Editor’s note: Today, we are honored to share a guest contribution from Sister Judith Sutera, OSB, author of The Vinedresser’s Notebook: Spiritual Lessons in Pruning, Waiting, Harvesting and Abundance from Abingdon Press. Lisa
The Vinedresser’s Notebook
To write something based on my book The Vinedresser’s Notebook for a blog called “CatholicMom,” it seems obvious that my comments have to be about helping someone grow. The premise of the book is that everything we need to know about life we can learn from a plant. Since we are all part of God’s natural creation, whether you’re a radish, a rose or a rat, certain basic principles apply. All creatures come, by some normal process, from others of their species. They are formed from a nucleus, grow, depend on certain chemical elements in their environment, age and die.
We assume that humans are the only creatures that have conscious awareness of all these truths, so we are in a special place to steward the process in other species as well as our own. A parent, or anyone responsible for the development of others, holds a sacred trust.
The vinedresser is anyone who is in a position to share in creation. Every plant is different. From the moment I see it come up, I look at its natural tendencies. I try to see how strong or fragile it is, what parts are headed in the right direction and which ones are bending away in odd directions. I feed the roots and battle the weeds around its base. This is the environment in which it grows, and no environment is perfect. Neither is any plant perfect. Nature and nurture come together to make something more fruitful. Each of us had an initial environment – our personality, our physical location, our parents’ gifts and frailties – that affect what we become, but we also have the ability to do things that change outcomes. “You can’t choose where you came from, only where you end up.” I also remind the reader that you have to keep feeding the roots. We all need a deep place that nourishes us. We’re not all about the lushness of the top growth. It will eventually fail if there is nothing feeding it.
The part of my story that most people tell me they dislike most is the part about pruning. I say that a plant can’t be very fruitful if all its energy is going in every direction. We cut excess shoots and even very good-looking branches in order to focus on a few: “Fruit grows close to the trunk. All that leafy stuff way out there is no good for the harvest.” Throughout our lives, we need to have discipline and direction, just as the pruned vine is shaped by the work of the vinedresser and the structure of the trellis. “Love and responsibility are the trellises that hold us up and move us in the right direction. The only person who can claim to be free of all obligations and who never needs to make hard choices is the one who loves no one and whom no one loves, and that would be a very sad freedom.”
Once something is cut, whether by choice or by tragedy, it’s gone. There is no point in dwelling on the “what ifs” any more than standing before a plant saying, “I wonder what this branch would have been like and how much fruit it would have had.” Its loss only serves to strengthen what remains. Sometimes we will be unable to control loss. I do what I can to make the vines flourish, but there are certain factors over which I have no control. The best farmer in the world, who has done everything completely right, can see it all go wrong with five minutes of hail.
All of this is pretty daunting if we don’t see what’s in this book in the light of a larger truth. Those who read it from an ordinary human perspective will hopefully get some good insights about the human condition and how we need to take care of ourselves emotionally. But those reading from the Judeo-Christian perspective will see something more. Scripture has many references to God’s vineyard. The vinedresser is always there at every season of a plant’s growth: planting, fertilizing, weeding, pruning, waiting for harvest, harvesting . . . and then doing it all over again for the next year. He or she tends each vine according to its natural shape and needs. Each vine is valued and fed, and the vinedresser hopes for its best and looks forward to an abundant harvest. We are not wild grapes; we are in someone’s loving care. When Jesus says, “I am the Vine,” He assures us that we don’t have to do it all ourselves, and in fact, can’t do it without the life-giving roots and veins that run from Him into each of us.
Judith Sutera is a Benedictine sister of the monastery of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. She holds degrees in psychology and sociology, with a master’s degree in counseling, and, in 1986, became one of the first women to receive a master’s degree in monastic theology. A magazine editor and the author of several books, she is a director for oblates, and teaches courses in monastic spirituality. he also gives presentations, retreats, and workshops for monastic communities, academic conferences, formation groups, and retreats across the country.
Be sure to check out our Book Notes archive.
Copyright 2014 Judith Sutera, OSB