Jump in! The water is fine

3rd Sunday of Easter (C)

In the morning light, with a miraculous catch of fish hanging in a net off the right side of his boat, and after the beloved disciple spoke the words “It is the Lord,” Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? The text is concise. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” [John 21:7b]

The story of the miraculous catch of fish is beloved by many. In Luke’s Gospel it occurs early in Jesus’ ministry [Luke 5:1–11], and in John’s Gospel, which is read on the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) it takes place after Jesus’ resurrection [John 21:1-14]. Both readings are thick with symbolic imagery having to do with Peter’s response to Jesus’ call to follow him, but John’s version, located at the end of his gospel, allows readers to witness the post-resurrection dawning of Peter’s spiritual and ministerial maturity.

A close read of the gospel invites all followers of Jesus, leaders and disciples alike, to plumb the depths of their spiritual waters. The story has a strong message for the Christian church. It raises questions about how we “fish,” it tests our faith in the capacity of the net and ultimately beckons us to be caught up in it.

The action (because there is always action with Peter) begins with Peter’s decision—impulsive, of course—to go fishing, at night,[1] by himself. “I’m going fishing,” he says. Six other disciples decide to join him.

Wait, What? Read in the context of the timeline following the harrowing and glorious recent events of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and subsequent appearances to the disciples, one has to ask: What the heck were Peter and the others, including Thomas, of recent wound-probing fame [John 20:24-29], doing going fishing?[2]

As with all of Scripture, it is important to pay close attention to the way the story is told.

Peter and the others, fishing at night, failed to catch any fish. Morning followed. A man standing on the shoreline told the fishermen to cast their net a different way. They did what he said and were immediately overwhelmed with a super-abundant catch, far more than the seven of them could lift into their boat, and far more than they thought the net could hold. While they were all marveling over the bounty, one of the disciples, the beloved one, the spiritually astute one, recognized Jesus and said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” With that, Peter jumped into the sea.

Why did Peter jump into the sea? Maybe he jumped in so he could quickly wade to the shore to see Jesus, but the gospel doesn’t say that. Maybe he jumped in to hide his shame from Jesus because he didn’t recognize him, but the gospel it doesn’t say that either. All it says is that when Peter heard the beloved disciple’s words “It is the Lord,” the fisherman adjusted his garment and jumped into the sea. Into the water. With the fish.

If any of the disciples were going to jump in, it would be the impetuous, all-or-nothing Peter, whose passionate, sometimes faulty certitude  caused him to protest things he did not understand [John 13:4-8], whose braggadocio led him to make promises he could not keep [John 13:37], and whose misplaced zeal led him to cut off his enemy’s ear [John 18:10].

Peter’s spontaneous reaction to the beloved disciple’s recognition of Jesus in the miracle of the fish reminds me of how he responded to Jesus’ act of foot washing. “Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.” [John 13:8-9]

Examples of Peter’s impulsiveness populate the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and John. Although we shake our heads, we should also understand that these represent Peter’s sincere intentions, his deep desire to get it right, and his efforts to understand his friend, Jesus, whom he loved. We are so much like Peter.

By jumping into the sea, the fisherman Peter joined the fish.

Moments before, when the disciples followed Jesus’ instruction and cast their net a different way, it became so heavy with fish they could not haul it into their boat. Later, when Jesus asked them to bring some of the catch to add to the breakfast he was preparing for them, Peter was able to drag the net filled with one hundred and fifty-three large fish to the shore. In the very act of bringing the fish to Jesus, Peter brought himself, who like the untorn net was strong enough for the task.

And then “Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” Just like the last time they were together at the Sea of Tiberius,[3] Jesus fed his disciples with a miracle of abundance.

Religious leaders, lay ministers, and all disciples can learn much about humility from Peter’s failed attempt to fish in the dark, to go it alone. From his act of jumping into the sea, we can examine our feelings about integration, detachment, control, equality, and of course, our baptism. Peter’s robust response to Jesus’ invitation to bring some “fish” to him is something we should all strive to emulate. Finally, I can’t think of a better analogy for the resilient, expansive, capacious fishing net than the merciful and welcoming church envisioned by Pope Francis in his recent document, “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”)

In the presence of such great abundance we can all cry out “It is the Lord!”

