holy trinity: grace, love and communion

(Fr. Cyprian)

I want to start out making a couple of distinctions. A lot of what we understand about the Trinity we get from the three 4th century fathers of the Church we call the Cappadocians: Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. Someone suggested the other day that in order to understand the doctrine of the Trinity we had to stop trying to think like a 4th century Cappadocian, but I was already thinking the opposite. For instance, Saint Basil makes a distinction between kerygma, a word we seldom use anymore, and dogma, a word that we do use, but in a slightly different way then he did. Kerygma for Basil meant the public teaching of the Church based on Scriptures, you might say all the things you can write down and put in a catechism or a creed. Now the word “dogma” has kind of a ponderous and heavy meaning for us; at least to me it means something more like kerygma, very weighty and authoritative. But for Basil dogma meant “the deeper meaning of biblical truth” that could only be grasped and conveyed through symbol, especially through ritual like liturgy, and could only be understood through––and this is important­­––experience. And that leads right into Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory taught that every concept of God can wind up being a false idol. In his Life of Moses Gregory suggested that we cannot “see” God, meaning we cannot grasp God intellectually, but if we let ourselves be enveloped by the cloud as Moses was on Mount Sinai, we can feel God’s presence; we can have an experience of the mystery. In other words, not in kerygma but in dogma in the ancient sense of the word. The other distinction that was important to these writers was between God’s essence and God’s energy, meaning that we can’t really know God’s essence; we can’t even begin to grasp God’s essence. But we can and do know God by God’s energies. In other words, not in kerygma but in dogma in that ancient sense of the word––in experience.[1]

Now these Cappadocians applied all this to their teaching about the Trinity. We cannot begin to grasp the incomprehensible fathomless abyss of the Godhead––God’s essence––but we can at least begin to know God by the expressions of God’s energies, and those expressions are what we call “persons,” and there are three of them made known to us in the Scriptures: the 1st person, commonly known as the Father, whom Jesus called Abba; the 2nd person or expression is the Word, who we believe was made flesh in Jesus, and so the Son; and then this mysterious Holy Spirit, this third expression of God who is the relationship between the Father and the Son. But even to name them in this way brings us back into the realm of kerygma. We still need to recognize that even this kerygma is in some way just an image, a representation of something that’s deeper and more mysterious. I heard the late great Jesuit theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles once refer to “revealed metaphors,” but even these “revealed metaphors”––Father, Son and Holy Spirit––can wind up being unsatisfying at some point because they’re loaded with all our own baggage. And maybe that’s one more distinction: between blind faith, intellectual consent and real experience. Because I believe that is what the Trinity is: an experience, an inner and an outer experience. What we really need is an experience of the Trinity, “dogma” in that ancient sense of the word. What we need is to enter that cloud of an experience of the Trinity with God and we will know in a whole new way.

I was twirling the three readings that the Church offers us for this feast this year around in my head, trying to find some logical thread that tied them together, and I decided that there really wasn’t one. I think these three readings were chosen one for each Person of the Trinity. The 1st reading from Exodus (34:1-9) I see as being about the 1st person of the Trinity, the Father, in a sense the first person we come to know in Scripture. The Gospel reading (Jn 3:16-19) is obviously about Jesus, the Incarnation of the 2nd person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh. And, even though all three persons of the Trinity are named in the doxology of the snippet from 2nd Corinthians (13:11-13), it’s this 2nd reading that speaks to me about the Holy Spirit, as it’s the only one to mention the Holy Spirit explicitly. I was particularly drawn to and fascinated by the three things that are attributed to the three Persons in that last reading, which has become one of the standard greetings for the beginning of the Liturgy: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Grace, love and communion… And if the three, like the Trinity, are really one, then these may be the real expressions of the energies of God––grace, love, and communion. God reveals God’s self to us in and as grace, love, and communion. Is that still a little vague? Let me tell you a story…

