Most everyone knows what it means to bear fruit in the natural sense of bringing children into the world, or in the financial sense of making an investment profitable. But what does it really mean to bear fruit for the Kingdom?
During the Easter Season, the Church’s liturgy drew a great deal of wisdom from chapters 14-17 of the Gospel of John. In those chapters, situated at the Last Supper, John presents the teachings of Jesus in the form of a long sermon on the Christian life. One refrain from the sermon is the Lord’s wish that we might “bear fruit” for the Kingdom. This is particularly true of His parable of the Vine and the Branches in chapter 15, where the Lord reminds His followers that He is the source of all that is good in them: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” [Jn 15:5]. As pious exhortations go, the call to bear fruit is attractive and motivating but at the same time a little nebulous.
Bearing Fruit Means Cultivating Virtue
The most direct understanding of how we bear fruit for the Kingdom is through the development of habits of behavior rooted in timeless truths, such as Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. These we commonly call virtues. It is not for us to explain here the virtues as such, but to see how important a part virtue plays in the life of the Christian.
The ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle understood that the virtuous life is the definition of a happy life; that is, a life well-lived. That is true in itself, without reference to Christian faith. Faith, however, adds an important dimension to virtue that was lacking to the pagan philosophers: transcendence. Virtuous actions not only form us into decent human beings and contribute to the welfare of society, they also have a profound effect on the salvation of souls. This spiritual, transcendent dimension of the virtues gives them a transformative power that surpasses a person’s individual “happy life” and points others to Heaven, where all the virtues will find their fulfillment. That is what the Lord means when He says that we will “bear fruit.”
The Holy Spirit is the core of this transcendence. He exercises a nurturing influence on our inner lives in much the same way that moisture and nutrients in the soil give life to trees. The trees eventually bear fruit but only after the nutrients have been absorbed by the root system and channeled to the branches. The relationship of the nutrients to the fruit is essential, but it is not direct. No one compliments the nutrients for bearing fruit. It is the tree that bears fruit. So also, the Holy Spirit is the unseen partner in the work of developing virtue. Human beings can live virtuous lives without the aid of grace, but we can only “bear fruit abundantly” with the Holy Spirit’s aid.
Virtue is a Seed-Bearing Fruit
The ancient philosophers believed that virtuous life was an end in itself – that is, it produced happiness for the virtuous person. In the Kingdom, however, virtue is a seed-bearing fruit. It propagates itself beyond the individual’s life. Like most types of fruit, the seeds remain behind when the fruit is consumed or falls to the earth and decays. The seeds have the potential for producing another tree, more fruit and therefore more life. If you think about it, the entire DNA of a species is contained in a single piece of fruit! It fulfills its life-giving potential when it falls off the tree and finds the right soil and circumstances for growth.
That is the essential issue for the Christian: virtue propagates itself by inspiring virtue in the souls of others. The point of those numerous parables in the Gospel about seeds (particularly, the Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) is that the seeds which are planted in good soil bear the greatest fruit. The good soil is analogous to the individual soul. It is receptive to grace but like a garden, it also needs cultivation in order to reach its full life-giving potential.
A Life-Changing Encounter with Virtue
Years ago my dad’s best friend from childhood – we affectionately called him Uncle Bob – told me a very potent story of virtue. He vividly recalled a day, decades earlier, in the middle of the Great Depression, when he was invited to a meager dinner at my parent’s house. The meal consisted of a single piece of meat that was of the poorest quality. After saying grace, my grandfather set about the task of dividing the meat up for the dinner that night. Here is how Uncle Bob described the event:
“After the prayer, your grandfather took the knife and cut the best piece from the center to give to your grandmother.
“Then he sliced off the marbled portions and gave them to me and your dad.
“And then your grandpa ate what was left. He ate the grizzle.”