Be caught in the net; be part of this beautiful, tangled and complicated mess that we call faith. Bring what dwells in the depth of your heart up into the light of Christ—the miracle of God’s abundance—Go ahead and jump in!

Today’s readings can be found here. 

____________________

NOTES:

[1] Other than establishing the ego-driven motivation of the disciples (also known as going it alone without Jesus, and therefore, darkness), how might readers of John’s gospel have understood the disciples going fishing at night? For one, it was cooler at night than during the day. Also, larger fish that normally swim in deep water in the daytime come closer to the shore at night, so the fishermen don’t need to take the boat out as far to catch them.

[2] In Jesus-speak, of course, fishing refers to the missionary action of the church; the fisherman’s net represents the scope and unity of God’s church. This unity is threatened when human leaders forget whose net they hold and attempt to go it alone. As accurate and tidy as these interpretations are, they are mere aperitifs to the rich fare proffered in this passage.

[3] The Sea of Tiberius was the site of miracle of the loaves and fishes when Jesus’ fed his disciples and the crowd of 5,000 with five loaves and two fish [John 6:1-14].

Download the full text of Amoris Laetitia.

A summary of Amoris Laetitia, thanks to Salt & Light Media can be found here.

Read Fr. James Martin’s “Top Ten Takeaways from “Amoris Laetitia”

Spiritual euphoria: not your regularly scheduled program

2nd Sunday of Easter (C)

Have you ever attended a religious retreat? I mean one that lasted a weekend or longer. If so, you may understand the meaning of spiritual euphoria. After a period of concentrated prayer and reflection, retreatants frequently speak of being filled up, or high, if you will. There is often a sense of clarity, a lifting, or shifting of burdens, or the discovery of a strength that increases endurance or encourages a fresh start.

Retreats interrupt our “regularly scheduled programming” in order to help us gain a sense of peace, experience joy, healing, and reconciliation. They sometimes force us to probe the depth of our faith and purpose (for which the guidance of a good Spiritual Director is invaluable), help us discern our callings, process new awakenings or closures, and explore our relationship with God, with creation, and with the world.

Then we go home.  Home, where life goes on, where “what’s for dinner?” and science projects that are due the next day and laundry await us; where Monday brings meetings and deadlines and demanding co-workers; where illness or grief or loneliness dwell; where the anguish of the world sits on our doorstep. Because, while we were away undergoing the delicate process of spiritual transformation, everything outside remained the same. And so, our euphoria wanes.

Strange as it seems, our struggles and wounds help us comprehend our joy. I don’t think anyone enjoys revisiting or probing past or present pain, but isn’t this what we do when we celebrate the triumph of Jesus’ life and his resurrection? Wounds remind us of what we have sustained and more importantly, what we have overcome; they stave off the fear and doubt and exhaustion that threatens to return us to the place we were before we received the peace and joy of the cure. This is not a morbid thought, it does not imply wearing chains or a hair shirt, nor should it be depressing. Remembering our crosses is what motivates us to keep going.

Recall that the resurrected Jesus still bore the wounds of his crucifixion. They did not disappear, they remained. Thomas needed to probe them. [John 20:24-29]. So do we. The world’s suffering, poverty, injustice, violence, sickness, rejection, loneliness—Jesus’ wounds surround us; they remind us of our calling.

It is so easy to despair the state of the world, isn’t it? The human capacity for cruelty, greed and selfishness seems to increase every day, and our love for our neighbor is sorely tested. Keeping the faith is hard. Happy Easter! we say. He is Risen! we proclaim. Really?

The resurrected Jesus appeared and stood before his disciples who were hiding in fear for their lives and said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” [John 20:21-22]. Those words are for us too. We are called, and we are sent. Jesus breathed on the disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We too have inhaled the breath of the Lord and our blood courses with the power of the Holy Spirit.

The truth is that Jesus, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is more powerful today, at work in us, with us and through us, than he was when he walked the earth. Really.

The signs and wonders done through Peter and the apostles led great numbers of men and women from all over to believe in the gospel. These new followers, with the faith that simply being present was enough, carried their physically sick friends and family and those afflicted with unclean spirits to Solomon’s portico, where the mysterious and wonderful apostles gathered. And the scripture tells us all were cured. [Acts 5:12-16].

