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.