Jesus said to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. 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.
The image that Jesus uses of the vine and the branch is one that becomes increasingly difficult for us to appreciate. It’s not so much that we can’t understand the reliance of the branch on the vine. Rather it is that we have increasingly grown to experience and understand ourselves and our personhood as self-creations. Put in the terms of spiritual formation, we readily accept that we give form to life, but we have trouble becoming aware of how it is that we are constantly receiving form. This is what Jesus means by being “pruned.” It is what the Fundamental Principles describe in this way:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
We are connected to the vine, says Jesus, that is we share his life, and the sign of that shared life is the fruit that our lives bear. And the more fruit we bear, the more we are pruned by God. Again, because we have trouble in our time and culture seeing ourselves as inherently relational, there is something that is counter-intuitive for us about the teaching that the more good fruit we bear the more we are pruned.
Our sense is that if we have become who it is that we are called to be and so are bearing fruit in our love and care of others, we no longer need to change. It is those who are not bearing fruit that need to to pruned more. It is “they” who have the “dead wood” that is choking them. Yet, if we reflect more deeply we know the experience of which Jesus is speaking.
As the Fundamental Principles tell us, we are being formed by God in all the events of our daily lives. But, they tell us, we must allow this to happen. Because we are relational, we are primarily formed in relationship. This is the threat of relating for us. We know that to be in relationship will mean that we will constantly be called to change. Above all it is love which calls into relief the consonant and dissonant aspects of what we call our personality. When we go out to another in love, we know that we shall discover how imperfect in love we are. We shall experience how much pruning we still require.
In our culture we speak often of the need to “affirm” each other. Unfortunately, our desire and need for “affirmation” can often be a demand that all of the aspects of our personalities and character structure be ratified by others. We tend to move towards those who confirm us totally and away from those who challenge us. The result of this is a superficiality in the quality of our relationships.
The one who truly loves us will be a source of both confirmation and challenge. it is not unusual in what we call active religious life that persons relate well to those to whom they minister but not so well to those with whom they live and share their lives. These persons can, at times, seem to be the most devoted and dedicated to “the mission.” Yet such hyper-activity can be an evasion of the Lord’s pruning of those dissonant habits of being that we accumulate over a lifetime.
Many years ago a close friend told me that I was being lazy because I did not put the time and effort required into working on a paper for a course he was teaching. At that moment, well into my thirties, I recognized my lifelong experience as a student anew. Although one who had always gotten good enough grades, I had truly never allowed myself to be the student I could have been. For some strange reason, I always limited my engagement and commitment with the task at hand for the sake of finishing the task without ever giving it all I had. And if this was true of study, what did it say about my basic approach to my life as a whole? To what, exactly, was I fully committing myself?
It is, of course, a frightening and even terrifying thing to spend ourselves. When we truly give ourselves, we experience our vulnerability and our limitations. We face the truth that what we can give is severely limited and appears to our inflated ego as insignificant. When we really empty ourselves by giving ourselves over to the work that is ours to do, we realize our need of each other. As we drop our prideful illusions, we are put in our place. Today, I find myself continually being challenged by my friend’s words. I have slowly begun to recognize all the forms that my laziness can take, including and often dominated by distraction and hyper-activity. I have many ways of avoiding “the work” that is being asked of me.
“Self-creation” then is based on “fake news,” the lie that to be human is to be autonomous. Rather, we are dependent on each other and on the Divine life that gives and keeps us in being. Jesus tells his disciples that they are pruned by the word he has spoken to them. As in the example above, I have often been pruned in life by words that have been spoken to me. Above all we are formed, and sometimes deformed, in and by language. The Father prunes us, then, by the words of those around us, but also by the Word spoken to us in Jesus and in the scriptures. Who we most deeply are called to be is given us in the words of the scriptures.
The words of scripture have the power to form, reform, and transform our lives. For them to do so, however, we must, as he Fundamental Principles tell us, “allow” ourselves to be formed by them. We are called to “relate” to them, as we do in our significant personal relationships. For relating to them is relating to the One who speaks them to us. It is to bring ourselves to the word with the awareness that we belong not first of all to ourselves but to the One who speaks both the word we are and the word of scripture. It is to desire to be conformed to that life and that word. It is to bring ourselves to those words disposed to change, knowing that there remains in us a gap between the life God has given us and the current form our life takes.
Perhaps my favorite question in all of the gospels is the one the first disciples pose to Jesus in the Gospel of John: “Teacher, where do you live?” (John 1:38) Jesus then invites them to “Come and See.” Sitting with the word of the scriptures, as being in deep dialogue with another, is hearing of that place where we truly live, of that relationship that is our life. Rowan Williams says that “for us to be ourselves, the acknowledgement of that level of dependence is, very importantly, part of what sets us free because it acquaints us with what is ‘true’ about us; we depend on what is not ours, what is not us, our will, our hope, our achievement.”
Spiritual formation is not primarily about information gathering or growing in philosophical or theological knowledge. It is, in Adrian van Kaam’s terms, “a tentative gradual incarnation
in all dimensions of life of the unique image of Christ one is called to realize.” This is a daily and continual process of living in such a way that we allow ourselves to be pruned, by the Word who is our life and through the words of scripture and relationship that we are given and called to heed.
But this doesn’t absolve us from trying to make sense of what it is to be receivers as well as creators. What some have called ‘the illusion of self-creation’ is a serious and vexing problem in how we understand the development of the human psyche. A generation or so ago, that remarkable and rather controversial writer Ernest Becker wrote extensively about what he called ‘the project of self-creation’, and how, prolonged beyond a certain developmental stage, it becomes the source of all kinds of pathologies. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of ‘demoniac rage, an attack on all of life for what it has dared to do to one’ as a manifestation of ‘defiant self-creation’ — the anger of the would-be self creator, when the world of the self proves not, after all, to be under the control of the will. Now, to generalize wildly for a moment, the position of most religious faith is that all of us share one fundamental form of dependence, which is our dependence on divine liberty. We are here because there is an act that we echo, participate in, reflect — however you want to put it — an act of initiative in virtue of which we are here at all. And so for us to be ourselves, the acknowledgement of that level of dependence is, very importantly, part of what sets us free because it acquaints us with what is “true” about us; we depend on what is not ours, what is not us, our will, our hope, our achievement.
Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, pp. 71-2