Pain and Pruning

I’ve been thinking a lot about pruning. About vines and branches, about dry and brittle undergrowth, about the coming harvest. I’ve been drawn into a season of pruning myself. The perfect storm of past hurt and present pain are intermingling in my heart and demanding to be dealt with. It’s hard, to be honest, but I keep trying to remember that hard doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every brand in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. 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.

I am the vine and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

John 15: 1-6

How often do I separate myself from Christ, put myself at the mercy of others, allow myself to be gathered up by whomever and whatever version of “good” and “successful” comes along only to be burned again and again and again?

It seems to me that either way there is pain. Both pruning and leaving the vine guarantee a certain amount of suffering, but only one requires suffering in order to bear fruit.

The question remains, will I put myself at the service of the pain? Will I submit myself to pruning in order that I might grow? Will I trust Him?

We’re inching closer to the feast day of St. Joseph, probably my favorite saint. St. Joseph was presented with a situation which he certainly didn’t plan for, a set of circumstances that stripped him of the future he had imagined for himself and set him on a path of hardship. (It was also a path of immeasurable beauty, to be sure, but we can’t say it was easy being the protector and provider of the Holy Family.) I think we can all agree that St. Joseph could be granted a meltdown or two. One can imagine the temptation to fall into self pity or anger, especially at the outset of this journey. I mean, that’s what I usually do when things don’t work out the way I expect them to.

And yet, when given a situation that was confusing, when dealt a change that was challenging to his belief system, that required great sacrifice to his reputation as well as his physical safety, Joseph didn’t have a pity party. He didn’t lament and moan and look for sympathy. He waited. He made a plan to act out of charity. He prayed. Most importantly, he stayed open and receptive to the voice of God. St. Joseph was sensitive to the working of the Holy Spirit and he trusted that the words spoken to him from God were true. So, when the angel advised him to take Mary into his home, Joseph partnered with the problem, offered himself in service to the pain, and humbly submitted himself to God’s will, putting aside both his plans for a “normal” marriage and his plans to divorce her quietly.

Mercy, how I long for a faith like that.

So much about enduring suffering and darkness has to do with perspective. In an often isolated post-Covid world, where there’s still so much doubt and uncertainty, I find it particularly difficult to see the glass as half full. I struggle a lot with partnering with the problems in my life. I find it difficult to view the dead ends as anything but just that: closed doors and locked gates. In a season when I’ve endured more loneliness than ever before, when I’ve seen the carnage of fractured relationships and been disappointed by so many things, large and small, I’m just done. I don’t want to endure any more. I don’t want to partner with anything, I just want to be done and for things to be easy.

But that’s where my need for pruning is shown. That’s precisely why I need a Gardener to rein me in, redirect my growth, train the tendrils of my heart to wrap around Him instead of growing out and away, grasping for whatever the world tells me is sturdy.

My friend Henri Nouwen says,

…what seems a hindrance becomes a way; what seems an obstacle becomes a door; what seems a misfit becomes a cornerstone.

Jesus changes our history from a random series of sad incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity for a change of heart. To wait patiently, therefore, means to allow our weeping and wailing to become the purifying preparation by which we are made ready to receive the joy that is promised us.

And so prayers of lament and complaint being uttered, I’m left with the choice: do I look to the Lord with trust, submit myself to His hand and His pruning, or do I go my own way offering myself to whomever wants to gather me up knowing full well I’ll get burned again?

Either way there is pain. Either way there is suffering. But only one way contains the promise of joy, a joy I have seen lived out in the lives of the saints and proven again and again in the scriptures. So my prayer must become one of trust, one of offering, one of partnering.

Jesus, change my heart. Take this anxiety and anger, this frustration, loneliness, and grief and change it all into something beautiful. I cannot do it on my own. Help me, Lord, I need You. Show me how to be held in your arms, to be loved by You in the pruning. Heal my heart and reorient it toward Yours. Help me to endure the suffering, endure the pain, endure the not knowing, to stay steady and to bear it all for love of You. Help me to be your partner, to submit myself to your pierced hands. O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I put my trust in You.

You are loved, my friends. Eternally adored by a Creator who thinks that you’re worth pruning, worth guiding, worth redeeming. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve wandered or how tightly our hearts are wound around the world, He’s waiting to prune and to train those tender vines so that we might bear more and more fruit for his Holy and Sacred Name. Even the wildest, most overgrown, driest, and thorniest of hearts can be redeemed. That’s where the hope lies, in the truth that the places in our lives that look like dead ends and closed doors are just odd looking ways back to Him.

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