Pondering Pruning – A Meditation on This Necessary Work of God in Our Lives

"2008-04-21 Tree trimming on Gregson St 2" by Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“2008-04-21 Tree trimming on Gregson St 2” by Ildar Sagdejev
  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The gospel from Sunday (John 15:1-8) presents us with an important meditation on the difference between love and kindness. Perhaps some further reflections from this gospel are in order today.

There is an unfortunate tendency in our times to reduce love to kindness. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so is rebuke. It is an immature notion of love that reduces it merely to affirming, or that refers to proper correction as a form of “hate.”

We saw in yesterday’s gospel that proper care involves the Lord “pruning” us so that we bear more fruit. But in soft times like these, many would not consider pruning, which is painful, to be proper care. Any reasonable, mature, balanced assessment yields the truth that pruning is necessary and is part of proper care.

Though I am less familiar with grape vines, I know my roses. And while I feed and water them, treat their common diseases, and pull the weeds that seek to choke them, I also prune them—sometimes quite severely. At this time of year, my fall pruning vindicates itself as proper care—the first rosebuds and the luxuriant foliage are in glorious evidence! Through the year I will continue all my care, including pruning, cutting away diseased branches, and shaping the plants. Who of you will question me for what I do to my beautiful roses?

It is no less the case with us that the Lord must prune us. And who would question the Lord for this necessary work? Yet many in our times do question Him and His Body, the Church, for doing just this.

First of all, He does this by proclaiming His Word: You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you (Jn 15:3). In this proclamation is a kind of pruning of the intellect; our worldly thinking and priorities are pruned away by the truth of God’s wisdom and His Word, which is like a scalpel or pruning hook.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:12-13).

The Word of God prunes away our error by shining the light of truth on our foolishness and worldliness; it exposes our sinfulness and silly preoccupations. It lays bare our inordinate self-esteem and all the sinful drives that flow from it: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. A steady diet of God’s Word prunes and purifies our mind, reordering it gradually.

Yet for many of us, the Word of God alone (while sufficient in itself) is not enough due to our stubbornness and tendency to rationalize our bad behavior and “stinking thinking.” Too easily we call good or “no big deal” what God calls sin and surround ourselves with teachers and “experts” who tell us what our itching ears want to hear (cf 2 Tim 4:3).

And thus further pruning is needed. Such further pruning can be accomplished in two ways: active and passive purification. Active purifications are things that we undertake ourselves such as fasting or other mortifications. These help to prune away what stunts healthy growth and the fruits of righteousness.

But honestly, none of us will ever really do enough active purification to accomplish what is really needed—not even close. Consider an analogy I have used before: could you perform an appendectomy on yourself? Of course not! First, you could not really see enough to be able do it properly. Second, you would never be able to inflict that much pain on yourself. Such things must be accomplished for us by others.

Therefore, since active purifications are not enough to prune us properly, we must also accept passive purifications. Passive purifications are those things that God does or allows in order to prune us. And frankly some of them are quite painful: serious losses or setbacks, struggles with our health, difficulties in marriage or other vocations, the death of loved ones, the end of relationships, humiliating occurrences, accidents, and so forth. Other passive purifications are less painful, involving minor irritations, disappointments, or discomforts.

And when these occur we cry out in pain. Pruning hurts. But it may well be just what we need. The honest truth is that we human beings are so gifted, talented, and capable that if we didn’t have a few things to keep us humble, we’d be so proud we’d just go to Hell.

So God prunes. And whether we like to admit it or not, it is a form of care. We need these passive purifications; we need the pruning that keeps us bearing the fruit of holiness and righteousness.

In soft times like these, when the application of limits or the use of the word “no” is deemed “unloving” or “hateful,” we who would be Christians and light to the world must become clearer ourselves about the need for pruning. Even in the Church there is a hesitancy to speak of this need or of anything considered “negative” or “challenging.” To all this we can only reply that it is necessary at times for the surgeon to wield the scalpel, the vinedresser to apply the pruning sheers, the Lord to use passive purifications. It is hard and painful at times, but there is no other way given our stubborn and sin-prone souls.

There is also a communal dimension to this that was mentioned in yesterday’s gospel: He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit (Jn 15:2). This is not the pruning of a single branch; it is the cutting away of any branches that do not bear fruit and thus sap energy from the others.

In these highly individualistic times it is harder for people to grasp the common good and why it is sometimes necessary for the Lord to wholly remove from His Body (the Church) those who refuse to bear fruit. But the common good really is the answer.

And now back to my roses: one of my rose bushes tends to go wild. In the last two years it has become gnarly, losing its shape. Its roses have lost their wedged-tulip shape and are becoming small and rounded. I have taken to pruning it severely in the hopes of saving it. So far this has yielded limited success. This year, if it does not respond and return from the wild side, I will have to remove it. This is not only due to my preferences; I am concerned that the other bushes will cross-pollinate with it and also lose their dignity and form. One wild rose bush tends to exert its influence on others. Who of you will question me for what I do to protect my roses?

And who of us should protest against God for what He does to keep His vine strong and Heaven pure?