I remember the first time I visited Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I had a visceral negative reaction to the place. Partially it was because I had read so much about the history of the building of Saint Peter’s during the 16th century, and all the political and theological upheaval and corruption in the Church at the time that formed the background of the place; but mostly because everything in the place is designed to make you feel as small as possible. What I contrasted that with is some of the experiences I had when I was young and impressionable. Way back when I was ten or eleven years old, my parents belonged to a little group of people that they just called “community” that got together every other weekend in someone’s house to celebrate Mass around the kitchen table or in the living room. I remember as a little kid being fascinated at being so close to the priest consecrating the sacred species and listening to people talk about the scriptures. Later I moved in with this small group of Franciscans in uptown Chicago, we lived in an apartment, poor with the poor, a very humble, simple contemplative life. And we had a tiny little chapel in the apartment; the altar they had that was made out of an old TV cabinet, but they made it look so beautiful. Those men taught me how to pray. Years later I’m thinking of sitting on the ground around the puja stone that is used as an altar in the simple prayer hall at our ashram in India, and the reverence of the folks sitting on the ground, sitting in meditation, bowing their foreheads to the ground. This may sound like a bunch of ‘60s and ‘70s touchy-feely nonsense, but that was actually the church that attracted me first and drew me in, the domestic church, and the intimacy of a relationship with God. There was something so mysterious about that closeness, and I was fascinated by that communion, and drawn to that fellowship that didn’t make me feel small but rather made me feel included, a participant in the Mystery. Could God be this close? Could church be this intimate and familiar? That was as sacred to me as anything I experienced later in the great temples and basilicas of the world.

To me, the first reading is like Saint Peter’s Basilica. It’s obviously a valid approach to God, it’s a valid experience of reverence, and it is the one often associated with the 1st person of the Trinity, the “awesome God” of the Hebrew Scriptures. The way I picture this Exodus reading, it’s at least a little ironic: God goes by, wrapped in the mysterious cloud, roaring out his claim to be merciful and compassionate, while Moses is cowering in the corner begging for mercy! But then we move on to the Gospel that starts out with those tender words, God so loved the world, and then continues with the thought that God sent his Son not to condemn the world. Jesus brings that awesome God that close to us: ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.’ And then comes the reading––second at our liturgy, but really the last chronologically––from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul as always trying to make sense of this whole thing for a whole new crowd of people. And this is how he breaks it down: “Live at peace with one another”! That’s what it all comes down to in a practical sense. The grace that fills Jesus is love of God and that becomes manifest as communion, not just the communion of Jesus with his Father, but our communion with one another: ‘May they be one even as we are one,’ Jesus prays in his priestly prayer. Jesus is filled with grace, the fullness of the Godhead dwelling in him bodily, and that grace is really nothing but love, God’s love that is poured into him and then poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, the Spirit who is the relationship between the Father and the Son, the Spirit whom Jesus sets loose in a new way in the world by his passion, death and resurrection, the Spirit who is also the bond of unity between us and all believers, and in some way the bond of unity with all people of good will.

If I could ever be accused of being a “monotarian” instead of a Trinitarian––focusing on only one person of the Trinity, it would be the Holy Spirit with whom I have been sort of obsessed these past years, especially the indwelling Spirit, the dynamis–the Spirit as indwelling power. But today I feel the need to point out instead this Spirit among us too, not just the Spirit within us individually, but the Spirit that is our relationship, the Spirit that is our bond of unity, the love of God that is the grace of Jesus that becomes our communion with one another. The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us; and that Spirit is what leads us to communion with one another­­—and that’s church! It’s the ground we share. We may not be able to understand God’s essence intellectually, but we can experience God’s energy, God’s expressions. And if you want to see God’s energy, look around after the consecration at your brothers and sisters with their hands raised in praise of the Father; if you want to see an expression of God, look into the eyes of the one to whom you offer the sign of peace, look around at those who receive the Body and Blood of Christ behind and before you, and you will have some experience of the Trinity.

This is one of those things that we can’t formulate, we can’t legislate, and we can’t beat into each other’s heads. It’s the difference between blind faith and real belief. We can only experience it­­—and then foster it for one another. John 3:16 is an invitation, not a bludgeon; we can only experience it and offer––God so loved the world. It’s not kerygma as much as it is dogma in that ancient sense of the word. We may not be able to understand God’s essence, but we can feel God’s presence, we can have an experience of the mystery, we can understand God’s energy. And this is God’s energy: ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.’ What the Trinity teaches us is that God is relationship, that God is communion, that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them. We can beg for this experience of communion with God and with one another; but we can also foster it, one for another. And that is as good a description of church as any I know, so intimate, so close.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us always.


[1] I got much of this paragraph from Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God, pp. 112-118.

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