In her book, Holy the Firm, the great Catholic essayist, Annie Dillard,shares a memory from a class she taught to aspiring writers. She askedher students which of them wanted to give their lives and be writers.They all raised their hands. Dillard writes, “Why do I want them to meanit? And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t beanything else. You must go at your life with a broadaxeThey thought Iwas raving again. It’s just as well.” You see, for Dillard, writing isn’tsomething you can do in your spare time. It’s a vocation that requirestremendous sacrifice. Writers must use that broad axe to cut away from their lives even things that are good in themselves but extraneous to the work, so that in the end, a writer is simply a wick with one end thrust into the material world, with the other end casting light.
Dillard’s broad axe imagery is probably inspired by an extendedmetaphor that Jesus uses in our Gospel this evening. He compares hisHeavenly Father to a grape vine grower. Jesus Himself is the vine. Thedisciples are the branches. He tells them that the vine grower takes awayevery branch that does not bear fruit, and every branch that does bearfruit He prunes so that it will bear more fruit. That’s where the broad axecomes in. (Maybe pruning shears would be less intimidating.) But thepoint remains the same, namely, what matters is bearing as much fruit aspossible. A branch might be lush and verdant. It might have the prettiestleaves in the whole vineyard, but if it doesn’t bear fruit, it going to end upon the brush pile. Another branch might appear stunted and ugly. Itmight be the vineyard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, but ifit bears fruit, it’s doing what it’s for. That’s all that matters. In the end,God is interested in fruit, not foliage. And so it is with us. When youngBrian Doyle first went to his father and told him he had decided to be awriter, his Dad replied, “So, what have you written today?” In otherwords, “Go bear fruit.”
This weekend, the senior class here at the University of Portland willgraduate. As they look ahead, their futures are replete with possibilities.They might do any number of fascinating, important things. My prayerfor them is that they will have the courage and grace to choose a pathand throw themselves into it with passion and discipline. If I may switchimagery, life is like a river. If the water of a river is allowed to meanderinto innumerable streams it becomes little more than a marsh. Only if some of these alternative channels are closed off does the water flow in a particular direction with real force. I’m reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche’s insistence that the creative of anything worthwhile requires “obedience over a long period of time in a single direction.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 188) (Now there’s a fellow who doesn’t get quoted in a lot of homilies.)
Years before his eventual death, Isaac Newton retired frommathematics to devote his life to writing theology, which was a shame,because he was better at math. Long after he had retired from the field,a particular mathematical problem was gripping the best minds in Europe.The problem had been posed by one of the Bernoulli brothers, probablyJohann. It went like this: if you have two points A and B, with B belowand to the right of A, what track could you build connecting them thatwould allow a ball dropped at A to reach B in the shortest amount ofTime? (Hint: it’s not a straight line.) On a whim, an audacious younggraduate student brought the problem to Isaac Newton. The old manread the problem, and told the student to come back in the morning.
When the student returned, Newton handed him the solution. Thestudent sent Newton’s solution to Bernoulli without attribution. Bernoulliread it and said, “Ah, I recognize the paw prints of the lion.”That story sends chills down my spine. What Bernoulli recognizedwas the particular genius of Isaac Newton the fruit of the uniqueintellectual instrument that Newton had forged through decades ofdisciplined creative endeavor. Our graduating students have spent yearsdiscovering and exploring their own God-given gifts. With the help of ourfaculty and staff they have evolved their own characteristic ways ofleaning into a world that is crying out for their unique contributions. Theyhave forged and honed their instruments. Now, with deep affection and aprofound sense of anticipation, we loose them on the world. It’s notcalled “commencement” for nothing. May they keep a firm grasp on thevine, and bear much fruit.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”