Thanks for your website and particularly for Between Ourselves. I feel I can ask you anything whatsoever, no matter how daft it might be, and you won't jump down my throat but will give a respectful and helpful answer. That's a great service…. Now my question. What do you do when you have faith but do not believe in dividing God up, e.g., the Trinity? Division causes trouble, usually. Is God ever troubled? Why the Trinity? Mairead.
Thanks for your question. If it is daft, then there have been a lot of daft Christians – from St Augustine (and before) to a little girl in Manila. St Augustine wrote numerous books on the Trinity and gave the doctrine its decisive shape. The little girl in Manila, when asked how many persons there were in the Trinity, replied with a wide gesture, “All of us!”
When we attempting to enter the mystery of the Trinity – as St Augustine and the little girl were doing in their different ways – it becomes a question of vital interest, because it is not only about God’s life but also about ours. When we are not attempting to enter it, it just stays ‘out there’, looking like a piece of impossible mathematics, where three into one do go. It is a wonderful thing that you are diving into the heart of this mystery. Mysteries are for diving into – feet first better than head first.
I want to pass on to you an insight I received years ago in a small church in Rome: the preacher was a tiny vivid Italian with flashing eyes, and a chasuble and gestures that were both far too big for him. He was preaching in a church beside the Tiber, on Trinity Sunday. He told of his earlier years in a parish near Naples. In those days, he said, the days of his youthful enthusiasm, he had begun to wonder if the people in his country parish remembered anything of Christian doctrine. They were good people, he said, but he wondered how much they knew of the faith. There was only one way to find out: he had to ask them. So he would ask them, out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation or when he met one on the road: “Franco, how many Sacraments are there?” or “Cristina, tell me, what are the precepts of the Church?” One day, he said, he was talking with Gianni, a very poor farmer with a large family and hard put to it to feed them. “By the way, Gianni,” he said, “can you tell me how many persons there are in the Trinity?” “Persons in the Trinity!” said Gianni with amazement; “I don't know. Four, five, ten. I don't know, and I don't care. I don't have to feed them!”
It is certain, said the preacher, that we see the world – and God – through our own eyes, and it is certain that our eyes are often clouded by our own problems. But is it possible to see in a way that isn't clouded? Are we being asked to take an interest in things that have nothing to do with us? Three persons in the Trinity: what does it mean? How could it possibly have anything to do with our life?
Then he began to unfold his insight. There are two things, mainly, that people suffer from in families and communities. One is a feeling of suffocation: of not being allowed to be oneself, of having no identity except that of the group. The other is the opposite, but equally painful: a feeling of being lost to the group, of circling around one another at great distances like planets and not really being together, a feeling of loneliness. They are the things we suffer from in families and groups; they are opposite poles: too much company and too little, suffocation and loneliness.
Now let yourself think about the Trinity, he said. The Father is eternally the Father... never has been or ever will be the Son or the Spirit. The Father's personality is eternally distinct from theirs. Likewise the Son is the Son in eternal freedom, and the Spirit is exuberantly different from them both. There is no suffocation of personalities. And yet they are so much one that we have to say there is only one God. The doctrine of the Trinity shows us that the inner life of God is perfect community.
Such a life we aspire to, such a life we long for in all our dreams and waking: full presence to others without being diminished or disrespected in any way, a joyful pouring out of your life for others, such that it makes you fully who you are yourself - a life in which there is neither suffocation nor loneliness but exuberant love and joy. The Trinity is in this sense the model of human family and community.
But I want to say more, said the preacher. The Trinity is not only a 'model' of community - it is not like a blueprint that you keep in a drawer and need to look at only now and then. I want to say much more than that. I want to say that all our struggles in family and community ARE our search for God, ARE our search for the Trinity. Are you struggling these days to stay on speaking terms with your son? That is your search for God, he shouted. Are you trying to repair the damage after that row with your wife, your husband, your neighbour? That is your search for God, your search for the Trinity of Persons. Are you trying to do something for the parish, the neighbourhood? You are searching for God! You don't have to feed the Persons of the Trinity, but your struggle to feed your family is your struggle to find the Trinity. You feed them food, you feed them love, respect and affection. In wise measure you feed them freedom. “You are saints!” he roared, in a voice much too big for him.
Outside, the traffic roared, as it does forever in Rome. Inside, there were a couple of hundred people in the strangest silence I have ever heard in Rome. In that silence there echoed still the voice of the little man, the great man, like the voice of St Paul: You are saints!
There, Mairead, a tiny priest and a tiny girl, both of them diving feet first into the unfathomable mystery of the Trinity.
I hope these two memories of mine can be of some help to you.