The Vine and the Branches

I was asked by the editor of the newsletter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians to write a reflection on today’s readings for this week’s newsletter.  Here are the thoughts I shared on today’s Gospel (John 15:1-8):

In today’s Gospel from St. John, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and they are the branches.  And, he warns them, “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 . . . Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

I find this is, at one and the same time both humbling and empowering, and it is both of those for the same reason.  What we do we do, not through our own power, but through the Spirit of God that flows through us.  Without God, we can do nothing; the branch without the vine will never bear fruit.  That is a humbling.  But at the same time, it is empowering because it reminds us that with Jesus, there is no limit.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”  We see evidence of that fruit in today’s first Mass reading – where we hear that the church was at peace and grew in numbers through the disciples’ preaching in the name of the Lord and the consolation of the Holy Spirit.

For me, the Gospel is also a reminder that what we do – in our ministry and in our lives – is for God’s glory, not our own.  We do what we do, not only through God’s power, but on behalf of the building of God’s kingdom.  It is God’s work and God’s plan we are about, not our own.

Jesus also tells his disciples in the Gospel that the vine grower, the Father, prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit.  We might profitably reflect on the questions: Where do I need some pruning?  What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?

Lord Jesus, help me to remember that my strength lies in you, that through your grace I can accomplish much for the greater glory of God.. In the face of all temptation to stray, keep me yoked to you.


The Fidelity of God

I have a plant in my law school office that started from a cutting from a plant in my friend Lisa’s office.  It has been sitting on the window sill for at least six or seven years.

Not only am I not the best plant owner in the world, but if my attention to my plant were graded, I’d come pretty close to flunking.  Sometimes I water the plant a couple of times in a week.  Sometimes it doesn’t get watered for several weeks and the dirt is so solidly dry it is hard to imagine how the plant is not dead.  Occasionally I might turn it so a different part faces the window, but not with any regularity.

Yet, despite my inadequate ministering and my usually ignoring of it, several times a year the plant puts out blossoms.  They were once pink, but a couple of years ago started coming out orange.

As I showed it to Lisa this morning, what popped out of my mouth was: the fidelity of God.  That is what the plant reminds me of.  Sometimes our prayer is faithful and true, other times we get caught up in other things and God gets short shrift.  But no matter how much or how little attention we pay to him, God is always there, always present with us, always alive in us and in our world.




Aesthetic Education and Maintaining a Healthy Environment

Last night I joined members of the Theology Department at St. Catherine University (where I teach as an adjunct in their Masters in Theology program) for dinner with Archbishop Hebda.  The subject for discussion was Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home).

Our discussion ranged over a number of themes in the encyclical, including the pope’s emphasis on dialogue.  It was an edifying and enjoyable evening.

In preparation for the dinner, I spend some time giving the encyclical a careful re-read (perhaps more careful than my initial read when it first came out).  One of the paragraphs that stood out for me (par. 215) offered a different take at my lament (and that of many others) of the decline of recognition of the value of a liberal arts education in favor of an emphasis on job training.  Francis writes that

“the relationship between a good aesthetic education and the maintenance of a healthy environment cannot be overlooked.”  By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism.  If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruples.  If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behavior.  Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature.

I link the quote to my insistence on the value of a liberal arts education because if all we expect our colleges and universities to do is prepare people for jobs, where is the space in which we are providing a “good aesthetic education”?  Where and how are we teaching people to “see and appreciate beauty,” and to “reject self-interested pragmatism.”

Colleges and universities may not be the only venue for such education, but it is not an insignificant part of it.

A Hermitage Stay

I just got back from three nights in a hermitage at Wellsprings Farm, a little mini-retreat.  The owners have a wonderful model of community supported retreat: as with a CSA, they sell shares that entitle the holder to a certain number of nights in one of the three hermitages on the site.  My share entitled me to 20 nights for the year, more than enough for my personal use and to give away nights to friends.

I stayed in the Dome, pictured here.

Hermitage dome copy

I had perfect weather for three days of sitting reading or contemplating, and walking in the forest or on the labyrinth.

I confess the forest path is my favorite.  There is not much I love more than a solitary morning walk on a forest path.  I’ve been there when the trees have been full; this weekend I walked in the aftermath of last week’s snowfall.

hermitage forest copy

At one end of the forest path is a perfect spot for looking over the lake.  Although both of the other two hermitages were also occupied while I was there, no one seemed to use the forest path other than me, so this chair was always waiting for me when I got there.

hermitage lake chair copy

My other favorite chair was the one in the center of the labyrinth, which is cut into wild marsh grass.

