The Spiritual Life: lessons from the Vineyard on how to grow in the Christian life through obedience, self-denial and prayer

The vineyard is the spiritual life of the Christian. The Lord has prepared the ground by removing stones and tilling, planted her in fertile soil and given her all she needs to be fruitful.  At the first sign of fruit, she is pruned, channeling all of His grace, all of the growing energy into the fruitful branches. 

The Hedge of Obedience to God’s Will

As the foundation of the spiritual life, He has built around her a hedge of the law.  At first glance, the law might seem like a constraint which keeps the soul from going where it will, but the barking of little foxes reveals the Lord’s plan.  “My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.’”(Sg of Sgs 2:9-10, 15)  The hedge keeps out those things which would destroy the fragile vineyard.  In Jesus’ time, the vineyard owner planted a hedge around the vineyard to keep animals and thieves out.  It also kept the grapes from becoming wild and sour.  The law and conscience help her to hear the voice of the Lord, keeping out other voices which tempt, distract, and confuse.  The hedge helps to direct the growth of the vineyard properly, leaving it free to grow to its true glory and beauty.

The Winepress of Self-Denial

Next, the divine gardener digs a pit of poverty in which to press grapes into wine.  Through sacrifice and trial, the Lord digs, carves out of the heart all that is unnecessary.  This makes space, makes her empty, so that He can pour Himself into her.  When the time comes for pressing grapes the Lord squeezes her once again. He asks her to constantly let go of all she clings to, all she has accumulated.  With worldly pleasures stripped away, we discover the “good stuff” (wine!) and are able to drink deeply of it.

Although grapes are delicious by themselves, the Lord reveals that He can make them into something even better, if she will give all of her fruit to Him.  Ultimately the fruit of the spiritual life is the imitation of Christ.  The winepress also helps reveal this because it is an altar on which her fruit is sacrificed. She is transformed into His very self through the reception of this wine.

The Christian who freely embraces self-denial quickly learns the simple joy of the gospel.  Acknowledging our poverty brings us together in interdependent fraternity because it forces us to rely on one another.  If we live poverty, all our illusions of independence are stripped away.  We will learn our desperate need for the wine of the new covenant, Jesus’ blood.

The Tower of Prayer

This tower is the sacred place of intimacy with her beloved.  No one but Christ is permitted to enter.  Yet, the whole world enters her tower as His body!  This is an enclosure where she is safe in the embrace of His arms, where they know each other.  It is knowing His love that gives her utter peace, joy, and confidence.  This is where she comes to know Him and know herself.

Scriptures speaks over and over of the chosen people being encircled, surrounded.  Jerusalem itself is of a circular shape, surrounded by mountains.  We find this in the Song of Songs, in which the bride and her beloved share intimately in his “rooms”.  In Hebrew this is Masseh: “the translations suggested for the Hebrew Masseh have this in common:  they refer to a round space, an enclosure, a round room, a round banquet hall…What matters is the idea, the feeling, that the Bride has: wherever she is, she is now always wrapped in the protective tenderness of the Bridegroom and totally surrendered to him.” (Cantata of Love, 114-115)

Ultimately, prayer is at the heart of the spiritual life. A spousal relationship with Christ, a life in imitation of and union with him, is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life.  The tower reminds us of this goal, of the vision of our lives.  When we get nearsighted and distracted by the daily tasks of the vineyard, we need to climb the tower and remember why we have come.  During harvesting season, a vineyard owner (or his steward) would live in the tower to be on the lookout for thieves and animals who would threaten his crops.  In the soul of the Christian it is always harvesting time and constant vigilance is required.  Christ watches over the vineyard night and day, to protect it, but also to admire it.

The Call of the Vinedresser

The Christian is not the owner of the vineyard; she must keep this truth ever before her eyes.  The Lord carefully planted the vineyard, built the hedge, winepress and tower, and then entrusted her with this gift.  He waits in expectancy for her to flower and blossom.  She must nurture and care for this gift in order for it to be fruitful.  To do this, she must remain constantly in the flow of living water – His grace.  For the vineyard cannot survive without His grace – “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  To be fruitful she must “remain in him”, the true vine.

The incredible thing about vineyards in Israel is that they survive for most of the growing season without a single drop of rain.” The nightly dew is enough to sustain them for months.  And so it is in the spiritual life.  Her vineyard will often seem more like a desert, dry and desolate.  She must trust in these times that the Lord is sustaining her in the night with secret dew and although all seems dark, “He waters her at every moment.” (Is. 27:3)

For we see this truth throughout scripture: the Bridegroom comes in the stillness of the night, “with dew” and “the drops of the night.”(Sg of Sgs 5:2)  When her beloved stands at the gate and calls to be let in, what will her response be?  Will she be ready, with lamps alight, like the wise virgins? When the Father sends the Son to ask for everything, will she remember that it was His all along?  Will she, like the other tenants hold onto an earthly inheritance or will she remember that He “takes nothing away and gives her everything”(Ben. XVI)?  Her beloved has promised her: “everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” (Mt 19:29) He is so humble, so gentle that He will never force His way into the vineyard, which is really His!  Her “…beloved is knocking.  ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove…’”(Sg of Sgs 5:2)

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