Life and the Living God – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas Hall

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8:1-11
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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  1. Emma Price on July 2, 2024 at 08:51

    We shouldn’t turn nature into God, the way “New Agers” do (modern pagans). The Judeo-Christian God is much deeper and more complex than that. I’m not saying that is done in this essay, just that we should guard against this seductive idea. Nature is a mere stepping stone to the Trinity.

  2. Alexandra Bacon on July 2, 2024 at 08:34

    Timely reflection, as discernment is very much on my mind these days. And a wonderful reminder that God is not “a static dispenser of some good gift”……I may feel static, but God isn’t.

  3. Cameron on July 2, 2024 at 06:14

    This is a very moving and inspiring homily, Br. Lucas. In my lifelong journey toward faith and contemplation, the natural world has always been a source of divinity. Your words remind me of the poetry of Wendell Berry. I have also just begun reading the First Nations version of the New Testament, an indigenous translation that seeks to reveal the “Book of Nature”, that other sacred text all around us. In these challenging times, it has never been more important to learn how to respond and cooperate with the natural world. Blessings on you and all the brothers for the work you do.

  4. Dr. L. Ricard on January 3, 2024 at 09:03

    I do yearn for the use of “she” as often as “he” to refer to God…. The constant use of “he” is off putting, iand n spite of the fact that what you wrote is beautiful, the ‘he” diminishes it–for me.

    • Dr. R on July 2, 2024 at 09:56

      I am of the same persuasion. “He” in reference to Jesus makes sense, but why should God be limited to “he” (or “she” for that matter)? I mentally substitute “he” with “God” and alternate “Father”
      with “Parent” or “Mother.” It helps bring me closer to God.

    • Margo on July 2, 2024 at 10:24

      Thank you Lucas. I endorse this. beautifully written, engaging but a fuller picture of our God would help.

  5. Joseph Namie on January 2, 2024 at 22:41

    Dear Br. Lucas
    I enjoyed your writing. These passages you reference especially in Romans is the most comforting and is a major aspect of my God view🙏✝️. In Roman’s especially it is mentioned that “yes, even plants and animals” await this great event”. That is new bodies and Spirit +


    Br Joe Namie

  6. Margaret Albert on January 2, 2024 at 10:21

    It was my grandmother who instilled in me a love for plants and gardening. Your sermon has brought to me a realization……it’s not surprising that she also made God real for me through our walks to and from church and our time there. God IS alive. Living, breathing, enduring. And loving. Present through the cycle of life and death and life again.
    You have reminded me to revisit this memory and rediscovery of my youth, and to act upon it.
    Thank you.

  7. Maryan on January 2, 2024 at 09:40

    Dear Brother Lucus,

    Your homily is beautiful!
    Yes! life in the living Christ is active, humble and Compassionate of all God’s created order.
    Walking among the natural paths of life are where we find God at work. A place we begin to really understand the text of the scriptures as a gift with in the all-encompassing and living spirit of God.

    When I was a bit younger I found that a path to a waterfall deepened my faith. Sitting on a rock and listen for the Spirit to help me write my sermon. I trusted to put my feet in the cold water of fast flowing streams that seemed to feed my soul as they nourished and nurtured me for many a day.
    And yes I am a gardener who loves all the mystery that unfolds within the gardens we actively tend in this world.

  8. Reed Saunders on January 2, 2024 at 07:26

    Well said Br. Lucas. I have often sponsored men in recovery who hate God. When I ask what they love they usually say “nature!” Well, that is always a great place to start! Over time, they learn that the God they hate is not God; but an ugly distortion of reality.
    God is not someone or something standing behind Jesus. Jesus came to reveal who and what God is. No other faith tradition offers this personal, present and available access to the mystery of the divine reality of God who lives and dwells among us now and forever.

  9. Kate on July 24, 2023 at 13:43

    Thank you for sharing your experience Lucas! I absolutely love Nature, it’s so beautiful and peaceful and alive!
    I always garden without gloves, getting my bare hands in the dirt is part of the joy of planting! You just connect better, the plant can feel your love as you place it in its new home! And you know what? GOD is always there!
    I can always feel HIS presence in nature, can’t deny that all that beauty and peacefulness is from HIM!
    Stay blessed kiddo!

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