Each of us has known our fair share of hardship, suffering and affliction. Some have experienced dreadful setbacks, relapses, and even defeat in the struggle against our own demons, against illness, and physical limitations, against natural disasters, and against consequences of our own bad judgment and bad choices. We have known suffering on account of our own selfishness. We may have experienced a diminishment or a loss of our sense of personal integrity, or the loss of a close friendship, or the loss of our sense of security in the face of death, the news of terminal illness or of a defect in our genetic heritage. We may have had to pick up the pieces of our lives after storms, fires, floods, or simple carelessness in the stewardship of material goods. We may have recovered from the violation of our homes, our persons, or our reputation. Still some of us have rebuilt lives and livelihood after enduring injustice, persecution, and the devastation of war. Some have dragged themselves through the barren wasteland of spiritual darkness and despair only to lie powerless in the intense heat of criticism and misunderstanding. Whatever the battles we have had to fight and the anguish we have had to endure, for the most part we have emerged on the other side in one piece, bruised, battered, broken, scarred, and sore perhaps, but hopefully with more wisdom and deeper spiritual insight. I have shared with some people my own struggle with the darkness. It’s been about 20 years since that painful experience, eight months of sadness and darkness that tempted me to question God’s goodness and the strength of my own faith. I suspected it was what people would call a mid-life crisis. I was not happy, but I didn’t know why. I couldn’t explain my sadness. I was frustrated, I couldn’t pray. I wanted answers, but I didn’t know to ask the questions. I wanted peace of mind, but I couldn’t tell what was depriving me of that peace. In the end I received a hand offered to me in compassion and my trust in God’s providence was restored. As I look back now, I catch a glimpse of the unbroken thread of God’s care in that dark episode, as it were, the single set of footprints in the sand. I believe I am a better person and a better priest because of what I went through. I can only hope that my life bears fruit that will last. Later it dawned on me that the vine grower had been pruning in the vineyard. Sometimes the barren branches that come off the vine are withered and dead, so the process of pruning helped to unclutter my life. Sometimes the branches were still green and the pruning brought pain I did not want. But the vine grower knows the vine, and is able to tell which branches need cleaning, to guarantee a plentiful harvest in the proper season.
The church in the apostolic age experienced many such occasions of tending and pruning at the hand of the vine grower. The once dreaded persecutor Saul now claimed to be a disciple. He had to endure criticism and misunderstanding from the leadership of the church, skepticism and rejection from everyone else. Yet he persisted in his efforts to witness to the truth by his preaching and example, putting his own life in danger many times. Throughout his ministry Paul did battle with ignorance, injustice, error, and hate. But he remained attached to the vine that is Jesus Christ, and with power that comes from God, his life and ministry bore fruit to endure unto life eternal.
The church in our day struggles still with some of the same forces of darkness, while its members share those struggles as branches on the vine. The vine grower still tends the vine with care, cleaning it and pruning so that it bears more fruit. Portions of God’s people do battle with prejudice and hatred each day. And within our church alone, there are opposing factions, opposing interpretations of the truth. Each group is sincere and dedicated to their cause in defense of the truth. And yet they battle one another with alarming intensity and vehemence. While one group claims greater fidelity to Jesus Christ to the exclusion and persecution of others, we are reminded that our task as branches on the vine is to remain connected and to bear lasting fruit. It is the vine grower who does the pruning. The more important question to ask is whether or not our energies keep us connected with the true vine. Or do we resist the pruning that the vine grower sets out to accomplish?
In the first letter of John, we are instructed to love not merely in word or speech but more significantly, in deed and truth. No amount of preaching or teaching is sufficient if our deeds are wanting. It is only they who love as the Lord commanded who remain in him. It is only they who imitate Jesus’ example of compassion and sacrifice who keep his commandment of love. So if we intend to remain in him, we know to love as he did. For if we experience inconvenience and suffering in our efforts to fulfill the Lord’s command, as long as our hearts do not condemn us, we can have confidence that God does not either, “for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.”
“You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.” At the time the evangelist wrote this passage, the infant church was experiencing tremendous grief and separation from the faith and tradition of their Jewish ancestors. Jesus encourages his followers in the face of misunderstanding and persecution. “Remain in me,” he tells them. It is not one unyielding position or another that demands our loyalty. It is only our connection to the vine, our connection to Jesus Christ that is important. “I am the vine, you are the branches … without me you can do nothing.” Are we at all concerned that we remain connected to the vine that is Jesus Christ? Are we at all concerned whether or not we are bearing good fruit? Or do we find ourselves more concerned about things that matter little in the long run? For when the vine grower goes to work in the vineyard, those branches that do not bear fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire. We might benefit from discerning the nature of the pain and suffering we now experience. Is it because we have been pruned to encourage bearing more fruit, or have we already been cut off from the vine and thrown into the fire?
Each of us is here in this Catholic parish and this particular church community for a reason, whether or not it makes sense, whether or not we are able to express it, whether a deep sense of belonging or by force of habit, whether a true hunger and thirst for God or a convenient way to keep mom and dad happy, whether a genuine desire for the life of God or an overpowering fear of the loss of God. Whatever the reason, it keeps us connected to the vine. But in the end, God does the pruning. The only reason that matters is that we bear lasting fruit. Should we have reason to worry?
Rolo B Castillo © 2015