Third Sunday in Lent at Mississippi Abbey
I think it’s interesting that the gardener said, “I will cultivate the ground around it…” To make the tree fruitful –to make the tree fulfill its created purpose of being useful to others- he focused on its environment, its source of nourishment. Jesus has been teaching that the tree, and people, are nourished by values, by affiliating with the important-in-itself and not just the personally satisfying.
The tree, and each of us, was made for a purpose, for a Master Value that will guide our development. For us that Master Value is love of God and neighbor. Today, as so often in the gospels, that love is specified as usefulness to God and neighbor. Indeed, the first two readings tell us that God, in Whose image and likeness we are made, presents Himself to us as a power used for our benefit. Thus, our usefulness is in bearing fruit for the benefit of others. Fruit nourishes others for living out their purpose. As Julian of Norwich said, “Everything was made in consideration of everything else.”
When the ground around a person is cultivated, it takes the form of relationships and events in one’s life. These shape one’s sense of importance. Apart from God one is left at the mercy of the satisfactoriness of these experiences. Finding them unsatisfactory may lead to abandoning a purpose of fruitfulness and instead to a life of self-protection. This is a wise course to take; in fact, it is instinctive…unless…
…unless one nurtures herself on the important-in-itself (That’s what “I am Who am” must mean to us: Important-in-Itself). Wisdom is the art of living well. To do this one needs the ability to asses truly the values of life. Those authentic, enduring values come from the company we keep (one’s community) and the story we live-by with them. The story gives context. It helps us make sense of relationships and events, The context is our purpose in life as given by the Giver of Life. It keeps us oriented to living a fruitful life. It doesn’t eliminate unsatisfactory events; it just doesn’t let them have the last word.
The “last word” is had by one’s purpose in life, by one’s commitment to bear fruit. That purpose and commitment to it is sustained by one’s surroundings, by the environment that nurtures “the thoughts of the heart.”
Jesus Christ nurtures those thoughts and they are cultivated by His body, the Church. Because of the seed He planted, we grow in the orchard of a parish, monastic community, or other environment. Our sense of purpose is cultivated by the Christian story. Reflection on the story prevents our thoughts from becoming aimless, wandering from one brief satisfaction to another. Proverbs 19:21 tells us “Many are the plans in the mind of a person, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” When we join His purpose, we get a sense of integrity and the power to carry out that purpose. That purpose becomes the centralizing point in our thoughts. We find little or no time for petty worries, fears, or self-pity. Our life becomes about something greater than self. Further on in Exodus God tells Moses “for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (9”16).
This is a lofty value. Lofty values are a part of the purpose we had that attracted us to the monastery as a place of cultivation. The prophet Micah tells us the fruit we are to bear: “He has told you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Let that occupy our thoughts of the heart.