On Bearing Fruit

One would think that being a cloistered Carmelite nun, vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience, and living a life of prayer and silence would be enough, but Thérèse of Lisieux was genuinely uneasy one day in prayer. She began to flip through her Bible. In the late 19th century, that wasn’t a typical expression of piety, even for a religious. This was long before the Second Vatican Council urged individuals to read Scripture. What was she looking for?

Describing the day, she wrote, “To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me...yet it does not.” 

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Try to look beyond the patina of piety that so quickly covers our saints. We expect them to be exuberant, unmeasured, but listen to the genuine anguish, which the young woman experienced. “I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus.” 

Thérèse had struggled to become a nun. Desiring to enter Carmel while still an adolescent, she had been told to wait. Now, as a professed religious, was she having second thoughts? Better to write “additional” thoughts, because Thérèse wasn’t turning back. She was going forward.

 Plato taught that the good was diffusive. Put another way, it’s in the very nature of the good to grow, to spread, to be shared. Jesus teaches the same with his parable of the vineyard. Simply to employ the simile is to insist that our lives must bear fruit, must make a difference. 

It’s not enough to be religious, to practice a faith. Indeed, without fruitfulness, even that may be a sign of sterility, a way of closing ourselves to the human adventure. Pope Francis opened “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), his apostolic exhortation, with this very warning.

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ (§2).

Thérèse was struggling with a fundamental Gospel question, one that, she understood, her profession as a religious didn’t forestall. Thérèse was asking whether her life was fruitful. Here are some questions to pose in pondering our own answer to the same question.

Do you make others smile? Seems trivial, but we smile when we are happy, when we move even slightly toward the flourishing of human life in all its forms. A person grimacing in pain can smile, when the right person is with her. Do you make anyone smile? Does someone brighten when you approach? Remember Pope Francis’ title: "The Joy of the Gospel."

Does someone come to you with cares?Numbers don’t count in any of these categories. It’s not how many people we influence. It’s that we touch someone. Does anyone share his or her real problems with you? Come to you for advice? Count upon your sympathetic ear?

Do you touch the poor? Anything counts here, but don’t discount actual physical contact. Have you ever touched a poor person in response to his or her need? Do you encounter anyone who is poor? Do you somehow respond to the needs of the poor, even if only by donation and prayer?

Do you see suffering? It suffuses the world. Do you see any of it? Does someone else’s physical pain or heartbreak touch your life? 

Do you feel compelled to share yourself?So much counts here: your ideas, your time, your prayer, your muscles, even your recipes. When we share ourselves, as opposed to implementing our agendas, we forget whose idea wins, how much time is spent. We don’t even notice that we are praying for another.

What’s not on the list? Your job, the work that you do to earn your keep. Plumber or brain surgeon, bishop or accountant: we’re all called to work for each other. Is one task more important than another? Depends on whether your toilet is backed up. 

What you mustn’t do is to presume that you bear fruit simply because your job is important. Or conversely, that you aren’t bearing fruit because you don’t have a job, one which the world considers important, or because you don’t have a job at all. 

Thérèse began to read Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he describes various ministries in the church. But, “considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all.” But then…

Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood... I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places... in a word, that it is eternal!

What Thérèse wrote next could be dismissed as the simpering of sentimental piety. “Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!” It could be so discounted, until one considers the fruit born of her silent life, one that ended in the most painful of deaths, from tuberculosis. 

Being fruitful isn’t about being religious. It isn’t about doing something important. It’s a way of living: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Phil 4:9). The good is diffusive. It can’t help but to share itself.

Isaiah 5: 1-7    Philippians 4: 6-9    Matthew 21: 33-43

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