I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes that it may bear more fruit. . . . Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, your are the branches.
John 15: 1-2, 4-5
Fr. Adrian van Kaam teaches that “we are always and everywhere in formation.” We are always becoming more or less consonant with the Divine image of God that God has created. Apart from the One who has given us life, we do not exist. So we are, at every moment, both receiving form from God through the relationship with the world that we are and giving form to our life in accordance with or in opposition to that formation that we are receiving. Through our own choices and, thus, the form that we give to our lives, we are always becoming either more consonant with God’s love of us (bearing fruit) or more dissonant and unknown of God.
The image that Jesus offers us in John’s gospel is that of our life as a branch that is constantly being pruned by the Father so that it can “bear more fruit.” A teacher of ours would counsel us to always attend to the signs of life in whatever experience another brought to us. No matter how painful or difficult or even horrible the experience, he would insist, there was always within it the desire for and promptings of new life. To truly believe the words of Jesus in today’s gospel is to realize that in everything that happens the Father is pruning us, so that we might bear more fruit.
There is, however, the complementary side of the Father’s action in our lives. God is always offering us deeper life, but we must receive that life and then give form to our lives in accordance with it. And this is the difficult part. We all tend to suffer from the capital sin of acedia, of that particular and foundational form of sloth and laziness that refuses to maintain responsibility for our own formation. In this light, it is easy to understand why there could develop in the Christian tradition a somewhat magical sense of “being saved.” In that understanding, at a single unrepeated moment one makes a decision for Jesus, and then one is to be counted among the chosen for the rest of one’s life. One lives out one’s existence as “saved” spontaneously and with a minimum of consistent effort. Such a perspective, however, requires that one keep a blind eye to the realities of one’s own sinfulness and failure. It requires that all evil and sin be projected outwards to “the evildoers.” There is no ability to deal with the truth that oneself is both saved and unsaved at the same time.
Fr. Henri Nouwen wrote the following at the age of fifty-four:
I am still struggling with the same problems I had on the day of my ordination twenty-nine years ago. Notwithstanding my many prayers, my periods of retreat, and the advice from many friends, counselors, and confessors, very little, if anything, has changed with regard to my search of inner unity and peace. I am still the restless, nervous, intense, distracted, and impulse-driven person I was when I set out on this spiritual journey. (The Road to Daybreak, p. 127).
I think any of us can in all honesty identify with Nouwen’s description. If we we have seriously tried to give form to our lives in accordance with God’s life in us and will for us, we realize how difficult it is and how partial is its realization. Jesus tells us, however, that the heart of the matter is that we are to continue to abide in him and in his word. We are to keep working to “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11: 28) in our own regard. From the moment of our creation until our last breath, and perhaps beyond, we continue to be “in formation.” The pruning must always continue because there remains a huge gap between the image of God that we are and the form we give to that image in the world.
It is perhaps possible to say that all the great damage we do to each other and to our world stems from our refusal to keep doing the hard work of our own formation. To realize the truth of what Nouwen expresses is to live in a humility that will never violently inflict its ideas and projects onto others. When we forget how much we must still be pruned, we are prone to think we have the solution to the problems of others and the world. When we continue to abide in the one who is so far beyond anything we can realize or even hope for, then we can work in a diligent and humble way for God’s will, and not ours, to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Yea, Lord Jesus Christ, whether we be far off or near, far away from Thee in the human swarm, in business, earthly cares, in temporal joys, in merely human highness, or far from all this, forsaken, unappreciated, in lowliness, and with this the nearer to Thee, do Thou draw us, draw us entirely to Thyself.
Soren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, p. 251