Divine Secateurs
Divine Secateurs

Divine Secateurs

Fifth Sunday of Easter. Fr Timothy Radcliffe preaches on how God prunes our lives.

My grandmother would venture out with her secateurs and pruning basket, expertly to prune the roses. It was an art that I never mastered. If you prune too vigorously, the rose bush died. If not strongly enough, the bush becomes straggly. Jesus tells his disciples in today’s Gospel that he prunes every branch so that it bears more fruit. God is the artful gardener, who prunes our lives so that we flourish.

Jesus says, ‘You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.’ What word? I think it is every word that cuts through our fantasies and evasive thoughts and bring us back to the challenging essence of the Gospel. For example, just a little earlier Jesus had said: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and died, it remains a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24). The Lord invites us to all sorts of small deaths that we may live: to adolescence, to narcissism and so until finally our lives end and we die into eternity.

There are also experiences which prune away whatever is distracting and bring us back to the core of our faith. Father Hans-Joachim Lohre, an African missionary, was held captive by Al-Qaeda in Mali for a year. It was a time of acute deprivation but he called it a great gift from God, a time of intense prayer. Three years ago, I was in hospital for five weeks after surgery for cancer. My life was stripped back to essentials. I could not eat or drink and was entirely dependent on others. It was a pruning I never wish to endure again, but I was opened just a little to the free gift of the Lord’s unmerited love.

Communities can also endure times of severe pruning which bring them close to God in a new way. The exile of Israel to Babylon during the sixth century BC, stripped away false images of God as a very powerful god who could beat up the other nations. Exile opened the way to a deeper understanding of monotheism and the utter transcendence of Israel’s Lord.

We pray that the horrific exposure of the Church’s sexual abuse of minors, the shameful exposure of her betrayal, will be a radical cutting back of clerical arrogance that will lead to new flourishing.

The Greek word that is translating by ‘pruning’ also means to clean or purify. Jesus’s word cleans us and gives us purity of heart. When I was young, I thought that a pure heart meant not thinking about sex! But in today’s Gospel it means to live from the presence of the Lord at the very centre of one’s being. ‘Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.’

Our society is obsessed with identity: gender identity, sexual identity, ethnic identity and the politics of identity. Identity is to be chosen, constructed and defended. In Barbie, all the Barbies sing of their freedom to be whomever they want. But for Christians, our identity is hidden in God who is, as St Augustine wrote, ‘closer to me than I am to myself.’ God, who is beyond all rivalry, gives me to be myself. Simon Tugwell OP put it beautifully: ‘To have a pure heart is to have a life which wells up in us from a source too deep for us to plumb.’

In moments of radical pruning, the little pompous identities that we have constructed, and that we struggle to present convincingly to the world, collapse; and we become aware of the one who sustains us in being and whose name is I AM. A pure, cleansed heart enables us to begin to see with the eyes of God, which mean is to see each other with compassion and how, for all the sin and violence of the world, God is present, even in Gaza. I admit that I have no desire to feel the divine secateurs, but let us trust that it leads to our flourishing.

Readings: Acts 9:26-31 | 1 John 3:18-24 | John 15:1-8

Image: public domain from

fr Timothy Radcliffe was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992 to 2001. A member of the community at Blackfriars, Oxford, he is the author of a number of very popular books and an internationally reputed speaker and retreat-giver.

Comments (3)

  • Frances Flatman

    Really helpful – growing old and infirm surely to be seen in a similar way and no less challenging as one waits for endless hospital and surgery dates

  • Alejandro Clausse

    What a marvelous final phrase! It echoes that one of Jesus in the garden: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as You, not I, would have it.”
    However, I always had doubts about the universal character of this disposition of acceptance that Timothy addresses in the homily. My doubts spring from the fact that some people fall into cynicism. I found that this often occurs when suffering coincides with the privation of a desire – what Eleanor Stump calls ‘the desires of the heart’ (in Wandering in Darkness). Those desires of our heart are given to us, not produced by us, at least not directly. The person is left then confused, because she does not understand why she is having those desires. The heartrending cry of Christ on the cross are the ultimate instance of this feeling: “Why have you forsaken me?”
    It is not that I don’t like the teaching of ‘pruning’; great saints have sprung from this tradition. But I think that for many people it does not help them but, on the contrary, it leads them into cynicism or a kind of Buddhist quietism (why nurturing desires if in the end they will be pruned?).
    I heard once in a homily that one of the reasons our separate brothers touch prisoners’ souls in jails, is that they preach that “God loves you”. Telling prisoners that they will suffer or die if they do not convert does not convey well the Gospel message, because they will tell you that that is exactly what they want, to die, to end everything, because they feel that they worth nothing. The problem I encounter in trying to help people in ‘pruning’ circumstances is that many of them have not the temperament for stoic endurance. I don’t know what the solution of this conundrum is, but I guess it has to do with Pope Francis teaching of God’s tenderness.

  • Tom Kearney

    And jolted by wit!
    ¡Muito obrigado, Timoteo


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