Sunday, July 24, 2011

The things I learn from vinedressing

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he will take away. And each one that does bear fruit, he will cleanse, so that it may bring forth more fruit." (John 15:1-2)
I think I've mentioned before that our new house came with a Great Big concord grape vine, which was a bit of a surprise find, because it had grown all through some adjacent shrubs. As I've learned to tend this vine, all manner of Scriptural metaphors that were opaque to me before have come alive with meaning.

Our first year's harvest was when the vine was still intertwined with the shrubs. Though I found a respectable amount of fruit considering how well the clusters were hiding, many of the grapes were inedible due to mold or fungus. So, that winter I cut down the other shrubs, extricated the vine, and strung it on a makeshift arbor. The vine survived my inexpert handling, and bore some fruit the second year, but the harvest was sparse. I'm not sure how much this might have been due to trauma from all the handling and how much was because it was just a bad year for grapes, but there were few grapes, and they still had mold problems.

So I started reading up on the care and tending of concord vines. I had a friend come over to show me how to do the mid-winter pruning, where the last season's growth is cut back to optimize the vine to bear in the new year. But I read something else interesting: about the mid-season cleaning of the vines.

This is the vine early in the year.
Lots of leaves!
The vines start leafing out in springtime, throwing out big leaves and swift-growing tendrils that wrap around stems and fences. It's very impressive growth. Then the buds and flowers come, though it's easy to miss the flowering stage. The flowers are little tiny things that don't look like much - little six-stemmed stars just a few millimeters across. You have to look very deliberately to find them.
Grape flowers

Once the flowers are gone and the fruit starts to develop, there comes a point you have to cut away the leaves around the clusters. This is what I didn't do the second year, but the experts say is vital. Grape vines put out an immense amount of foliage, often large leaves that shade the entire area under the vine. But being shaded isn't good for the grapes. They need to be exposed to the light, and able to have air circulate freely around them. If they aren't, the clusters will remain damp from dew and rain, and mold and fungus will grow (this was the problem the first year when the grapes were growing all through the shrubs - they were too shaded, which was why so many were lost to mold.)
These clusters are too shaded.
They'll be prone to mold and fungus

So earlier this week I took my secateurs and went out to trim back the leaves and expose the clusters to the light and air. It turned out to be a tremendous task - far more than just trimming a leaf or two here and there. Once you get in among the vines, you find that nearly all the clusters are shrouded by leaves that need to be trimmed away mercilessly if the clusters are to see the sun and feel the air.

As I was doing this, I was pondering Jesus words in John 15:1-2. Most translations I've read say that the Father will "prune" the vines that they may produce more fruit, but I can't help but wonder if this translation (Catholic Public Domain Version) might have the more accurate nuance. Pruning is typically done off-season, during winter or some other time when the plant is not bearing fruit. Grapes are the only fruit I've heard of that calls for actually dressing the vines in the middle of the season to help the fruit along. People in that agrarian culture would surely have understood the need for and purpose of such "cleansing", and some of Jesus' disciples may have actually done it.

With that in mind, I found myself wondering in what way the leaves and clusters correspond to elements of our spiritual life, and how the Father's "cleansing" would help the fruit along. I came up with an analogy, which will break down at some point as analogies do, but it seemed to have some useful correspondence. What if the grapes themselves correspond to the "good fruit" our lives are supposed to bear - charitable deeds done for the good of others and glory of God, Christlike attitudes, humility, and the like? What if the leaves are pious practices of the type that can be observed: prayers, Mass attendance, Scripture reading, and so forth? By this I don't mean empty external actions, but truly well intended practices that are intended to form us into Christ's image.

Presuming that rough correspondence, how does that help us understand Jesus' promise that the Father would "cleanse" the "vine" of our lives, that we might bear more fruit?

One obvious point is that leaves are necessary, and always come first. Were one to strip all the leaves from a vine, it would die. Likewise if we were to strip from our lives all the external spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, worship, and the like, our spiritual life would quickly end.

