JESUS: The Vine by Wendy M. Wright

JESUS: The Vine by Wendy M. Wright

From The Rising

In the fourteenth century Catherine of Siena, an Italian holy woman, composed her masterpiece, The Dialogue, in response to a significant mystical experience in which “such a clarity of Truth was revealed to her from Heaven that Catherine was constrained to spread it abroad by means of writing.” (Friend and confessor, Raymond of Capua)  The dialogue she recorded was between herself, a soul “restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls,” and God, who communicated in response to four petitions she had entreated.  The result was a masterful theological exposition on all the central Christian themes, an exposition that richly utilized the vast and varied imagery of tradition.  In the segment of the dialogue in which God as Truth shows her that humans have full freedom to pursue virtue, she employs the image of the vineyard to describe the church and the workers in the vineyard to describe the members of the church.

You are the workers I have hired for the vineyard of holy Church.  When I gave you the light of holy baptism I sent you by my grace to work in the universal body of Christianity.

Each of you has your own vineyard, your soul, in which your free will is the appointed worker during this life.

So you have this knife [the love of virtue] for your free will to use, while you have time, to uproot the thorns of deadly sin and to plant the virtues.

Indeed I am the gardener, for all that exists comes from me.  With  power and strength beyond imagining I govern the whole world: Not a thing is made or kept in order without me.  I am the gardener, then, who planted the vine of my only-begotten Son in the Earth of your humanity so that you, the branches, could be joined to the vine and bear fruit.

Therefore, if you do not produce the fruit of good and holy deeds you will be cut off from this vine and you will dry up.

But that is not how my servants act, and you should be like them, joined and engrafted to this vine.  Then you will produce much fruit, because you will share the vital sap of the vine.

Catherine goes on to develop the metaphor in an arresting way.

You, then, are my workers.  You have come from me, the supreme eternal gardener, and I have engrafted you onto the vine by making myself one with you.

Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard.  But every one is joined to your neighbors’ vineyards without any dividing lines.  They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbors.

All of you together make up one common vineyard, the whole Christian assembly, and you are all united in the vineyard of the mystic body of holy Church from which you draw your life.  In this vineyard is planted the vine, which is my only-begotten Son, into whom you must be engrafted.

The Diologue‘s specific theology is consonant with the time and place from which it comes, yet through its imagery vistas that refresh us are opened today.  “Each of you has your own vineyard but everyone is joined to your neighbor’s vineyard without any dividing lines.”  What a striking vision of our interconnectedness on levels of which we generally remain only dimly aware.

Catherine, of course, is extending the scriptural image found in the Book of John, (15:1-8), which is highlighted during this week of Easter and in which Jesus refers to himself as the vine apart from which no fruitfulness is possible and God as the vinedresser who prunes away those branches that bear no fruit.

Although the metaphor has frequently been used to justify excluding from church community those whose theological perspectives differ from those holding decision-making power at a given time (Catherine, in fact, in the spirit of her era, suggests this), I prefer to give a more generous reading to the metaphor, seeing it as a statement about our mutual dependence and responsibility.

It is very much part of the Easter message that together we are not simply a collection of individuals striving for personal salvation (although our being saved is a uniquely personal and particular happening).  There is in the Easter message the insistent refrain that it is together we go to God.  Catherine’s elaboration of the vine and branches imagery from scripture gives us a visual picture with which to contemplate this truth.

The Particularity of Love

Another image featured during this week of Easter stresses this same truth but focuses on the uniqueness of each of our personal encounters with God.  It comes from the Book of John as well, as do most of the Gospel readings proclaimed during the great fifty days.

[Jesus said to his followers:] “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.  In God’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)

The idea of the many rooms, many mansions, found in God’s house has intrigued generations of Christians.  That each has his or her own specially prepared quarters (as it were) in the fullness of the Christ event, appeals greatly.  What I find touching in the scriptural promise is that it is precisely in our uniqueness and our particularity that we are called forth.

