The Diaconal Call to Spiritual Martyrdom

The Foundation of the Servant Mysteries of Christ

“Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”1

“(T)he service of a dedicated soul is also a martyrdom…”2

Introduction
Previously, I have written concerning the centrality of spiritual martyrdom in the diaconal vocation. Central to my thought was, “… unless a deacon die to himself, suffers because of his proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his immersion into the human condition, he will not have fulfilled the vocation given him at his ordination.”3 I described this martyrdom as a “death to self through a complete consecration to the Gospel of which the deacon is a herald and to which he witnesses with his very life amidst the realities of the human condition.”4 This spiritual martyrdom is consecratory, a holy “setting aside” which sends the deacon into the poverty of the world to proclaim the Gospel. This consecratory martyrdom arises not only from his knowledge of, and receptivity to the Word being uttered into the poverty of his life and ministry by the Father who orders him in life and death.

In this essay, I submit that the foundation of the Servant Mysteries of Christ, and diakonia, is an intense spiritual suffering in an incarnate world. Indeed, to suffer such a spiritual martyrdom is the perfection of diakonia, and thus the Servant Mysteries to which the deacon is radically ordered, consecrated, and identified. Because of this identification, the deacon suffers as did Jesus, the Word, in proclaiming what the Father has revealed to him. His identification with Jesus the Word is so complete, that he is to become the Word whom he is to proclaim. I submit that a foundational aspect of these Servant Mysteries, and of diakona, is suffering a spiritual martyrdom, and expressing a filial love for, and worship of, the Father in attending to the Father’s will as he sends the deacon into the world.

Diakonia as a passion for holy suffering
Certainly, all the baptized are called to suffering by entering into the Paschal Mystery, but for the deacon, this common call requires a spiritual martyrdom distinguishable from that of the laity, for he is bound more closely to the altar of sacrifice through his ordination. The Holy Spirit calls him to love the Cross, and experience the Cross in a particularly painful manner. The Holy Spirit assists the deacon to plumb more deeply, and thus more painfully, the mystery revealed on Calvary, and enkindles in him a passion for holy suffering. St. Leo the Great wrote: “Now there is a more distinguished order of Levites…. because your cross is the source of all blessings, the cause of all graces. Through the cross, the faithful receive strength from weakness, glory from dishonor, life from death.”5

Indeed, a deacon becomes more intimately associated with the suffering of Christ. The supreme consummation of diaconal activity is to suffer with Jesus, to suffer the proclamation of the Gospel into his own life, and, only then, to suffer with humankind as he proclaims what he has heard, loved, and become. Love of the Word, in obedience to the Father’s will, is the predominant motive for a deacon’s spiritual martyrdom.6

The deacon is deeply configured to suffering, and thus the spiritual martyrdom of the diaconate can be said to be uniquely distressing and distinguishable from the common call of the baptized to enter into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We read in the Didascala Apostolorum:

It is necessary that you deacons do the same, meaning that, should you find yourself needing to give your very life for your brother while exercising your ministry, you have to give it… So if the Lord of heaven and earth has made himself our servant, and has patiently suffered every sort of pain for us, how much more should we do this for our brothers, since we are imitators of him, and have received Christ’s same mission?7

Similarly, Pope St. John Paul II said:

Deacons, therefore, are called to participate in the myster of the cross, to share in the Church’s sufferings, to endure the hostility she encounters, in union with Christ the Redeemer. It is this painful aspect of the deacon’s service that makes it most fruitful.8

This spiritual martyrdom is a particularly intense suffering as the deacon has a unique share in the experience of Jesus in his diakonia to the Father’s will, which led him to the Cross; it is a spiritual, yet incarnate suffering. Truly, the deacon, too, enters into the Paschal Mystery by virtue of baptism, but he is indelibly marked at ordination as deacon, “wounded.” As Deacon James Keating describes,9 he is rendered particularly sensitive to the wounds of Jesus. The central question for the deacon is always:

Will I embrace this suffering to which I am called by the Father even unto martyrdom, or will I avoid it with distracting activity?