Pruning is needed both to help us bear fruit and to save us. It falls to us, like a faithful remnant, to recover this notion and teach it without apology or embarrassment. God knows what He is doing. He knows what makes for good disciples and perfect souls. It is hard, though, and it’s OK to ask God to be gentle with us. But in the end, may God never do anything less than is necessary to prepare heavenly glories for us.

28 Replies to “Pondering Pruning – A Meditation on This Necessary Work of God in Our Lives”

  1. Msgr., yes we need pruning. Bring it on. You have my permission (and great appreciation) before or after SCOTUS rules, to ask your parishioners that do not believe marriage is between one man and one woman, and do not believe homosexual acts are wrong, to leave the Catholic Church. Kindly, but firmly inform them (instruct the ignorant), we ask our members to believe what the Church teaches. Mrs. Clinton has stated that religious beliefs must change for the good of women. Ask those that believe this to also leave. Please ask those that believe a women has the right to kill her child to leave. Not only ask, but tell them they are no longer welcome. Please allow God to use you in his pruning efforts.

    1. Mr. Brown, Let’s say you are Msgr. Pope, and you just told these individuals they are no longer welcome, would you consider consulting these parishioners if they wanted to further discuss the Church’s teaching for their own clarity? Would you make that clear to them after you told them they are no longer welcome? (That you will be available to them for further clarity of Church teaching.)

      1. Of course the teachings of the faith are presumably taught by our pastors and if not the Catechism is easy enough to get one’s hands on. We repeat our Baptismal promises every year to uphold ALL that the Catholic Church teaches. Now it seems to me that if you do not believe or accept these teachings there are multitudes of Christian denominations that will fit one’s personal idea of what Christianity should or should not teach. The question really becomes, why are you here? If not because you are Catholic is it to change yourself or to attempt to change the Church. If the latter, then you are the rotten apple that can spoil the bunch. Being competently pastoral in the needs of others is important but so is the call to protect the sheep from the wolves . . . even if they are in sheep’s clothing. We have too often let the errors of the few turn into a growing cancer. Time to surgically prune them from the vine of the Church perhaps before the whole vine withers and ceases to produce fruit?

        1. Wonderful explanation. I know a few people who said to me that their goal is to change the church when asked why they didn’t go somewhere else if they didn’t like what Holy Mother church taught.

      2. Hello Mike, thanks for the question. If I were Msgr. Pope, yes I would be available to my parishioners. But, these are very basic Catholic beliefs. If they don’t believe that God created marriage to be one man and one women long before the state was formed, their is not much I can say or do. Likewise with homosexual acts or abortion. If I were Msgr. Pope I would know that I had been available to these same folks for confession for years. These same folks are the ones that want the Eucharist each and every time they attend Mass, but don’t ever think about changing their lives. If I were Msgr. Pope, I would know that the secular persecution of the Catholic Church is very near and we need to stand together. I would also know that the Church needs to stand with God, not the current culture. The Church of I’m OK, you’re OK, the Church of nice, the Church of compromise and false ecumenism, is over. If I were Msgr. Pope, I would proudly proclaim the Catholic Church is that light on the hill, that it stands with God, and you must believe or leave. If I were Msgr. Pope, I would also believe that Dave S states it very well below. God bless you.

        1. When reminding the catechism of the RCC to the people living in the sin, one is deemed “judgemental”.
          Which reply can be given ?

          1. Don’t worry about them labeling you, Jack Maybe just tell them flat out, why couples should be married & not live together first: kids conceived in their relationship will be at risk if there is no marriage & commitment to stay together, from poverty to emotional issues. Abortion, also, is frequently the outcome of shack up unions. And from the woman’s perspective, who wants to be pregnant and unmarried, and your “boyfriend” not care enough about you to make a commitment? What a lonely place that would be, and my heart goes out to women in those situations. In the past, those situations were infrequent, but now they are everywhere. And contraception? That’s not only against Church teaching, it’s a scam, too. It turns women into nothing but objects, and makes millions/billions for the pharmaceutical companies.
            I feel your pain, Jack! I’m dealing with the religious instructor at our parish who is running our kids’ confirmation class. She says they have to perform community service in order to get confirmed. My son wants to attend a few hours of adoration with me, but this instructor said no, that “adoration is just a nice prayer”, and instead wants them to mow a neighbor’s lawn or help at the local animal shelter! So, needless to say, I’m having to bring up issues of spiritual acts of mercy with her and will not give up until my son can go to adoration as part of his “community service”.
            Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for your article. It is very timely for me, and some struggles I have been dealing with. God bless you!

    2. We should also ask those to leave who are sinning against PRIDE – that which says my sins are worse than yours. We should then, by your reasoning, kick out all of those who are divorced and remarried. Start kicking everyone out and you won’t have a church left. The only ones who will remain are the Pharisees, the hypocrites…
      Why not just start a new church where everyone must be interviewed beforehand about their sins before they become a member? If they are addicted to pornography like so many individuals are, we should kick these people out too. Is addiction to vile and disgusting pornography worse than gay marriage? At least in gay marriage, you have love involved whereas in pornography, it is a self serving vile act. Pride assumes the role of Judge. Our only judge is Jesus Christ, not man. Therefore, go and pray for your own sins and do not forget to ask the Lord to free you from PRIDE.

