John is the fourth gospel of the New Testament, or Christian Bible. It focuses primarily on the ministry of Christ and provides (according to the Catholic Encyclopedia), “a glorious conclusion of the joyous message of the Eternal Word.” John the Evangelist dismissed the popular emphasis on an apocalyptic “end time” with the notion of the importance of living our lives as disciples—of becoming. In this way, we might live our lives in full expectation of grace. As John Crossan writes in his The Essential Jesus, “Instead of us waiting for God to return, God waits for us to act.”
This was Sophie’s favorite gospel, and one of its lines in particular (“I am the vine, you are the branches”) is quoted twice in the novel. The child Sophie, as she is harvesting grapes in Part 1 (“La Vendange”), creates a melody to go with it, offering a sort of counterpoint to the lusty folksong being sung be pickers in a neighboring row. In Part 5 (“Artemis and her Maids”) we hear them uttered by Elizabeth (later Thérèse) Maillucheaux in the midst of a cabernet vineyard in Bordeaux. Sophie is eventually summoned from Poitiers to bring the six young women down from their runaway retreat, and all of them eventually become RSCJ. Thérèse in fact became one of Sophie’s closest spiritual companions, and it seemed logical to have the two of them connect deeply (and independently) with the same biblical passage.
As the daughter of a vintner and cooper, Sophie would have resonated profoundly with these words. Her home lay quite literally at the feet of the Côte Saint Jacques (as it does to this day), and the economic life of Joigny was inextricably tied to the vine. We know that she loved to spend time in these vineyards, which still offer extraordinary views of the Yonne valley. I once had an RSCJ tell me that it was in looking at this view that Sophie must have first intuited the larger world beyond her little town.
The full text of John 15, the chapter that holds this verse (5), is below:
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit —fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.
One might argue that the very heart of Sophie’s educational philosophy is found in this final command.
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has written a beautiful choral rendering entitled I Am the True Vine. Listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tP5s2BxM-L0