But the point of the leaves is the fruit. A big, leafy vine may look like it's Really Something, but if it's not bearing fruit, it's meaningless. By the same token, a vine full of fruit but with no leaves will never ripen, because the leaves are needed to make the sugar that goes into the fruit. So it's not a leaves-or-fruit question, because the fruit needs the leaves, but the point of the vine, including the leaves, is to bear fruit.
These clusters have had the
shading leaves trimmed away,
so that sun and air can reach
them.  They should ripen well!

But, just as too many leaves around the clusters can hinder the growth of the fruit, likewise the fruit of our lives needs the "light and air" of accountability and public examination to stay free of "mold" like self-delusion and pride. To use a historical example, St. Francis of Assisi started his movement as a group of men committed to a way of life living according to certain rules. But he submitted his rules to the authority of the Church, who investigated the movement and ruled upon it. Some of the original rules which Francis proposed for his Order were denied by Church authorities - they were "pruned away". St. Francis accepted this, and the Franciscan Order was born. Had he not accepted the pruning, his movement might have remained a small, local activity that might have just dwindled away, or degerated into rebellion or heresy.

On a personal level, sometimes we have to accept cutting back of things which seem like great spiritual practices in order to bear good fruit. When I first discovered the Liturgy of the Hours, I dreamed of finding time to say all the offices through the day. Eventually I had to settle for Lauds and Vespers, because my vocation as a father and breadwinner didn't permit me to take breaks for all that praying. If it's a question between fruit and leaves, the fruit will win every time.

Sometimes the "pruning" in our lives can seem severe, even brutal. It's like this with grapes, too, but it doesn't mean the plant is being killed. It doesn't take many leaves to keep a vine going - in fact, grape vines are always throwing out new leaves all through the season. Unlike deciduous trees, which grow a crop of leaves at the start of the season and that's all they get for the year, grape vines are sprouting new leaves all the time. Come to think of it, it's kind of like that in our spiritual lives as well. If the new baby or the new job means I can't attend daily Mass like I used to, maybe the Lord will cause a new avenue of blessing to "sprout" in my life. Just because a familiar set of "leaves" was trimmed back doesn't mean all is lost, it just means that the Father was trimming back to make me more fruitful.

Another thing I learned with my pruning is that you can never tell where the fruit might be. As I started cleaning away thick foliage, I found grape clusters in the strangest places. Totally hidden by leaves and stems, they awaited the pruning back of the leaves to be revealed. Had I not trimmed back the leaves, I never would have found them. In similar manner, sometimes the Lord has to trim back parts of our lives that seem healthy and impressive in order to bring forth some hidden fruit that even we might not have known was there.
A pruned-back vine, with plenty of leaves
and developing fruit.  Hopefully it will yield a rich harvest!

I think I've taken this comparison as far as it'll go, at least for now. I hope I remember some of these lessons the next time the Father starts to take His divine "pruning shears" to my life.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Staying alive - a lesson from yeast

Last Sunday's Gospel reading from Matthew 13 contained the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (to use the older reference) as well as the brief metaphors of the Kingdom being like the mustard seed and the yeast mixed into the flour. (Matt 13:24-43) I've always been able to grasp the Wheat and Tares parable, and the mustard seed comparison (somewhat), but the one about yeast always befuddled me a bit - until I started baking a lot of bread.

I'm a renowned bread baker - at least in the circles I travel. I don't do much, but what I do, I do well. My basic white bread has been called by some the Best Bread in the World. (Credit for that has to go to the late James Beard - it's his recipe.) The ingredients are simple: flour, water, a little salt, yeast, and some sugar to feed the yeast. Yet for all its simplicity, I've had many people ask me for help, because they "can't make bread".

Turns out the most common problem is dead yeast. Three tablespoons isn't a very big portion of nine pounds of dough, but it makes all the difference. If the yeast is fresh and vigorous, the dough rises swiftly and evenly, transforming all that wet flour into high, light loaves. But if the yeast is dead (as most grocery store yeast is), the dough just sits there - a flat, heavy, unappetizing lump. Without good yeast to leaven it, bread is just flour that's been saturated and then dried in the oven.

