Three in Us – Thoughts on the Trinity

Trinity Tree

The “Trinity Tree,” a Bradford Pear growing three-in-one in the writer’s backyard.

When I was in grade school I loved to read Greek mythology. The pantheon of gods and their twisted interactions with mankind always enthralled me. They constantly were into some bit of intrigue, fomenting love, lust, and war. Heroes and cowards were revealed in mankind’s dealings with them, and you never knew when they might drop into the middle of everyday life to meddle, toy with or test the underling mortals. And, atop it all sat Zeus, enthroned on Olympus, watching over and judging all in his white robes and sandals.

Of course, all of that was mythology. Fun reading, but mythology just the same. Why, then, does our treatment of the Trinity sometimes feel like we’ve replaced one pantheon with another? We have God the Father, portrayed in numerous works of art as a transplanted Zeus, down to the robes, the throne, posture and flowing beard. Then we have Jesus Christ, the Son – the rebellious, radical, peacenik – so unlike his angry, detached dad. And finally, there’s the most mysterious of all: the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost if you prefer. This formless deity slips in and out of our path, directing us to effect God’s will. The way my Sunday school teacher described the Holy Ghost made me think of the mythical Greek gods – always slipping in and out unseen to move mortals about in the gods’ eternal chess match.

Given the way we often portray the Trinity – with three distinct and seemingly incongruent deities, who all somehow are one – it’s no wonder so many members of other faiths accuse us of polytheism. And ask any of us – even some of our most gifted theologians and clergy – to explain the Trinity, and it frequently comes out something like “It’s too wonderful to explain in words.” This often draws the accusation that the Trinity is nothing more than a hollow doctrine, derived at Nicaea because Constantine’s councilors couldn’t agree on the nature of Christ, or how to reconcile him to the God of the Old Testament, or how he/they would continue to work in our lives after the Ascension.

It’s not too difficult for us to resolve the first two parts of the Triune God – God the Father, and God the Son – and to thus begin to defend and explain the Trinity. Jesus explains in John 14: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him … Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” We can begin to resolve our images of Old Testament God and God made incarnate in Jesus Christ as two reflections of the same God – God as two in one.

And, once we’ve wrapped our minds around that bit of astonishment, it’s not too hard to throw in a third image of God. The invisible hand of God, guided by Father and Son, directs us here and there, much like the external God of the Old Testament, and dare I say, the Zeus of Olympus. We essentially boil the Trinity down to three phases of God’s rule: God before the Incarnation, God in Christ, and God ruling in the Spirit with Christ.

The problem, I believe, in all of this (is that your heterodoxy alarm?) and the reason so many people give an indifferent nod to the doctrine of the Trinity, is we usually leave out one crucial component: us. We hold ourselves separated from the Trinity, standing at the base of Olympus, staring up at a mystery too wonderful to express. We continue to see God – in each of three parts, and in the three-in-one – as God out there, up there, separate from us, guiding and ruling from afar.

This, of course, is not where Christ left us. Rather, in John 14:12-14, Jesus Christ put us smack in the middle of God doing God’s will, with Christ, through the Spirit – through us:

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” John 14:12-14

That is not an image of God out there, in some abstract threefold split personality. That is Christ telling us we must pick up God’s work on earth where Jesus left off – that we must open ourselves to the Spirit within us, to continue Christ’s work to do God’s will.

Jesus describes this interwoven nature of the Trinity in and through us in John 14:20, when he is foretelling Pentecost: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and to all mankind – was not something that happened to us. It is something continually happening through us – if we will only get ourselves out of the way and let it.

When we dispel the false self created in our ego – the self that is separated from God by fear, greed and anxiety – we feel the lines between us, Christ within us, and God moving through the Spirit, begin to fall away. All become one. And that is something too wonderful to fully express. It is inexpressible not because of the enormity of a God outside us. It is inexpressible in the beauty, the love, and the immutable grace of God living and working within and through each of us.

The Trinity lives – God, Three in One – within us. And each of us is called to release that gift to all creation, to bring God’s kingdom to God’s people. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we must strive to make it so. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Three in Us – Thoughts on the Trinity

  1. From a study I did on “De Trinitate” by Richard of St. Victor. Speaking of our place and interpreting Richard’s work, the following was written: The Holy Spirit is given by God to man at the moment when the debitus* love that is found in the divinity is breathed in the human soul…. Insofar as we enable the love that is debitum to our creator to go back to him, we are quite certainly configured into the property of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely for this end that he is given, that he is breathed into man, so that the latter may be, to the full extent of what is possible, configured into him. For the rest, this gift is sent to us, this mission is given to us at the same time and in the same way by the Father and by the Son. It is, after all, from the one and from the other that the Spirit has everything that he possesses. And because it is from the one and from the other that he has his being, power and will, it is right to say that it is they who send and given him, who has received from them power and the will to come from them into us and to dwell in us. (Congar, Yves. I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. III, The River of Life Flows in the East and in the West. New York: The Seabury Press, 1983.)

    “Insofar as we enable the love that is debitus to our creator to go back to him…” That is indeed the commandment of Jesus: 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

    I think you are spot on.

    * I’ve got too many footnotes for this paragraph, but if you’re interested I’ll share the paper. But this paragraph begins to explain the various aspects of love: The nature of the relationships between the three persons identifies “three kinds of love; amor gratuitus, that is love which gives without receiving, amor debitus, that is love which only receives, and this love is only a response to the amor gratitus and amor permixtus which gives and receives.” The love then that exists between the persons provides the bond between the three persons while at the same time providing a distinction of the persons based on the type of love expressed by the person. “The Father [Supreme Being], who is the principal of the other persons has amor gratuitus; the Son, that is the condignus who proceeds from the Father but from him proceeds the condilectus has the amor permixtus, and finally, the Holy Spirit, the condilectus, proceeds from two other persons, but none proceeds from him has amor debitus.” It is through this way that shared love is communicated between the members. Therefore, “shared love is properly said to exit when a third person is loved by two persons harmoniously and in community, and the affection of the two persons is fused into one affection by the flame of love for the third.”

    • Fr. John, I apologize for the delay in responding. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment at length on this post. Yes, I would definitely be interested in reading the paper in its whole form. Thanks again!

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