Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
As many of you know, when a man comes to join the monastery, he passes through a number of stages before finally taking vows for life. Before each of these transitions, he’s given some time of retreat, alone in prayer, to really listen for the call of God, to discern, to confirm his response the question and the choice he has before him.
It was a little more than a year ago when I was on one of these retreats, looking ahead to taking my life vows. I was up at Emery House, our farmhouse and woodlands up in northern Massachusetts. There were a number of things I did up there to facilitate my prayer. I prayed the daily office. I journaled. I met regularly with another brother. But what I didn’t plan to do, or expect to do, was what I still remember most about that time.
I walked. Into the forest, I walked. I didn’t follow a particular path, I didn’t have a destination or a set length of time I expected to be out. I just wandered, and explored, and took the landscape in as it came. What followed from that experience was noticing things I had never noticed before. I know very little about gardening or ecology, but I began to intuitively be able tell when I approached something “off,” like a thicket of invasive shrubs. I walked by trees with debris caught in their branches from past storms, and gently untangled them. In this very unordered experience, unplanned, unscheduled experience, I came to perceive, and appreciate, and participate in, the order of the forest before me.
Why this stands out to me so much is that, in the wandering amidst that thick green, I felt as if I was quite clearly with God. It was to me a glimpse of Eden, and my mind was transported to the stories of the first man, and the first vocation: a gardener, a namer of God’s creatures, a participant in the new Creation of God, and clearly one who dwelled in God’s presence. It was surprising, for me to experience this. Indeed, when I came back and described this experience to another brother, I used the word “surprise” quite a bit. And he reflected back to me that, I don’t tend to use that word very much in describing my own prayer life. And he was right.
The readings we’ve heard today sound a consistent theme of life, death, growth, cultivation, spirit, flesh. They are deeply concerned with what things are alive, and give life, and are given life, versus what are not. Particularly relevant to my woods-walking experience are the reading from Isaiah and our Gospel reading, which are about, particularly, plant growth, rich with this language of springtime verdant green. But one consistent theme throughout all the readings we’ve heard is that there are really two presuppositions.
The first, is that the things given life, the things that are growing, come from God. They are God-given. The second, is that our response to these life-giving things is necessary. That it’s not just passive reception. That we are asked, expected, and should desire to participate in this giving and receiving of life. I am reminded of another passage from Paul that people know very well. He’s talking about his own ministry and the ministry of others in the early Church. He says, “So-and-so watered, so-and-so planted, but God gave the growth.”
This depiction of God giving life is important to me because it reminds me and suggests something that is a part of the Scripture and Tradition going back into the Old Testament. This idea of God as “the Living God.” The Living God. It emerges in the Old Testament to contrast God to the idols that they see around them. They assert that our God is alive, and that is helpful, because I think it’s very easy, certainly personally as well as in lots of conversations I’ve had with people, to put God in a place as a sort of neat, tidy, philosophical concept. “God is there, God is sort of vaguely the cause of all things, cool, that makes sense.” And that’s not unfair, but it is limiting.
And I think when we look in Scripture in particular we primarily get narratives of God displaying the attributes of personhood. Not just philosophical concept, not just a vague abstract first cause of things, but God as living and active, as able to have a will and desire, as able to communicate and respond. And that suggests that, for the Christian life of prayer, and, in particular, the life of discernment, is not just an exercise in returning to stasis, as if we’ve gone astray and we have to get back to some unmoving thing. I would contrast stasis with stability. I am reminded, to carry forth our plant imagery further, of a living versus a dead branch. A living branch will bend. A dead branch will snap. But in the bending, the ability to move, that living branch will stay alive.
So this idea of God as person, God capable of communicating, responding, of living and willing and desiring and feeling, I think it’s particularly important in the context of discernment, because so often, we are confused as to what God’s will might be, and equally often, we’ve done everything except ask God. That’s true for me, and I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of different people lately that has confirmed that I’m not alone in that. This idea of going to God with a question, a genuine question, open-handed, neither clinging to something as an expectation nor closed to new things that we might receive and might surprise us, going to God open-handed, genuinely with a question, whatever that is, big or small, presupposes a God who is alive, who communicates, and has these desires and wills, and wants to share them with us.
These writings we’ve heard today, of life and death, of cultivation and growth, of spirit and flesh, they constitute a story of encountering this Living God. This term, this understanding, they challenge that God-as-concept sense, this idea of God as a set of principles or a series of instructions that we simply need to download into our brains and then we’ll be good. “The Living God” suggests that God is active, because life is active. Life moves. Life responds. “For God did what the law could not do.” He gave life, not as a static dispenser of some good gift, but rather by living, and inviting his whole Creation, indeed, including us, into participating in that divine life.
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