A few months ago I planted a dwarf Magnolia tree in the back yard of the rectory. The back yard had been looking rather barren, and I thought a small tree would make a difference. I found a good spot for it, where it would receive plenty of sunlight. It seemed to adapt well to the location I chose; it even began to form flower buds as Spring approached.
I was very happy with that little tree. Recently, however, I noticed something had gone very wrong with it. Part of the tree looked withered and dead. It looked as if it had lost half its height. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that something had broken the top branches off from the tree.
The tree is near a wooden fence. The fence is used as a major traffic route by squirrels and a large cat that stalks the squirrels. My guess is that either the cat fell onto the tree while chasing a squirrel or a squirrel fell while trying to evade the cat. Either way, I decided that the simple solution to protect the tree is to decrease the squirrel population. If you see my name in a newspaper article about a priest charged with cruelty to animals, I was only trying to protect church property. At least, that’s the excuse I’m going to use.
In today’s passage from John’s Gospel Jesus made a statement of the obvious. He said, “a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine.” (John 15:4) Everyone knows that a broken branch will wither and die. A dying branch was my clue to the mischief going on along the rectory’s back yard fence. The tree will survive the animal mischief, but it is much reduced in size.
Jesus used this obvious truth as a metaphor to make a less-than-obvious point: “without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Discipleship is a direct result of a living connection to Jesus in the same way that plant growth is a direct result of a branch’s connection to the trunk of the plant. John’s Gospel describes the living connection that gives life to one’s faith as “remaining in Jesus.” (John 15:4)
“Remaining in Jesus” is more than just an intention; as the second reading says, “let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18); to “remain in Jesus” means real, physical connection: actually praying, actually reading the Scriptures, actually participating in parish activities, actually forgiving those who offend you, actually evangelizing, actually caring for those in need.
Relationships cannot be measured in the way that science makes measurements, but there are unmistakeable proofs that attest to the existence and health of relationships. Some of those proofs are things such as mutual knowledge and respect, concern for another’s well-being and time spent in the company of a beloved. A relationship with God produces similar, observable evidence in one’s life.
The second reading offers two forms of evidence that one is actually connected to Jesus in a life-giving faith. The first is the external, objective evidence that one keeps the commandments (1 John 3:22) The second form of evidence is internal and subjective; it is the personal experience of the gift of the Spirit (1 John 3:24)
In his spiritual memoir, The Confessions, Augustine of Hippo wrote that prior to his conversion he admired the Christian Faith, but was reluctant to live it. He said that at that time in his life his prayer to God was, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (Conf 8:7) He had the intention to live a good life, but insufficient desire to do so; as a consequence, his life devolved into utter chaos and dissolution.
There is a tried-and-true practice in Catholicism called the Examination of Conscience. An good examination of conscience is an appropriate preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but its usefulness is not limited to sacramental celebrations. The Examination of Conscience is also a traditional practice for one’s night time prayers. A thoughtful look back on one’s day will identify the times and places where God was close, and the times and places where one’s own attention was far from God.
A nightly examination of conscience can help a person identify the presence, or absence, of the kinds of evidence of an actual faith in Jesus. The daily activities of a person of faith will demonstrate the evidence of having kept the commandments and having been guided by the Spirit. The daily activities of a person separated from Jesus will produce the same results that Augustine saw in himself prior to his conversion: an insufficient desire for virtue and a growing level of disorder.
If you have good intentions, but no corresponding actions, it might be the result of the lack of a real connection to Jesus, the life-giving vine. If you wish that you had a stronger faith, but don’t see sufficient evidence of faith in your life, it might be the result of being separated from the Risen Lord.
“To remain” with Jesus (John 15:5) means never to be separated from the Risen Lord. The evidence of constant contact with Jesus is easy enough to perceive, as is the lack of such evidence. What does your conscience show you about the state of your relationship with God? God’s desire is for you to live always in Jesus’ presence. Jesus said, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:8)