Don’t we just love to think of the early church as a time of rejoicing, praying, breaking bread, and sharing Christian love? It was all that. But it was also one of the most dangerous times to be a Christian. In fact, as the Acts of the Apostles and Letters of Paul reveal, being a Christian in the early church all but guaranteed a life of persecution and death. To our horror, for some Christians living in the year 2016, this is still true.

It’s been a week since our rejoicing at Easter began and already there are signs that our fervor is waning. Perhaps waning is an imprecise way to describe the return to our regularly scheduled program—business as usual—but the words of John in today’s second reading remind us, Easter people, that there is no turning back. Because we who give testimony to Jesus share in his distress, Kingdom and endurance. [Rev 1:9]. Everything, including us, is transformed. Unlike our retreat euphoria which gradually wanes, the transformation that Easter brings about is everlasting. We are forever changed.

Happy Easter! He is Risen!

Today’s readings can be found here.

A Softness is Touching the Earth

 

Threshold of Spring

Harshness gone. All at once caring spreads over
the naked gray of the meadows.
Tiny rivulets sing in different voices.
A softness, as if from everywhere,

is touching the earth.
Paths appear across the land and beckon.
Surprised once again you sense
its coming in the empty tree.

—Threshold of Spring. Ranier Maria Rilke, Uncollected Poems

Thresholds usher us from one space into another. The seasons of the earth, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, are crossings that cycle from one to the next. Nature strides across thresholds toward new birth, towards the flourishing of all that lives, towards necessary rest, towards death and resurrection, towards transformation. Always transformation.

We, passive participants in nature’s cycle that we are, experience Spiritual crossings in the same way. Although, perhaps this year we will do so with more intentionality.

How many Easter thresholds must we cross in a lifetime before the example of our life gives witness to what we profess to believe?

Surprised once again you sense its coming in the empty tree.

“Christos Anesti!” Christ is risen!
“Alithos Anesti” Truly, He is risen!

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad. Let us each move forward in confidence and seek the flourishing of all that lives, always moving towards our conversion and transformation. We are Easter People, Alleluia! Alleluia!

Happy Easter, Good Disciples!

It is Only in our Emptiness that we find our Fullness

The Triduum

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

“Have in you the attitude of Christ. Christ Jesus, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this God greatly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name…” [Phil 2:5-9]

“Now, full authority both in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go and share my life and power with all people.” [Matt 28:18 ff]

We are called as a new creation to share in that same authority, power, and life: to discover the power of the cross, to find in our emptiness our fullness, just as Christ did. It is the power of love. It is in only our poverty that we find our true wealth. “It is in possessing nothing that I possess all things.” —St. Francis of Assisi

We want to know from our lovers; in the hearts of those we love, “Do you have a place for me in your heart?” Why is that important to you and me? Because that is what love means…having a place for each other in our hearts, to carry each other in our hearts, to have a heart for people.

When I truly love and care for someone I make a place for them in my heart. They abide there, whether they are physically present to me or not, and I can always go to that place in my heart and find them…be with them and present to them across space and time.

It is a wonderful thing to have a heart for others. It gives me a joyful grateful heart…full of love, full of people and all creation. It gives me a heart of mercy, understanding and compassion, a heart vulnerable and willing enough to be pierced and emptied even as Christ’s heart was. So that even in and through our emptiness we find the heart and fullness of God. “Have in you the attitude of Christ.” [Phil 2:5]

Because…the great secret is that God’s heart has been placed in us, we have been given the fullness of the Spirit. [Jn 1:16] It is hidden in our own hearts, and we can only discover and release it through our own emptiness. Love only exists if you give it away. The only way we can have what each of us wants, is if we give it to each other. It is then that we discover and meet God who dwells in us and in our hearts, and who wants us to be the heart, hands, eyes and ears of God in our world, full of compassion, mercy, and love for us and for all.

I think that is what it means to have the heart of God, a heart for people, a place where people can dwell in love, where harmony and peace lead to true joy and authentic happiness. As the hymn says, “Where charity and love prevail there God is ever found.” Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them, because God is love. [1 Jn 4:16] What a wonderful thing it is to live in love, to live in God!

Yet we can only do that if our hearts are empty. We have a place in God’s heart, so the question becomes, do we have a place in our heart for God? Or are our hearts are full of other things and people in self-serving ways of self-gratification. Does greed, lust, fear, envy, fill our hearts and minds, or does the love and light of Christ impel us in selfless service and love, for the good of others not just our own.

