“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”
Usually, when I’ve heard or read the parable of the vine and the branches, I’ve mainly been drawn toward and reflected upon the phrases about being part of the vine and remaining in Christ – that is, remaining in Christ’s body by living as he taught and following God’s commandments.
This morning when I heard the Gospel proclaimed at Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, I heard a different part that I hadn’t even noticed before – emphasized in this clip:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,
and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,
because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
will be thrown out like a branch and wither;
people will gather them and throw them into a fire
and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you,
ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified,
that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
(John 15:1-8, emphasis mine)
I don’t know how I had never really heard that phrase toward the beginning before. I think I was always ready for and anticipating the meat in the middle, about living in Christ as branches on Him, the vine.
But the part at the beginning – about every branch that does bear fruit being pruned by the Father so that it bears more fruit? That part struck a chord for me because of much of my own discernment and reflection in recent years. God prunes us? Yes! He does.
A plant that is pruned, cut back in the right ways at appropriate times, is healthier and more vigorous. Pruning can lead to larger shoots, prolonged and enhanced blooming, resistance to pests and environmental challenges, and even a better root system.
What about our own bring pruned? Let me tell a story of a time this became vivid in my own faith life. It was painful, if for a brief moment, but it was a pruning, and it allowed me to bear more fruit in new ways.
For several years after my two terms on our parish pastoral council, I had held responsibility (and great pride) for our parish website. I knew that I was probably one of the best in the parish for bearing this “fruit”, with my background, skills, knowledge, and access to the tools and technology to do it well.
However, less than a year into a new pastor arriving at our parish, even though we had developed a good relationship and rapport, there was a moment when we had a very abrupt and hurtful encounter. I randomly ran into him one day around the parish grounds while I was preparing music for a retreat that weekend. He pulled me aside and said something like, “Oh, next week I’ll work with you to get the website turned over to [another person]. You don’t need to do that anymore.”
I was hurt – deeply hurt. But all kinds of conflicting emotion were already fighting within me. I wasn’t mad, because at the same time that I was hurt that this came out of the blue, so suddenly, without any discussion or concern for my thoughts or feelings, I also knew deep down that I was a little bit thankful that this responsibility had been taken off my shoulders. I wasn’t certain that the other person could do what I thought was “as good of a job”, but I knew that he would do well and that God would provide for that. At the same time I was grieving having something I took such great pride in swiped from my hands (if it was ever really in my hands, since it was God’s work in the end), I was a bit happy that I could occupy my time, attention, and skills in some new ideas and areas.
I bounced back from that moment fairly quickly. Thankfully, on that weekend retreat, I was able to connect my feelings of hurt with the words of the Lord’s Prayer that remind us to forgive in the measure we hope to be forgiven for our sins. My “pruning” in this situation had resolved itself fairly quickly.
Sometimes these moments of pruning that God gives us in life aren’t as fast or easy to get through or resolve. Sometimes the resolution can take months or years. Sometimes it takes an entire lifetime.
But there it is, plain as day at the start of the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel: We are to remain in Christ’s body, as branches of Him, the true vine; and when we bear fruit, the Father will prune us so that we bear more fruit.
Since the situation with the website that I just mentioned, I’ve become more conscious of the commitments that I have in the Church, in my family, and in the world, and in the ways that I have to try to be careful to not over commit. This is hard, and it’s a process that I am constantly undergoing.
Sometimes when I do realize that I’ve taken on too much, I have to prayerfully step back, take some time, and discern where I’m truly needed the most, and where my own unique talents can provide the most benefit.
Sometimes this leads to painful decisions to step back from things that I care deeply about, to find other people on the vine of Christ who will bear good fruit in these areas and ensure they are well taken care of before I do step back.
In recent months, as I’ve continued to discern what I believe to be a call to the Diaconate formation program in our diocese, I’ve reflected a great amount on the “prunings” that I will have to accept if I’m accepted into the program and take this path. For one, I will have to give up the work with music that I do (and love) in my home parish. That is a pruning that I’ve had to pray and consider deeply whether I’m willing or ready to accept, and there are many dimensions of that prayerful discernment: I cherish my hours in the choir loft, at the organ, with my friends and fellow choir members. I cherish the fact that my sons enjoy being up there with me so much, and that Thomas so enjoys playing the flute with us. I don’t even know yet whether I’ll be accepted into the program and start this new journey, but I know that I have come to peace with the “prunings” that I will have to be open to God making in my own life in order to follow that call.
And so it always comes back to the question: Is it my will or God’s Will that I seek? Do I want to choose to risk becoming the unwieldy, overgrown bush that has resisted the pruning and no longer bears new fruit in abundance? Or do I embrace the risk and the sometimes unknowns that come from accepting God’s Will – God’s pruning action in our lives?
Are there new ways God is calling me to go? New directions in which I am to grow and bear new types of fruit?
God prunes our lives in various ways in due time – new careers, new family and friend associations, new places in which to live, new crosses to bear in our daily walk. But the Gospel tells us that the pruning is for an end: so that we can bear more fruit.
It takes great grace and some pain to “be pruned”; that is, to allow the unnecessary to be removed from our lives. Unfruitful commitments, relationships, and the like are sometimes very hard to step away from. And, truly, it’s sometimes very fruitful commitments or very loving relationships that God takes from us in order to make room for something new, something that may even surprise us.
Leonardo da Vinci was known for referring to sculpture as “the art of removing.” We have to become ready to let God, the master potter, work the clay of our lives and remove the unnecessary, to help us become an even more beautiful work of art.
What are the keys to this from our standpoint? Studying and remaining true to God’s Word and to the truths of our faith is one. The other, critical key is a very strong, committed life of prayer. Taking a break from the busy-ness of our daily lives and our commitments provides the space in which to reflect upon where we can and should be going, and listening for God’s guidance.
A life of reading, reflecting upon, listening to the ministers of the Church teach about, and LIVING in God’s Word, and then accepting the prunings God provides, will bring us to the great glory that God has prepared for each of us from the beginning of time.
May God give us the grace to accept the pains of the pruning, the excitement of new growth, and the joys of bearing fruit in his vineyard.