The mysterious origins of the Trinity

 

trinity - rublev

Year A Solemnity of the Holy Trinity

There’s the old standby joke about how the Trinity is incomprehensible, so the pastor always makes the associate preach on the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity. It’s an old standby, but it’s not at all funny now that, for the first time in my life, I’m the associate!

I’m the one who’s going to be laughing in a moment, though, because you’re all about to get a serious philosophy lecture…

To understand the Trinity, we have to begin with a seemingly unrelated mental exercise. I want you to take a moment and think about yourself. You can mentally picture looking at yourself in a mirror. You got it? Now, notice what we have accomplished. In a sense, we have separated you from yourself. On the one hand, there is your true self, and on the other hand there is your self-concept that you created just now. These are not the same.

Scientists once did a study about what people see when they look in the mirror; women thought they looked overweight and weighed more than they really did. Men, and this won’t surprise anyone who has ever met a man, were pretty impressed with how big their muscles looked and how handsome their reflection was. This phenomenon is at the heart of the reason why a man will, against all reason, attempt to single-handedly carry a washing machine down the stairs. The alleged handsomeness and muscles, and this won’t surprise you either, are vastly over-rated. This accounts for the phenomenon of men making more than their fair share of trips to the emergency room.

The point is, no one has an accurate self-concept. Who you think you are might not be accurate, and other people might describe you very differently. This is mainly due to pride or doubt. This is the human condition, and the reason why when Socrates saw the inscription on the Temple at Delphi that said, “Know thyself,” he laughed. So, when a self-concept springs forth from us, it’s a tentative exercise at best. We’re always learning more about who we are.

Now, God too has a self concept. He speaks a Word, and a self-concept springs forth. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas calls, “the word in the heart.” Recall the beginning of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This divine self-concept is the Word, the 2nd person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. God’s self-concept, unlike ours, is perfect, and because God’s very nature is to be the great I AM must exist by his very nature, his self concept doesn’t remain a mental exercise but must express itself in personhood.

I talked last week for Pentecost about how the Holy Spirit is The Divine Romance, the love that is shared between the Father and Son, a love so powerful that it too had to be expressed in a person. What I didn’t get into is how, when we love someone, that someone becomes a part of us. Which of us, having lost a loved one too soon, wouldn’t describe it as feeling like a piece of your heart has been taken away from you? Which of you who are married didn’t vow to share the very core of your being with your spouse? Which of you parents fail to see how each and every child you are blessed with has taken complete ownership of your affections? This is why Aquinas says, “The object loved is present in the lover.” This imprint of love is how the Father and Son generate the Holy Spirit from all eternity.

This is all to say that the main distinctions within the Trinity are not that the Father is an old man, the son a hippie with a beard, and the spirit a dove. The distinctions in the Trinity are relational, and these relationships are summarized with a single word – Love. It is love that allows God to possess perfect self-knowledge, because it is the eye of the lover that sees most clearly. And now we’re drilling down to the heart of existence, because God also created us out of love, and he holds us in his perfect knowledge. We may not know ourselves – but God knows us.

The mystery of our existence, the way in which we can come to terms with who we truly are, is to see ourselves through the eye of God, to reconnect with the primal goodness that gave birth to the universe. His inner nature is unfolding for us, revealing layer upon layer of grace. And like a root putting forth a tender shoot, the Trinity incarnates Our Lord and reveals the heart of God. This may all sound very high minded and theoretical, so maybe St. John can summarize it for us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

Do you want to know yourself? Find your identity and the very meaning of your existence in God’s love.

Do you want to love those around you more faithfully, love yourself and be happy? Rest in the perfect love of God, for it is the most powerful force in the universe, it is the explanation for the mystery of the Holy Trinity, it can create worlds, and through God’s mercy will bestow a second birth and remake each human soul that allows his grace to dwell within.

Three-personed God, we give you our hearts.

Is the Ascension the most painful miracle?

ascension

Feast of the Ascension

 

The poet Walt Whitman, as he looked back and narrated his own life, saw his first departure from the town of his birth as his chance to escape the past, to “strike up for the New World.” The poet Ezra Pound, in the beginning of his Cantos, imagines sailing away from home, writing, “And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”

 

These poets describe the common human experience of departure, the way in which it seems we are always being forced to take leave of someone or someplace, either because of death, or a new job, or growing up and moving out to go to college. Certainly, at Holy Infant, we’re no strangers to departure in our own lives but also in the life of the Church. Priests come here, fall in love with all you wonderful people, and then are stolen away to serve in other parishes where God desires us to serve. Now imagine that, instead of a humble, and let’s face it fairly replaceable priest (because the heart of the parish is actually out there in the pews), imagine that that you had Jesus Christ himself in the flesh as your priest, your teacher, your friend, everyday with you spending time with you and teaching you – and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he’s gone.

 

The Ascension of Our Lord, which we celebrate today, is a miracle, but for his friends it was a painful one. In the sacred art tradition of the Church, the scene is often depicted as the disciples gathered about gazing mournfully into the sky and all that is visible is a pair of feet still hanging through the clouds. The miracle itself, the God who had risen from the dead and was now ascending bodily to heaven, this very miracle seemed to be taking him away from them.

