Hampton Court itself is one of Henry VIII’s palaces. It is an impressive structure with huge historical importance. When I was little I remember the ponds full of enormous fish, fountains which you were not supposed to get in, a maze which seemed to go on forever and then the Great Vine.
The first time I saw it it was really disappointing. It must have been winter and I think my Dad had probably driven us to the palace for the afternoon. He was really excited to show me but I looked like a bunch of twisted sticks – not very exciting. In fact, it is the world’s oldest (verified) grapevine having been planted at Hampton Court in 1769. In good years in will yield over 800 pounds of grapes.
This vine was planted by a famous gardener called Capability Brown but over the centuries hundreds of hands have tended it. Generation after generation have visited this growing thing. Imagine, a grape vine that has been growing since before the Declaration on Independence.
Jesus talks, in today’s Gospel, about being the vine – you, He says to his disciples, are the branches. In the context of the Gospel we are moving rapidly towards the cross at this stage. Jesus is keen to make sure that his disciples understand who they are and what they are called to.
There are branches which become detached, he says, branches which cannot bear fruit – they will be cast away. Is it possible to give up faith and become lost – well perhaps, but Jesus is more likely talking about the replacement of the old covenant with the new. These disciples are the ones attached to Jesus and, whatever happens, they need to remember that. The old orders, the politicians and religious leaders are like dried out branches, they have no real authority here.
Abide in me as I abide in you, says Jesus.
The word “Abide” is meno in Greek. This word has the idea of remaining. Just like that vine in Hampton Court has remained all these years. That sort of slow and steady existence which we are often called to in our Christian journey is one of remaining. Of course, remaining, abiding, is not the same as sitting in a corner doing nothing. Remaining in Jesus is a highly mindful process – just as those gardeners look after the vine, so we must nurture our abiding, notice where we are, spend time cultivating our relationship with God and be prepared for the fact that, sometimes, we need to be looked after ourselves, pruned, held up or held back.
Unlike the more tender vines which we are used to seeing in our gardens, the tomatoes and cucumbers, old grape wines are pretty tough. Sometimes we worry that we will fall off the vine, or that we are not really attached in the first place, or that we are not good enough to be there. Jesus knows that the people around him are about to face all sorts of trials and challenges and it is as if he is looking at them square in the eye and saying – really, this is who you are, this is good, just stay put, hang on in here with me.
Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century mystic and doctor of the Church, spent a lot of her life traveling around and founding convents. Her journey is an interesting one and she had all sorts of setbacks and frustrations on the way. But, although she gets frustrated and there are very real dangers in her task, at the end of the day, she always comes back to the center.
“Turn your eyes upon yourself and look at yourself inwardly….
You will find your Master; He will not fail you: indeed, the less outward comfort you have, the greater the joy He will give you.
He is full of compassion and never fails those who are afflicted and out of favor if they trust in Him alone….
Either you believe this or you do not: if you do, as you should, why do you wear yourselves to death with worry?..........
………All I want is that we should know and abide with the Person with Whom we are speaking, and not turn our backs upon Him; for that, it seems to me, is what we are doing when we talk to God and yet think of all kinds of vanity.
The whole mischief comes from our not really grasping the fact that He is near us, and imagining Him far away—so far, that we shall have to go to Heaven in order to find Him.
How is it, Lord, that we do not look at Thy face, when it is so near us? We do not think people are listening to us when we are speaking to them unless we see them looking at us. And do we close our eyes so as not to see that Thou art looking at us? “ Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection.
I guess this struck me this week as I have become increasingly aware over the past few months of my own tendency to begin to pray, try to get on touch and then simply embark on a litany of worry and my own head full of stuff. Teresa compares this to turning our back on God.
Perhaps take some time to imagine this, being more face to face. We do not need to stare at our feet when we talk to God. We do not need to imagine all that we are not, or even all we think we might be. We simply need to abide. To stand still. To watch and listen.
Remain here, says Jesus to the sleepy disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, abide a while with me. Meno. Even when they fall asleep at this last hour, still He allows them to remain. Even when Peter says no, I do not know Him, still Peter remains.
Jesus is the true vine – a vine which does not rely on our hands to survive, but a vine in which we are invited to live and move and find our being and a vine from which it is difficult to become separated, no matter how often we wander off, lose attention or simply fall asleep.