Holy Grapevine, Silent World

grape vine mosaicI am the vine. You are the branches. (John 15:5) [Spanish]

First, a quick Vine-and-Branches 101. The vine delivers sap to the branches. The branches depend completely on their connection with the vine. The branches bear fruit because they receive sap from the vine. A branch separated from the vine is known as a…dead twig.

So: Being Catholic, being Christian means depending 100% on Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our life, our hope, our source of all strength, wisdom, and happiness. We participate in Holy Mass, we pray, we strive to live right, we persevere as Church members—all because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the vine, and we are His branches.

For us this is totally normal, this idea of living in a state of total dependence on Jesus Christ. We know that He conquered death and reigns supreme in heaven. We know what the Bible says, because we hear the readings at Mass over the years. We know that the Church of Christ is a living family. And we know that the prayer of the Church—the Church gathered together at the altar, doing what Jesus started at the Last Supper—we know that in the Sacred Liturgy of the holy Catholic Church, the vine and the branches remain intimately connected. He in us, and we in Him–as He said.

All this is the bread and butter of life, so to speak, for us practicing Catholics. Meanwhile, however: the world carries on as if Jesus had never been born. The world likes to act as if the Son of God didn’t exist.

It is rather odd. After all, Jesus of Nazareth is a very famous man, hard not to admire. He has the personal qualities that most decent people want to have. Yes, He insists that He is not just a highly admirable human being, but also the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father; He demands total faith and obedience. But He has no self-righteousness; He leaves us totally free to be ourselves. It’s just that the more we learn about Him, the more we realize that we have to change—change into people He made us to be, which we can only do with His help.

So He’s demanding; we’ll grant that. But no reasonable person can really have anything to say against Him. Jesus of Nazareth is too thoroughly beautiful; what is there to criticize? And yet the world blithely trips along, focusing on the weather and shopping and tv, going about its business–as if this man, the beautiful incarnate Son of God, had never been born.

Weird. There’s no getting around how weird it is. If we wanted to psycho-analyze the world, we could say that the way it ignores Jesus Christ is “pathological.” But: Let’s deal with it. Why whine? Things could be worse. In Japan and Vietnam, during bitter persecutions of the Church, Catholic communities had to live through multiple generations without ever seeing a priest even once. And still they kept the faith. And in Soviet Russia, Catholic priests got jailed and tossed into solitary confinement. We don’t have to deal with these kind of extreme hardships.

Now, there’s also an uncomfortable silence with our Protestant friends and neighbors. They look at us and think things like, ‘Wow, those Catholics are nice people. Too bad they worship Mary and can’t use birth control.’ Meanwhile, we look at them and wonder, ‘Nice folks. But, at their church services, do they ever read the parts of the New Testament about the Mass, the priesthood, and the papacy?’ Because the world keeps such a creepy silence about the Son of God, we Catholics and Protestants have a hard time talking openly and frankly about Him with each other.

But why whine about that, either? Why not just deal with it as best we can? After all, our relations with our separated Christian brethren could be a lot worse, too. It’s not as if we find ourselves in the middle of some kind of Protestant-vs.-Catholic war, like many of our European ancestors did.

Juke Miles
The Father Mark golden chariot just turned the century!

So let’s not whine; let’s not cry over spilled milk. Let’s focus on what we need, to deal with the world’s pathological silence on the subject of Jesus Christ. We need sustained personal spiritual discipline of our own. The world will not help us stay connected with the life-giving Vine, the Son of God–since the world stubbornly insists on treating Him like a non-person. So we must work to keep ourselves connected to Him.

It’s not hard. We know how to do it. It just takes initiative on our part. Weekly Mass, monthly Confession, and some kind of regular daily reading and meditation on the gospels.

When we cultivate that kind of basic Catholic spiritual discipline, we become ready and able to fill the depressing spiritual silence of the world. The world strangely has nothing to say on the subject of God and Christ. Ok. But we have plenty to say. When we pray, receive the sacraments, and meditate, we will find ourselves ready with the Good News. When we stay connected to the holy Vine, we can count on the Lord delivering sap to us—not just for our sakes, but also so that we can bear fruit.

Let’s look at it like this: If the world insists on acting like Jesus Christ was never born, that’s the world’s problem. But we ourselves must not keep silent. We have a mission to fulfill. To give glory to the Father by bearing fruit for the Son, by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.

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Complete Joy

…just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in His love. (John 15:10)

Tuesday we meditated on how Christ’s obedience brings about our salvation and our freedom to be ourselves.

