I set out not long ago in a search of the way of traveling what Jesus calls “real life” or “life to the fullest.” This nomadic expedition toward a life of joy (which I describe in my book Holy Nomad) led me to my own backyard, where I stumbled onto the divine teaching of an apple tree. As Lent approaches, here in the belly of a lifeless, ashen, Midwestern February, I wish for the world to blossom. The start of the Lenten season is always marked by my anticipation of the world’s slow emergence from hibernation, when the russets of winter lawns yield to lush green blankets of grass, the naked trees sprout their first buds of growth, folks wear brighter smiles and move at a quicker pace.
The apple tree in my backyard blooms stunningly each spring around Easter. I recall the first year in our home, I was rather proud of the bounty of edible apples it produced. The following year, the tree sprouted hundreds of new limbs; but when it finally began to bear fruit, we were left with only a handful of decent apples. I did some research and discovered that our tree desperately needed to be pruned. After my own failed attempt at the task, I decided to have an expert come to the house and show me how to properly care for the tree. The arborist was in his 70s and had managed his own orchard. He climbed into the small tree and began to intentionally chop away branches and limbs. With each cut, it seemed, he would share another fascinating story of his days running the orchard. This man had won awards for his apples.
In my own endeavor days before, I had filled a meager garbage-bag full of branches. When the expert was finished pruning, we had packed the entire bed of his pick-up truck with unnecessary limbs. He stood back and gazed at the tree with a smile of satisfaction. I was a little unnerved; it was astonishing how much of the apple tree he had cut away. He reassured me that we had actually liberated the tree or, in a sense, had enabled it to focus its energies to produce better fruit through its more vital and lasting branches.
I stood on the patio talking with the arborist for a while as dark curtains slowly pushed the winter sun toward the horizon and our breath became visible on the cold air. As I looked at the vast space we had cleared in the apple tree, I thought of my own life and my search for joy. I usually consider Lent a time to be more intentional about the things that matter. But regarding the considerable space we had cut from the tree in order for it to produce better fruit made me realize that Lent should also be a time for pruning. You see, I find it true that we are what we give ourselves to… we become the very things we commit to becoming. As I considered the “branches” of my day-to-day schedule and the things I longed to be more intentional about, it became obvious that I needed to remove some “limbs” from my own life.
The tree guy interrupted my train of thought to ask me for a pen. He explained that if I was going to get really respectable fruit from the tree, there was a list of tasks for me to complete in the coming months. When he finished scribbling instructions, I had a long inventory of sprays and treatments necessary to nurture the tree into producing an entire season of pristine, edible fruit. I was shocked at the intention involved in properly cultivating a fruit tree.
He left and I went on to have dinner with the family, help with homework, and play with the kids. Later that evening, I sat down again and looked at his extensive list of requirements. I adore being outdoors, and I enjoy growing stuff. I also love the idea of the apple tree and want to be the guy that can bring people bags of pristine apples from my backyard. (How “Wendell Berry” would that be?) As I thought about Lent and being intentional, I realized there was a big dilemma with the apple aspirations. My life was cluttered with responsibilities as thick as the branches of the tree before we pruned it. I realized that my exploration of “life to the fullest” required me to be intentional about so many other areas of my life: parenting, teaching, writing, prayer… The last thing I really needed was another time-consuming commitment.
In the grand scheme of my existence, I realized that having a “How ’bout them apples?” Thoreauvian moment wasn’t really too important. I looked at my list of requirements for a perfect fruit tree and tore it in half. I resigned myself to picking some spotty apples (and only a handful of edible ones) each year … But this part of the calendar has become a time for me to anticipate the Easter blooms of that beautiful apple tree and to remember that Lent is as much about quitting the obligations that clutter our life as it is about learning to dedicate ourselves to more eternal tasks — because fewer branches equal better fruit.