Thursday, April 1, 2010

Succisa virescit

This Latin phrase is found on the coat of arms of the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, founded by St. Benedict himself circa 529 A.D. It means, in literal translation, "having been cut down, it fluorishes", an apt epigram for an abbey that has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, most recently after the bombardment it suffered in the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II. The idea is drawn, I believe, from viticulture; that's why 'succisa' is feminine, agreeing with the understood noun 'vitis', 'grapevine', a feminine word in Latin. It's a well-known fact that grapevines must be cut back drastically, even brutally, every year if they are going to produce an abundant harvest of grapes. In the famous parable from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus applies the same lesson to us: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you." It's interesting that the words translated here by 'prunes' and 'cleansed' are in the original Greek text closely related: 'kathairei' and 'katharoi'. Pruning is a form of cleansing, in that it removes superfluous and irrelevant accretions to reveal the pure form beneath. Now vines don't have feelings, but if they did, we can imagine that pruning would be a pretty painful process. We don't usually think of cleansing as painful, but if you are really dirty, so that getting clean involves hard scrubbing, it's not so enjoyable either.

I've been reading "Salt of the Earth", a book based on an interview of Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI, of course) by Peter Seewald, a German journalist, back in 1996. This is the relevant passage:

"Not long ago I mentioned in a conversation with friends that here in the area around Frascati they are preparing to prune the grapevines and that they bear fruit only if they are pruned once a year, that pruning is a condition of fruitfulness. In the light of the Gospel, of John 15, that's immediately clear to us as a parable of human existence and of the communion of the Church. If the courage to prune is lacking, only leaves still grow. Applied to the Church, there is only paper,whereas no more life is brought forth. But let's say it with the words of Christ, who tells us: At the very moment when you think you have to possess yourself and defend yourself, precisely then you ruin yourself. Because you are not built as an island whose only foundation is itself. Rather, you are built for love, and therefore for giving, for renunciation, for the pruning of yourself. Only if you give yourself, if you lose yourself, as Christ puts it, will you be able to live.

This basic option has to stand out in all its starkness. It is offered to man's freedom. But it should still really be made plain that to live by making one's own claims is a false recipe for life. The refusal of suffering and the refusal of creatureliness, hence, of being held to a standard, is ultimately the refusal of love itself, and that ruins man. For it is precisely his submitting himself to a claim and allowing himself to be pruned that enables him to mature and bear fruit."

Just imagine if we could accept in this spirit all the suffering that inevitably comes to each of us on our pilgrim way to our true homeland, receiving it even with gratitude, seeing it as the pruning of which our egos stand so much in need. 'Succidi, virescemus', cut back, we will sprout up with even greater spiritual vigour. With an attitude like that, nothing in this world could really hurt us.

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