The Third Sunday after Pentecost: Grafted Hearts

On dying trees, frightening knives, and the wonder of the love of God

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. - The collect for Proper 7, Book of Common Prayer 2019

With our house, we inherited two small apple trees. The technical, horticultural term for the condition we found them in is “pitiful.” One appeared to have been sitting in the ground for some time without growing a whit taller than its height when it was planted. It was covered with immature apples, which—in a clear signal that the tree sensed its impending demise—were blushing red in a doomed attempt at early ripening. Within a month or two, it was dead. We tried the mournful apples; they were bitter and unpalatable.

The other tree stood more of a chance of survival, though it had been permitted to grow three separate trunks. Apple trees will do this naturally, but it’s counterproductive, as the trunks compete with one another for resources. Over the next couple of seasons we have pruned it systematically, mulched and fertilized it. This year, for the first time, it set a single, pitiful apple which the tree aborted when it was about as big around as a nickel. Rust riddles its leaves, and many have yellowed and dropped. For all our work, it’s not a happy tree.

I don’t feel especially bad about this; it’s what I expected. Growing apples without chemical sprays requires choosing the right varieties, those that resist the characteristic disease and pest pressures of the area. I don’t know the cultivar of this tree, but if it was bought at a big box store, it’s certainly one of the popular commercial varieties—a Delicious, Macintosh, Jonathan, or Granny Smith—all of which are highly susceptible to disease. There’s no winning with these types, no matter how hard you try.

I’m not cutting the tree down yet, though. Instead, I plan to graft over it in a process the professionals call “topworking”—when you cut a tree back, effectively to a stump, and graft in shoots of a different variety. The tree from then on will branch and bear like the new cultivar, albeit with a slight hitch in its shape where the graft was made, referred to as the “graft union.” If the graft succeeds—very much in question in this case, since it will be my first time grafting—a healthy, vigorous variety quickly replaces the old, diseased plant.

Cultivated fruit tree production depends upon grafting. Virtually every tree fruit you’ve ever eaten came from a grafted tree. But it’s a garden technique most leave to the professionals. The grafter must make smooth, precise cuts in the two trees and join them together quickly and in the right way, ensuring contact between the appropriate layers of wood, to allow the trees to join and continue their growth. It’s a skill that requires some technical knowledge, speed, confidence, and a very sharp knife. Accordingly for many home orchardists it carries a hint of violence and an aura of mystery.

The collect for this week, given above, conceives of the Triune God as a nurseryman sharpening his grafting knife. In place of the stock growing from our hearts previously, stricken with disease, we are to have the love of God, with all the goodness it bears. This metaphor suggests several things about the soul—that it does not naturally flower and fruit in the love of God; that redirecting it requires a certain violence—but I like best the implication that, like a successful graft on an apple tree, it is a little wonder that our souls can be so renovated.

Nothing could be more natural than that the outgrowth of my spirit should droop with spiritual disease—that its leaves and branches and outward fruits should be resentment and anger, bitterness and slander, contempt and pride. Whenever I manifest instead the gifts of the Spirit, I know it to be not a product of my own roots, but the mercy of the God who grafted in that scion of love, and I wonder at it.

Church banners for this season of Ordinary Time often depict a green and spreading tree beneath the Cross, emblematic of the growth of the believing community and the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. Though I’ve never see the tree bedecked with apples, the New Testament speaks of the church in terms of fruit so often I want to think it’s not just a shade tree—perhaps a fig or a date palm. For all that, its clean and spreading structure testify to the care of a master arborist. Sometimes, squinting at the trunk, I think I can make out the hitch of a graft union.