“How many persons are there in the Trinity?” the teacher asked the class.  “All of us!” replied the little girl, who had often been instructed to include everybody in things.

But isn't it only three?  Yes, three Divine Persons – but all of us too, as the child said.  We live in God.  We are more accustomed to saying that God lives in us, but it is equally true that we live in God.  It is truer, according to Thomas Aquinas, “Things are more in God than God is in things.”

If you had a jug of water, said Meister Eckhart, and you poured it out, it would now be outside and no longer inside the jug.  Before we came into being we existed in the mind of God.  Then when we came into being we were “poured out”, as it were.  Does this mean that we are no longer “in God”?  The image of water being poured out would suggest so.  But that image, like all images, peters out before the end.   Think instead of knowledge and love.  When you know something, that knowledge is of course in your mind, “within” you.  Then you pour it out: to a few friends, or perhaps to many people, like a teacher.  It is poured out, but it still remains within; you have imparted it but you have not parted with it.  Likewise with love: when you give your love to someone, you do not lose it; in fact it is only in giving it that you have it.  In some such way, when we come into being, we are “poured out” from God, and yet we remain within.  A child is able to speak the truth in a direct and immediate way, with none of our complicated explanations: all persons, in a way, are persons of the Trinity.  

Another 14th century saint, Catherine of Siena, wrote: “The soul is in God, and God is in the soul as the fish is in the ocean and the ocean in the fish.”  It is exaggerating greatly to say that the ocean is in the fish, because only a couple of cubic centimetres of it are in the fish’s gills at any time, but it is as far as the image will take us.  We want to say that all of God is in the soul.  God doesn't have parts, so wherever God is, all of God is there.  All of God is in me and all of me is in God.   This is a useful thought on days when we feel lost. 

If you were to ask a fish to point to the ocean, it would have to point in three directions: up (or perhaps down), out and in.  We too, when we want to point to God, have to point in three directions: up (or down, if you prefer to think of God as in the depth), out and in.  We point up to God our Father (from childhood our neck muscles tell us to look up at our fathers and mothers); we point out, at eye level so to speak, at the Word made flesh who became like us in all things but sin; and we point in to the Holy Spirit who lives within us, for we are “temples of the Holy Spirit.”

Of course all this is very imprecise language. (And thank you for putting up with me when I asked you to imagine a fish ‘pointing’!)  But we need not lose heart; it is the people who have entered most deeply the mystery of God – the mystics – who keep repeating that all language is inadequate to express what they have experienced. 

But why should it be so difficult to speak precisely about the Trinity?  If the mystery has been revealed to us, why isn't it crystal clear?  Was it badly revealed, then? – like a blurred photograph.  It is not that.  If it is difficult to talk about the Trinity, this is because the Trinity is not just for talking about. 

I remember a professor long ago in Switzerland who reduced it in effect to a most peculiar kind of talking – an impossible metaphysics – and the comment of a student from Texas, a fellow-sufferer, “It’s as dry as bone-dust!”  When pressed to approach the Trinity from Scripture rather than from his own rationalist metaphysics, the professor clipped a few pages of Scripture references to the front of his notes, while the dust inside remained unsprinkled and undisturbed.  It gave me a life-long thirst for water-images when trying to think of God!  I know that these can never be adequate, but at least they don't pretend to be adequate like the dust-images.  Our images, dusty or otherwise, do not “grasp” God (that terrible word).  Rather, “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity... the power of God to hold and lead....”  God grasps us, not the other way around. 

The Trinity was revealed “for our salvation.”  It is a practical matter, then, not simply something to talk about.  Abstracted from its practical and liturgical context it is only a conundrum, a piece of impossible metaphysics, or just mathematics, in which three into one are forced to go.  The original form of the Glory was: “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit....”  The Trinity is the shape of the Christian life and the shape of Christian worship.  It is the God to whom we go, the Way by which we go, and the Power that pulls and pushes us along the way.

Donagh O’Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.