There are three paths to knowledge that we frequently walk… thinking using concepts, thinking using pictures or images, and thinking using our experiences. They are all routes to truth even though experience seems to be the favored route these days. This is curious to me because learning through experience gives us some of life’s harshest lessons. We learn the hard way along that route. The other routes are not so harsh.
From its earliest days, the Catholic Church has relied on images — pictures found in stained glass windows, statues of saints and holy people, and glorious mosaics found in so many of our churches. Television, movies, and computer images have surrounded us during the last century. As never before in human history our children are learning via images.
Today I am going to share some thoughts with you about the Holy Trinity using mental images. It’s better that way. The history of art is rich because artists have a way of expressing what is otherwise inexpressible using the mediums of paint, plaster, stone, and other materials.
St. Patrick went to Ireland to bring the message of Jesus to the Celtic people living there. We all know that when it came to teaching them about the Holy Trinity he used the three-leaf clover. How can three persons be one? He showed the people of his day the three-leaf clover and used that image to teach that God is Three Persons in one Being.
It is of course impossible to picture God using humanly created images. In fact attempting to do so is to fall into what is called idolatry… the worship of man made idols. But there is one way of imaging God that really does work, and God has given us that image. It is Jesus Christ, the Icon, the Image of God, found in a human person who is both Jesus Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God at one and the same time.
When God made us in the first place, in our origin, in our genesis, God created us in His own likeness. The Book of Genesis tells us: God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. Being human we are called by God to see our Godlikeness. That was, of course, before humans sinned. After we sinned that image was scarred and disfigured. We know that is true even in our day. Not very many of us live God-like lives and that has negatively affected how we see God?
But God would not allow His plan and purpose to be frustrated. In the fullness of time He gave us His Only Son, born of a sinless woman. Jesus lived to perfection what it means to be a human being.
All of this means that we find God and “see” God in our relationships with other persons. To be a person means to be a creature of God who can both know and love. Those are the two powers that constitute what it means to be a person. We can know others and we can love others. In doing so we can catch glimpses of God who knows and loves infinitely.
The reality of the Holy Trinity is, of course a mystery. But mysteries can be talked about. They can be described. Mysteries have clues that our minds can grasp. But a mystery remains a mystery unless and until we grasp it in its totality. But when it comes to God we simply cannot comprehend the total reality of God.
Mysteries make up a good portion of our lives. Science has its mysteries, as does philosophy, as does psychology, as do other intellectual disciplines. They all have much in them to challenge our minds and our intellectual capacities. All of them contain unknowns within them that move us to seek out their answers.
As a matter of fact, human beings need mystery. We need to be aware of that which is mysterious in life. We need to see that many times mysteries are to be lived; they are not problems to be solved. Husbands and wives who are truly in love unite themselves in the mystery of each other. Loving husbands and loving wives learn more about each other every year, but they also learn that there are hidden parts in their inner selves that only begin to be recognized after many years of deep love. Husbands delight in the mystery of “her,” and wives delight in the mystery of “him.” They have been ushered into the intimacy of the person whom they love even though it is impossible for them to describe the essence of her husband or the essence of his wife. When they treat each other as problems to be solved they get into a whole lot of trouble. The mystery of true love is something that you who are married know experientially and that I can only contemplate. And all of this is true in the relationships that parents have with their children.
For all of our efforts to find individuality and uniqueness as distinct persons, we still have an overwhelming need to belong. Belonging is stamped on nature. Belonging is found in everything that exists. Even atoms have protons, neutrons and electrons that seek to belong to each other. It is in their belonging that they cause the atom to be what it is. It is likewise true in all of nature. Unity is the goal and is good. Fracturing is always bad.
It’s hell not to belong. It’s heaven to belong. It’s hell to live with nobody to love us other than our own isolated selves. It’s heaven when we love and are loved by others. God made us to belong. The inner nature of God, in whose image and likeness we are made, is Persons who, however distinct they are, totally belong to each other.
We humans are made to belong in a special kind of belonging. We belong as free persons, persons who freely choose to live in inter-dependency. While there is a belonging that enslaves (possessive belonging) there is also a belonging that gives us freedom, the freedom to be who we are as persons.
Sin isolates us. The first thing we lose when we sin is the sense of joy, the joy of knowing that we are living while doing what is decent, right and good. Sin tears apart the fabric of our living together, living in that network in which we belong to each other in love and goodness to others. Sin attacks living in inter-dependency; sin destroys our belonging to others in genuine love.
The concept of the Holy Trinity is a mystery, but not a total mystery. Mysteries, after all, are made up of clues. In a mystery story we pursue and piece together clues in order to see the whole picture. So it is with the Holy Trinity. We have lots of clues about the Holy Trinity. And when we pursue them and then piece them together we get a good glimpse into what kind of a God God is.
God is all about love. When we live in love we live in God, and God lives in us, St. John tells us. Living in love, however, does not mean we must be the same. There’s a great deal of confusion about this in today’s surrounding culture. Some advocate that so-called “civil unions” should be the same as marriages. Boys and girls are moved to dress the same ways. The “androgynous look” is favored in Hollywood. If we hold to values that differ from others we are often told that we are mean-spirited hate-mongers who are intolerant and prejudiced.
Persons, however, cannot be the same as other persons. The Father is a distinct Person; the Son is a distinct Person; and the Holy Spirit is a distinct Person. Distinct though they are, however, they exist in One Being of infinite love; they exist in one unbreakable bond, in one infinite union of being together.
While all of that remains a mystery to us, it is not so mysterious that we cannot live with each other in a reality of life that reflects and shares in the reality of God’s life. To live a God-like life we must forgive rather than condemn. We must build-up and affirm rather than tear down. We must see the best, not the worst. We must be self-sacrificial and not self-centered. We must be giving rather than grasping. We must offer hope, not despair. We must heal rather than wound.
All of this is best affirmed and nurtured in what we know of as a family. There is nothing in life that more closely reflects the reality of the Holy Trinity than genuine family life. For it is in living in a family that we not only belong to each other but also where we discover, nurture, and affirm our own unique and individual personalities. It is a family that makes us individuals, and it is we as individuals who constitute our family. It is the “family” of the Holy Trinity that constitutes God. It is in living the reality of being truly a family that we have a glimpse into the life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So while we do not know God in and of Himself, we know a lot about God the Holy Trinity when we live in love.