Refection for the fifteenth Sunday in ordinary time, July 16, 2017, Year A

Refection for the fifteenth Sunday in ordinary time, July 16, 2017, Year A

By Fr. Fr. René J. Butler/bigccatholics.com

Before my present assignment, I was pastor in a small parish in Vermont. The former pastor, Fr. Paul, lived with me, and one of his greatest interests was his garden, one of the most famous in town, not huge—just four raised beds—but always early and always lush. One of the secrets of his success was the soil, just the right mix of soil and his own rich home-made compost, completely organic, no chemicals. Just like the fourth illustration in the Parable of the Sower. Not for nothing he used to say he never felt so close to God as in his garden.

I don’t suppose the yield was a hundredfold, but there were plenty of fresh vegetables through the summer, and plenty for canning and freezing. (My specialty was soups.) We ate well on a very moderate budget.

One thing Fr. Paul couldn’t plan. The weather. If it was dry, he could water his garden. If it was too cold, the eggplants would complain; too wet, and the tomatoes would sulk and fail to produce as expected.

That’s where Isaiah’s prophecy comes in. God compares his word to the rain and snow that do not return to him until they have accomplished their purpose and his. We find a similar image in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (or, if you prefer: “God gave the increase”). Today’s reading from Romans uses a very different image: labor pains.

Seed, soil, rain, and labor pains, all ultimately evoke the same image: producing fruit.

The fruit itself is not just one thing. Jesus’ parable refers to grain, probably wheat or barley. No tomatoes, no eggplant, though cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic are mentioned in the Old Testament; but it seems unlikely they would be planted in the way described.

From a figurative point of view, the fruit can be many things. One thinks immediately of good works, after the manner of Blessed Mother Teresa and St. John Bosco. One thinks also of conversions, like that of St. Augustine or Edith Stein.

St. Teresa of Avila saw the fruit as prayer. Instead of focusing on the quality of the soil, however, she considered the watering of the soil. Just as in our parable of today, she reflects on four options.

Option 1: You go to the well, back and forth, back and forth, until your garden is properly watered. This is good, but requires a lot of effort. You pray a lot, you reflect a lot, you stave off distractions as best you can.

Option 2: You set up a system of water wheels and aqueducts. You turn a crank until the garden is watered. (You might also think of a hand-pump at a well.) This requires less effort. You get more water in less time. Your prayer has become simpler and easier.

Option 3: You set up an irrigation system from a nearby river or stream. You just need to keep the system maintained.

Option 4: Rain. Here, of course, you actually do nothing. God gives the increase. Your prayer becomes his work.

Unlike the four kinds of soil, these four levels of prayer all produce fruit. The difference lies in how much we do and how much God does. The more our prayer becomes God’s work, the better the quality and more abundant the quantity of fruits.

Still it is not a choice of which “option” I shall choose. Everyone begins at the beginning. There are no deadlines. Nor is there any expectation that everyone move through all four levels. A spiritual director can help a person discern if and when the passage from one kind of prayer to another is taking place. Sometimes the transition is an uncomfortable experience. But remaining at any one level is never a failure. Prayer of any kind is the fruit of good seed sown in good soil.

Years ago, I attended a series of talks on prayer by the Director of the Jesuit Center for Spirituality in Rome, Fr. Herbert Alphonso, S.J. I will never forget the conclusion of the last talk. “How should you pray?” he asked, and then answered his own question, “Pray as you can.”

This applies ultimately to more than prayer. If we are good soil ready to receive good seed, there is so much possible fruit of so many varieties to bear, and God’s word will not return to him empty.

What fruit should bear? Bear the fruit that you can.

Sun, 07/16/2017 - 11:01
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