Drawn yet sent
The deacon is both drawn to the Father, and in union with him in knowing the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent into the world where he proclaims the Gospel. He is both drawn and sent. If the deacon’s sacramental character, imprinted on his soul at ordination, remains sensitive to an encounter with the Father as an obedient son, and not calloused over by distracting, numbing activity, then he experiences an inner tension that is constitutive of the spiritual martyrdom of the diaconate. This tension, both drawn toward Trinitarian life, i.e., theosis, and sent on mission, i.e., kenosis, is a holy suffering.

This diaconal suffering can be seen reflected in the writings of St. Paul the Apostle. Although not explicitly referenced as such, I believe his diaconal spirituality is expressed in his letter to the Philippians, when he wrote:

For, to me, “life” means Christ; hence dying is so much gain. If, on the other hand, I am to go on living in the flesh, that means productive toil for me – and I do not know which to prefer. I am strongly attracted to both. I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ, for that is the far better thing; yet it is more urgent that I remain alive for your sakes.10

In another place he wrote:

 I wish to know the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death.11

Paul both longed to be with Jesus, and freed from earthly ministry, yet he was acutely aware of the mission given to him in being sent into the world to proclaim the Gospel, which had been uttered into his life. He expresses what Jesus himself described, especially as recorded in the Gospel of John, when he spoke of his continual union with the Father, and his being sent into the world to reveal only what the Father has revealed, longing to suffer the Father’s will so that all may come into union with him and the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Being drawn yet sent are the two hinges of the diaconal vocation, i.e., drawn in prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit in love as a servant son, and sent into the world to bring others into union with the Father. This inner tension, between contemplation and action, theosis and kenosis, is a holy suffering. The desire to be one with him who is love, yet thrust into the brokenness of the world with the Gospel is a spiritual martyrdom.

The danger for the deacon is that he avoids this tension, that he refuses this suffering, by either withdrawing into clericalism and isolation, or by distracting activity disconnected from a filial love of the Father, and obedience to his will. Suffering is inevitable in the diaconal vocation. The question is: “Will it be a holy suffering in love, or a fruitless, sterile, and loveless suffering?”

Ordination to the Diaconate reforms a man into Jesus, the Servant, at the core of his very being. Such a formation leads to one place, the Cross, because the Cross is the very essence of Jesus’ love for his Father, and the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In such a reformation, the deacon finds perfection and purification. The spiritual martyrdom of the diaconate is the perfection of diaconal service. Deacons must know not only the Cross and its Servant Mystery, but love the Cross as an expression of his love of the Father, and his love for humanity, and all its exigencies. It is in love that the theotic and kenotic aspects of the deacon’s spirituality find union. Obedience to the Father’s will without love is fruitless, and excludes the Holy Spirit and the deacon from participating in Trinitarian life. Obedience in love is inspired by the Holy Spirit who teaches the deacon the depths of the mystery of diaconal sacrifice, and the mystery of diaconal participation in God’s very life, and sensitizes the diaconal character to hear and respond to the will of the Father and his Word, being spoken into the deacon’s life in calling him to proclaim it in the realities of the human condition.

Diaconal martyrdom without love, then, is meaningless, sterile, and senseless. Martyrdom is always to be experienced as a glorification of the Father’s Word and will, and an expression of love and service, impelled by the Holy Spirit given to a man in particular abundance, and for particular reason at ordination. I submit that the spiritual martyrdom of the deacon is a particularly intense suffering as he has a special share in the experience of Jesus in his service to the Father’s will which led him to the Cross. The deacon is configured in a particular way to the suffering of Jesus, and thus the spiritual martyrdom of the diaconate can be said to be uniquely distressing and distinguished from the call of all the baptized to enter into the Paschal Mystery. Because the deacon is indelibly marked at ordination,

Certainly, all the baptized are called to enter into the Paschal Mystery, but for the deacon, he answers this common call with a spiritual martyrdom unlike the laity. The Holy Spirit calls him to love the Cross, and experience the Cross in a particularly painful manner. The Holy Spirit assists the deacon to plumb more deeply, and thus more painfully, the mystery revealed on Calvary which enkindles within him a passion for holy suffering. He is more intimately associated with the suffering of Christ. Indeed, the supreme consummation of diaconal sanctity is to be crucified with Jesus, to become a victim in the proclamation of the Gospel to humankind which is a source of happiness for others.

