In the hushed, verdant garden of the cloister grow many things: not just wispy beards, but human plants and flowers, shrubs and bushes, trees, every kind of flora. Together they create a space where the Lord walks in the cool of the day, and others too find refreshment. Perhaps one could say, a place where the tree of life is once again within reach. And so I’m honoured to be here to confer the ministry of deacon on one of Pluscarden’s plants. Br Simon is, of course, already grounded here, by choice, by call, by profession. What would be the apt botanical metaphor for ordination, I don’t know – grafting perhaps? But whatever, everything that grows in the garden is called not only to have life, but to give life. Every monk is to bear fruit, and for some that fruitfulness – that spiritual fatherhood – passes by way of ordained ministry. And so, from today, for you Br Simon. It is not just that you are enhanced by this gift of the sevenfold Spirit, but all of us, the whole garden, your brethren, your family, the monastery’s friends, the diocese, indeedthe whole Church which is the garden of God. This is a good day. You may remember the touching episode when Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest on 29 June 1951, how at the moment of the laying on of hands, a bird, perhaps a lark, rose from the altar, and trilled a little song of joy. There will be some quiet trilling here today.
It was under a tree that the young Hans Urs von Balthasar, pondering his future, heard the word, “You will not serve; you will be taken into service.”
Let’s turn to St Paul and the reading from 2 Corinthians. “Therefore, he says, having this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart”. This is one rather lieral rendering of its first line. How beautiful that St Paul understands his ministry (diakonia) in the light of God’s mercy. In the beginning, there was mercy. St Paul says it again in 1 Timothy: “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor and insolent opponent, I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13). This is the mercy he met on the way to Damascus. There, God, the God of his ancestors, “who had set me apart before I was born and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (Gal 1:15-16). The mercy was the uncovering of Christ to him. It was from this St Paul’s apostolic mission (diakonia) flowed. Christ was shown him “so that I might preach him among the Gentiles”. When a candidate for the monastic life asks for acceptance into the community, he asks for “the mercy of God and your fellowship.” From the beginning and to the end, a life is simply a chain of mercies, and the first great determining mercy is Christ becoming real in our lives, the light of his face breaking upon us. And your ordination today, Br Simon, flows from the same grace. is part of that, the one true story. Greek language allowed St Paul to describe himself as “mercied”. This is what uproots the clerical pride St Benedict fears and Pope Francis repeatedly deplores.
Those of us here whose lives were touched by the late Fr Maurus of this community learned from him the art of creative etymology. Where does the word “diakonos / deacon” come from? “Derivation unknown,” says one lexicon. For Fr Maurus that would be like the glimpse of a rabbit to a dog. “Dia” = “through” of course, and “konis”, dust. Question answered! (So the ancient Greeks themselves believed, apparently). “For we are dust and unto dust we shall return” and “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your servants – deacons of dust – for Jesus’ sake”. A deacon is dust illumined, dust transmitting the light of a face, through word and altar and charity. For St Paul, ministry is precisely this: light coming from darkness, treasure carried in clay jars, death to self and life for others. In the garden of God, every plant is set in the dust of the earth, in the humus of humility and human limitation, and from there brings fruit. Once we accept our dust, then the light can stream through it, and our dust dance within it, refracting “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This is mercy too.
Therefore, says St Paul again, “we do not lose heart.” It must have been a temptation he felt, and it remains such in all ministry in every generation, and not least – not least – today, when we in the Church are often left tasting our own dust. But we do not lose heart. St Paul says it at the beginning of this reading and again at the end of the chapter. “Not to lose heart” means not to let what is bad get into us and take us over. Not let evil mesmerise us, be it in ourselves or our brethren or the Church or the world. Not allow it to embed itself in us, define us, discourage us, make cowards of us. “Not to lose heart”: it became, a lexicon says, “a Christian technical term expressing the unflagging pursuit of the goal of service to neighbour, or of apostolic ministry, as well as the tautness of the determined heart that does not let up or lose courage”.
Let me mention one last mercy. In the Gospel, our Lord speaks of giving his life as a ransom for many. It is a mercy for us to share in his self-gift for the many. According to the Acts of the Apostles, those seven men, in whom the Church has recognised the first deacons, were appointed to meet a specific need: under-nourished Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem. They were appointed to respond to neglect. St Benedict dislikes negligence or neglect, -of the poor and the sick, of children and guests. And it’s these needy, the many needy, who are mercy for those who serve them. The Ordination Prayer of Deacons mentions explicitly, uniquely, “concern for the sick and the poor”. And when the Gospel book is handed to the new deacon, it’s not just as something to carry aloft to a lectern; it’s what is proclaimed to the poor. This is the mercy of the many, of meeting life’s poor, of being healed by them of negligence, narcissism and excessive self-regard – the mercy of Christ in the other.
Dear Br Simon, Our Lady and the Saints will be invoked upon you in a moment, family, friends and brethren are around you, the saintly deacons of many centuries are welcoming you into their sacramental brotherhood: St Stephen and his six companions, St Lawrence of Rome, St Vincent of Saragossa , St Ephrem of Edessa, Alcuin of York, St Francis of Assisi and even, until two years before his death (I think), Reginald Cardinal Pole, the son of a martyr. What a varied, flourishing garden they make! What enrichment you will bring! May the merciful Spirit come on you in power and take you, body, soul and spirit, into the service of the Lord – and of us. Amen.
Pluscarden Abbey, 10 March 2023