Written by a vinedresser, theologian, psychologist, and nun, this illustrated gift book centers on a visual meditation combined with short reflections about the spiritual life, extending the spiritual metaphor of the vineyard, the vinedresser, and Jesus’ teachings. In some ways it is akin to the adult picture books in the vein of such classics as Hope for the Flowers. The words are simple and few, the pictures clear and evocative, as much a part of the meditation as the words. The Vinedresser's Notebook can be used as 40-day devotional, in a group setting, or as an inspirational book.
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The Vinedresser's Notebook
Spiritual Lessons in Pruning, Waiting, Harvesting, & Abundance
By Judith Sutera, Paul Soupiset
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Judith Sutera, OSB, on behalf of Mount St. Scholastica, Inc.
All rights reserved.
I went to visit the Vinedresser to learn to tend the grapes.
She was old and bent, but her smile was soft and bright.
Her hands were gnarled, but they held everything with great tenderness in their strength.
Throughout that year, we walked the morning-wet fields between rows of vines. She told me everything I needed to know about the secret world of the vines.
This, I am now passing on to you, in case you ever tend a vine of your own.
To be a beginner is humbling. Everything seems so overwhelming and confusing. If there are others already doing it, it can be even more threatening as we compare ourselves to them and fear their judgment or ridicule. We feel watched, awkward, helpless, afraid, stupid-and any number of other feelings.
Sometimes we're asked, or told, to do things we've never done before. It may not be something we would have wanted to do or imagined doing or believed we could be good at doing. We never want to appear ignorant or incompetent—but if we act from our fear of seeming ignorant, we will never begin anything new.
When I first started vinedressing I was given some things to read. I read the extension bulletins and some gardening books and learned some general things about pruning and possible problems and such. Of course, books are useful companions when one embarks on something new (and in the spiritual life, they are useful companions all the way through). But as I read my way into vinedressing, I began to realize how much had to come from hands-on work and a good flesh-and-blood teacher. I really came to appreciate being with someone who had more experience and knowledge. Even more important than what is learned is making the deep connection with a person who actually cares about you, listens to you, and answers your questions.
In the spiritual realm, it seems to be especially important not to trust ourselves—to seek the insights of another who might be more experienced than we and who might look at us with both love and distance. Whether we call them spiritual directors, gurus, confessors, masters, or whatever, there are wise and holy people in all faith traditions to whom others are drawn. They draw others not as much by their preaching as by the sanctity of their own lives, the goodness that comes through them and by which others are touched and transformed.
When many early Christian people went to the desert to seek holiness, the tradition was that every person would find an abba or amma (spiritual father or mother) who would help him or her find the path for his or her life. In many faith traditions, one seeks wisdom from the word given by a person believed to have greater wisdom and insight than that which the seeker currently possesses. The Zen master, the amma, the rabbi, or whoever, often tells a story rather than gives a lecture. These stories take us beyond gathering mere information and show us how to live. They shape our experience into a quiet teaching.
Because of the way my mentor saw everything as a metaphor and all life as reflective of the same truths, I learned to see the plants the way she did. We were never just looking at vines. When she spoke about them, she sounded as if they were friends, and she cared for them that way. That alertness and caring taught me to pay attention to more than the basic techniques I got from the books and helped me to turn the techniques into something personal and instinctive. I started really looking at them and listening to what they were trying to tell me. When I saw something I didn't understand or hadn't seen before, she was always there to pass on what she knew from her many years with them (or suspected from a broader base of reference). Everyone needs a teacher, someone who knows the landscape and can take him or her into the vineyard at first.
"Vines live a very long time," she said, "always sending out new shoots. Each plant is unique," she continued. "Pay attention to what it tells you."
Your responsibility is to establish each young plant, helping it to thrive.
It takes a long time to get old and thick and gnarled. In the process, many things happen and each event leaves its mark. Some of what we see is a result of growth; some is damage. This external appearance is only part of the story that the plant or the person carries. With trees, there are growth rings that can only be seen when the plant is laid open and examined in cross section. The growth rings make up a living record of each year's ups and downs: cold, heat, drought, injury. In some way, the new shoots carry those effects as well. If there have been too many dry years or wet years or hard-weather years, it will affect the growth for years to come. Damage to an area may mean no shoots there for a long time or perhaps ever.
