Pruning the vine

Sister Judith Sutera | 26 April 2017

Friday, May 5, I will once again be giving a retreat at Sophia Center entitled “Growing With God: A Gardener’s and Plant-lover’s Retreat.”

It is based on a book I wrote called “The Vinedresser’s Notebook” (Abingdon Press) in which I reflect on the many things I’ve learned about life from working with our grape vines in the monastery garden.

I have written a little about it in this column in the past, but there’s always more to think about. This time I’d like to talk a little about the good and the bad parts of growing. Obviously, whether you are growing a plant or growing your spiritual life, you have to cultivate it, nourish it, tend to its needs. Until a fruit plant reaches maturity, there will be no fruit. It has to have set roots and sent forth little shoots. Then they have to split into more shoots, larger and stronger. The fruit comes once everything else is in place and healthy.

Likewise, on our spiritual journey, we cannot expect to achieve great heights of holiness overnight. We develop spiritual wisdom the same way we acquire other types of wisdom — by careful attention, study, practice and even by mistakes and failures.

There is something else interesting about fruit plants, though, that is good to keep in mind. To bear the best fruit, the plants also have to be pruned. Once a grapevine starts growing, it will continue to send out those long winding shoots all summer long. They can trail and tangle and extend for many feet. That would be nice if all you wanted to do was to cover some vast space with a lot of greenery.

But the problem is that fruit doesn’t continue to set way out there on those yards of leaves. The fruit grows primarily very close to the main body of the trunk. While the fruit is trying to develop and mature, those long trailing pieces are taking life from the plant. They all want to be fed and that means that the energy gets divided up more and more.

Whenever in my retreat I get to the part about pruning, people become very uncomfortable. They like the planting and the growing and the beautiful leafiness, but they don’t like to hear about the cutting back that helps the fruit grow. It is so easy in our lives to get involved in many, many things. Some of them just take our time and energy and don’t do much to further the things that matter. Even those are often hard to prune away. It’s much easier to let them grow and trail along and head in their own directions. It is even harder to think about cutting away good parts.

Often a plant just has too many branches and some have to go. Sometimes we are involved in numerous good works and pleasing relationships and we would like to keep them all, but it takes a toll. We forget that people, like plants, only have so much energy to feed all their parts. When we prune a vine, we look to see where the fruit is and we tend those parts most carefully. We don’t want all the nutrients to head into a bunch of unproductive branches so we cut them away and focus the efforts on the fruit.

If we wish to have a happy and holy life, sometimes we have to bring everything back into focus. Think about where you might need to do a little trimming in order to bear better fruit.