“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.”John 15: 1-4
John 15 is a startling revelation. As the vine is the very life of its branches, so Jesus is our life.
But, as the growth of the vine requires tending and takes time, so too does our life in Jesus. As the vine grower tends, waters, feeds and prunes the vine, so Jesus’ and our Father prunes the vine by taking away those branches that do not bear fruit and prunes each branch that remains so that it bears more fruit. And this is done by the word that Jesus speaks to us.
We remain in Jesus and Jesus in us through our abiding in the word that Jesus speaks. Martin Heidegger said that “Language is the house of being. In its home human beings dwell.” (Letter on Humanism, 1947) Heidegger was highly attuned to what he termed the “degradation” of language in our time. The fact that he fell prey to it does not diminish the insight. In large part, we tend to “use” language to our own ends. We use it to reveal what we want to be seen as truth, and we use it to conceal the truth that we do not want known. We use it to persuade and manipulate others to our needs and perspectives. In short, we use language as we have come to use the earth itself, or as Pope Francis says, our common home. We degrade language as we have degraded our planet due to our own narcissism and pride.
Both the word and the world are meant to be houses of being, places where we are to dwell and to encounter “Being” itself. We are pruned, that is formed, reformed, and transformed, by the word because the word is bearer of the Mystery of Being. When we attend to and enter into sacred words, we first experience our own ignorance and limits. We experience that we do not fully understand. The word contains “more than” we can grasp, and so it invites us to release our grip on our own limited sense of self-identity.
St. Teresa of Avila is perhaps the greatest teacher of prayer in our tradition. It is she who seems, from experience, to best understand the truth that Jesus is our life and that the life of prayer is the way that what is not our life in Jesus can be pruned away. She speaks of a relationship with Jesus in prayer that far exceeds behavior modification, that is our attempt to imitate the actions of Jesus. Rather, it is to experience or sense ourselves as living in Jesus and realizing in that moment that “we” are more than the immediate feelings, thoughts, compulsions or ambitions that are moving us. In his brilliant exposition of the works of Teresa, Rowan Williams puts it this way: “But if we begin our prayer by recognizing and accepting our emotional state, by accepting the contingent facts of our changeable mental and affective life, and then locating this in relation to the human contingency of Jesus’ experience, our turbulent and variable condition is not suppressed but reordered.”
Teresa is the most helpful and insightful teacher of Christian prayer because she not only understands but lives in her own daily experience the depths of the true meaning of the Incarnation. The words of St Paul are the truth of life for her: “For you have died and now your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col 3:3) What we call human formation from the Christian perspective is this “reordering” of “our turbulent and variable condition” through the recognizing our life in the light of ‘the human contingency of Jesus’ experience.” To see our own emotional state, for example, in this light is to begin to recognize the distance between our current experience of our lives and our true life in Jesus. It is this recognized and deeply experienced distance, or gap in us, that is the way to the reordering, the reformation, the transformation of our life, as we take it to be, to a more complete incarnation of our life in Christ.
I think the most basic misunderstanding I live by day to day is my totalizing of my immediate feelings and thoughts, “the contingent facts of our changeable mental and affective life.” I come to see and feel these as “myself.” When I dwell in the mystery of the Word, however, I recognize that life in myself that is more than these contingencies. This “recognition” is often not fully clear and comprehensible to me. Yet, I do experience, the lack that is the distance or separation from my own greater capacity for life and for love. This experience is far different from a willful attempt to imitate Jesus. In the exertion required in one’s striving to be other than one is, we find ourselves in a mode of repression and dissociation. Instead of beginning our prayer, of dwelling in the word, by “recognizing and accepting our emotional state,” we can rather attempt to deny it. In this case, we are, even in prayer, creating another false form of our lives. The Jesus we are trying to imitate is a creation of our own imagination, perhaps an idealization of what we like about ourselves and a denial of what we don’t. This is a using or degrading of the word, rather than a dwelling in it.
When we allow the word to be our home, we dwell in that word in the truth of who we are. And, because we are never “fully formed” into our life in Christ, we shall always experience a lack and a longing in that dwelling. As we fully recognize and accept our emotional state and “the contingent facts of our changeable mental and affective life,” we see our experience and ourselves anew in light of “the human contingency of Jesus’ experience” in us. Our humble acceptance of that gap and lack in us provides the clearing in which the love of God for Jesus in us can reform and, in time, transform us, can “reorder our turbulent and variable condition.”
