Sermon at the Ordination to the Priesthood of
Diana Lynn Doncaster
Thursday in Easter 5, May 7, 2015
Chapel of the Transfiguration, Glendale, Ohio
Fr. Han van den Blink
1. We are gathered in this holy place to witness, and by our prayerful presence, to participate in Sr. Diana Dorothea’s ordination to the priesthood. This is an occasion of great joy and thanksgiving. Joy and thanksgiving that, after many years of discernment, struggle and preparation, the day of her consecration to this holy office has arrived. And joy and thanksgiving that so many of us who love her and believe in her can be with her on this special day.
I am a rather reserved Dutch guy. I was this way when I lived in the Netherlands and I am this way in this country. But let me tell you, to adequately express my feelings of joy about Sr. Diana’s ordination would require trumpet fanfares and drum rolls!
Diana, my sister in Christ, you are about to be ordained to what has with reason been called an impossible vocation. Will you succeed at it? Sometimes. Will you fail at it? Often. Does it matter how often you succeed or fail? Not really, as long as you keep turning to the One who is able to use us in spite of ourselves, the One whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).
The key phrase in what I just said is, “As long as you keep turning to the One who is able to use us in spite of ourselves”. For this brings up the critical issue of ongoing priestly formation. And this important issue is what I want to touch on in this homily. In doing so I want to focus briefly on two spiritual practices that have been critical to my own spiritual formation and that of other priests whom I know well.
The first one is to look at the unavoidable, difficult periods in life as invitations to what traditionally has been called purgation, that is to say as invitations to spiritual cleansing, to shedding as best we can, all that keep us from being open to the presence of the Holy Spirit, all that gets in the way of our awareness of God’s presence.
And the second one is to appreciate how much we can learn from ancient monks who practiced contemplative prayer by sitting in prayerful silence before God. In this way they were able to acquire a measure of hesychía, meaning a watchful, not passive, inner silence and tranquility. Ever since these pioneers in spiritual practice have been known as hesychasts.
For these desert monastics of old discovered that to the degree that we acquire such an inner quietude, we are more able to distance ourselves from the craziness and dysfunction of our society and to resist the coercive power of the stresses and strains of daily life.
They also found that this spiritual practice of sitting in prayerful silence before God increases self-awareness, without which our relationship with God is impaired. And, most importantly of all, that it helps us move from talking about God to practicing the presence of God.
2. Let me say a bit more about purgation. Times of purgation, whatever their cause may be, are experiences of being in the desert, of being thrown back on ourselves, of being disoriented and losing our footing. Since we cannot avoid hard times, it is essential to appreciate the role that purgation can play in our ongoing spiritual formation.
Purgation, then, not as punishment but as an invitation to metánoia, meaning changing our mind and acting accordingly, making a course correction away from all that hinders our being more open to the Holy Spirit and in doing so find forgiveness, healing, and a fresh start.
The Abbas and Ammas of the Desert were not discouraged by sin and failure but always saw these as opportunities for metánoia. Theirs was an enormous optimism about the possibility of spiritual change, of making a necessary course correction, of turning toward God, of starting anew. They were not afraid of sin or sinners for they had experienced the inexhaustible depth of God’s mercy themselves.
A monk visited Abba Sisoës and told him that he had fallen from grace. “What should I do, Abba?”, he asked. Sisoës replied, “Get up again.” After a while, the monk returned to ask, “What can I do now? For I have fallen again.” “Get up again,” the old man said to him, “Never stop getting up again.”1
What I continue to learn from this understanding of purgation is that to the person of faith everything that has happened, everything that is now going on, and everything that is yet to happen whether wonderful and gratifying or traumatic and difficult, is an invitation to let go of the ego’s need to control and become aware of our dependence on God.
3. The other important spiritual practice is contemplative or hesychastic prayer. We cannot avoid difficult times but we can avoid practicing hesychia, we can refrain from prayerfully practicing outer and inner quietude and openness to the Holy Spirit.
Anyone who has tried to pray contemplatively and cultivate hesychia knows that as soon as we set our minds on doing so, all manner of distractions appear to derail our efforts. To avoid this practice, however, is to deprive priesthood of its surest foundation, the experience of God in the here and now of our lives.
Some brothers asked Abba Agathon which good work required the most effort. He replied, “No labor is more difficult than prayer. Demons understand that prayer is a path to God. They will do everything possible to hinder this journey.”2
Why is contemplative or hesychastic prayer so important? Isn’t it enough to say one’s prayers, to observe the daily office, and to participate faithfully in the Eucharist? Why should we build into our schedule a regular time of contemplative prayer, of sitting silently before God? Isn’t contemplative prayer, as I am often told, for introverts or monastics with a special vocation to this way of praying?
Nonsense! It is important because every time we pray contemplatively and sit in prayerful silence before God, every time we bring our wandering mind back to the present moment, with the help of a brief prayer like the Jesus Prayer, we are engaging in metánoia, we are making a course correction, we are decentering our restless egos and re-centering ourselves in our Risen Lord.
Priestly ministry can be extraordinarily demanding. Being a priest regularly puts one in the middle of a vortex of opposing and often conflicting demands, needs and expectations, political pressures, and emotional transferences and counter-transferences, to name a few.
I have engaged in hesychastic practice long enough to know that there is a direct connection between slacking off from such contemplative practice and feeling more scattered, overburdened, and having a sense of having lost my way.
4. The heart of our sacramental vocation as priests, Sr. Diana, is to make manifest as best and as faithfully as we can, the unconditional and compassionate presence of Christ, as we have experienced that ourselves, and as it has helped us to feel more at ease with being in that holy presence which is grounded in God.
It is this being which is grounded in the Spirit out of which our doing needs to come, and not the other way around. Without it, our good works so easily become ego projects, our theology self-protective ideologies, and our efforts on behalf of peace and justice exercises in self-righteousness.
Nothing in sacramental priestly ministry is so powerfully healing, restoring, reconciling, and mending of brokenness and fragmentation within and between people as this unconditional, truthful, and compassionate presence. To the degree that we are able to do this, to that degree it may be given to us to be ikons of Christ.
Sr. Diana, would you please stand. As you live into your priesthood in the days and months and years to come, I charge you to make contemplative, hesychastic prayer a regular part of your spiritual practice, and, in so doing, continue the lifelong process of centering yourself evermore in Christ.
For this spiritual practice, more than anything else, will enable you to put into practice, and experience yourself, St. Paul’s mandate to the Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always… Let your gentleness [your forbearance, your reasonableness] be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry [therefore] about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:4-9).”
1A Little Daily Wisdom from the Early Church, Compiled and modernized by Bernard Bangley (Paraclete Press, 2014), 386.
2A Little Daily Wisdom from the Early Church, Compiled and modernized by Bernard Bangley (Paraclete Press, 2014), 68.