Let’s focus on this:  The intimacy of Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will.

lippi abraham knife strozzi chapel
Abraham

‘This command I have from my Father:  that I must lay down my life, and then take it up again.’ (see John 10:18)

The “command” that led Christ to the cross is both clear and mysterious.  On the one hand, it all happened simply because Jesus unswervingly adhered to the Law of Moses.  He walked the earth as a true Jew.  The intimacy that Abraham had with God, which is what established the Jewish faith–Jesus lived according to that kind of prayerfulness, Abraham’s kind of prayerfulness.

On the other hand, the interior promptings the Lord Jesus received transcend our understanding:  Jesus wound up on the cross because of His honest testimony to the ultimate divine mystery, namely that He is God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  The “command” that Christ obeyed by enduring His Passion and death, therefore, can only be grasped fully from the divine point-of-view, not from ours.

I think the upshot for us is this:  ‘spirituality,’ ‘intimacy with God,’ ‘inner peace’–all of these come from obedience–obedience to the Commandments, and to the interior promptings that we receive when we consistently obey the Ten Commandments.

In other words, real ‘spirituality’ does not generally involve esoteric emotional experiences.  (Maybe people much more spiritual than me have these emotions.)

True joy does not consist of shallow feelings.  It involves daily obedience.  Obedience to the commandments enables us to perceive the promptings of God.  And those promptings tend to get harder and harder, less and less pleasant, as the Lord gives us the freedom to do what He asks of us.

Love vs. Shibboleths

Megyn KellyThe Scripture passages for Sunday’s Holy Mass read like: Just in case you didn’t get the message already, Love, Love, Love!

The word appears 19 times in the readings. 19 times. And that’s just in the second reading and the gospel. The word ‘love’ 19 times. So, we get the message, I hope.

God is love. The law of God: love. Christ’s commandment: love. They’ll know we are Christians by our love. Love is all you need. Gimme love, love, love, love, crazy love.

We got it.

Continue reading “Love vs. Shibboleths”

Untying the Pharisaism: Example #1

Love one another. (John 15:17)

us_supreme_courtGod’s message to us.

Find a way, My children, to stretch out your mind, your imagination, and your heart to someone other than yourself. Think not of your comfort, pleasure, satisfaction, or contentment. Think of the other person. Think of his or her prospects, hopes, grand and beautiful plans.

Then say to yourself, I will serve! I will assist humbly in the fulfillment of the dreams of this other precious person!

I think we can say: Finding ourselves moved in this way with respect to the stranger, the alien, the enemy—that requires an extraordinary amount of heavenly grace.

But does not Mother Nature herself move us in this way—to have these kinds of feelings and make these kinds of resolutions–with respect to our own children? Maybe sometimes parents fail in following through on their desires to help their children. But it comes pretty naturally to us human beings to identify with our children, to sympathize, and to make serious sacrifices for their good.

Am I right? I think so.

This is why I, for one, do not understand at all one particular moral crisis of our age.

Indulge me for a moment, and let’s leave a number of moral crises off to the side. In-vitro fertilization involving only the man and the woman who intend to raise the child: let’s leave that to the side. Two men or two women wanting to “marry” each other: let’s leave that to the side, too. Truth is, the idea of two men or two women wanting to marry each other is a red herring, when it comes to genuine moral analysis here. Children with one or both parents who have abandoned them, who need foster care or adoption: let’s leave that to the side.

Let’s just focus on one single thing: in-vitro fertilization involving a third-party donor.

My question is: How is it possible that any human being cannot see how colossally wrong that is? Something that involves the intentional denial to the child of what almost all of us totally take for granted—namely, knowing who my parents are.

How could any rational human being claim to ‘love’ a child to whom you intentionally deny the right to know who his or her parents are? How can anyone not see how unjust, how oppressive, how truly cruel that is? So cruel and so unjust that nothing could justify it. From the beginning, the relationship between the child and the adults who brought about the situation would be totally backwards. The child would serve the interests of the adults, the desires of the adults. But that is exactly backwards from what love really demands.

unbornNext question: How could the justices of our Supreme Court not see that this question is the crucial question of justice in the case before them, involving ‘same-sex marriage?’

Just to engage in a little hyperbole here: If third-party-donor in-vitro fertilization were illegal, which it ought to be, and the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the whole country, I would not get all that agitated. I would be like, okay, fine. Whatever.

If two men or two women invited me to their ‘marriage,’ but I knew for a fact that no innocent child would ever be conceived in a petri dish and doomed never to know his or her real parents—if I knew that for a fact, would I go to the party, have a glass of champagne, dance the night away?

No, I wouldn’t. But I would stay calm. I would not thunder in anger. I would just try to find a quiet and polite way out of the situation.

But none of that is really the issue. The issue is: children conceived in such a way that they are chattel slaves–separated from parents, heritage, birthright, identity—from their birth.

That is as wrong as wrong can get, my friends. I truly do not understand how a nation of supposedly rational people cannot see that.

