Find Your Fig Tree

This week, as we remember the story of St. Bartholomew, we desire imitate his integrity and prayerful witness.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

The most widely known Bartholomew today has the last name Simpson. That is, of course, if the full name of Homer’s son is really Bartholomew. However, that young man’s rudeness might discourage parents from naming a son Bartholomew. Which is too bad, because we need more Bartholomews’…or at least more Catholics like St. Bartholomew.

Bartholomew — Nathaniel, as John calls him — is one of the Apostles whose vocation story we know (cf. Jn 1:45-51). And the little we learn about him there gives us two things to admire and emulate.

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First, integrity. When Jesus sees Bartholomew, He remarks “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” There is a certain irony in our Lord’s words. Israel — Jacob — was duplicitous. He cheated his brother out of his birthright and his father-in-law out of property. We would expect a “true child of Israel” to be like his ancestor; but our Lord tells us just the opposite. Indeed, He seems to indicate a certain healing at work in the family tree. To be a son of Israel will no longer mean to be duplicitous and divided, but to be honest and true — without guile.

There is no duplicity in him.  We might think of this in terms of integrity: Here is a man of integrity. We all admire that in a man. Americans especially like someone without affectations or pretensions — a straight shooter.  “What you see is what you get,” we say approvingly. Integrity means to be whole and entire — that our thoughts, words and actions are all united and harmonious. We think, speak and act according to the same principles and beliefs. Integrity is not so much a virtue as the operating system and purpose of all virtues. We must desire that integrity in order to cultivate virtue…and virtue in turn brings about that integrity.

But none of us can claim perfect integrity, because we are sinners.  Sin divides us from ourselves.  It brings dis-integration.  Yet the natural desire for that wholeness remains.  It is Christ Who heals the wounds of sin and division, reconciling us with God and therefore with ourselves.  He brings healing to the man’s family: no longer need we be divided within and among ourselves.  By His grace we can be made true Israelites, in whom there is no duplicity.

It is integrity — praised by our Lord in Bartholomew — that others desire to see in us Catholics. Unfortunately, they encounter a lot of duplicity. By which I do not mean that they see us fail. People are not scandalized by sinners but by hypocrites; not by those who struggle (and fail) to live rightly, but by those who have made peace with the division in themselves. The most obvious examples of this are those in public life who wrap themselves in the Catholic mantle and at the same time openly reject the Church’s teachings, especially those on life and marriage. They are divided in their very persons and sowers of division, as well. And yet, these are only the most obvious examples. We all risk becoming such if we ever cease striving for that integrity that characterizes true children of the new Israel.

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Catholic witness, as Bartholomew shows, requires integrity: that we think, speak and act as disciples of Christ. Struggling, stumbling, failing disciples, to be sure — but disciples nonetheless. Without that authenticity, no word of ours will find a hearing. If we possess it, however, even our simplest words gain a greater hearing.

Second, prayer. Bartholomew is confused by our Lord’s words of praise. “How do you know me?” he asks.  Jesus answers, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”  Bartholomew responds, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Now the strength of Bartholomew’s answer — a profession of faith, in effect — seems entirely out of proportion to what Jesus said. That disproportion indicates that Jesus did more than just see him…that there was something more — something mystical — about his being under that fig tree.

For the ancient Jews the fig tree, with its broad leaves for shade, made a nice place for meditation and prayer.  Indeed, they had come to associate it with the peace the Messiah would establish: “On that day — oracle of the Lord of hosts — you will invite one another under your vines and fig trees” (Zec 3:10)…They shall all sit under their own vines, under their own fig trees, undisturbed; for the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mic 4:4).

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That is the context for understanding the exchange between Bartholomew and our Lord.  Bartholomew was not just relaxing under the fig tree. He was in meditation and prayer. We do not know the precise content of his prayer. But it was clearly of such depth as to be noted by our Lord and to prompt that strong profession of faith.

Bartholomew reveals the unity of prayer and integrity: the man of integrity was also a man of prayer. The integrity we desire — and that the world deserves to see in us — comes through prayer and devotion to the Messiah. We cannot reintegrate ourselves. Only the grace of prayer and sacraments can accomplish that inner healing that we need and desire.  The Catholic witness to Christ does not begin publically, but privately in prayer. We have to be authentic first with Him directly — under the fig tree, as it were. It is there that the Lord does His work of healing and restoring us, so that we can then be whole and entire — authentic witnesses to Him.


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