God can only fill our heart as we empty our hearts. When we empty ourselves we find ourselves, Jesus tells us. [Matt 10:39  and 16:25]. In our emptiness we find our fullness, and in our hearts we discover God; the heart of God which is vast and infinite and has a place for me and you…room for everyone, a heart for people, a heart full of people and all creation! “In my Father’s house there are many mansions…I am going to prepare a place for you, so that where I Am you also may be!” [Jn 14:1-3]

God has given us a new heart and a new Spirit. “I will give you a new heart and a new Spirit…I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you…” [Ezekiel 36:25-27]

Six days before the Passover and the Last Supper, Jesus was with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Mary took and emptied a jar of costly perfumed oil, washed and anointed Jesus’ feet, and dried them with her hair. Such a profoundly tender and intimate gesture must have touched Jesus very deeply. It was a symbol of Mary emptying her soul out in love for Jesus. Jesus was so touched that he used the same gesture of washing the feet of his disciples as the symbol of the emptying out of his own life in love of us, and as the symbol of service and love he was calling his disciples to live if they were to follow and learn from him. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” [Mk 10:45 and  Jn 13:1-17]

It is only in our emptiness that we find our fullness. Through death comes life! It is the Passion of the Lord; let us enter into it with all our hearts…to discover the joy of Easter!

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St. Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

Remember Barsabbas?

two choices one path

7th Sunday of Easter (B)

No, I don’t mean Barabbas, the violent criminal who Pontius Pilate released from prison in exchange for Jesus. I mean Justus, a.k.a. Joseph, Barsabbas. He’s the guy who didn’t get chosen to fill the spot left open by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. The other unknown disciple, Matthias, got the job, according to the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles [Acts 1:15-26]. For many readers, this account simply represents the early church getting its house in order before embarking on its evangelical mission. And it does seem to be the entire story; not only is this the first we hear of Matthias and Barsabbas, it is the last. Never again are either of them mentioned in the New Testament.

The girl detective in me has a few questions.

I am the kind of person who searches the background of snapshots for details that have nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with the experience of those who just happened to be standing nearby. Imagining the secret life of bystanders may be the stuff of fiction writers, but in the context of reading scripture, visualizing what the secondary characters in the story might be experiencing helps to further humanize the situation.

Many years ago as part of my theological studies I explored the various forms of prayer attributed to particular religious orders, Franciscan, Augustinian, Ignatian, for example. As a lifelong fan of the Jesuits, I was delighted to discover my preferred method followed the Ignatian way. This contemplative method invites the reader to insert him or herself into the story and attend to the feelings and images that arise. For example, I might imagine the colors and scents of goods being sold on the street, feelings of claustrophobia brought on by narrow and crowded alleyways, the sounds of mothers calling to their children, and the dust working its way between the soles of my feet and my sandals. The method also encourages the reader to dialog with the characters, not as a spectator, but as a participant who is known by the others.

Reading scripture this way is deeply personal and subjective. It is rich, I tell you, rich. Having said this, I am now obliged to make this public service announcement: context is everything. O Lord let not our imagination lead us away from what the text says. Readers must never “proof text,” manipulate, or misuse scripture in order to bolster a personal position.

The writers of sacred Scripture did not include superfluous details. Every chapter, verse, and detail is intentional and complete. That is not to say openings for deeper reflection do not exist. Nor does it suggest scripture is meant to be read literally. Exploring the layers beneath what has been written is fascinating work. Ascertaining the historical context, the literary form, the writer’s intended audience, and the situation being addressed helps readers relate to the text in a way that bridges it to contemporary life. In other words, what does this teaching mean for us today?

And now, back to Barsabbas and Matthias.

The purpose of the election was to restore the number of apostles to twelve by filling the space vacated by Judas. The explanation from Peter, the scriptural citation from the Psalms, and the detailed method are included by the writer (Luke) to show how the early church appointed leaders. The process of selection began with two nominees chosen from a pool of potential candidates. In order to qualify for the role, both Barsabbas and Matthias had to have been followers of Jesus from his baptism by John, through his ministry and then, to his death and resurrection. Following this nomination, the group engaged in communal prayer for Spiritual guidance and later, cast their votes to determine which of the two would share in the ministry of the twelve apostles.