One of the causes of our difficulty in truly understanding the depth of Teresa’s teaching is due to our inability to appreciate in our lives the difference between what Adrian van Kaam calls “executive willing” and “transcendent willing.” Executive willing is what we are most likely to mean when we speak of the will. So, even in prayer, we either attempt to perform prayer from our executive will, so that we can “feel” that we have done our duty or something that is “good for us,” or we attempt to create “pious feelings” in ourselves so that they may displace whatever of our actual feelings seem unworthy, or ambiguous, or conflictual. Our executive willing is our mode of managing and controlling ourselves and the world, and even God. So, it is executive willing that we employ when we attempt to follow Christ merely imitatively. It perceives Christ as outside of us, as one to be emulated by controlling and distorting whatever in us does not accord with how we see Jesus.
As Rowan Williams describes the teaching of St. Teresa, however, it is quite another capacity of ours that is required. It is our capacity to “dwell” in the mystery, not working to conform ourselves to our idea or ideal of it, but rather by humbly recognizing and accepting” our current state, whatever it is, in light of “the human contingency of Jesus’ experience.” It is to have the courage to dare to experience the distance between our current reality and the life “hidden with Christ in God” that we most deeply are. This is not so much a matter of the managing will as it is of our capacity to let go, to receive, and to suffer the truth. As Williams describes it, it is our capacity “to relate [our actual life] to a fundamental action of loving gift; we have to see how feelings like our own can be caught up in a movement of love without being annihilated.” We hide our true feelings, thoughts, “our turbulent and variable condition,” from others, ourselves, and God because we cannot believe that the truth about ourselves “can be caught up in a movement of love without being annihilated.”
To dwell in the word, to allow ourselves to be pruned by the word, is a fearful thing for us, because we think the pruning will annihilate us. The metaphor of the vine and branches that Jesus gives us in John’s gospel is his reminding us that pruning leads to better growth, in fact is required for healthy growth. It is only in pruning what is dead, what no longer has life in it, that the branch can continue to flourish and grow, can become more and more a full expression of the vine’s life. It is our pride form, our false form, that fears annihilation in prayer, and with good reason. Jesus makes clear in the image of the vine and the branches that our own “life to the full” is known to us to the degree we are one with the vine, that we are really living the life that we are in Jesus. As Rowan Williams says: “Teresa is not interested in the generating of specific sorts of pious feeling but in how we become the instruments of God’s self-communication; for her the fact of Christ’s humanity is a fact about the transfiguring of our humanity.”
Teresa’s Christ is never simply a symbol of the self. In him we find our humanity fully present, so that we do not have to strip off our human particularity to pray: remember that Teresa is not an advocate of trying to ‘still’ the mind before prayer can begin. But if we begin our prayer by recognizing and accepting our emotional state, by accepting the contingent facts of our changeable mental and affective life, and then locating this in relation to the human contingency of Jesus’ experience, our turbulent and variable condition is not suppressed but reordered. We are being encouraged to ‘sense’ ourselves through the medium of the story of Jesus, and thus to discover a distance from our emotion that is not simply a denial of it. By so relating what we feel to the humanity of Jesus, we relate it to a fundamental action of loving gift; we have to see how feelings like our own can be caught up in a movement of love without being annihilated, and so to open up our affective life to the possibility that through it, as through Christ, God can communicate love.Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila, pp. 89-90
This is how Teresa deals with the quite complex question of the solidarity of the believer with Christ, a theme which is naturally much in her mind as she discusses the petitions of the the Lord’s Prayer. Being ‘in Christ’ is, for her, primarily about the interchange between humanity and God brought about by the Incarnation — a theme central to the thought and imagination of early Christian writers but rather overlaid by some aspects of mediaeval devotion to the suffering, human Jesus. Teresa is not interested in the generating of specific sorts of pious feeling but in how we become the instruments of God’s self-communication; for her the fact of Christ’s humanity is a fact about the transfiguring of our humanity.