      1. I agree with you to a degree, John. You are on target regarding pride. It causes us to feel righteous and look to others as inferior to us like the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple that Jesus spoke about. It also pushes people away because of hypocracy. In addition to that I also see pride preventing people from seeking reconciliation to Jesus and His Church when they have sinned through that great sacrament. Many people don’t believe in sin anymore because of pride and the loss of shame. And because of that they feel entitled to the sacraments on their terms and thumb their nose at Church authority. I remember the words of Jesus when he said (to paraphrase): “He who rejects you (the apostles), rejects me and he who rejects me, rejects the one who sent me”.

        I try not judge because I am a sinner in need of a savior. But, at the same time, we can’t keep turning a blind eye to evil and lies in our Church lest the it becomes lukewarm and is spit from the mouth of Jesus (basically removed from the vine to wither and rot).

  2. What a wonderful analogy, and so true. I have a problem area. I pray God doesn’t prune me. But the fact is that unpruned branches do corrupt.

  3. Yes, pruning hurts. Just as The Word of GOD is like a two-edged sword that cuts into flesh and even bone-marrow, the pruning shears cuts into the very being and it could destroy ones faith if one is not rooted in HIM. GOD does not allow us to be tested beyond our ability though and the pruning really works for us if we will just trust HIM. At that very moment of testing, oh my boy, you feel the world is convening to destroy you, you feel you wanted to return to your mother’s womb. Surely at that very moment, we need the comfort of the Church, the warmth of our priest in his homilies, the healing balm of the Eucharist and the loving touch of our families. Give it time, a year or so and you will see in retrospect that HE was there all along suffering with you. Ah, I don’t know YOUR Ways, for YOUR Ways are beyond our ways but what I know is that YOU Love us by as much as YOU stretch YOUR Arms on the Cross and died for us, for me as if I am all alone in this world. Thanks be to YOU, oh GOD. Thanks Monsignor for this reflection.

  4. Very well explained Monsignor. God is going to be very busy in pruning the wild roses all over His world

  5. Monsignor, God has pruned me through my divorce. It has been a good thing, but very painful. I can see where I went wrong, and now I am continuing to prune aspects of my life, sometimes very severely. It hurts, but it’s what I have to do with my fruit trees, and they are better for it in the spring. I am even pruning my bookshelves and cosmetic cabinet severely. It is especially hard to let go of old books, but I know that if they are not spiritually edifying, they do not belong on my bookshelf.

  6. This is such good food for thought. I have often wondered about the seemingly inexplicable losses in life: the company suddenly announces a merger, and thousands lose their jobs (including me!), a sudden illness of a family member changes everyone in the family’s lives forever, a hurricane destroys 30 years of family life in a single afternoon. I wondered why. Pruning? Yes, perhaps so. Some things irretrievably lost. The only thing not lost and in fact noticeably strengthened? Love.

  7. Your article is very on time. Much of this problem lies in the sermons that our poor priests give to us… they over do the kindness and mercy without the mention ever of consequences of sins… My experience is to hear about how merciful and kind we must be… period…

    Now this has come back to our little children who go to Catholic School and of course attend Mass… when we take away something good to let them know that we need to correct the bad, then, as little as they are, they ask: “Mercy?!, remember mercy!”

    My response… I do not have any… because now I am against the words of the priest… so I give them back the good I took away… and try as best to correct the bad… in this way it takes a very long time…

    We pray for our priests and we love them. I am sure they do the best that they know how!

    Thank you for hearing me

  8. Roses have thorns. Despite even pruning, these thorns will always be there. They are an integral part of the rose. But only by pruning the bush, cutting out the dead wood, gangly unproductive stalks, diseased blossoms…and cutting them back in the fall so they can produce in the spring…is the only way roses can purely express their potential…even with the thorns. Like roses, humans will always have the thorns that can make one unattractive and repulsive. But by God’s grace and pruning, despite the thorns, we can bloom for His Glory and become what we were meant to be.

    Thanks Monsignor for your post. I truly love roses!

  9. Liked you article very much Monsignor. I guess Job really had many problems, since he was so severely pruned.

  10. Well good Monsignor. We all take something different from your writing. And I hope you see the funny side of my observation taken from your observation. LOL

    For me what hit me was that rose bush that is going wild and out of shape. LOL

    Your challenging rose bush sounds like a lot of older women who go out of shape and a bit unsightly to their poor partners. I hope we don’t end up on the scrap heap and our partners out looking for a younger more appealing looking fresher model.

    Let’s face it the partners are not what they once were either.

    Have you heard the old saying.

    Poor Judy O’Grady and the Colonels lady are sisters under the skin. LOL

  11. Thanks for the article, Msgr. Pope. It isn’t always easy or even obvious that God has done the pruning in certain life events but you illustrate it very well, especially with the pruning of your roses. God bless, Tanya

  12. Don’t let this expand your ego, but I am in awe of the gift you have for stating things clearly.
    Bless you.

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