“…and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.” [Acts 1:26b]

Barsabbas was not chosen. The reason has no bearing on the storyline so it was not given. But I have to wonder, could his name have played a part? A bit too close to Barabbas, perhaps? So, I began researching Barsabbas. But the typically fruitful biblical commentaries, concordances, and dictionaries revealed little to nothing. So, I did what all modern day people do. I Googled his name. Google asked me, “Do you mean Barabbas?” Hmmm. This naming problem can’t be just a modern-day obstacle. I imagined the conversation between Peter, the others, and Barsabbas. It might have sounded something like this. “Say, look here Barsabbas, old chap, you really are a great guy but, we have to go with Matthias. It’s, well, it’s your name. Too close to Barabbas, too confusing. We just can’t do it.” Doubtful, but, possible. Still, if we are to accept that the appointment of Matthias was Spirit led, and that is what the text is telling us, we have to consider another option.

As one who accompanied Jesus and the other disciples, Barsabbas was almost certainly considered a good candidate because he exhibited certain leadership skills and possessed a solid understanding of Jesus’ teaching. While the text is silent on what came next for him, we can presume Barsabbas continued to live the life of a good disciple and worked to spread the gospel message in word and action. He did so as a member of the Christian community, just as we do. And, what about Matthias? Well, as mentioned above, he never reappears in the Scriptures either. This reveals yet another ecclesial reality: the majority of the work of pastoral leaders takes place in the background, quietly, and, for the most part, anonymously. Few disciples, ordained or lay, are recognized, named, or immortalized.

So, in addition to its original intent, this passage is a good reminder for each of us today to carry on, serve others and live out the Gospel in word and action with the utmost humility, just like the many other unknown Barsabbas’s and Matthias’s before us.

Who has a problem with inclusiveness? (Hint: It’s not God)

6th Sunday of Easter (B)

Religious institutions and people of faith often have trouble accepting that God’s lavish expression of love is for everyone. Some believe it is their solemn duty to enforce standards on those they consider, say, not yet ready for full and active participation.

Is it helpful, or even our right, to remind those we deem to be sinners of Jesus’ command to “sin no more” while we half-heartedly obey his command to love one another? What? We are good people! We love our neighbors! All are welcome in our faith communities! It’s just that some are more welcome than others.

We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the early church grew in great numbers despite established religious boundaries and parameters. It became apparent to Peter and the others that the Holy Spirit moved where it willed and that human constructs of cleanliness, worth, nationality, gender or rank were meaningless to God. Consequentially, the young Christian movement reinterpreted itself as universal, or catholic (small c). Peter observed, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34b-35]

In the late 1960s, a book entitled “Tough Love” suggested a method of discipline that gave permission to treat others harshly as a means of helping them to conform. The theory goes something like this: If we deprive a person of affection, cease material support, and shun them they will soon realize they have been wrong and return to the fold as a conforming citizen. Although the method has been effective in some cases, it has also been known to be harmful. Many faith communities practice a form of tough love on those standing on the outside who wish to come in. This is not the way Jesus loves us, and it’s not the way the Father loves him. Furthermore, this is not what it means to remain—to be included—in his love. And that’s the point.

Jesus said: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” [John 15:9]

And, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” [John 15:12]

And, “This I command you: love one another.” [John 15:17]

Jesus doesn’t add any exemptions to his instruction. He doesn’t say, “This I command you: love one another, except when they are A, B, or C, in which case you may withhold your love until they comply.” Radical and inclusive love is difficult for a lot of people. Our world is troubled because many of us don’t know how to love others outside of our immediate circle. More fundamentally, we are unwilling to expose ourselves first to the radical love that God showers upon us.

My dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, exemplifies what it means to love one another and remain in Jesus’ love. His whole life and ministry are all about facilitating loving human relationships, and I and countless others have experienced God’s love through him. He once told me, “Early in my priesthood, a friend asked me what my priesthood meant to me, and out of my mouth came without any hesitation or forethought, “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”” This statement has become the core of his pastoral plan. It is being love, encountering love and knowing his own belovedness that leads Fr. Joel to act. “It happens with sharing my time and presence in Word, Eucharist, thought, and action. In works of compassion, listening, and material physical help.” It is in the mutual indwelling of God that Fr. Joel finds and shares God’s initiative and grace with others. Being able to do so, he says, “is the joy and the ecstasy of life!”