Deacons must first become completely devoted to the Father, as Jesus was so devoted. His devotion begins with adoration of the Father, which expresses his filial love for Him, and then leads him to long to fulfill the Father’s will, even to death. This is the perfection of the deacon’s life: to glorify the Father by loving him and doing his will, iconic of Jesus the Suffering Servant of the Father. This is the foundation of the Servant Mysteries of Christ, and the foundation of diaconal spirituality. Just as the mysteries are grounded in Jesus’ love for the Father, attentiveness to his will, proclaiming only that which the Father speaks, and fulfillment of this call through the Cross, so too, for the deacon. The Servant Mysteries of Christ are responses of filial love, responses leading Jesus to Calvary; so too, they are to be the responses of the deacon, invariably leading the deacon to the same Cross. Jesus’ love for the Father was so intense and fruitful, that it continues to this day in the hearts of all his friends.

The deacon’s unique responses to his love of the Father, to whom he must be continually attentive, must be a total, definitive, and perpetual surrender to the Servant Mysteries of Christ inherent in the Church. The deacon’s response to the Father’s love for him, the Holy Spirit, takes on a form, i.e., sacrifice, and a symbol, i.e., the Cross. The spiritual martyrdom of the deacon purifies and perfects not only the deacon’s sanctity, but also the Church to whom he is called to surrender himself. Love and sacrifice are thus united. Service and martyrdom become one. Loveless martyrdom, suffering, is senseless and sterile; lovingly accomplishing the will of the Father, in union with Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, a will which for the deacon is to be set aside, i.e., be consecrated, to proclaiming the Gospel in the realities of today’s world. The deacon, transformed into Jesus’ servanthood, longing as Jesus did to suffer the Father’s will expressed by his Incarnation and Gospel, is led to the transfigurative moment of Calvary. No longer for him does love (service) and sacrifice (martyrdom) remain separated. They are truly one.

  1. Matthew 20: 26-28
  2. St. Jerome, Epist. 108, 31 (CSWL 55.349)
  3. Josephinum Diaconal Review, Spring 2015, pg. 19.
  4. Ibid.
  5. St. Leo the Great, Sermo 8 de passion 6-8: PL 54, 341.
  6. Alfred C. Rush, C.SS.R., Spiritual Martrydom in St. Gregory the Great, Theological Studies, Vol. 23, 1963, pg. 578.
  7. Didascala Apostolorum, Chapter XVI iii, 13.
  8. John Paul II, Catechesis on the Diaconate, October 20, 1993, no. 5.
  9. James Keating, The Heart of the Diaconate.
  10. Phil. 1: 21-24.
  11. Phil. 3: 10.
Deacon Robert T. Yerhot About Deacon Robert T. Yerhot

Deacon Robert Yerhot is the Assistant Director of the Diaconate for the Diocese of Winona. He sits on the Editorial Board for the Josephinum Diaconal Review and has previously-published articles on diaconal spirituality. A graduate of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota, he holds degrees in Classical Humanities, Philosophy, and Social Work, and has studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He has offered retreats and days of reflection for diaconate communities in the upper Midwest of the United States.

