In the early 2000’s an infestation of bark beetles decimated the pine forest behind my childhood home in Central Florida. My father fought the insects for months, but to no avail. Over a year-long period, whole acres of trees were lost, some of which had stood on that ground for centuries. Our family was devastated. A once lush forest was reduced to barren dirt and shrubbery. Only one pine tree survived. We still do not know why. Originally, it was just one among many hundreds of trees, but now it stood boldly in an empty field, a sad reminder of what used to be. For years the tree grew alone withstanding lightning strikes, draughts and even a few hurricanes. Though the tree was strong, it appeared barren not producing any pine cones. We eventually reconciled with the fact that the forest would never grow back and resigned to making the plot of land into a grazing area for horses or cattle.
Then, one spring day when I was walking past the field, I looked up at the tree and noticed clumps of pine cones weighing-down its branches. I ran inside to tell my family. When we gathered around the trunk and looked up into the foliage, we were astonished. Not only was the pine filled with cones; it was the most amount of seeds any of us had ever seen on a single tree. Over the next couple of years, the “Mother Tree” as we now called her, yielded copious amounts of seedlings. Before long, a young forest started to bud around her base. Today, a decade later, that desolate field is among the most fertile pieces of our land. Every spring, the chirps of fledgling birds and the rustling of baby squirrels fill the trees’ canopies while the rich scent of pine and wild blackberry blossoms incense the air with sweet perfume. My father used to say that Mother Nature is among the best of teachers: “There is always a lesson hidden in nature Blake.” How true.
The current political, moral, societal and economic environment appears for some to be a barren wasteland. Things we used to take for granted-faith, marriage, family, morality, truth-appear to be relics of the past. Even within the Church we constantly hear about the crisis of vocations, the growing number of unaffiliated Catholics and the general lull in people who are practicing the faith. Much like the forest of pines decimated by pestilence on my family’s property, every cultural foundation is seemingly crumbling around us, devoured by the plague of relativism, irrationality, egoism and superficiality. The Church is standing alone in the field of the world while various structures of civilization deconstruct around her. What is the role of the Church amidst such erosion? What is our task in a world torn by violence, hedonism and strife?
In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, we hear Jesus’ keen metaphor about the vine and the branches: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (Jn. 15:5). There are many wonderful commentaries on this particular verse of scripture. However, if we examine the entirety of Jesus’ homily on the vine and the branches, specifically in light of the first two verses, we will notice another profound insight about the basic attitude of the Christian life.
The Lord opens his reflection by stating, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit and everyone that does he prunes so as to produce more fruit” (Jn. 15:1-2).
Reading this line in tandem with verse 5 reveals three key characters in the analogy, each with a specific role: The Father (vinedresser), the Son (vine) and the individual Christian (branch). It is important to note that the primary actor is the Father. He is the vinedresser, the one entrusted to harvest the plant.
Herein lies a vital point. We cannot care for and prune ourselves. A person who tries to manifest their own destiny or live according to their own designs will always go awry. The branch is essentially a receptive entity, it is the part of the plant that receives. It becomes apparent, therefore, that the metaphor employed by Christ in John 15 is intended not only to instruct us on our place in relation to Himself and the Father, but also the basic attitude and modus operandi of our Christian lives.
There is a temptation in times of crisis to imprudently react or needlessly despair. We allow the circumstances of the world to dictate our responses to it. As a result, the residue of secular mentalities seep into Catholic spirituality blinding us to God’s presence. We are the branches. A branch has only one job: to be nourished. In so doing, it naturally produces fruit under the watchful eye of the gardener.
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33). In times of upheaval, our first responsibility is not political activism or societal revolution. These are not how Christians respond to evil or injustice. The uniqueness of Christian action lies in its ability to rise above the chaos which surrounds it by acknowledging the freedom wrought for us through the Risen Lord. This is accompanied by a sagacious foresight which allows the Church to see beyond immediate troubles and short-term solutions.
Throughout history, the Church has always been able to play the long game. She acknowledges the trials of the day with the wisdom of the morrow. She never allows herself to get caught up in the frenzy and shortsightedness of the moment. That is why she is constantly able to address the concerns of her children with prophetic clarity when the rest of the world is seduced by its own passing ideals. One such example is when St. Paul VI practically stood alone in his renunciation of contraception while other religious and political leaders were lauding it as a great innovation. He did not succumb to popular pressure. The saint prayed, fasted and listened. He was still when civilization was thrashing. As a result, he recognized a danger long before many others could. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Prayerful stillness and recognition of God’s sovereignty is the foundations of Christian action.
I am well aware of the anger, fear, anxiety and confusion that is consuming the hearts of so many people. Yet, Catholics must be vigilant and wise in how we respond to what is before us as well as where we may best invest our energies. Now is a time for prayer and formation. Like St. Benedict after the Fall of Rome, our generation of Christians will be entrusted with the re-humanization of culture. As such, we cannot fall victim to the whims and emotions of the age. We must govern our passions with reason and discern how Christ desires us to act for the greatest good. On the night He was betrayed, Jesus did not command His apostles to violence or protest. His command was simple: “Watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). We must keep our eyes on Christ…not our television set or social media accounts. Jesus must be our premier social commentator and influencer. If not, we will make the fatal mistake of thinking our own ideas are the solutions to society’s problems. Only with Christ can we develop authentic reforms and programs which ensure true justice and freedom for all.
In the face of the above-written reflection, some may recall Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-17) or His confrontation with the Pharisees during the Feast of Booths (Jn. 8:48-59). But, we must always read Sacred Scripture in the context of the whole. Our Lord spend 40 days in the desert and three years of prayer and fasting with the Father before setting these events in motion. With a heart both pure and sacred, Christ opposed the wrongs of His day, but always in dialogue with Father. He was not reactionary. He was always acting in obedience and mercy. Many of us have yet to arrive at such a purity of intent in our own hearts which can only be achieved by following our Lord’s example of “frequently withdrawing into the wilderness to pray” (Lk. 5:16).
The field around Mother Church seems barren and desolate. But, a great springtime awaits us. It is not hopeless. There is a forest of grace waiting to bloom. All we have to do – and it is hard enough for most of us — is faithfully abide and be rooted in Christ. The Father will ensure the blossoming of the pasture; the birth of a civilization of love. The Lord can take the mustard seed of our faith and transform it into “the largest of plants where even the birds come to nest within its branches” (Matt. 13:32).