Like trees, people are marked by the formative events in their lives too. When we meet someone, we encounter what that person has become as a result of all that has come before. We can't see the growth rings inside, see how they mark the rich and the lean years, or know what each season did to him or her.
Sometimes with people, as with a vine, we can see the scars where something has been cut off, where there has been a pruning. All we can see, however, is the scar. We don't know how they were damaged or what the missing parts looked like or why they had to be cut away. Fears and insecurities, losses and pain, and the behaviors that do not serve us well—all of these are signs of our past wounds.
Such wounds become permanent parts of us, and they may become the most obvious things about us. The plants in our vineyard are old and thus have very weathered trunks with many stumps. I cannot know what nourished them, how many shoots they've had, or how much fruit has gone forth. I see them only as they are at this time, and thus I have a very incomplete picture. Some plants, perhaps, were once vigorous and productive but have diminished. Other plants may look strong, but I have no idea whether they have actually borne much fruit. Some may have weathered extraordinary difficulties.
As a Benedictine, I am instructed by St. Benedict's rule to "welcome everyone as Christ." Since we see such a limited view of a person, that can be a very tall order. Appearances can be quite deceiving, so I have to assume that there is much more to a person than meets the eye. I have to assume, too, that the parts of you that I do not see have value and goodness and potential.
We had a sister who was a very demanding teacher, a stern personality rarely satisfied with others. Hers was not a warm personality; consequently, most people knew her only from their superficial interactions with her, and those were often strained. When she died, another sister made some remark that she would not grieve or miss her much. I asked her if she was aware of the sister's background.
For whatever reasons, in her later years, that usually reserved sister had opened up to me, telling me stories about her childhood that were filled with pain. She had been harshly treated by the relatives who raised her after the loss of her own parents. Her aunt and uncle were demanding and punishing; nothing she did was ever good enough. As I told this story, the angry sister fell silent, then thanked me. On the day of the funeral there was bad weather, so only the sisters who were pallbearers or had other official functions went to the grave. I looked up to see the deceased's "enemy" coming slowly down the cemetery road huddled under an umbrella.
"I'm so glad you could come," I said.
Her reply: "I realized it's never too late for a little conversion and forgiveness."
We can never know how others got to be the way they are. We can only try to believe that they are doing the best they can with what they have. This is the filter that will enable us to see the glimmer of goodness and purity within them and treat them accordingly.
The vine has only enough energy to nourish a few canes well. Let all of them grow, and none will flourish.
You have to make the decision to cut perfectly good canes in order to concentrate the vine's energy.
"How do I know which ones to cut?" I asked the old Vinedresser. "There's no one perfect answer," she replied.
The newborn is a mysterious and exciting bundle of potential. Some of what is going to be a part of this person's life is obvious from the beginning, such as a unique and distinctive combination of physical traits. Emotional tendencies, natural talents, and other attributes may also be manifest almost immediately. In our early years of life, we usually have a variety of experiences that help us grow in various ways. We get an early education that introduces us to multiple branches of learning. We participate in physical and social activities of many kinds.
A healthy life requires a balance of self-expression and discipline. No one benefits from never being denied anything or experiencing the consequences of negative behavior. During a period of frenzy over a particular high-demand toy, there was a story about a man who traveled to another country to get it for his child. When asked why he had gone to this extreme, he said that it broke his heart to see his daughter cry and he didn't want to disappoint her. God help anyone who has to deal with her as an adult after being raised in that atmosphere.
This kind of indulgence is one end of the spectrum of discipline. On the opposite end is the stunting that comesfrom too much discipline. There are many other ways that someone becomes misshapen in his or her formative years. A child may be ridiculed for something he or she enjoys. There may be clear messages that something about that activity is abnormal or unacceptable, as when a boy wants to dance ballet or a girl is too assertive. They may be forced into directions that are not compatible with their own talents or desires. I have met more than one young person who is suffering conflict over the expectation to take up a certain career because of a parent's attraction to it and not his or her own. An adult may tell a child to stop dreaming and accept the harsh reality of life rather than offer encouragement to think big. An abusive, deprived, or emotionally unbalanced environment can lead to lifelong struggles against the negative messages one has learned.
The failure to give a healthy balance of criticism and praise leaves one unprepared for the real world. Each person must face the way the past has affected the adult he or she has become. You can't choose where you came from, only where you end up.