Comments

  1. Hi,
    This is an interesting article which probably finds resonance for most of us in a diaconal state. I have certainly found prison chaplaincy to be of a transformational nature. It would be good to see this article re-written without ‘spiritual’ jargon and couched in the simple language of daily life. Otherwise, this kind of writing runs the risk of amplifying all sorts of psychological contradictions and misconceptions. What EXACTLY is meant, for example, by the concept of ‘spiritual martydom’ ? When I say ‘EXACTLY’ I mean just that…how should such a thing present itself? How would it feel? What would be the evidence for its presence? …Perhaps, more importantly, what would be the bogus manifestations associated with the term.
    Then again:
    “The deacon’s unique responses to his love of the Father, to whom he must be continually attentive, must be a total, definitive, and perpetual surrender to the Servant Mysteries of Christ inherent in the Church…”
    Unless you put human flesh on these abstract statements, I fear your article founders pretty early on in terms of its helpfulness.

    • Deacon Robert Yerhot says:

      Thank you for your comments. Much appreciated. How spiritual martyrdom manifests in an individual deacon’s life and ministry, and differentiated from the psychological contradictions and misconceptions can be sorted out with a good spiritual director. It needs good discernment, as I believe you are saying,
      Thanks again.

  2. Thank you, Deacon Yerhot, for this excellent essay. I must say, however, that I find it speaks to the baptized and confirmed laity as much as it does to the ordained deacons. I know, of course, that several times you affirm here that there is a “distinguishable” difference between the vocation of every baptized and confirmed lay person, and the vocation of a deacon. If I hear you correctly, you see the difference (not using these words) as one in kind and not in degree. In your explanations of this difference, however, I continue to hear correlations and sameness, and not distinctions of difference.

    The one difference that I do see, however, clearly distinguishing the two vocations, is this: what every baptized and confirmed lay person is to do and be in the world, the ordained deacon is to do and be in the Church. Each is drawn, and each is sent. Each is sacramentally empowered. And in each case, both in the case of the lay Catholic and in the case of the ordained deacon, the empowerment of the sacrament can be diminished (and fruitfulness lost) by one’s less-than-wholehearted reception and embrace, and one’s less-than-faithful-obedience (that is to say, one’s disobedience) to the grace, intention and purpose of the sacrament.

    Your essay stands on the mountain top and points higher – and is well-written. And that is all beautiful and good. We all need to be pointed higher, to hear and believe and live our call to holiness and to the perfection of charity. I pray that many deacons will find encouragement, and clarity, and the Father’s blessings, in what you have written for them. And I pray that many of the laity – as I have – will also hear in your words for deacons, precious truths for themselves as lay members of His faithful Church, called to be His presence and His servants in this dark and darkening world.

  3. Deacon –

    I need help understanding this essay. The essay makes the diaconal vocation sound very depressing and joyless. I don’t think that is what you are trying to say, so help me understand.

    First, can you give a specific definition of the “Servant Mysteries” of Christ? Is there a “list” of the Servant Mysteries, as exemplified in Scripture, to which you can refer me?

    Second, can you give a definition of “spiritual martyrdom”? I just don’t understand what you are trying to say with this term. Shouldn’t a vocation to the diaconate (or priesthood, or marriage, or religious life) result in spiritual fulfillment and growth – i.e., to spiritual life rather than spiritual death?

    Third, you indicate that a deacon must long “as Jesus did to suffer the Father’s will…”. What support is there for the idea that Jesus “longed” to suffer? He was obedient to the Father’s will, yes, but did he not ask, if it were the Father’s will, for the cup to pass? I’d like to see some support for the idea that Our Lord “longed” to suffer”?

    Fourth, you say that the diaconal state leads to one place – the cross. But the cross is the prelude to the Resurrection! Love of God – embodied in the deacon’s embrace of the role of service – does not mean just the cross! It also means the resurrection and eternal beatitude! I wonder if a view of the diaconate that does not see beyond the suffering of the cross to the joy of the resurrection might be incomplete. Should not being a follower of Christ – in whatever vocation or state – being us joy and peace?

    • Deacon Robert Yerhot says:

      Hello Don,

      There is no list of the servant mysteries of Jesus. The phrase is meant to convey the numerous examples in Scripture of where Jesus spoke and lived out “I have come to serve and not be served and to give my life for many.” This is seen in his ministry to the poor, in his proclamation of the Gospel, and in his relationship with the Father and his perfect “diakonia” of the Father in doing his will, and his continual beholding of the Father in all he did.

