God as Trinity: Lover, Beloved, Love – 6,03,07

Of all the Sundays of the year this one is unique in the Christian calendar.  The focus for a Sunday is usually taken from a Scripture passage, with some kind of narrative, a story or event from the Old or New Testament.  But on Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, we focus not on a story from Scripture, but on a doctrine, a teaching of the church.  The Trinity.  God who is three in one.The Trinity has traditionally been known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or, as someone has joked, two men and a bird.  More recently Trinity has been known as a single woman who fights alongside Neo to free the human race from the machines and the Matrix.  Hmmm.  Both of these Trinities sound rather confusing.    My confession is that after three years of seminary and some time this week to study some writing on the Trinity, I still don’t get it.  But in not getting it I seem to be in rather good company as nearly everyone who talks about the Trinity mentions its difficulty.  Most of those who seem to think they know what they are talking about somehow manage to talk in terms that are so complex and abstract that the reader leaves wondering if it’s really worth the effort.  The word Trinity isn’t even found in the Bible.  It never came off of Jesus’ lips, never came off of St. Paul’s pen, never gets a single mention in Scripture as a finalized concept.But it remains a central teaching of the church, and one we will look into together here.  Exploring the Trinity is not just an exercise in abstract theology, but is also a project of self-discovery.  If we are made in the image of God, then it is worthwhile to look into this God in whose image we find ourselves.  Knowing this God also leads to self-knowledge.So the first rule when talking about something you don’t fully understand is to quote someone else who carries some authority on the matter.  So let’s begin with this line from Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German mystic:  “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten.  When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that love is the Holy Spirit” Meister EckhartThis is a quote that was repeated often in the book Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Soul, a spiritual memoir by Tony Hendra.  Tony became intrigued with the Catholic church at a young age and believed that he was called into a monastic life of worship and contemplation.  When he first meets Father Joe, Tony is just a teenager, getting a bit off track, having become involved in a relationship with an older married woman.  Father Joe lives with other Benedictine monks in the ­­­­­Quarr Abby, a monastery off the coast of England, and Tony’s mentor takes him to see Father Joe for confession, to set Tony straight.  Tony expects to meet a stern, frowning authority figure who will give him a whole list of prayers and actions for penitence.  Instead, Father Joe turns out to be a gentle, kind confessor who listens intently and openly to Tony’s troubles.  Tony feels no judgment whatsoever from Father Joe.  What Tony does feel from Father Joe is love, and joy, which he finds to cut deeper into his own soul than anything he had previously experienced.  Father Joe shares this Meister Eckhart quote with Tony.  “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten.  When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that love is the Holy Spirit.”   Tony wants to join Father Joe at Quarr and live out his life of contemplation.  Father Joe urges Tony to first go to university and re-assess his life plan after those years.      Tony doesn’t ever enter the monastery.  At university he falls in love with the arts and the ability of humor and satire to move people.  He has a very successful career as a writer and actor of satire, but struggles in his personal life — sex, drugs, rock and roll, but, most painfully, broken relationships with family and friends.         The one constant for Tony is Father Joe, who he continues to visit.  No matter what Tony is experiencing, Father Joe listens, and then always points Tony back to the unconditional love of God.  In his adult life Tony no longer finds faith in God to be very important.  He’s not sure what he believes and doesn’t take much time to figure it out.  But through some of his most difficult times – he returns to Quarr Abby and Father Joe for companionship and guidance.  At one point he tells Father Joe that he doesn’t know whether or not he believes in God, but that he does believe in Father Joe and his love.  The idea of the Trinity did not simply appear in the church as a self-evident philosophical truth, but emerged out of the lived experience of those who followed in the Jesus way.  For the Trinity to begin to make any sense in our every day life there is the need to start with the actual experience of the early apostles in their every day life.  Before it was a doctrine of the church, before there were any creeds or official teachings on Trinity, there was the experience of those first disciples of having been loved deeply in a way that changed their perception of themselves and God — Those first disciples who had the privilege of knowing Jesus and believing that they had been saved by his love for them.  This was the love from another human being that turned their lives upside down.  However messed up their lives had been previously and however messed up the world continued to be, they found a home in the love Jesus offered them.  And that home became a place to live in peace with themselves and with each other and with God.  