The Painful Pruning of the Spiritual DisciplinesFr. Barnabas Powell
It wasn’t that I didn’t try. I did try. I read how to do it. I got some good advice. I bought the right fertilizer. I weeded. I hoed. And the garden still crashed and burned! Hey, I guess I’m not very good at gardening. Kind of like I am fishing. Oh well, some of us have talents in other places.
But there was one gardening principle that caught my attention; pruning. Every book I read or every expert I consulted all said the same thing: for a plant to be healthy, you have to prune it now and again. But you have to do it in the right way or it will hurt the plant. During this season of Great Lent, we all need the discernment and wisdom, and humility to know when and where to prune our own lives! And that always starts with an honest confession that I need to do this in my own heart! I need this spiritual discipline to cut away that which is stealing energy and sustenance from where I need it to be in my life! Are you willing to make that honest confession? If so, read the rest of this! (By the way, I LOVE this time of year when we get to read these precious Old Testament passages. Don’t let this huge part of the scriptures be a stranger to you!)
Look at our lesson today in Isaiah 4:2-5:7:
In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, every one who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy and a pavilion. It will be for a shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
St. Isaiah the prophet is telling his readers that God is pruning His people. And those left in the city of Jerusalem will be those who were “healthy” enough to make the cut, so to speak. So it is with the work of the Holy Spirit in the People of God. God prunes His “vineyard” the Church just as He has through the centuries.
Here are some observations about the power and pain of spiritual pruning:
First, Spiritual Pruning Takes Wisdom. All too often I’m either too easy on myself or too hard on myself. So, most of the time I really don’t know when or how to “cut” things out of my life. No wonder King David said in Psalms “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me.” Don’t try to “prune” your life by yourself. Pray, Confess, and seek out spiritual wisdom. This reveals the indispensable wisdom of the discipline of regular confession. And I’m not talking about the “drive-by” confessions we so easily settle for. No. I’m talking about that spiritual work between a spiritual father and a spiritual child where we do the work necessary to know one another, trust one another, and learn from one another in significant and meaningful ways! Do the work to find a trusted spiritual father and then commit for the long haul!
Next, Spiritual Pruning Takes Humility. No one “enjoys” discipline. But you won’t grow without it. Stop avoiding confrontation with yourself and take the chance that the spiritual disciplines are for your own good! St. John Chrysostom declares that “Humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue.” It is the attentiveness we show towards developing humility through repentance that feeds our spiritual maturity. The gift of always assuming the first step in healing my life starts with an honest look at myself cannot be over-emphasized. You simply will not progress in your growth as a Christian beyond your commitment to humility. And humility is developed through repentance. Assume your thinking HAS TO CHANGE and it will.
Finally, Spiritual Pruning Takes Love. An old saying I love: “You may have many enemies in this world, but God is never one of them!” I know this spiritual pruning is painful at times, but God loves you and wants you to thrive. But that won’t happen if you don’t allow the Lord to cut away that which is unhealthy for you in your life. If you assume spiritual pruning is necessary to grow in your faith, you will face this painful part of spiritual maturity with what begins as honest acceptance and then progresses as you mature to actual joy at the Lord’s loving work in your heart. No wonder St. James reminds us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Talk about a great example of faithfulness, humility, and even joy in the face of persecution, we remember the 42 martyred saints of Amorion in Phyrgia in 845 AD today. These braver Roman soldiers were talented and good men whom the Muslims wanted to convert to Islam and have these men fight in their army. But these brave men endured both tortures and temptations of m money, rank, and other worldly rewards and refused to deny Christ. Finally, the Muslims seeing they were unable to convert these holy men, had them beheaded. May their memories be eternal.
Today, yes, the disciplines of Great Lent are hard. The services and the prostrations and the Prayer of St. Ephraim are costly and serious and demanding. But how will you ever discover the places in your life that need pruning if you don’t expose your daily life to the loving work of God in being Orthodox on Purpose?
P.S. Your Martyrs, O Lord, in their courageous contest for You received as the prize the crowns of incorruption and life from You, our immortal God. For since they possessed Your strength, they cast down the tyrants and wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption. O Christ God, by their prayers, save our souls, since You are merciful. Amen
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