      To “suffer” can be a painful reality, but it can also be joyful, for it is most importantly an expression of love — for God and for humanity. It means letting go of ourselves be embrace and be embraced by divine love. We “suffer” being drawn by God’s love for us, and “suffer” in being sent in love into the world. I use the word to describe openness and obedience to God’s grace that purifies and directs us in loving service.

      Spiritual martyrdom can be summed up I suppose in John the Baptist’s declaration: “I must decrease and He must increase.” A dying to ego, you might say. A great treatise on this is Alfred C. Rush’s “Spiritual Martyrdom in St. Gregory the Great” in Theological Studies, Vol 23, 1964

      Jesus in his humanity asked to be spared the cup before him in the Agony of the Garden, but he longed to do the Father’s will, even unto his death. In this way he longed to suffer.

      I have found the diaconate to be a vocation that is joyful. That joy arises from a confidence that I am responding to God’s will. It is a vocation filled with challenges, and at times frustrations, but never without joy. The more I embrace the “servant mysteries” and put aside my agendas to do God’s will, the happier I become!

      • Thank you for directing me to the Alfred Rush article. It was very good. To the extent spiritual martyrdom means dying to one’s own ego in order to do the will of God, I get it. On the other hand, I could posit, based on the article, that spiritual martyrdom is just a synonym for striving to reach the ideal state of personal holiness.

        As to the Servant Mysteries, I was thinking they would be something akin to the mysteries of the Rosary – e.g., an enumerated list – “Joyful” or “Sorrowful” etc. Any chance you could direct me to an in-depth Scriptural treatment of this issue? I am very interested in this. It seems like it could get really broad, really quickly, since everything Jesus did was in service to his Father’s will. But if it is that broad, then does it become a meaningless category?

        [Jesus in his humanity asked to be spared the cup before him in the Agony of the Garden, but he longed to do the Father’s will, even unto his death. In this way he longed to suffer.] I am not sure I it follows that obedience to the Father’s will translates into a longing to suffer. I see this more as a case of Jesus saying “I will undergo this suffering, which I really would rather not have to endure, out of love and obedience to you, if it is your will. We all must endure suffering of some kind, but I am not sure it is spiritually healthy for people to long for, or desire, suffering. Can’t that lead to real problems, with people anxious that they are not suffering enough for God’s sake or developing a “martyr complex”?

        As to servant-hood and suffering being inextricably linked, is that necessarily the case? I get that we can suffer with joy, and that all this life is to some extent suffering because we have not yet achieved beatitude, but might not the activities of diaconal service bring extreme joy, happiness and peace rather than being experienced as great “suffering”? Do you mostly “enjoy” the concrete activities of your vocation or is your joy mostly derivative, i.e. do you suffer through your diaconal duties because it ultimately gives you joy to know that you did God’s will?

        Peace to you, and thank you.

  4. Deacon Robert Yerhot says:

    Hello Don,

    Remember, this is rooted in participating in Christ’s love for his Father and for humanity as servant of the Father’s will. I don’t think deacons can avoid suffering as Jesus did as servant if they are to live their vocations fully. It must not consist of loveless suffering. It is so important that deacons have good spiritual direction, so they can discern the Father’s will in all of this, and not become anxious and unhealthy, but rather remain attentive and faithful.

    Thank you for your comments!

  5. I have trouble accepting the view that suffering must be “the” defining feature of the diaconal vocation. No one can avoid the cross, to be sure, and it makes sense that deacons would be called to emulate Christ the “suffering servant” in a particularly intense way. What about joy? One can suffer joyfully, I suppose: the two are not mutually exclusive.

    Yet, I have known men who experience the diaconal vocation as exhilarating and uplifting; men who seem to enjoy every minute and every aspect of their calling. They don’t see their diaconal duties primarily as something to “suffer through” for love of God and neighbor but as something that fulfills them and brings them great joy and deep peace. I don’t think they “missed the point’ of their vocation.

