A Time of Pruning. We are commanded today in the Gospel to bear much fruit as His disciples so that our lives might give glory to God. The followers of Jesus are known by their fruits, by their powerful witness to the Risen Lord working in their lives.
But often, we can be choked by busyness, by self-centeredness, by continual new demands on time and energy. We can be proud and arrogant, forgetting that “a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine.”
When I was studying for a doctorate in Rome, I was obsessed with being in control, continually planning, predicting, analyzing the universe just like I did when studying engineering. Our professors told us that knowledge is power and we must use the power of reason alone to discover truth, and think with the mind alone.
And so, I believed that all things in nature, from exploding supernovae to the workings of society and the functioning of the brain, are based on empirical processes that are ultimately reducible to the laws of physics.
Mathematics and calculus gave me the confidence that I can calculate my merry way towards complete clarity, certainty and control. What a fool I was! Reminds me of many atheists who make fundamental declarations about the evolving cosmos, when they have nothing much to say about dark matter and dark energy that make up 96% of the universe.
Endlessly discussing eternity and time and history and other imponderables during class, my spirit remained ensconced in that cocoon of naiveté that had yet to comprehend its own woundedness.
I wanted to run away from some unconscious dis-ease that I was unwilling to explore. My subliminal rebellion against my own inner poverty and loneliness slowly turned into pride, engaging the mind alone in escapist projects for self-fulfillment.
But deep down, I declined to make the inward journey because I was afraid my steps would tread on my own hypocrisy.
The words I dealt with in my theological studies often were no longer a reflection of the Divine Word who came from the Father and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14).
As I continued my studies, my mind slowly became hollowed out, unmoored, wandering about aimlessly through a wilderness of technical jargon in which all meaning wilted and died in the attempt to imprison the Master of the universe inside the boundaries of my theoretical framework.
Overwhelmed with the certainty that I was doomed, I was left teetering at the unseen edge of a dark infernal abyss. Everything became dry and hard as if all graciousness had withdrawn from the universe.
This lasted for weeks, an obscure ache that was both mental and psychological – a festering Angst, a lingering sense of cosmic futility, some sort of free-floating anxiety that had no specific cause.
I was celebrating the Eucharist daily, said morning and evening prayers with my religious community, and studied theology in the Eternal City in the shadow of the Vatican. But the anguish only became even more bitter and intense.
I wanted to find out where I stood, what I really believed in. It was myself that was in question, my own sense of what I am, but I felt like I was someone else. In my dreams, I was in a car hurtling toward a precipice with failing brakes and a broken steering wheel.
I tried to reason this out, banking on Western theories of psychology I have taught in class for years. They only flung me back to what John Donne’s sonnet to the three-person’d God described: “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.”
The temptation to take pills in order to fall asleep or to drink myself into a stupor out of rage at the deadness in my soul was very strong.
It was mentally devastating and physically debilitating, this mixture of ennui, sorrow and despair that overwhelmed me. I had terrifying visions of what hell might be like, not fire and brimstone, but this loss of the capacity for joy inside me, this narcissistic anxiety, going on and on and on forever.
I was more than tired, tired of the books and the libraries and the white wine and the Swiss Alps and the autobahns, the Milky Way, the Horsehead Nebula and all the black holes in space.
Most of all, I was tired of myself.
Home is where the heart is
After finishing my studies, I went to an ashram in India but did not find the enlightenment I was seeking. I decided to work in Smokey Mountain with the sisters of Mother Teresa.
It was the scavengers in the garbage dump who welcomed me home to the deeper dimensions of my inwardness and put me in touch with myself. I was like a branch that was connected again to the Vine.
What I was seeking all along were all there in the garbage dump I have made my home – the important things that make me feel real, make me experience the oneness of all that is – nostalgia and bitterness, poverty and redemption, affection and hopelessness, innocence and malice, awe and violence, ringing with the sweet-sour fierceness of the truth among the decaying garbage.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Peter, James and John, the God of Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa was unveiled to me in the garbage dump. He is the God I encounter in religious experience, the Creative Designer of the cosmos.
Without him, I realized I can do nothing and there would be no meaning at all in everything that is.
In this encounter with the God who is consuming fire, I found reasons to believe that the cosmos is rationally ordered; it has a purpose; it is conducive to the realization of beauty and goodness, truth and creativity, and, finally, that the idea of God is coherent, plausible, and existentially satisfying.
Pruning for the sake of abundant life may not always involve cutting. Perhaps it can mean carving out spaces for contemplation, for re-connecting to our vine, Jesus, after experiencing the dark night of the soul, surviving a serious illness, enduring corrupt bureaucrats and business people, or reconciled with someone we love who betrayed us.
In this “pruning” we get in touch with our hearts – our failures, frustrations, feelings of inadequacy and helplessness, even our pride and arrogance.
May we move into pruning time without fear or timidity, but with confidence in the Risen One because in this way, the Father will be glorified when we bear much fruit and become his disciples.