Raleigh Mennonite Church
Talking about the Trinity is an opportunity to be wrong. As soon as you start trying to explain how God is one thing and three persons at the same time, you’re doomed. We try to get our minds around it, try to find the right metaphor, an apple or a clover, a piano chord or interlocking circles, but each time something isn’t right. As soon as we begin to describe God, God slips away, out of our grasp.
You might think that has stopped people from trying to talk about the Trinity. And you would be incorrect. To remind myself of this, I went back over my seminary syllabus to peruse the ten, single-spaced pages of books about the Trinity offered up by my professor.
Maybe each person who writes a book is sure that they will crack the code. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe there’s a grace in speaking the unspeakable, a grace in learning to fail, a grace in finding new ways to talk about a God who is always on the loose.
Have you ever had that feeling, the feeling that something is tugging at your memory, a reminder pops up in sunrise or in your afternoon tea? It’s not quite, but close, close enough to give you a sense of something, to pull you in?
Gregory of Nazianzus said that this ability to find images in the world, images that connect to a thing we can say about God – that’s the work of poets. Gregory thought that poets are most equipped for the work of glimpsing the mysteries about God as they slip past us. Poets can pick them up for a moment. “See,” they say, turning them over in their hands. “See, this looks like God.”
So, taking Gregory’s advice to heart, I went looking for a poet to pick up this mystery of the Trinity. I went looking for Brian Doyle.
Brian died a couple weeks ago of a brain tumor, and during his life he was a prolific writer and poet, someone who studied the ordinary. He held it up and said, “See, this looks like this.”
When Brian was a child, dutifully attending Catholic catechism, he learned about the Trinity. The same tired, confusing metaphors were set before him. For a while he and his classmates assumed that the Trinity had something to do with agriculture, because of the shamrock. Sensing the classes confusion, Sister Margaret offered a different window into the mystery. She asked them to imagine their pastor, who went by the title The Monsignor. When he spoke of himself he used the first person – “I am The Monsignor.” When others spoke to him they did so in the second person, and when speaking about their pastor to others, people would refer to him in the third person.
There you have it. One is three and three is one.
“Thus it was,” writes Brian, “that I spent a fair piece of my childhood thinking of The Monsignor as the Holy Spirit.” The lesson of The Monsignor as the Holy Trinity meant that Brian began to draw associations, began to notice similarities. I’d like to read you a section of his essay describing this noticing of his pastor as the Holy Spirit:
“[The Monsignor] was a steady and enduring energy, accessible to anyone at any time, by all accounts, and inexhaustible; he had the great skill of affirming what you wanted to do, which meant you did it briskly and happily, because it was your idea, or you thought it was; he had the gift of silence, which not only can be wonderfully eloquent, but richly productive of eloquence and articulation; and he refused to be photographed, even at functions at which he was the presiding spirit, so that there is no evidence of his astonishing beneficial effect, but only a vague feeling among those who had been inspired that something slightly more than their usual selves was at work, or at least something had been of silent but powerful assistance in luring or welcoming their best selves from the usual muddle.
In later years, of course, what with higher Catholic education, my brilliant and subtle parents and many piercingly wise companions along the road, I learned that The Monsignor was probably not, in himself, as a man named Stephen, in se ut homo, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity.
But I continue to think, all these years later, that you could do a lot worse than use him for an example, when trying to explain something that cannot be explained except by telling a story. It turns out that there are lots of things you cannot explain except by telling stories, which do not explain or define or account for them hardly at all, but do give you a subtle and telling sense of what we mean when we use the words holy and miracle and God.”
I assume the theologian Gregory would have approved of Brian’s musings, and it is my hope that outside of time Brian and Gregory are exchanging stories about the Holy Spirit, finding the words to talk about the Trinity, perhaps now having been drawn into the mystery of God’s love in death.
The story we hear in today’s Scripture points us to another poem, something to pick up and turn over in our hands. It’s been plucked out of the Bible for this Sunday devoted to the Trinity for these verses: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
As the early Mothers and Fathers of church were searching around for stories that gave words to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they stumbled upon this account of creation, here at the very beginning. John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa heard in this story inklings of the Trinity. One God proclaims, “Let us make people in our image.” The Holy Spirit, brooding above the waters. A creative love born out of an ever-intertwining love.
As Brian Doyle reminds us, sometimes we need to hear a story. And here we have a story about this gigantic, magical bursting forth of every good and perfect thing, an eruption of gifts of pomegranate seeds and tigers and waterfalls and shooting stars slathered all over a total emptiness. God gets into it and fills it up, fills it up with things that bray and howl and grow and creep.
There’s a grace to failing to get it right, a grace in getting close and then seeing something slipping past. We have these stories to help us glimpse in at God, at the holy mystery of a God, three yet one, a relation of love, ever producing love, bent down on the ground, laughing as a caterpillar crawls over her fingers, ferns and peach trees bursting from the ground.
What we discover is that God isn’t in creation, a part of the created world. It is here that God loves, creates, delights, and roams. In other creation stories, written around the time of the Genesis story, the gods are embedded in living things. They take the form of creatures and tides. And these are gods are fickle. The Ancient Near Eastern gods are often cruel, inflicting pain and death through wind and fire. They demand sacrifices. The gods bicker and war with one another, human life the collateral damage of their in-fighting.
In Genesis something else happens. God sets down as a seal, an emblem of love, not something other, but an image of love – people. People become the image of God’s love, others revealing this love because love requires others. Our lives happen inside of this love, inside of a God who is love within God’s self, where creation echoes back that life is a gift, the world is a gift, you are a gift, we are gifts to one another.
It’s the story we tell to each other, the creation story, to say “you were put here in love, to love because you are God’s beloved.” What we have is a story, God slipping into view and out again, uncontrollable, known and unknown.
When Gregory Nazianzus thought about the Trinity he knew this slippage. For Gregory these were lights going in and out of view. He writes,
“No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of anyone of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”
I cannot grasp the greatness, writes Gregory. I cannot grasp it. God slips past as we are always trying again, getting a glimpse and watching it pass by, waiting for another moment. We tell the story in wonder. We see it, observe it. One in three. Three in one.