    I read the article on St. Gregory the Great’s view of spiritual martyrdom as basically saying that since physical martyrdom is not common we should focus on becoming as holy as we can – which means allowing ourselves to be transformed so that it is “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). But allowing God to perfect us in holiness would mean (ultimately) entering the state of beatitude or perfect union with the Holy Trinity. Is that not a state of perfect and complete joy? And should our joy as Christians not increase proportionally the closer we get to that state?

    Peace to you.

    • I believe that the crucial point is not merely the presence of joy, but its source and cause. One man may experience joy in his labors because what he does pleases him – he gains pleasure in the work, and he works to gain this pleasure for himself. His joy is rooted in self-satisfaction – this is the reward of his labors. As a worker or servant or minister or whatever, he is a “mercenary” – he does what he does, for pay.

      Another man may experience joy in his labors because he knows that what he does pleases his Master, God. His love for God is whole-hearted: he loves others only in his love for God; he loves works only in his love for God; he loves himself only in so far as this self-love is in God and flows from his love for God. He lives for God and he would die for God; God is all, for him; God is his life.

      This second man lives as Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20).

      • What about both? Is it wrong to experience joy from both sources simultaneously? Take an artist – say, an iconographer. Can he not experience joy flowing both from “the work of his hands” and from knowing that he is serving God?”

        Peace.

      • Hello Don – Again, if “the work of his hands” flows from a sincere love of God, and in His service, and for His glory, then his joy is true, and is of eternal value.
        If “the work of his hands” flows from self-centeredness, to give pleasure to the idol of Self on the throne of his own heart, to aggrandize himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of his “public”, then he is a slave in the culture of death. His pleasure, his fame, his values are all of this world; all will die with him.
        As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Each of us must make up his own mind – ultimately, finally, it is one or the other. Who IS your God? There is, in truth, only One – and it is not “me.” Or “you”. Right?

  6. Deacon Robert B. says:

    JMJ-It must also be acknowledged that the suffering extends to the deacon’s wife, “For the two have become one,” and the deacon’s children. There is still need for the deacon to protect his family, as well as the wife’s agreement by her permission to the bishop for her husband to be ordained, to take on in many ways this suffering; for one sacrament does not negate the obligations of another.

    • Deacon Robert Yerhot says:

      Yes, Deacon Robert, there is so much more that can be said about our wives sharing in all of this, not as deacons but as united with her husband in marriage. It is a lived reality for most deacons and wives, yet only beginning to be theologically. Thank you for your comment. May God bless your ministry and marriage!

  7. I’ve asked 2 Deacons to give a sermon that touches on Humanae Vitae and I’ve asked another in discernment the same, all three refused, although the one in discernment may. I’d advise any Deacon reading this to please give some sermon on Humanae Vitae, and until you do, please refrain from agrandising your Diaconate calling. The World needs to hear the Church’s Teachings, and sadly they are not. From the very persons who should give example through word and deed.

    • Hello David,
      I am grieved to read your post here, because the call is so painfully correct, and important: the world – and the Church! – need to hear the truths and implications of Humanae Vitae.
      Indeed we need to hear all the revealed truths that God has entrusted to His Church. “Make disciples,…, teaching them to observe ALL…,” the Lord Jesus commanded. Yet so many Catholics remain un-instructed, un-exhorted, un-encouraged, un-directed and in general un-formed in so much of the Catholic Faith.

      Widespread lukewarmness and lack of interest in parishes are easily understood: we need only to open our eyes – and our ears – to find the massive “elephant in the room” in staff meetings and in pastoral council meetings, when the question, “How can we get more people involved in parish life?” is brought up. We are not “making disciples.” We are not leading Catholics to authentic maturity in the life of Christ. We are feeding them pablum. We are not forming them in the precious Truth that God has revealed to us. Catholics are immersed in – are drowning in – the political correctness of modern progressivism, a culture of death. We need (and as you said, “the world needs”) the divine truths of holy love that bring us into eternal life.

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