Behind the doctrine of the Trinity is the simple and profound realization.  God is like Jesus, or for Tony, God is like Father Joe.    The writer of 1 John makes two key statements about what they had learned about God.  In chapter 1 verse 5 he says, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.”  A God purged of darkness, without violence, nonjudgmental.  After knowing Jesus the believers looked back on previous understandings of God and found them to be incomplete.  Only in Jesus was it revealed that God was separate from darkness.  Before God had appeared as if with two faces, sometimes loving, sometimes cursing, sometimes building up and sometimes destroying.  Through Jesus the believers were finally able to separate what was God and what was simply human’s distortions of God.   Jesus had loved in such a powerful way that only love remained for knowing God.  And so the writer of 1 John makes the other key statement: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God….is….love” (4:8).            Love is a word that is fairly easily cheapened today.  It can get reduced to a feeling that comes and goes.  It can get reduced to a soft response that isn’t able to get real and get tough.  But this misses the core of the deep, constant, overpowering love that the apostles experienced through Christ.  They came to believe that despite the appearance of things in the world and despite the apparent reign of domination and selfishness, love was the supreme force of the universe.  God is love, and in God there is no darkness at all.                      The God who is Trinity is a God who lives in relationship.  The Trinity is also spoken of in terms of Lover, Beloved, and Love.  God the Lover, shares love to God the Beloved, and God the Beloved freely returns the love back to God the Lover.  That betweenness, that relationship, that bond of love between Lover and Beloved then takes on a life of its own, the third person of the Trinity, Love, the Holy Spirit.  St. Augustine called the Holy Spirit the bond of love between Father and Son.  When Jesus promises the Spirit to the disciples, he is promising the ongoing love between himself and his Father.  The eternal Spirit that guides us into truth.       “When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love, and that love is the Holy Spirit.”  Long ago, God laughed at Jesus, and Jesus laughed back, and the Holy Spirit was poured out on all  who would received it.  At a point late in Tony Hendra’s book, he has gone 28 years without seeing Father Joe.  He revisits him at Quarr Abby.  Tony says, “I want my faith back, Father Joe.”  Father Joe replies, “I can’t give you that, dear.  But the fact that you are here, seeking faith, is itself an act of faith.”  Tony – “Why can’t I believe even that?  Why can’t I believe in something?  I’m so tired of believing in nothing….I seem incapable of love, Father Joe.  Utterly incapable of feeling it, even thinking it.  Even wanting it.  No, that’s not true.  I want to love, terribly.  But it won’t come.”  Father Joe – “Tony dear, you will only be able to love when you understand how much you are loved.  You are loved, dear, with a limitless…fathomless…all-embracing love.”  And then the author’s narration.  He didn’t say loved by God, just loved.  By whom then?  Himself?  Like a tidal wave overwhelming the breakwaters of common sense came the thought that this slowly shrinking, mud-flap-eared old elf of a man was…God.  Or a body that God would from time to time inhabit.  But I didn’t believe in God.  Father Joe placed his hand on mine and we sat in silence.  His hand was older, his skin slacker, as big and bony as ever and as warm.  I sat there for a long time, feeling its peace flow into mine and through my aging frame. When it comes to talking about God, all we have is metaphor.  All of our words, our concepts, our images, are approximations of the underlying reality which language can point us toward, but can’t contain or fully explain.  To call God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Lover, Beloved, and Love, these are metaphors for a God who interacts and intersects with and permeates our physical world.    God is not living off in a Spirit bubble somewhere and only once in a while choosing to intervene in our troubled world.  But God is a constant presence within the evolving drama of history.Ronald Rolheiser has written that because of God’s constant presence in creation even the most mundane things become sacred.  Every house becomes a sanctuary, every loaf of bread becomes a eucharist, every person we meet becomes a Christ.  If you don’t get the Trinity, how it works, you are in no danger of losing your way.  However, if you don’t experience the Trinity, God among us and within us, the way is indeed dark.  We are made in the image of God and because the life of God intersects with our own lives, our lives intersect with the divine life.  Experiencing the Trinity is a call to participate in the Divine life.  God becoming flesh, the Lover giving to the Beloved and the Beloved returning the love, the way that Jesus has set before us.  God seeking to be known as God through us.It’s as complex as a theology textbook, but its also as simple as a laugh.  “When God laughs at the soul and the soul laughs back at God, the persons of the Trinity are begotten.” 


One thought on “God as Trinity: Lover, Beloved, Love – 6,03,07

  1. really nice work… and i like the way you weaved in ‘Father Joe’.. i loved the book…

    god bless

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