Although the event had occurred some fifty years prior, Uncle Bob recounted the story as if he were re-experiencing it in real time. There was still an aura of astonishment that lingered in the memory of that one act of self-sacrifice. To my knowledge, Uncle Bob was not an extremely devout man, but his words conveyed the power of that single act on his young soul at the height of the Depression. It was surely an influence that positively contributed to the formation of his character and perhaps also to many of his future life decisions. Like the nutrients feeding the tree or the seed that falls to the earth and dies, such influences are necessary forces for the propagation of goodness and life in this world. But the originators of virtuous acts rarely get credit for the final result because the fruit of virtue becomes visible only at a later time in the life of someone else.
Virtue Bears Fruit in Others
While Uncle Bob’s experience of Grandpa’s virtue was momentary, it nonetheless remained vivid for the next five decades. I distinctly recall a similar moment of enlightenment about the virtue of self-sacrifice. After college, when I had begun my career, I would make regular visits to see my parents who lived in another state. On one particular visit, as I was rummaging around a back room of our family home, I discovered a cord-tied shoebox in the closet. It was buried among some old papers and files. When I untied the twine and took the top off the box I observed several bundles of small white slips of paper bound together by rubber bands.
On closer examination I found myself reading the amazing history of my own college career: each slip was a monthly receipt for my tuition, room, and board. It was a direct record of the money my father had spent to educate me and an indirect record of his personal sacrifice for my education. Dad had not saved those slips of paper for me. He neither asked for nor required thanks for the immense gift of a college education to his son. He had saved them as a testament to an accomplishment that had changed the world, or at least, my world, which was a fulfillment of his mission as a good father.
My Dad, of course, grew up in a family environment of deeply-rooted virtue. His formative experiences of virtue were like being immersed in good soil. Dad, in turn, passed that example on to his children through decades of similar self-effacing generosity. As I look with admiration at the adult lives and commitments of my siblings, a familiar phrase often comes to mind: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” My brothers and sisters are all wonderful, generous human beings. Perhaps it is more apropos to say that the apples fell from the tree – and grew more fruit-bearing trees!
The Real Value of the Fruit
If we take to heart the essential truth of the Widow’s Mite (Lk 21:1-4), God makes no distinctions regarding the material value of any act of virtue. Dad’s gift of a college education to me was – materially – more costly than Grandpa’s gift of food to Uncle Bob. Both acts were, however, equally valuable in virtue, in fact eternally valuable. The real value of a virtuous act is in the intention of the giver and in the sense of sacrifice with which the virtue is expressed. These are the inner qualities of heart and soul that give the virtue its fruitfulness. As interior realities, they are qualities that only God can see (for “God looks into the heart,” – 1 Sam 16:7), and which He blesses.
Scripture and most spiritual writers exhort us to engage in the most pressing need of developing virtue in ourselves, even if their message is a commonplace encouragement simply to “do good and avoid evil.” The simplicity of the message, however, may mask the urgency of the need. Living lives of virtue, creating families and communities of virtue, and promoting virtuous behavior in others has a profound impact on our immediate surroundings and ultimately on our world.
One need only look at environments almost totally lacking in human virtue – prisons, for example – to see what happens when virtue’s positive effects on our communities are absent. Virtue literally makes the world go around because it brings the Spirit of Christ directly into our daily existences and propagates that goodness to others.
Most of the time we have no idea how our virtuous actions and ways of living affect anyone else. We simply trust that virtue always produces good fruit for the Kingdom. The main difference between natural and supernatural fruit is that most natural seeds never produce anything: they are thrown away, decay, or fall into unfavorable soil that doesn’t allow them to reproduce. Supernatural fruit, however, is never wasted. It gives life unfailingly, whether through the seed of virtue that is planted in another receptive heart or through a contribution to the overall life of society, which thrives on virtue as the principle nutrient of its vitality.
Let us thank the Lord for the living examples of virtue in our midst. They imitate the Lord and Master who, in that precious sermon in John the night before He died, anticipated that we would “see” Him in the virtuous lives of those who belong to Him: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me (italics mine), because I live and you will live” [Jn 14:19].