I have for some time turned over in my heart the concept that there is no generic holiness.  While this may seem a self-evident statement at first glance, my sense is that much of the effort we make in the Christian life has to do with conforming ourselves to models of discipleship or virtue or sanctity that have an ideal quality.  We are not like them.  We strive to be.  Even if we are of a theological bent that would reject all striving as essential for our redemption (feeling God’s grace to be all-sufficient), we still tend to see the fruits of grace manifest in ideal if not stereotypical ways.  For some time now I have entertained the notion that God’s grace and our fulfillment (or sanctification) really are most clearly manifest only in the very concrete, idiosyncratic realities of our pesonalized, culture-bound, limited stories.  What holiness or grace looks like from one of us to the other may be very different.  If we take seriously the idea of incarnation, that God is really with us, then God can only meet us where we are, in the specificity of our personalities and cultural moment.  God cannot meet us where we think we ought to be.  To follow this line of thinking, I do not think the Resurrection is most fruitfully conceived as human particularity being sloughed off for something nonhuman.  That Christians hold to that rather peculiar notion of the ultimate resurrection of the body would make this latter conception untenable.  No, we go to God in and through the embodied, concrete, unrepeatable uniqueness of who we are.  That is the delightful scandal of it.

One fascinating experiment in Christian community born in our present century in France embodies this insight of the Easter season wonderfully well.  The community is known as L’Arche (French for ark) and was begun in 1964 by a Roman Catholic priest named Jean Vanier.  Vanier had worked with individuals who were mentally and physically challenged and gradually came to see them not primarily as the recipients of his ministry but as the bearers of God’s grace to him.  He conceived of a new sort of community that would be made up of both the challenged and those whom society deemed normal all living together as brother and sister engaged in worshiping and serving God.  They were to be inspired by a spirit of loving acceptance that would help all members develop to their fullest potential as human beings.  Vanier believed that if the church and society do not embrace these and other rejected people, neither can be whole.  He believed that such communities could bridge the gap between the “rich” and the “poor” of all kinds and thus work toward uniting a divided world.

The deep interdependence that we share as well as the particularity of the gifts and graces we bring to the whole is highlighted in this unique experiment in Christian life.  Today there are L’Arche communities in dozens of countries throughout the world.  Their members learn to expand their concepts of love as they live into the reality of the other whose daily dilemmas are so different from and yet complementary to their own.

Clearly, scripture indicates to us that the Easter mandate, the new command, is to love one another as we have been loved.  We heard it proclaimed at the Holy Thursday liturgy, during the reenactment of the Last Supper.  During this fifth Easter week we again hear this truth proclaimed.  The texts of John over and over again repeat this refrain, as do the letters attributed to John that are read during this season.

Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.  By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.  Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive whatever we ask, because we keep God’s commandments and do whatever is pleasing to God.  And this is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of God’s Chosen One, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as we have been commanded.  All who keep God’s commandments abide in God, and God in them.  By this we know that God abides in us, by the Spirit which God has given us. (1 John 3:18-24)

To love in deed, not just in word, is to love in particulars.  How easy it is to be sympathetic for some far-away poor people in a distant land; how difficult to sympathize with the repellent transient who loafs on your street corner.  How easy to romanticize the life of love.  How hard to live it out with the in-laws, children, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow parishioners we have been given.

I can claim no great personal gift for loving in the particular, but I am challenged to do so constantly, especially by my children.  It is no secret that teenagers can be challenging, and my eldest daughter is no exception.  Despite the fact that her behavior is documentably predictable for her age, the fact that such thoughtlessness and cavalier arrogance appears at my own doorstep in the guise of my own flesh and blood makes it especially tedious to accept and to love.  Yet love I must, not necessarily the passing “queen-of-the-universe syndrome” but the dormant child, fledgling adult with my daughter’s particular name hidden beneath the bravado and terminal boredom.  To love in the particular is to love the whole of a person, to confront what needs changing, to bear patiently what cannot change, to cherish the gifts that only one person brings into the world.  It is to love the way we have been loved.

[Jesus said to his followers:] “As God has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept God’s commandments and abide in God’s love.  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what the householder is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from God who sent me I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask of God in my name, God may give it to you.  This I command you, to love one another.” (John 15:9-17))

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