John recalls for us in today’s Gospel the imagery of the vine and the branches when he records Jesus as saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). Jesus used this imagery to show the interconnectedness that his disciples and us today share with him, God, one another, and all of humanity. God is the vine grower, he is our Creator; Jesus is the vine, he supplies our sustenance and nourishment; and we are the branches, we exist, mature, and bear fruit as long as we are connected to the vine and are shaped and cared for by the vine grower.
We are created by God, we are one with Christ, each of us are unique and individual branches, yet at the same time we are interconnected to each other through our connection to the vine. God, the vine grower, provides the nutrients to the soil, cares for the vine, maintains and prunes the branches and protects the branches from being broken or stolen. The vine receives the nutrients and water from the roots and supplies the nourishment needed to each of the branches.
This imagery becomes relevant and practical, when we recognize that the goal of our connection to Jesus is that we are not to merely exist and go through the motions each day until one day we die. We are not only to survive, but we are to thrive. The goal of any vine grower in planting a vine is that it will bear fruit. God within himself as a divine communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is totally self sufficient, yet he created us to share in his divine life. We are to be participants in the majesty of his creation.
We are to participate in the divine life of his Son, and through our participation, we are to bear fruit. Our sin, is our turning away, our rejecting the life to Jesus working in our life. When we sin we turn in on our self, and in so doing cut our self off from the very source and sustenance of our being. We still may have life in this situation, but we are limiting our self from the divine assistance that is available to us.
You might say, “I know atheists that are happy and joyful and appear to be fulfilled.” I do not disagree with you. God has created us with a soul, he created us to be in communion with him, he has created us as a living desire and hunger to be in communion with him and one another, and this is true for the atheist and believer alike. People can still answer and respond to God’s leading and guidance even though they may not be aware or define in any way that they are following God’s invitation.
Some atheists may be responding better to the life of Christ than we practicing Christians. Blessed John Cardinal Newman calls the conscience the “Aboriginal Vicar of Christ”. This is where God communicates with us, engages us, and guides us. We say yes or no in our own way. The mystery of God’s creation and communion is a wonder and a joy to behold. How we interact with him is unique and a gift of free will.
Looking back at my own life’s journey, my own stepping stones, I can see times where I have said yes and no to God. The times I have said yes, I have found more fulfillment. Through my Middle School years, to the best of my recollection, we were cultural Catholics, but I led a pretty much secular life. My joys and pursuits were self motivated, self focused, and pretty much turned within myself. Any external interests revolved around sports, a few friends, school, movies and the like. Through high school and into college I began to feel a draw to seek more. I became interested in my native American background and spirituality, the environment, while at the same time began to be active in Christianity through the Congregational Church and some non denominational experiences.
After college I became more engaged in environmental work with the National Audubon Society as an environmental educator, I also became more involved in native American culture, practice and spirituality, as well as an Assembly of God/Pentecostal church while at the same time returning to the Catholicism of my early years. During the summer of 1989 or 1990, I spent a month on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. When I returned I experienced a ten-day silent Carmelite retreat. Both were powerful experiences.
At that point my life I was at a crossroads. The short version is that I followed the Catholic road more intensely than the Lakota, and entered the Franciscans of Holy Name for two years, before taking a leave of absence, and after two years decided not to return. I went back to working at the Audubon Society and nursing home work, and three years later met, JoAnn, and her three children. We were married May 25 of 1996. We had both attended, at different times before we knew each other, Calvary Christian Chapel, an Assemblies of God Church in Massachusetts, so we returned there together, I attended Catholic Church less and less until we moved to Florida.
In Florida, we found a Congregational Church to attend, but all the while, I felt a continual pull to return to the Catholic Church which happened around 2002. JoAnn, prior to her death, and I have been attending St Peter Catholic Church ever since. In 2013 I was ordained a permanent deacon and I presently teach at Cardinal Newman HS. While still in Los Angeles, after JoAnn died in September of 2019, I was blessed to have connected with a wonderful group of people at ZCLA: Zen Center of Los Angeles. While visiting there, I learned the practice of Zazen, sitting meditation, which has been a helpful addition to my daily spiritual practice.
This is just a snippet of the journey through the winding roads to where I find myself today. Each step of the way, the vine grower has had his hand in guiding, protecting and shaping me. Jesus continues to be my source and life, and each year I have felt closer to him, and even during this time of mourning JoAnn’s death and my still present recovery from pneumonia, I am beginning to feel more comfortable with being me. Each of us is on our own unique journey, while at the same time we are all interconnected. We do not journey alone. I invite and encourage each of you reading these words to be true to yourself and who God is calling you to be.
Photo: A quiet moment a year and a half ago in San Francisco visiting Mia.