Remaining in Him
At the end of His earthly life, our Lord sought to teach His disciples how they would remain united to Him in His absence. They certainly wanted this, as their distress at Jesus’ imminent departure shows. The Lord is going away and they desperately want to accompany Him, yet they cannot follow Him now (cf. Jn 13:31-38).
But Jesus proves that He wants this continual union even more, and shows them the way to it. What follows their anxious questions about where the Lord is going, and how He will remain with them in some fashion, amounts to a poignant catechesis on the interior life. In its wake, the writings of history’s great mystics are but commentary.
As the Apostles struggle to understand everything the Lord tells them during the Last Supper, Jesus provides a simple formula for communion with Him:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. … As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:4-9)
Does this vine-branch metaphor make things clear for us, as for the Apostles? Could Jesus be any clearer? At first hearing, it might still be difficult to picture what this mutual abiding looks like in daily life. The union of offshoots to a single vine brings to mind a crawling, limber stalk weaving its way through a trellis, branching off into leaves and, possibly, fruit. Israel itself is likened to an enormous vine, planted by the Lord’s hand, whose leaves provide the mountains with shade (cf. Ps 80:8-11). But although the imagery might suggest a complicated tracery of branches, Jesus’ message is a simple one: the vine and its branches form a whole; they are essentially one thing.
To say that Christ is a vine woven throughout my daily life means that He is the wellspring of my thoughts, desires, and actions—the highest object of my best love. It is to love Him so well that we are constantly seeking to reproduce His love and compassion in our lives. Union with Christ—remaining in Him, abiding with Him— means having not only the “mind of Christ,” in St Paul’s phrase, but His heart as well: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). All that Christ is, He shares with us.
The New Testament calls this union “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rm 13:14). But being clothed with Christ is not primarily a change in outward appearance, as would follow an actual change of garments. Nor is clothing oneself with Christ chiefly the copying of external actions. In this case, as in most others, appearances don’t tell the whole story.
“Your life,” St Paul says, “is hid with Christ in God”—that is, what is most important about our relationship with God is veiled from view (Col 3:3). Before it bears any outward fruit, the union of vine and branches is the hidden life of the soul that receives from Him the inspiration to love, to sacrifice, to put oneself out in ways that savor of the aroma of Christ. The branches become recognizable as offshoots of the true Vine because they behave in ways that must spring from a privileged source of life and love—compelling them to give of themselves until no human explanation for the giving is possible.
This love is the lifeblood of the Vine’s branches, the bond that not only joins us to Christ, but disposes us habitually to act like Him. His love cannot be substituted by a cautious, respectable version, nor what may be culturally acceptable as love, but must remain a love that goes beyond reasonable expectations, as when God kneels before men and wipes the stains of travel from their feet.
In just this way the Lord explodes any misunderstanding about what His love entails when, at the outset of the Supper, He reduces Himself visibly to slave status, going about on hands and knees washing His disciples’ feet. The love Jesus calls us to abide in is no vague sentiment—it is no sentiment at all—but is as concrete and humble as cleaning the dust from our neighbor’s ankles and toes. Our love has to be this, if we would maintain our side of the relationship of branch to vine.
“How can we live if we are not in love?” St Josemaria once asked in a catechetical get-together. “I live because I’m in love,” he answered himself. “If not, life wouldn’t be worth living.” What St Josemaria says informally here actually reveals a spontaneous preoccupation of the saints of all ages: a consuming desire for continual union with Christ, sharing the same life, as vine and branches share one organic life.
The Carmelite mystic St Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906), a contemporary of St Josemaria, could speak on behalf of all saints: “There are two words that sum up for me all holiness, all apostolate: ‘Union and Love’” (Letter 191).
Since this is the common code of saints, it raises an important reflection for us. One of our principal struggles is resisting the temptation to make our relationship with God a part of our lives only, as something added on to our natural, human life—or even partitioned exclusively into private life. Contemporary culture reinforces this attitude, and so it is even easier for us to fall for it.
St Josemaria dismissed this deformed version of Christianity:
“When people take this approach, churches become the setting par excellence of the Christian way of life. And being a Christian means going to church, … while the ordinary world follows its own separate course. In this case, Christian teaching and the life of grace would pass by, brushing very lightly against the turbulent advance of human history but never coming into proper contact with it.” (Passionately Loving the World)
When we hear Jesus speak of vine and branches we know that our lives cannot fork into parallel strands which seldom meet, and still reflect the union He wills for us. St Josemaria fervently warns against living a “double life,” reminding us that the life we live in union with God is one life. We are not with Him one moment and absent the next, with Him in church and then away from Him on the street, or in the workshop. He wants to be all in all.
Union is not a temporary phenomenon, any more than genuine Christian love restricts its scope only to certain people and places. When our Lord commands His disciples to “remain” in Him, He asks for a lasting bond that can weather any inward or outward trial. Jesus wants our hearts to embrace a courageous, mutual abiding, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, as only true charity can.
Again, St Elizabeth of the Trinity confidently pleads the Lord’s case, putting on His lips:
“Remain in Me, not for a few moments, a few hours which must pass away, but ‘remain …’ permanently, habitually, Remain in Me, pray in Me, adore in Me, love in Me, suffer in Me, work and act in Me. Remain in Me so that you may be able to encounter anyone or anything …” (“Heaven in Faith,” no. 3).
Our Lord’s parting concern on the eve of His passion was establishing this kind of communion with us, which both precedes and causes all fruit to grow. Our inner union with Jesus is the source of all the good we do, all the fruit we bear. And certain proof that Vine and branches are one comes when the individual branches begin to reach beyond their natural range of growth toward divine love—resembling the Vine in His continual self-giving.