My experience with yeast dough has helped me understand a little of Jesus' brief metaphor. For one thing, I read somewhere recently that the "three measures" of flour was quite a bit - the same measure stipulated by Abraham in Genesis 18:6, which would have been about three bushels in today's measures. Three bushels! Also, the "yeast" (or "leaven", depending on your translation) would not have been the dry powdery material we typically use today, but a living culture more like a sourdough starter. So even if the woman mixed in three cups of starter, that would have been a lot of dough to rise.

Yet yeast, being the stubborn little beasties that they are, would've done the job given enough time (especially in the warm Mediterranean climate.) I think part of Jesus' point was that it doesn't take much to have a dramatic effect. Just as a few tablespoons of yeast can turn nine pounds of wet flour into bread people will drive miles to get (especially fresh from the oven), so just a few children of the Kingdom can make a big difference in a culture. However - and I think this was another point that Jesus' audience would not have missed - the yeast has to be alive. Yeast isn't like baking soda or vinegar. It's a microbe that is only effective when it's living. Dead yeast is worse than useless - it just smells, and you have to throw it away. But if it's living, it's very effective.

Something for us to keep in mind: if we're to have the "leavening" effect that Jesus desires, we have to be alive in Him. If we are, then we can have a dramatic effect on the world around us, transforming it dramatically. If we don't stay alive, the "dough" of our culture will not be leavened, but remain a soggy, heavy, useless lump. It'll be good for nothing but to be thrown out - and us with it.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Weight of Love

One of my daughters recently gave birth to twins. Though a few weeks premature (not unusual with twins), they arrived healthy and without complications. After a couple weeks of observation in the infant care section of the hospital – which was stressful in its way but could have been a lot worse – the twins were brought home, and the fun truly began. At first the impact was buffered by the presence of some extra help. One of my other daughters stayed and helped for a couple of weeks, and then my wife for a couple more weeks. But eventually all the helpers went home, leaving mom and dad with “four under five”.

My poor daughter has been feeling the weight of this, as everyone expected she would. My son-in-law is a superb husband and father, and does everything he can to lighten the burden, but having even one newborn added to a home that already had a four-year-old and a two-year-old would be a tremendous burden. Two newborns seems unbearable; and indeed, my daughter's online posts both short and long indicate that the incessant demands of the babies are stretching her and her family to the limit.

And yet, deep down, even my stressed daughter and her husband understand that it isn't really the babies that are the burden. They “weigh” nothing at all. What is so heavy is the love. They love so deeply and so truly that they will give nothing less than everything they have to all of their children. It is that compulsion, that intensity of love, that is the real burden.

This is a burden they have taken up voluntarily, and take up again every time one of their children needs care. They lay down their immediate preferences, die to themselves a little more, and shoulder the burden of love and service. It is the love that is the burden, not the babies.

Of course, they don't have to shoulder this burden. They could simply not respond to the need, or give it cursory attention. They could love their children less, and spare themselves some effort. But they will not take that route, for even the thought of that weighs much more heavily than any task. They could not bear to think of their children being less-than-completely loved.

Parenthood is an extreme example of this principle, but it is what comes into play every time we care for others. The burden is always the love. It is not the cry of our child from the next room, or the late-night phone call from the distressed friend, or the sleepless spouse sitting in the darkened living room with a burdened heart, that is so hard to bear. It is the love, or it is nothing. We can always pull the pillow over our head, or let the call roll to voice mail, or pretend we don't notice the empty bed. But if our love is great enough, those options will not even occur to us, and we will again shoulder the burden of love.

We were warned of this. The One who loved so much the He left perfection to come down to shoulder the burden personally was crushed to the ground (thrice, according to legend) before He was broken for love. He told us that following Him meant shouldering the burden of love every day. He also assured us that we would have help with that burden, because it was His burden, and He would help carry it.

But we won't get that help unless we step up and agree to take on the weight of love. Perhaps it will help if we remember what's so heavy: it isn't the baby, or the friend, or the spouse, or whoever. It's the love we have for them that weighs so much, that drives us to expend our scarce personal resources for another. And let us pray for one another (particularly my daughter, her husband, and their children!), that we can share the burden of the weight of love.