Pruned by Humble Faith

“I am the vine, you are the branches…By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
(John 15:1-8, the gospel at Holy Mass today)

I know my memory is slipping, but I could have sworn that I just gave you a homily on this very passage.

Last year, on the fifth Wednesday of Easter, we discussed the pruning of the branches. God pruning our little shoots of ego can cause even more pain than that other type of cutting that they debated at the apostolic Council of Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit taught the first generation of Christians that Baptism suffices to engraft Gentiles onto the vine. The Greek men rejoiced.

“You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.” (John 15:3)

Almighty God has spoken in Christ, and we have believed. The “we” including: our parents, godparents, and/or other guardians who carried us to the baptismal font when we were infants, most of us. And all the other people whose strong faith has sustained us, especially our patron saints up in heaven who have prayed for us our whole lives.

Grim Babushka painting anon artistGod’s pruning the tendrils of our egos involves our constant engagement with the faith of our great family, the Church.

And this may be the most humbling thing of all: Namely, for me to acknowledge that my mind, powerful as it may be; acquainted with Shakespeare, or astrophysics, or high finance, or detailed mechanical engineering as it may be; as brilliant an orator, or tactician, or interior decorator, or pet trainer as any of us may be individually… These great minds of ours, in fact, can do no greater thing than to believe what countless generations of short, little, stubborn, simple-minded Russian babushkas have believed: that Jesus Christ is God.

Smart, clever, talented: all great things, to be sure. But humbly believing in what our grandparents and great-grandparents believed in, in what St. Francis and St. Joseph, neither of whom had any real delusions of grandeur, believed in–believing the faith of the Church, because it is bigger than me: that’s even greater than talent, smarts, skill, success.

Humbling, yes. But hopefully consoling also.

True Self

conversiononwaytodamascuscaravaggio

During the Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes us back to that original time, when the Lord Jesus first demonstrated how Christian life works. That is, how He gives us a share in His transcendent power, how He unites Himself with us from within, how He grafts us onto the living vine and makes us His branches.

The young Saul of Tarsus thought he was ‘being himself’ by prosecuting strict fidelity to the Law of Moses, the law of his people. Saul thought that he was really coming into his own as a man, marching east and west, north and south, to stamp out all the foolish nonsense about a so-called Galilean Messiah who had risen from the dead. Then Christ showed Saul how “coming into your own” really works.

One of the most important ideas we have to help others grasp is this: There can be no ‘competition’ between me and God, when it comes to determining who I really am. If I try to assert myself over against God, with God as a rival for power in my life, then up in heaven all the angels look down and laugh sadly at the spectacle.

Trying to compete with Almighty God is patently ridiculous. And it’s sad. He made me, after all, and He alone can open up the path for me, by which I really can ‘find’ myself. He does not see our relationship as a contest. God no more thinks of competing for power with me than a mighty killer whale thinks of racing a tadpole across the Arctic Sea. If I try to beat God at the game that only He truly understands, I lose before I even begin. Why would I fight?

Prince WilliamOn the road to Damascus, Saul beheld the truth of Christ: God united with man. Saul heard the voice of the Creator, and it was the voice of the Galilean, the one whom all these rubes were calling the Messiah.

Saul realized: I am fighting a pointless battle. I am actually a million miles away from my true self, with all this self-righteous militancy of mine. If I really want to come into my own, I have to try and forget about what I think, and learn what God thinks.

And God thinks this: I will take a beautiful Bride to myself! The Church. I will unite the scattered individuals of this lonely world, whose pride isolates them from the people they need the most—I will unite them by loving them Myself, through each other.

Let’s try to imagine for a moment just how little Saul of Tarsus had in common with the other Christians he met when he was first converted. Saul grew up a well-to-do diaspora Jew, in a commercial city in what is now Turkey. Saul was a Roman citizen. He had received a meticulous education. If Saul had ever gone fishing, it was when he was a kid, just for fun.

When Saul first went to Straight Street in Damascus, to meet up with Ananias for baptism, it was kind of like a member of the British royal family going to a backstreet in Tijuana, looking for a guy named Pepe to give him a tattoo.

Christ wills to love us Himself—through each other. We become ourselves together. If we don’t come together, each of us individually trails off, into some strange, distorted side-street of my particular personality.

But by coming together regularly—by learning that who we are is: branches on the living vine of Christ… All of us, totally dependent on Him, rejoicing to share in that utter dependence together… When we become, and live for years as, people who attend Mass every Sunday—by doing that, we open ourselves up to the possibility of becoming the loving brothers and sisters in God’s family that He made us to be.

pope-francis_2541160kHere’s a little quiz. I can’t claim to have the answer to this one. I just have my impression… What is Pope Francis’ favorite image of the Church?

Certainly not “institution.” Of course, the Church is an institution, but that’s not all She is. And Pope Francis clearly does not think of the Church as primarily “an institution.”