Hermitage labyrinth copy

It was a restoring couple of days.  I recommend (as I always do after returning from retreat) finding a way to “come away and rest awhile).


The Resurrection and Transformation

We are now two plus weeks into the Easter season – you do remember it is still the Easter season, right?  Consider this a reminder if not!

I gave a talk last week at St. Thomas More church on Week 4 of the Spiritual Exercises, which focuses on the Resurrection and invites us into the joy of the resurrected Christ.

For St. Ignatius it is imperative that we experience the joy of the Resurrection.  Why?  Joseph Tetlow says this:

In his humanness, Jesus triumphed over death.  He had embraced everything human without ever acting unfaithful to his Father, to Himself, or to his friends.  He had lived his life in uprightness and in joy.  Now, He is confirmed eternally in His own joy – to be with the children of humankind….

This is the Jesus Christ who lives now.  If you do not come to know Him both full of joy and exuberantly sharing his happiness, then you will not really know Him at all.  You have asked in [in W2 and W3 of the SE] to know Jesus and to love Him and to follow where he goes.  It is into fullness of life and complete human joy that he goes!  If you do not follow him into his joy, you will ultimately find it hard to believe that you are following him at all.

“If you do not come to know Him both full of joy and exuberantly sharing his happiness, then you will not really know him at all.”  “If you do not follow him into his joy, you will ultimately find it hard to believe that you are following him at all.”

As Tetlow’s comments suggest, we cannot be the Resurrection people we are meant to be in the world if we do not internalize that joy. The joy we are talking about here is not a bells and whistles joy.  If I have been with Jesus at Calvary, I can never again leave the cross and tomb behind.  I carry the cross with me (as the risen Jesus carries his physical wounds on his body).  Resurrection is happiness in the midst of the empty tomb, in the midst of grief, loneliness, and the sense that things are not the way things are supposed to be.

So, if you have not been doing so, I encourage you to take some time during these Easter weeks to pray with the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, to spend time with the resurrected Christ.

There Was No Needy Person Among Them

Each year, the first Mass readings following Easter come from Acts; following our celebration of the Resurrection, we hear about the development of the early Church.

Today’s first Mass reading offers us a lesson on caring for those in need.  The early Christian community, we are told,

was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common….There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Imagine that!  No needy person among them.  Contrast it with our world today, or even the communities in which we live.  You don’t have to go far from the church in which I worship each week to find people who don’t have enough food to eat, or a safe place to live.  And there is nothing unique about my church in that regard.  I suspect there are very few, if any places, where we can say that “there was no needy person among them.”

I am not suggesting that we all sell all of our property and put the proceeds at anyone’s feet (or that what we have be forcibly taken from us).  But the reading from Acts does invite us to reflect on our attitudes about what we have and toward those who lack.

Do we view our property as our own, to do with as we will, or do we appreciate that our possessions are a gift from God that we hold (in Aquinas’ words) for the purpose of “perfecting [our] own nature and [using] them for the benefit of others”?

Do we view it as a fundamental part of who we are as Christians to care for those who have less than we do?

What steps are we taking, to move us to a world where there is no needy person among us?

What We Have Seen and Heard

Today’s first Mass reading from Acts (which we hear each year in the Easter season) is one of my favorite readings in that book.  We read today that the leaders, elders and scribes are upset at the boldness of Peter and John in proclaiming the Gospel and they want to put an end to the spread of the message of Christ. So they bring Peter and John before the Sanhedrin and order them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus.

It is Peter and John’s response that I find so powerful.  In no uncertain terms, they proclaim: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

If we have been touched by Christ, we can’t help but share it.   When we experience God in a deep way, we are changed.

The flip side is that we can’t effectively evangelize others unless we ourselves have been touched by Christ.  We are all called to proclaim the Gospel.  But the reality is that we can transmit the Gospel to others only on the basis of our own personal encounter.  Anything else will lack authenticity.

St. Ignatius understood this well.  This is why we spend so much time in the Spiritual Exercises being with Jesus, walking with him, getting to know him, learning to love him so deeply we can’t imagine being anywhere else.  And it is why we spend time in the final Week of the Exercises being with the Resurrected Christ.  For it if do, it will be impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.