It’s like this: I believe God pruned me so my life could bear fruit.
I should probably say “bear fruit again,” because my life hasn’t always been like a vineyard overgrown with unproductive, scraggly growth. There have been some decent harvests over the years; even I can see this. I managed to graduate from college — no small feat considering how unstable my personal life was at that juncture. Without a degree in art, or even a teeny, tiny minor tacked on to my bachelor’s degree in English, I managed to establish myself as one of South Dakota’s emerging artists back in the 1990s. When I embarked on a career in journalism, I began winning awards within the first year, and continued to do so right up to the end.
But, somewhere along the line, I stopped dreaming and setting goals and working to create a better life for myself and for others whose lives intersected with mine. I shouldn’t phrase it that way. I know exactly what happened and I know exactly when it happened.
It began when I felt called to religious life. The vocations director said to me: “I see no evidence in your life of a call to service.” At the time, I was working two jobs, and only took time off to attend vocations retreats. I was tackling my debt because debt is a barrier to entering religious life, and I wanted to remove that barrier. While I didn’t know the logistics of formation, I certainly knew the experience of rebirth and hope in my life were indications that God was calling me to spend my life publicly serving him.
I’d always been more of a don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing (cf. Matt. 6:3-4) good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:29-37). When I was a young welfare mom, I discovered other single parents were going to spend the Christmas holiday alone, and invited them and their children to my small apartment for Christmas dinner. When I was selling Avon products, I met a young recovering drug addict in an abusive relationship and began inviting her over to have coffee with me periodically; eventually, she gained confidence in herself, got her GED, left the abusive boyfriend and earned a college degree. When I moved off the rez after teaching there for a year, I started dreaming about another teacher; when I called to see if she was OK, I learned she had lost her job and invited her to stay with my daughters and I until she decided what to do.
In other words, if I saw a need, I reached out to help. No, I wasn’t involved in any great service organizations. I had been too busy supporting my family and building my art career to tackle anything else. However, as my youngest was preparing for her high school graduation, I experienced in the transition an opportunity for a new life, a different life. It did not occur to me that the religious order which attracted me might question something which was so unequivocally clear to me. I was stunned when the vocations director did so.
Even after I withdrew from formation, a painful decision which I grieved for years, her comment haunted me. No evidence of a call to serve. I jumped into a prison ministry. I began to teach religious education. I began to lead workshops and retreats on journal writing and prayer. It didn’t seem like enough, though, because the words remained. No evidence of a call to serve.
Eventually, a job opportunity arose which would require great personal sacrifice. I would have to give up a profession I loved, one at which I was very good, but in doing so, I would be helping abused and neglected children. I made the only choice I could make in light of what I knew at that point in my life; I took a position for which I was ill-suited even though doing so gave me a knot in the pit of my stomach. That was the decision which led to this moment, to this painful pruning.
Years later, I would read in a book called GOD’S VOICE WITHIN: THE IGNATIAN WAY TO DISCOVER GOD’S WILL, by Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J., something which explained why that decision was wrong for me. “God has a particular calling for each person,” he wrote, “we are not called to do every holy action that comes to mind or to respond to every good opportunity.” By the time I’d stumbled across this book and this passage, the art career which I’d worked so diligently to build had lain dormant for more than a decade and the newspaper career which had brought me so much recognition was over as well. I realized I was faced with a difficult situation. I’d made a wrong turn at a pivotal juncture and was lost — lost professionally, lost personally, and, I was beginning to realize, a little lost spiritually as well. I had no idea what to do.
What was my particular calling? How could I discern it? And even if I knew what to do, what was the likelihood doors would open that would enable me to live out my calling in the small South Dakota community I called home? I felt trapped. I had created a life that was nothing but scraggly growth. I was working at a convenience store — getting up in the morning to pray and to paint (an activity I resumed after taking a prayerful painting retreat), going to work (where I stood for hours on end, serving customers, often without even a short break to go to the bathroom), and going home so physically exhausted eating seemed like too much trouble. Occasionally, if I heard of a job in the area that interested me, I would apply, but for the most part I was just marking time and I knew it.
Then, suddenly, my life began to spin out of control. I found myself crying at work uncontrollably. I found myself shaking with frustration because an employee expected me to leave the office with more than $6,000 in cash sitting on the desk so she could have a cigarette break. Suddenly my mind began to skim through all of the challenges I’d faced in recent weeks and the pattern that emerged was intolerable. I could not continue working in a place where I was treated consistently with such contempt and disrespect. On impulse, with no plan for the future, I walked away.
Why I believe God was pruning me in that impulsive decision, I do not know, except that I know my life had ceased to bear fruit. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in my that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit” (John 15:1-2). Somehow, I cannot believe that God gave me the gifts that he gave me without expecting a harvest of some sort.
What that harvest will be, I do not know. Not yet. But I somehow think — or perhaps only hope — I will find the answer in the gifts that God gave me. It may take time to break the scraggly-growth habits which have taken root in recent years, but with God’s grace, I have to believe, it can — and will — happen.