Saint Augustine, the African bishop and theologian of the early 5th century, spent many years writing about God as a Trinity of Persons, a mystery which both consumed his attention and yet eluded his understanding.[i] So the story goes, he was walking by the seaside one day, meditating on the Trinity, how God could be One essence, and yet, at the same time, three Persons. He came onto a little child. The child had dug a small hole in the sand, and with a seashell was scooping water from the ocean into the hole. Augustine watched him for a little while and finally asked the child what he was doing. The child answered that he wanted to scoop all the water from the sea and pour it into the hole in the sand. Augustine felt impelled to correct the child. “That is impossible,” Augustine said. “The sea is too large and the hole is too small.” And now it was this child who was impelled to correct Augustine. The child said, “That is true, but I will sooner draw all the water from the sea and empty it into this hole than you will succeed in penetrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited understanding.” Augustine turned away in amazement, and when he looked back, the child had disappeared. Augustine had been put in his place, not a bad place, but simply in a place of recognition that he, too, was a child of God, a God whom he would mysteriously experience but never fully understand.
God as a Trinity of Persons is a mystery, not because we cannot explain the mystery. We cannot. The mystery that God invites us into a circle of relationship. God desires to be in personal relationship with us, a relationship not as a distant God. God desires to love us as God loves God: Person to person. That is what our baptism is all about, of God coming to live within us – not just beyond us, or around us, but within us: to love us as God loves God. And this eludes our understanding. As soon as we can define or describe God, we surely have missed God. God is always More. But we can experience God as three Persons, which is what our Creeds, what Saint Augustine, and so many others have tried to describe. Jesus, living a fully human life – Jesus whom we call God’s Son – prays to God whom he calls, whom we call “Father”: “our Father in heaven,” as Jesus says. Jesus is “one” with “the Father,” he says.[ii] “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” he says.[iii] And as Jesus prepares to leave this earth, he promises to not leave us alone. We will be left with “God’s Spirit,” who will continue to lead us and empower us. The best the Church has been able to describe this mysterious experience is to speak of God as essentially One, yet in three Persons, a Trinity. Imagine God as Trinity, and then go one step further. Try imagining a fourth person. We are the fourth person in the circle. We all are. That is how much God loves us. That is how much we all belong, we who have been created in the very image and likeness of God. God desires to love us as God loves God, a circle of belonging and love.
Experiencing God as a Trinity of Persons makes a profound difference, not only in how we belong to God, but how we belong to one another. We are distinct persons, all of us, and yet our essence is the same. We are all children of God. We all need water and food, shelter and rest, love and safety, education and encouragement, health and hope to be alive and thrive. We are all so much the same. We will hear geneticists tells us that we all are almost, almost identical. And yet the slight differences evident in humankind seem almost infinite. We must be in relationship with one another. We have been created by a God in relationship – a Trinity of Persons – who invites us all to be in personal relationship – relationship with one another and in relationship with all that God has created – because this is the essence of God, to be in a circle of relationship with all whom God has created.
During this Coronavirus pandemic, we have learned a lot about living in relationship. We have infected and affected one another, for the better and for the worse. There has been so much suffering: the incalculable suffering of those afflicted with the virus, their family and friends; the health care community, who have given up their lives so courageously and generously; those who grow, transport, sell, and deliver our food; the multitudes of other caregivers who help meet our needs, often at great cost and risk; the government leaders and civil servants who seek to serve under such strain. And there is the suffering because of unemployment and financial catastrophe, the disruption of education, the strain among family members. On it goes, and for how long, we do not know. And yet, amidst such suffering, we see the daily evidence of so much care, kindness, beauty, generosity, and hope in life together. We are reminded each day how interdependent we are, how related we are and must be to one another, how much we need one another. We are meant to live a shared life. All of us are distinct persons, and yet we must live in relationship with one another, because this is the essence of how we have created: to live in a community of love.
If I were to theologize what is going on around us, I would describe life as an invitation for us all to be participants in the divine nature of God as a “Trinity of Persons”: God’s beautifully-splendent self-giving love into which we are invited to be both receivers and givers. God as Trinity reminds us that we belong to one another. We need to belong to one another. We are complete and whole only as we do belong to one another, all of us different persons who belong to the One God of all creation.
It is so terribly tragic, so unconscionably unjust, that some people do not know that they belong: that their uniqueness because of their skin color, or cultural or ethnic or religious heritage, or education, or age, or abilities have been used against them to keep them out and to push them down. But God’s intention is just the opposite. All of these differences we display as children of God are evidence of the majesty of God, who has created and shared life with us in a world with almost infinite differences, such a panoply of beauty and wonder because of all these differences, all of us intended to be in relationship to their Creator, all intended to be in relationship creature-to-creature.
Recently a father of three adult children said to me that, “as a father, you are only as happy as your least happy child.” We are family, the human family. The suffering, the loss, the injustice we witness around us wounds us all to our core because we belong to one another, all of us children of God, who invites us into relationship. We can only be as happy as the most downtrodden among us are happy.
Most of the world will not know or value that today, in the Church’s calendar, is Trinity Sunday. But for those of us who do know, we have both the power and responsibility to communicate and mediate this circle of belonging to one another. Our human vocation is to live in communion and mutuality with one another, which is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving love.[iv] So for us. This is our vocation, our reason for being, in these especially desperate and opportune times.
[i] Saint Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo (in modern-day Algeria), was a prolific author. His is a “Doctor of the Church.”
[ii] John 10:30.
[iii] John 14:6-9.
[iv] Quoted from SSJE’s Rule of Life, chapter 4: “The Witness of Life in Community.”
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