A Deacon's Lessons: Seven things they don't teach you in formation
I never realized just how hard a stone church floor can be until I found myself lying on one, face down, on a chilly May evening in 2007, just a few nights before my ordination. It was the rehearsal for the Big Event. As we practiced lying prostrate on the basilica floor for the Litany of the Saints, a thousand random thoughts ricocheted through my mind, but one jumped out and stays with me still: “Funny, but I didn’t think the floor would be this cold.”
Funny, but that was just the first unexpected surprise of my new life in the church. It would not be the last. It turns out there are a lot of things you do not learn about being an ordained clergyman until after the incense is cleared and the flowers have wilted and you are suddenly struck by two little words: “Now what?”
I remember feeling a little of that on my wedding day 23 years ago, as my new wife and I waved goodbye amid a blizzard of flower petals and birdseed, climbed into my Nissan Sentra and headed down the driveway toward our honeymoon. We had a map, but the direction our life together was about to take was unknowable and unpredictable.
Like married life, ordained life is something nobody can really prepare you for. And the most valuable lessons are often ones never mentioned in the classroom.
On May 19 I marked my two-year anniversary as a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Brooklyn. It’s been an exhilarating, humbling, maddening, joyous and exhausting ride. Every now and then, deacon candidates ask me if I have any advice. “Pray,” I tell them. “Pray hard.”
But if you want something more concrete, here are a few brief observations from the last two years in the trenches and in the pulpit.
1. Priests are like snowflakes: no two are alike. Earlier this year, my bishop led a day of recollection for deacons and offered this insight, “You shouldn’t look at cheese under a microscope because it will make you never want to eat cheese again.” Then he explained that deacons are often exposed to the priesthood as if looking at it under a microscope.
It is not always pretty.
Well, like all of us, priests have quirks. Most I have met are enthusiastic cheerleaders for the diaconate and are happy to have the deacons’ help. But there can be challenges. Some priests find deacons annoying and look at us the way W. C. Fields used to look at small dogs and children. Some prefer to work solo and roll their eyes when you show up in the sacristy. With others you need a GPS device to follow how they work around the altar: one gestures so broadly during Mass that when he opens his arms to pray, I have to duck; another priest can be as still as a stone. Some like just a little wine in the chalice, others more. Often the deacon has to think on his feet to anticipate what the priest is going to come up with next. It’s like playing liturgical Ping-Pong.
A priest I know once began a homily by saying, “I learned the other day that deacons are actually good for something…” which elicited a few chuckles from the congregation that quickly turned to groans. I told him afterward: “Don’t mock the deacons. They’ll turn on you.”
2. To paraphrase Art Linkletter: parishioners say the darnedest things. Not long after ordination, I started having regular office hours in the rectory. One Saturday, I met with a woman to set up a baptism. I asked her if she and her husband had been married by a Catholic priest. She thought for a moment. “I don’t think she was a priest,” she began. I smiled. “If it was a ‘she,’” I explained, “it wasn’t a Catholic priest.” Her face lit up and she smiled. “Oh then,” she beamed proudly, “then she was a nun!” Um, no. Moving on, I later tried to explain to her that both godparents didn’t have to be Catholic. “One has to be Catholic,” I told her, “but the other can be Christian.” She stared at me a long moment and asked, “What’s the difference?”
The Communion line can also be an interesting place. I remember one Ash Wednesday when a man came up to receive, and as I was about to offer him the host, he shook his head. “Just a quick question,” he whispered. “Will you guys be giving out ashes after Mass?”
3. The most important words in a deacon’s vocabulary are also the shortest: “Yes” and “No.” People who work in ministry cannot be all things to all people, and very few of us have mastered the art of bilocation, so it is probably a good idea to establish boundaries. Parishioners want to meet at all hours to discuss everything from rehearsing a wedding to arranging an annulment to figuring out how to handle a wayward teenage daughter.
On any given night, there are ministries to head, committees to form, grievances to hear. There are classes to teach and courses to take, and potluck suppers that will require you to sample at least some of the food. (I’ve discovered, like many in ministry, that albs can cover a multitude of sins, and that the most valuable part of my wardrobe is a black pair of pants with an elastic waistband.) The work can be taxing and exhausting.
My advice to anyone who wades into the world of parish work: set limits. Otherwise after going several months without a day off or a night free, you will start speaking in tongues.
4. Never, ever, under any circumstances, tell people in a homily that it might be spiritually enriching to pray for our enemies and then suggest a name. I did that once, mentioning Osama bin Laden, and the congregation actually gasped. I never heard the end of it.
5. Speaking of homilies, as with every kind of public speaking, you can say a lot by saying just a little. Listeners will overlook many faults and even shrug if the preacher proclaims some unspeakable heresy from the pulpit, as long as the speaker makes the point in seven minutes or less and it does not cause a bottleneck in the parking lot after Mass. (The exception, of course, is a homily that involves a known terrorist. See No. 4 above.)
6. Like a Boy Scout, a deacon needs to be prepared. During my first Holy Week as a deacon, the sacristan came to work with a cough on Tuesday. By Thursday every man in the rectory was coughing, wheezing, sneezing and clutching the walls to keep from fainting. The only person who was relatively healthy was—you guessed it—the deacon. Since I was the only one able to stand in the pulpit without holding onto the sides for help, I ended up preaching at all the liturgies, including the trifecta: the Good Friday afternoon liturgy, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. My homiletic muscles got a full workout that week. I survived, but by Easter Monday I too was down for the count. I think I overdosed on incense.
On a related note, a seasoned deacon once offered me this advice: When it comes to preaching, be ready for anything. “I’ve had priests who told me while we were vesting that I would be preaching for them,” he explained. “And once, a priest told me as we were about to process down the aisle that I was going to preach.” His advice: better safe than sorry. Just be prepared.
7. But despite all that, no amount of preparation can prepare you for the miraculous. The first time I baptized a baby, I made a mental note to check out my eyeglass prescription, until I realized I was having trouble seeing because my eyes were blurred by my own tears. Ministerial life has been like that. I have been moved and inspired by the boundless joy of a couple on their wedding day, the giddiness of a mother and father dabbing the water from their baby’s brow on the day of his baptism and the heartfelt handshake of a man who was grateful for something I mentioned in the pulpit. I have dried tears at funerals (sometimes my own) and smiled at small children who trot around the aisles during my homilies. I have been reminded, week after week, at wakes and weddings, at fundraisers and first Communions, that I am a part of something that is, like the mysteries of the rosary, joyous, luminous, sorrowful and glorious.
I have had a front-row seat for the great milestones of life and have shared in the worries and wonders and hopes of the people in the pews. I do not know most of their names, but they know me, and they know my wife, and they wave at us in the supermarket or stop us on the subway and go out of their way to say hello or how are you or thank you. I have been doing this for only two years, but already I’ve witnessed more miracles than I can count.
Probably the greatest of these is one that began on that cold stone floor in 2007. I still cannot explain it, but what is inexpressible is also inescapable. With ordination, the world shifts, and you are changed by a mystery that is uplifted and enlarged by something that you can only describe as grace. Barely a day goes by that I don’t give prayerful thanks to God for inviting me into that mystery and sharing with me that grace.
I know this much: you can never be too grateful for what God gives you. And of all the lessons I have learned so far, that may well be the most valuable.