Trinity Sunday – Love and Gift at the heart of the World

Exodus 34:4-9, John 3:16-18

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

It is not without reason that many consider this short verse from John 3:16 as the summary of the whole New Testament. And it is very appropriate that we have this gospel for Trinity Sunday. It contains, within this short verse, what God is truly about. He is Love, and he exists as Gift. God loves the world – even in its ugly rebellion – because this is who God is. He gives his Son, because to give is what God does. And these two names, Love and Gift, were what Augustine believed to be the most appropriate names for the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is Love and Gift in the heart of the Trinity. And what is said of the Holy Spirit uniquely, can be said of all the three Persons, truly. The Father, eternally gives himself away in begetting the Son; the Son delighting in the love of the Father, returns himself completely in loving gift. This gift of love, between the Father and Son is himself a person, the Love of God, the God who is Love, the God who is a Person and Gift, the Holy Spirit. And this love is what is freely and willingly given in the act of Creation. Even more, when creation would rebel, this Love would remain constant, and be revealed in the incredible gift of the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross. But all this, even as it is beautiful, can still be vague, and leave us wondering what it is about finally, and whether any of it matters at all, when we get up on Monday morning.

In my first year in seminary, there was a priest (with multiple degrees) who came in for one of our lectures. Maybe he wanted to bring us down to size and ensure we had the requisite humility before we embarked on all our years of study ahead. (Humility is always a good starting point for all study, let alone Theology.) He began by saying, “I do not believe in Theology”. That seemed a somewhat puzzling statement to make, given that he was there to teach theology. But he continued: “Let us say, you are a scientist, examining a bug under a microscope. You are the subject, the bug is the object. From your position, you see the whole of the bug. But for a moment, imagine, the bug ends up looking through the other end of the lens. It sees a very expanded portion of the human eye gazing at it. And the bug concludes, I know what’s on the other end. Half an eye (putting it in human terms).” And he came to his grand conclusion. “My friends, that bug is you. And theology is you looking at your Creator through your puny lens. With the one exception, that the distance between you is infinitely greater than that between the scientist and the bug”. As analogies go, this was far from perfect, but he certainly managed to convey his point. Theology is to speak about God, to try to understand the object of our faith. But it is not like any other science. And it is precisely the reason why it was considered best done on one’s knees.

We can only speak about God, because he has first spoken to us. All of these elements are present in our first reading. God comes to Moses, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and reveals his presence in a dark cloud. The cloud, which frequently accompanies the visitation of God, means that one cannot see clearly enveloped by it. It is a good image of how we have to fumble about in our understanding of God. At the same time, God reveals himself within the cloud. God reveals his name or his attributes to Moses: a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness. Because God has used human language and has spoken about himself, we can use our sciences and reason to try to get closer to him, to understand the object of our faith. This way of working, of study, examining the words of Scripture to the best of our ability would fall under what is called the kataphatic (to speak affirmatively) mode of theology. 

There is however, an equally strong tradition, the apophatic (the negative way) mode of theology. It is what the Mystical tradition falls under. It is a recognition that even as God reveals himself in the Scriptures, there is always the cloud that darkens, even as it reveals. It is content to stand still before the Mystery and let oneself be drawn into the darkness, to see as God sees. And as God reveals himself, he does not speak in a vacuum. It is always in a relationship of love to a person, in this case Moses, or to a people, such as Israel. The greatest of this revelation would be the Incarnation. But again, not in a vacuum. God would become a man who would take on our sins and give his life in self-sacrificial love. It is in seeing him and knowing his love, that we know who God is. It would be a mistake to separate the lines in theology too strongly, and worse to pit one against the other. The apophatic needs language to express itself to be of use for the Church; the kataphatic, when done as an impersonal science, without any relationship to the God who is Mystery, would become easily distorted, and worse, deceiving. It is only when one encounters this Love made incarnate, however, that all that is spoken begins to make sense. And one saint, who believed it would be her particular work to lead souls to encounter the Trinity, during her life and in heaven was Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity.

Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity was born in France in 1880. She excelled in most things, particularly in music and was well on her way to being a concert pianist. But what was most noticeable about her, at least at home, was her strong will and fiery temper. She frequently went into a rage and threw tantrums and was apparently even told by her parish priest during a confession that she would either be a demon or a saint, and there were no alternatives. She would begin in earnest to choose the latter, soon after her first communion, which would be a moment of great grace for her. On the same day, she made her first visit to the Carmelite monastery which would eventually become her home, where the Prioress told her that he name meant “House of God” which made a profound impact on her. From her Communion onwards, even before she could understand it fully, she was drawn to deeper prayer to the Mystery of what she described as the ‘three guests’ in her soul. To them she gave herself more and more. Drawing strength from her newfound life of prayer she started making a concerted effort to temper her anger. 

Elizabeth on the piano

In her late teens, on a routine visit to Carmel, the Prioress gave her the newly circulated copy of the biography of Sr. Therese, who had just died. It was the first edition of what would later become the ‘Story of a Soul’ of the Little Flower. Therese’s life would give Elizabeth the key to understanding her own. From then on, she knew her vocation was at Carmel. Elizabeth had many suitors and her mother would forbid her from entering Carmel till at least twenty-one, hoping she would get married to one of them. Elizabeth respected her mother’s wishes but simply deepened her spiritual life already in the world. Her strong will, having found its mark, would now carry her all the way to sainthood without veering to the right or the left.           

For Elizabeth, the Trinity was the furnace of an excessive love. In this she is very close to the description of the indwelling Trinity by several mystics. Meister Eckhart, for example, compared the love within the Trinity to water boiling over, which cannot be contained within. This ‘boiling over’ was like the love within the Trinity, pouring into our souls. She would say 

“I feel so much love…like an Ocean I immerse and lose myself in…while waiting for the face-to-face vision. I only have to… let myself be loved, all the time, through all things: to wake in love, to sleep in love, to move in love…” 

She described her vocation as a praise of Glory to God, Three-in-One. This was 

“…a soul of silence that remains like a lyre under the mysterious touch of the Holy Spirit so that he may draw from it divine harmonies; it knows that suffering is a string that produces still more beautiful sounds; so it loves to see this string…more delightfully move the heart of its God”.

Much like Therese, her sister in faith, she would die at 26. Just five years after entering Carmel, she would succumb to Addison’s disease, but completely overflowing with the love of the Trinity dwelling in her.

There is much that is beautiful and good and wonderful in this world. There is also a lot of ugliness, pain and sadness. Maybe your experience of life has been good overall; or at least, “ordinary” in the best sense of the word. Or maybe your experience has been something akin to a script gone wrong with one bad thing following another. The world can seem very perplexing in that case. Our experience hasn’t revealed there is much love or goodness, even though we instinctively hope for it. Maybe the only thing to do is to become skilled in the violent ways of the world in order to survive.

The doctrine of the Trinity and the life of a mystic like Elizabeth’s, stand as a beacon of hope and a challenge to us. They proclaim that at the heart of the world is the Trinity, who is Love and Gift in its essence.

Even when the world seems dark and distressing, it was not created out of some evil outworking, but from Love. We do not need secret knowledge of the dark arts or violence to find meaning. It is a call to experience the love of the Three in One Godhead. Like Elizabeth, we all are capable of becoming demons or saints, depending on what we believe. It doesn’t matter our state of life, or whether we are able to study much theology. If we find ourselves cloaked in a perplexing cloud of darkness, not knowing which way to turn or how to make sense, we can find meaning if we let ourselves be loved by the Trinity who come to make their home in our hearts in baptism. We were created out of this Love and it is this Love which is our destiny. Then, even our suffering can find meaning in a divine harmony of praise to the Love for which we were made.

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