Sometimes when Benedictine Sister Judith Sutera picks grapes in the vineyard at the Monastery of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, she thinks that she got them all.
“Then I move around and the sun hits the vines differently, and I lift that one leaf where more grapes are hiding,” she said. “There are many surprises if we walk around and look at things from a different angle. That goes for looking at people from a different angle. Somebody I thought didn’t have much to offer, and then I changed my point of view. It’s like the vines. Sometimes you have to get down and crawl on your knees and work pretty hard.”
Sister Judith, a writer, editor, retreat and conference leader, holds degrees in psychology and sociology and has master’s degrees in counseling and monastic spirituality. She also is the vinedresser for the monastery’s century-old vineyard.
“Everything I needed to know about life, I learned in the garden,” she quipped.
Some of the most valuable yet simple lessons are in her recently released book, “The Vinedresser’s Notebook: Spiritual Lessons in Pruning, Waiting, Harvesting & Abundance” (Abingdon Press, $15.99).
The narrative is not heavily scriptural or written with theological language, and although the writing draws from the wisdom of faith traditions, its allegorical and symbolic stories can appeal to people of any background. The book, based on her original journal, has delightful illustrations by artist Paul Soupiset of San Antonio.
“If people read it from a Jewish or Christian perspective, they will see something in it because of our understanding of God’s vineyard in the Old Testament,” Sister Judith said. “In the New Testament, Jesus is talking about ‘I am the vine’ and we are the branches, and he is supporting us and sustaining us. The wisdom is there for tending our own spiritual garden, and people who have that faith tradition will read that and say, ‘Wow, this is what a vinedresser does. What a wonderful tending God gives us.’”
A person of no faith could understand the book as life’s lessons explained by the pruning, harvesting and abundance of the vineyard. It’s all practical advice.
“Who doesn’t need that, even if they don’t think that they’re spiritual?” she said.
Tending her garden
Sister Judith, 62, joined the community more than 40 years ago. It was a “late vocation” at age 22, she joked, because “there are those kids who play school with towels on their heads and always wanted to be a sister.”
That never occurred to her until she attended what is now Benedictine College and witnessed the sisters’ prayerful life in community, their love for each other, their respect for the earth and how they showed others how to navigate the world in a more peaceful way.
She has worn many hats at the monastery, once serving for 16 years in maintenance. Now, in addition to working with groups at the retreat center, she handles public relations and graphic design for the community. The vineyards are a blessing that takes her into the miracles of God’s creation.
She was placed in the garden 40 years ago, she wrote in the book’s introduction, because she needed a way to channel her energy, short attention span and love of the outdoors. Sister Jeannette Obrist, a retired botany professor from the monastery’s college, was her mentor.
“I went to visit the vinedresser to learn to tend the grapes,” Sister Judith wrote. “She was old and bent, but her smile was soft and bright. Her hands were gnarled, but they held everything with great tenderness in their strength. Throughout that year, we walked the morning-wet fields between rows of vines. She told me everything I needed to know about the secret world of the vines. This, I am now passing on to you, in case you ever tend a vine of your own.”
She learned from the earth that human beings operate on the same general principles as other creations — that we come from a seed, grow, develop complexity, age and die.
“What I learned intellectually is that human development is like plants,” she said. “There’s nature and nurture, and a balance above the earth and below the earth.”
The bountiful harvest doesn’t just happen on its own. “Think before you cut,” Sister Jeannette told her.
The vine has only enough energy to nourish a few canes. Let all of them grow and none will flourish. There are only limited resources, so cut for now and prune for the years to come. Keep trimming what is dead or misshapen, lest you end up with a tangled mess. Train the vines on trellises not to restrict them but to support them, and keep the branches curled in the right direction because once dry, they are very difficult to uncurl.
“These are big lesson to our lives,” Sister Judith said. “We want more and bigger and better, and we let everything go in every direction. But you won’t get much fruit like that, and that’s a big lesson to us to continue to make right decisions and choices. We think we can have everything, but you have to decide which way the energy is going to go and how many branches and leaves you think you can feed. And the answer is not as many as you think.”
A vineyard can be wiped out in five minutes of hail, and that’s a lesson in faith and hope. All is not lost, and the vineyard can recover. Maybe not now, but it will.
“No vine ever died from one broken branch,” Sister Judith said. “You just keep on going.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
|Lessons from the vineyard
Advice from Sister Judith Sutera’s “The Vinedresser’s Notebook.”
Your responsibility is to establish each young plant, helping it to thrive.
Whether it’s giving birth to children or whatever it is we are generating in the world through our work, we are given these gifts. When you are given these gifts, and when you are given new vines and you plant them, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s an exciting mystery. I can’t make it be a certain height or a certain shape. To a point, I can. But it’s a combination of nature and nurture. I do my best to help it come to its fullest potential. That’s what we do with every child who has been born and every gift we have been given.
Seek to make the vine well-balanced.
We have to know where we are grounded to nurture the roots of our spiritual life and to grow. Like vines, you can’t have these things wandering all over the place. When you drive down the road and see a good vineyard, the vines are all neat and going in the same direction. You can’t have stuff trailing on the ground, and sticking up and twisting around each other.
Think before you cut.
Sister Jeannette used to say to me, “You can’t put it back on.” Sometimes we make choices on the spur of the moment rather than looking at the overall growth, rather than looking at what makes it balance. It’s dangerous to leave too much, it’s dangerous to not cut in the right place, and you think there are some parts that you don’t need, but you do. It’s just a window in our lives. We need to have a pattern. When you trim a plant, you are trimming for next year’s growth, and growth five years from now. You can’t just lop it all off the top and all off the bottom. Sometimes we don’t look as much as we should in the overall plan of our lives and what’s really going to matter in the end.
You can grow wild or you can grow grapes.
Wild grapes will grow all over the place with mostly vine and tiny, sour fruit. Some things happen naturally and other things require tending, made better and more fruitful with a vinedresser’s hand. Wild grapes have their own beauty, but if you want big, sweet fruit, you need domestic, cultivated vines. If you want big fruit, you don’t just go out and hope that you find it by the side of the road.