Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Point to Ponder #10: Balance and Poise

One of the first lessons drummed into new deacon aspirants is that diaconal ministry will require a good sense of balance.  To which most married men with families and jobs will say, "Duh!"

As I enter the third decade of my own diaconal experience, though, this truth, while certainly self-evident, is no less valid.  I recently came across a word I had not heard in many years, but which captured the essence of balance: EQUIPOISE.  Equipoise means to distribute weight equally, but it also has the sense of having a "dignified, self-confident manner or bearing; composure; self-possession."  I like the combination of meanings here, especially as it might apply to any of us in life, and not only to deacons.

As deacons we must balance our relationships with God, family and friends, work and church; we must also balance the formal ministries of Word, Sacrament and Charity.  That's a lot of balance that calls for a lot of poise as well.

In the early years of diaconate formation in the United States, and still found in some locations still, we used to hear of the "deacon's priorities."  First, his relationship with God; second, his relationship with family; third, his relationship with his job; fourth, his relationship with the church (in other words, his formal ministry).  While on a certain practical level, this prioritization makes some sense, it is also a bit nonsensical.  In fact, one priest-friend of mine who has spent decades in diaconal formation work, calls it outright heresy!  Why?

Because we are not so easily compartmentalized.  The implication given by the priority list is that, if diaconal ministry is getting in the way of family life, or work life, then it should just go away until those other "problems" get cleared up.  As I said, on a certain level, this can be practical and necessary.  But on a deeper level, it conveys a sense that the diaconate is simply one compartment of my life and that I can take off the diaconate, even temporarily, just like I take off an alb, stole and dalmatic.  And that's where the problem comes in.

Because once ordained, we are deacons 24/7/365.  I am a deacon who wrestles with his relationship with God, a deacon in relationship with my family, a deacon dealing with issues at my secular employment, and a deacon in ministry.  Far too often, the impression can be given that the only time we're involved "in ministry" is when we're at the parish or involved in some kind of "church" business.  That's just not the case with deacons any more than its the case with priests or bishops: once ordained, you're never NOT a deacon, and it's not a disposible thing.

Furthermore, WITHIN our official ministries there needs to be equipoise as well.  All find their source in the Eucharist, so our own identity and strength for service comes from our ministry of Sacrament; we are called and ordained to be a Herald of the Gospel, even within (as well as outside) the eucharist, so our ministry of Word is essential; and all of that serving and preaching and teaching leads us to Charity.  All the dots must connect, especially since we are ordained to be "icons" of Christ the Servant.  People should be able to see, in our own attempts to find and achieve a "poised balance" in our lives, the same equipoise to which we are all called through sacramental initiation.

So all of this requires great skill at being poised, confident, and balanced.  There will be times, hopefully, not too many, when things will become unbalanced and we crash.  But I believe that the very heart of the sacrament known as the diaconate lies in that balanced existence in service of God and others.  We can't just pick and choose those parts of it that we like, and we can't just dump it if things get uncomfortable.  This is why prayer is the foundation for all of us.  Our relationship with God can help us find, maintain, regain and perpetuate our "balanced poise" in the service of others.

How are we all doing (deacons and everyone else) at finding and achieving a balance in lives and ministry?  This is the core of the sacramental life.


Well, this certainly took longer to get posted than I anticipated!  I hope it's of some use.

Blessed Advent, everyone!


  1. Let me recount one of the legends from the early days of the diaconate.

    There was a permanently ordained deacon in a huge mid-west archdiocese who was widely held to be one of the best spiritual directors for many miles around.

    Within a year after ordination, he was dead: suicide.

    When his archdiocesan authorities got over their horrid shock and did some investigating, they found out some fascinating facts:

    --In his secular life, he was a degreed adult counselor who had worked for years with a local mental health agency.

    --He was single/celibate.

    --He was singularly -- almost addictively - focused on his work and was never known to take a vacation nor did he have any known diversionary habits.

    --In essence, he "burned-out" carrying other folk's crises and had no where to dump them himself.

    Needless to say, the archdiocesan authorities set in motion a new set of formation guidelines which supposedly emphasized the human balance we all need.

  2. Frightening story, Norb, but highlights a most important truth: it's usually easier to wash someone else's feet than it is to let someone else wash ours.



  3. Because once ordained, we are deacons 24/7/365.

    Those who are not deacons certainly see it that way. The local church takes note of the behavior of deacon . . . and deacon's wife. That's one reason candidates ought to assess honestly how closely their own personal priorities match those set forth in Catholic teaching. One of the candidates in my class a couple years back put it really well: "Here we are talking about helping the poor and living simply, and in just a little while we'll drive our overpriced cars home to fancy houses with rooms we never even use. What kind of example are we setting?"

  4. Ron,

    Your story reminds me of an incident that happened in our own formation class 24 years ago. A Christian brother came and talked to us about living a simple lifestyle as a mandate of Christian discipleship.

    We were in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where one of the wealthiest neighborhoods is known as "Potomac". Two of our classmates lived there. Well, brother observed that "no one can live in Potomac and call themselves a Christian." The reactions were something to see!


  5. To both Ron and Bill:

    No argument at all with both your posts but, it seems to me, the application processes used by a lot of dioceses have the unintended consequence of perpetuating this.

    --The academic framework of the formation programs tend to favor college graduates and some diocese actually discourage any non-college-grad from applying.

    --The personal criteria also include a financial background check and any applicant who has declared bankruptcy or who is un/under-employed probably would be discouraged as well.

    --Some diocese, hopefully few, discourage any applicants who still have young children living at home.

    Thus, we tend to get better educated and financially stable candidates.

    What many dioceses seem to be doing, however, is emphasizing the whole social justice/ "preferential option for the poor" themes early in the candidacy programs.

    I can recall, some years ago when I was on the regular faculty in Sacred Scripture for our formation program, while talking about the Book of Amos, I brought up that whole scene of the deacon's natural commitment to social justice. Two of the men who were in that class then started a very vocal argument with me that lasted most of the day. Needless to say, they dropped out of the program shortly thereafter("Camel through the eye of a needle". . .?)

    And just recently, I visited our local formation center and the first year candidates were right in the middle of a series of presentations by our local diocesan social justice "guru-ess" -- a religious sister with a national reputation in this area. She indicated she was already sensing some discomfort about her topic from some of the guys. Hopefully she can convert them before they drop out.

    'nuff said

    Deacon Norb from Ohio

  6. I dont undertand what means The Special Character in Motu Propio.. I was in the Navy (Armada de México like my Father)& I need Advices from Deacons becuase some times the Priest think different. I´m MBA and B.A. T.I. , was ordained 4 years a go.
    Some times i think , i am the weekend Deacon.

    José Vicente Medina Hallal

  7. Dear Jose,

    I'll be glad to help in any way I can. Please e-mail me at billditewig@msn.com.


  8. Thanks i´ll write i really need advices.

    Deacon Jose Vicente Medina Hallal
    Archdiocese P. México