"For those first few years, you determine the shape," the Vinedresser told me. "Every year little canes appear and every year you cut most of them away. In that way the trunk gains in size and strength."
"At the same time, remember to feed the roots as well."
To grow a vine, to establish a vineyard, you always have to keep making strategic choices.
The first years are the roots that form the foundation for one's life. A person, like a plant, develops throughout life both above and below the surface. I have seen plants that appear strong and vigorous. Their foliage is impressive and they may even bear fruit. Yet, because of lack of water or some other problem, their roots are shallow. The roots trail along close to the surface and become thin. They provide a modicum of nourishment for the plant but don't have enough nourishment to develop a strong root system. A storm or strong wind can knock the plant down. Sometimes the roots are almost completely dead before the plant above them withers.
Our parents, our teachers, and other influential adults root us. Without much other information with which to compare it, we believe much of what they say and respond accordingly. A child who is reinforced for self-centered behavior may become more demanding. A child constantly derided or ignored may become more invisible. A child who feels loved and valued may face the world with growing confidence and security.
The challenges we face, the losses we experience, and the values we try to practice can seem like injuries ordeprivations on the surface. Yet, as when a vine loses some of its branches, its vital energy is gathered in a deeper place. Some kinds of plants are nourished by dense networks of tiny hair-like roots. Their strength comes from the way these mat together and intertwine. Although each root by itself is frail, they are able to support one another. These kinds of plants are usually small and thick, like grasses.
The strongest root systems for larger plants involve thick, deep root systems. The grapevines reach deep below, harden along the surface, and branch out year after year. The more roots there are and the more sturdy and branched they are, the better the plant can search out what it needs from the soil to live. Such a system also gives the plant a broad and firm base so that it can get taller and stronger and still have a solid footing to keep it stable.
Many kinds of plants have a taproot, a very long and powerful root that runs straight down deep into the earth in addition to the regular system of roots. As it grows larger and deeper, it is able to bring hidden resources to the plant. Some desert plants have taproots that are more than a hundred feet deep, allowing them to get to a water source deep below the surface in an area that appears to be completely without moisture. These plants survive despite their environment because they have been able to grow down as well as up.
Every person needs a taproot, something that reaches from within to find the deepest source of nourishment that it can. We all need to be fed from sources other than ourselves, sources that connect us to the broader web of creation or to a reserve of refreshment for arid times or essential elements that we cannot produce independently. We have to be always reaching and searching, pushing energy down as well as up. If not, when the surface conditions are not sufficient to sustain us, we will quickly starve.
Leave some large canes on top, ready to bear fruit.
Leave some shorter canes to grow stronger for next year's fruit.
Leave some new growth at the bottom, allowing future canes to develop.
And always consider and plan for an overall shape.
Anything of value in our lives probably requires some advanced planning and some sense of both short-term action steps and long-term goals. Of course, there do have to be some small pleasures and achievements along the way if we are not to become disheartened. At the same time, these small pleasures need to be in service to a broader plan and not mere random moments. It's a tricky balance. If I'm always denying myself any satisfaction in the moment, I'll be pretty miserable when, and if, I get to the long-range goal. If I flit about with small goals only, I might know momentary joy but end up aimless and unsatisfied.
I can remember the careful storage of all that change I accumulated as a child and the growing stack of single dollar bills from birthday cards or extra chores that would slowly lead to enough for the big-ticket item I dreamed about. I can also remember the reluctance to let go of that "here and now" treat and the even greater reluctance to put some of my hard-earned savings into the basket at church or the collection at school for the poor.
Appreciating the value of planning ahead is tough but necessary.
Just as we put money in the bank for a rainy day, we have to think about what we are storing within ourselves for the hard times or the long-term benefit. A little bit of self-control or spiritual discipline will add up in the reserve that prepares me for life's challenges. Small efforts to be more kind or generous build up until I have a storehouse of patience and love from which I can draw. Doing the next right thing moves me in the direction of a peaceful life. If one has a faith tradition that stresses an eternal reward, there is the added hope of the most important goal toward which one moves. Faith traditions teach us also that each small act is important in moving either nearer or farther from that reward.
Excerpted from The Vinedresser's Notebook by Judith Sutera, Paul Soupiset. Copyright © 2014 Judith Sutera, OSB, on behalf of Mount St. Scholastica, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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