the first question usually asked of us. And apparently because deacons don’t do anything useful that a priest or well-formed layperson cannot already do, the diaconate tends to be a vocation in search of an identity. We tend to do good things so as to justify ourselves. Never mind that in divine providence there is a mystical iconic purpose, a paradoxical necessary unnecessity of the diaconate from which we have yet to drink deeply. For most of us, that’s just too, well, poetic and mystery-laden to be practical. No, show me the money! Mission drives the bus, activity justifies our existence, “being needed” bestows our identity.

Three (rotten) fruits emerge from this dynamic. First, if I find my identity chiefly in my mission, my accomplishments, my doing good things, then I readily tend to try to do more. The notorious inability to say no and the propensity to burn out (and the attendant resentment by neglected spouses, friends and family) have become almost caricatures of the diaconate. Relatedly, if I find my identity chiefly in my ministry and activity, then when they are not sufficiently appreciated and affirmed, I easily feel that I am not appreciated and affirmed. The wounded ego then bears its own version of joyless resentment.

Second, if I find my identity chiefly in my mission, my activity and my accomplishments, then when midlife crisis appears or illness intervenes or circumstances sideline me, I become susceptible to feeling as though I’ve failed. “I’m no longer useful. I’m not a good deacon.”

Third, we can fill our lives with ministry, with doing good, with being useful — yet still hunger for relationship. Like Martha lamenting to Jesus — “Do you not care that my sister has left me to deacon [says the Greek] alone?” — we can feel isolated. “No one understands me, or my struggles or the deacon vocation.” And, of course, we then have the pastoral plan: “You (Jesus) tell her to help me! Tell the bishop. … Tell the pastor … tell my wife … tell someone to help me!” And, meanwhile, we, in our wounded identity, all too easily can seek distracting comfort in lesser things — even sinful things that will never satisfy.

Yet if we are aware, our burnout, our joylessness, our resentment, our envy, our midlife or vocational crises may be the very gift we need. Each of these might serve as a clue to disabuse us of the fantasy that mission and ministry give me my identity, leaving me bereft, yearning for relationship.

Yes, we tend to get it backward, but now, perhaps, we may rediscover the proper order: My suffering may open me toward the relationship that gives rise to a true identity, from which flows a cooperating, indeed a restful, activity and ministry. When we, like the apostle John with Mary, learn in prayer and being before the Eucharist daily “to place our hand in the pierced side of Jesus” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis), that Eucharist from which and toward which all ministry of divine charity flows (see National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, No. 37), that Eucharist that is Jesus’ own gift of his identity in relation with the Father, we rest well-ordered.

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK, M.A.T., is director of the Institute for Diaconate Formation and adjunct faculty at Saint Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.