When we become aware of our “being first loved” by God, just as Jesus was, we can take the first step to loving one another with a radical and inclusive love. Peter gradually came to understood this through his experience of knowing Jesus and was able to recognize it in the emerging Christian community.

A funny thing happens when someone experiences the expression of God’s lavish initiative through radical and inclusive love. He or she then becomes more capable than ever before to share that love with others. It increases, and it flows into every crevice of human interaction. It’s unstoppable.

With this understanding, who could be left out?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

It’s not enough to bloom

5th Sunday of Easter (B)

Let’s talk about ripeness. And by ripeness I mean age, but I also mean fruitfulness. Surely we have heard people wax poetic about entering the autumn of one’s life, about earning one’s wrinkles, about aging with grace, about the privilege of reaching a ripe old age. You may even be one of them. When she was about 3 years old, my daughter used to say, “I can’t like that!” about many things that she did not want to accept. And while all of the above sentiments about aging are noble and true, I have to say, “I can’t like that!” no matter how I try. But as much as I would like to remain flower fresh all of my days I accept that it’s not enough to bloom. Aging is a lot like ripening. But before ripening can occur there must be fruit. And before fruit: a flower, and before the flower: a vine, a seed, and soil.

In John’s gospel, Jesus analogizes his relationship with the disciples to a vine and branches [John 15:1-8]  As branches, the disciples are nourished by the life-giving sap flowing through the vine. They grow and produce fruit. The fruit of the disciples is their action. They do the work of Christ. They cannot do this work on their own; they cannot leave the vine and survive. A branch that does not produce fruit indicates separation, disease, or the need for hard pruning.

Mystical metaphors such as the vine and the branches powerfully illustrate the mutual abiding between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. The image portrays Jesus as the conduit of divine direction between the vine grower (God) and the branches (us). Through these metaphors we grasp the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ consciousness and our responsibility to act upon it.

Earlier this month I spent a day tending to the flowering trees and shrubs in my garden. The long and harsh winter left many of them damaged with broken branches. I also noticed suckers and vertical shoots—non-producing growths that divert important nutrients from the healthy branches—emerging from the trunks. I know that carefully pruning away dead and useless growth encourages new growth and increases flowering. I am doing the same thing in my spiritual life: snipping away what does not bloom in order to open new spaces for regrowth.

Sour_cherriesBut it is not enough to bloom, is it? A tree heavy with blossoms may represent the peak of its beauty, but its showy fragrant flowers are designed to produce fruit. In the spiritual life the bloom is the time of conversion, that period of elation that comes with high inner consciousness and spiritual awareness. Neither the flowering tree or the spiritual high of conversion is sustainable; although they return, both must subside. The test of the bloom is the fruit that follows. If a bough of cherry blossoms is cut from the tree and brought inside one’s home, the space fills with fragrance but the blossoms will never produce cherries. If a person experiences a spiritual awakening while on a weekend retreat, yet Monday looks no different from the previous Friday, that person cannot produce fruit. But, let the cherry blossoms remain on the bough, let the petals fall, and let the fruit grow, ripen, and become food. Ripeness is the fulfillment of the bloom. The ability to nourish another is the revelation of its life’s work. This cannot happen unless it remains.

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.” [John 15:5]

We are the branches of the true vine. Conversion and the call to discipleship can, and do, occur again and again if one remains on the vine. But branches don’t simply rest and admire their own glossy leaves and flowers, and neither can we. We are expected to bear fruit. And, we are expected to ripen. It is hard to watch the petals fall. It can be uncomfortable. I can’t like it and I wonder if I ever will, but I do understand.

The poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, describes this necessary discomfort in the following poem:

In the Drawing Room

They are all around us, these lordly men
in courtiers’ attire and ruffled shirts
like an evening sky that gradually
loses its light to the constellations; and these ladies,
delicate, fragile, enlarged by their dresses,
one hand poised on the neck-ribbon of their lapdog.
They are close to each of us, next to the reader,
beside us as we gaze at the objets d’art
they left behind, yet still possess.

Tactful, they leave us undisturbed
to live life as we grasp it
and as they could never comprehend it.
They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.
But we want to ripen,
and for that we open ourselves to darkness and travail.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

From A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.  1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 106.

Today’s readings can be found here.