A Branch Cannot Bear Fruit By Itself

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Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. So, I am the vine, you are the branches.

John 15: 4-5

Today is the birthday of Sigmund Freud. Although Freud has become a controversial, and by many discredited, figure, it is impossible to overstate his influence on consciousness and culture. Freud famously stated that “Where id is, there ego shall be.” In today’s gospel we hear from Jesus a profoundly different understanding of human development. For the Jesus of John’s gospel, we become more and more distinctively human as we are formed into an instrument of God’s will through our union with Jesus. For Jesus, unlike Freud, our own ego or agency is not our most distinctive and truly human capacity. Rather, because we are at our very core spirit, our greatest human potency is our receptivity to the very life and loving action of God in us.

There is no question that the development of a good, healthy, and flexible ego is essential for human development and maturity. Without it we are but victims of our “id” and/or conformists to the direction (good and bad) of our cultures. The absolutizing of the ego, however, leaves us each trapped in our own separate worlds, at best tolerating each other within , in the words of Christopher Lasch, a “culture of narcissism.”

Jesus speaks of a very different human anthropology. Here the separateness of the experience of ego is an illusion. Our true life comes from communion, not the collectivity of society and culture but the communion of the Son and the Father. Our home, the place where we truly abide, is where we participate in the life of God. We bear fruit, that is we express our Divine original call, when we remember to abide in that life. In this light, our life is, in the words of Adrian van Kaam, “an assignment, a task, a mysterious call.” To bear fruit as a human person is to act from that place where we abide with Jesus, from where, in his own words, we “do the works I have been doing and . . . do even greater things than these.” (John 14: 12)

Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches makes clear that this union with him is an eternally creative and formative one. God is the vinedresser, says Jesus, who is continually removing the dead wood and pruning the fruit bearing branches. Human life, at its heart, is “always and everywhere in formation.” Each moment of our lives, each encounter with another, and each attempt by us to “bear fruit” by work, service, and self-expression carries a seed of formation, reformation, and transformation. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be available to the pruning action of God that is offered to us at each moment. This requires the exercise of both our potencies for form reception from God and form giving in the world.

The difference in action between Freud’s and Jesus’ view is that for Freud the “ideal” is the control of the ego over the id. For Jesus, we act most truly as human persons when our ego is not a master but rather a disciple of our spirit and of God’s Spirit, when we continue to abide and to learn, even as we act.  “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.” (Ps. 123:2)

Living the spiritual life thus implies more receptivity than forcefulness. Pragmatic questions such as “What is best for my personality?” and “What is most useful to society?” are secondary. The first decisive question is a question of daily lived attention to that which tells me what my life should be like in the mysterious plan of God, whether or not this plan calls me to foster the development of some practical aspect of my personality or some current need of society. 

The gentle life is a life of easeful efficiency; it is a life that has forgotten its self-centered ends because of its absorption in the mystery of the Divine Will. Spiritual life is never my doing; it consists in my being drawn by God in His own good time where He wants me to be.

My spirit, like the spirit of all people, is an unfinished creation, one on which the Divine Spirit is always at work. The moment God makes me gentle and flexible enough to become aware of this creative action is the moment my real journey begins.

Adrian van Kaam, Spirituality and the Gentle Life, pp. 172-3

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