I don’t think “Bark of Peter” is Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church, either–though we certainly do sail in a windswept sea these days, as a world-wide family of faith. At one point, the pope said the Church must see herself as a ‘field hospital.’

I think Pope Francis’ favorite image for the Church is: A loving mother.

The pope invoked that image in his Apostolic Exhortation on the New Evangelization. And he also invoked it as he concluded his declaration of the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy. If I might, let me quote a sentence from his Apostolic Exhortation. The paragraph is entitled “Mother with an open heart,” and the pope writes:

If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.

Mother Church can give birth to our truest selves. Mother Church has the sap of the ancient vine living in her. She gives birth to us, to the people God made us to be, by the power of divine love that comes from Christ. To be a branch on that vine is the greatest thing any of us could ever aspire to be, and the vine grows in church. The sap flows from the altar.

We can go ‘looking for ourselves’ hither and yon, from Milwaukee to Timbuktu, from yoga classes to Springsteen concerts to off-road derbies with Jason Aldean blasting from somebody’s boom box. But the only place any of us can really find ourselves is under the roof of Mother Church, together. Because who we are is: branches on the vine, the divine vine of Christ.

Pruning and Other Cutting Metaphors

He is the vine. We are the branches. Without Him we can do nothing.

Humbling. And there’s more. He prunes the branches that bear fruit, so that they will bear more fruit.

pruning shearsNow, pruning involves some painful cutting, to be sure. But there’s painful cutting, and there’s painful cutting. The first generation of Christians had to settle the question of whether adult male Gentile converts must submit to circumcision. The Holy Spirit led the Apostles down the less-painful path in that case…

Nonetheless, isn’t it maddening, in this day and age of streaming Netflix, to have to contend with all the agricultural metaphors the Lord Jesus used? And for that matter, it can be even more frustrating to have to consider one of the crucial underlying meanings of all these farm images: namely, that the disciple of Christ cannot expect immediate satisfaction. The humble disciple must wait patiently on the Lord.

Christ gave us a number of parables that counsel this patience. Seeds take a long time to grow; farmers have to wait patiently for the rains and the harvest season. A mustard seed takes forever to grow into a tree. Fig trees that bear no fruit need to be cultivated again and given another year. Etc.

circumcison knifeBut, among all these patience-counseling parables, it would seem that the image of a vine being pruned is the most galling of all, to the get-it-done-now, e-mail-addled mind. Because the pruning of a vine can look to the untrained eye like a step backwards. It looks like crazy destructiveness. Wait a minute! That branch had some perfectly good-looking buds on it! Look at it—it’s all leafy! And you’re cutting it back?! You’re cutting a fruit-bearing branch! Stop this madness!!

But the wise vine-dresser possesses both more patience and more expertise. He knows that it is precisely the branches with buds that need to be cut the most carefully—in order for the entire organism truly to thrive as it is meant to thrive—and bear fruit that is ripe and easy for plucking.

When you get right down to it, being on the receiving end of a spiritual pruning might actually be more painful than adult circumcision. But it is this great act of pruning, which galls our impatience to the core and schools us in the most profound humility; it is by pruning us, His vines, so wisely, that the Lord turns us into branches that can bear choice grapes for fine wine.

Unity, Sap, Fruit

What unites the cosmos?

In all times and circumstances, in all cultures and nations, man seeks a principle of unity for the great, variegated world. The Tao. The World Soul. Jihad for Allah. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Enlightened self-interest or survival of the fittest. The Force. Facebook. Etc.

But we read in John 15:

Christ cultivates a vine. He works everywhere for the production of fruit.

We believe in the sap of this vine; we do not see it. The sap flows from the wounded side of Christ, from His Heart. His love made the world in the first place, and His love re-makes it. He makes it capable of fruition.

Divine love flows out, to sustain every branch. It runs like an invisible river from heaven to earth. It flows through Christ’s sacraments, and through every means He has given us to receive what He has to give. The Lord works for the growth of fruit. He knows how to do it. The sap of His love flows to fill every branch.

So the sap is the love of Almighty God. But this is not the whole picture. The fruit is also the love of Almighty God.

Love flows as invisible sap through the difficulty and distress of this mortal age of our life. For now, truth, for the most part, lies hidden. Love works quietly and unobtrusively.

But in the life to come, this same love will bud forth as beautiful fruit. What lies hidden now will shine out clearly. Everything we believe in now, we will see.

It’s the same unchanging, omnipotent divine love—the true unifying force. If we say we can see it, or claim to understand it now, then what we see or think we understand—that really isn’t it. The sap is something we believe in. It’s God Himself, making us love like He loves.

In the end, this invisible majestic force will bear fruit. Fruit more beautiful and sweeter than anything we can imagine.