Often when I was growing up, our family would trim the numerous shrubs on the grounds of our home. When we were pruning the shrubs, I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub. It involved cutting away branches, some of which were dead, but some of them looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving. Sometimes, to make the shrub more vibrant, some branches had to be radically cut away.
Here’s the thing: we have to allow that kind of painful process in our own lives too. We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people. That’s our task in this world: to become fully human, fully the people God created us to be. So whatever gets in the way of that fullness has to be chopped off, and sometimes that’s just not pretty. Pruning ourselves is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous. However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be. There is no other way.
There’s one other thing that our Gospel today tells us that we must do in order to become what we were meant to be, and that is to remain in Christ. That’s what he says in the Gospel:
Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.
And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote! “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be pruned off and burned as rubbish. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.
If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.” And that’s true. How many times have we tried to better ourselves, but along the way have lost sight of the goal? How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again? How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way? When we forget to start our work and continue our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Well does he advise us to remain in him.
But what does “remain in me” look like? Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel. And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person. Just like pruning shrubs isn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ. And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away. But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth. We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day. That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary or Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it. We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.
It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be. But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy. And to help us on that journey, we have the most perfect human person that ever walked the earth to be our Savior: Jesus Christ, like us in every way but sin. Striving to remain in him and become more like him will nourish us when we cut off those dead parts of us so that we can truly live.