 

As I contemplate my own departure from Holy Infant, I think back to the other changes in my life that have left a mark on my psyche. How, after college graduation, I left New Haven Connecticut where I’d made so many friends during a formative period of youth, knowing that as I left for the last time, there would be no going back to the place I remembered because each return would find my old friends gone and the places I had been, in a way, alienated and foreign to me. I remember how, after I converted to the Catholic faith, I quit my job as an Anglican pastor on Cape Cod and had to say goodbye to the parishioners I loved so much, sell my home, and drive away for the last time at the wheel of a rented truck full of my earthly possessions, full well knowing that I was driving away from everything that mattered.

 

This, at least, is how those moments feel – Each change an added scar, each departure an exodus into a strange land. Perhaps this is why Matthew tells us that, even as the disciples worshipped… they doubted. Would this Risen God who stood before them turn out to be a permanent reality in their lives, or would he vanish again into the silence of the tomb? Would he stay with them forever, or would he, too, eventually move on as all of us do to different pastures. And as they struggled with their inner turmoil, he ascended. And he was gone.

 

Matthew almost seems traumatized by it. He doesn’t even record it! For that, we must consult Luke’s historical book called the “Book of Acts.” Matthew, though, simply records the last words of Jesus almost as if they’re a last will and testament. To him, the loss of Jesus feels like a death.

 

We don’t tend to think about the Ascension in this way, but I think it’s helpful because we too struggle with these departures, these feelings that maybe God has abandoned us, doesn’t hear our prayers, or that he isn’t as real as he was to those first followers who actually saw him in the flesh.

 

At least partly, this feeling of departure is a longing for a permanent home, a desire for the Garden of Eden, a perfect reality where no one is left behind and God walks with us. Knowing that there is no return to the paradise of Eden, we begin to see that sin, which caused Adam and Eve to be exiled, is a sort of departure from ourselves. It alienates us from our own souls, injures our will to seek our true home, and puts us in a situation where we do bad things we don’t want to do and have trouble doing the good things that we do want to do.

 

Against this backdrop, we begin to glimpse the logic of the ascension. We cannot stay here. Jesus cannot stay here. This life is too marred by sin, and as we are redeemed we find that the heavenly reality connects with this one but slowly and steadily is replacing it through redemption. They somehow connect but are yet completely different (that’s my incredibly technical and precise definition of sacraments). Jesus is with us yet, as Pope St. Leo says, “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” But his presence had to be changed so that it might be perfected.

 

The ascension is necessary to bring us home. It allows Our Lord, from his vantage point in heaven, to be present in the hearts of all, closer to us than we even are to ourselves. Closer than he ever would have been if he had remained on earth, meaning that the Ascension might feel like a departure but it is actually an arrival. It’s the endpoint of a magnificent journey.

 

Pope St. Leo says, “The Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity.”

 

What new path is God opening up before you? What are you being called to leave behind that is holding you back? Set before yourself Our Lord’s miraculous Ascension and take hope that every change no matter how painful, every small act of death to self through Christian sacrifice, every sinful habit conquered and left behind, every halting step you take is not a step away from your youth or your memories but it is one step closer to God.

 

O Lord, as you ascend bring us home to you.

 

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

dante rose

Year A Easter 6

 

Love is difficult to talk about, right? If you had to get up here, right now, and announce to the world exactly why you love your spouse, or your mom or dad, or children, you could probably say some wonderful things about them, the sparkle in their eyes, their laugh, how they are the very apple of your eye. But let’s say all that good stuff disappears. Say you’re in the position of God and you love even the sinners of the world, those ungrateful, vice-ridden, all-round difficult people who seem to have no good qualities to speak of – how then would you describe your love? What is love, and why do we bestow it on the people we do? It goes deeper than affinity, or what someone can do for you in return, and so any attempt to describe the qualities of someone that makes them loveable can be helpful, but ultimately falls short of the reality of what love really is.

 

This is as it should be, because Love is the greatest virtue in the universe, the very stuff of which God is made. It has no upper limit but grows on boundlessly into eternity, always expanding within our hearts the further we allow it to direct our course. This is why, when Dante in the Paradiso is taken to see the Celestial Rose, the great mobile of orbs that make up the heavenly hierarchy, some saints are actually closer to God than others. The close ones who see more of God are the ones who have loved greatly in this life, who have displayed the virtue of charity in heroic amounts. It isn’t that those who are further out in orbit are unhappy. No, they are perfectly happy and full to perfection with the virtue of love, it’s just that those who are closer are more perfectly happy and more full to perfection with the virtue of love (remember, there’s no outer limit). And how does this love of the saints manifest itself? In a full, still, silence, a manifest gaze of devotion – God beholds his beloved saints and they behold him. This is what the Church speaks of when she references the Beatific Vision as the very substance of our afterlife. It is to see clearly the face of God, a face which here and now is veiled and mysterious.

 

St. Paul encourages us always to be ready to explain our love for Jesus. Hopefully we are all able to live our lives in such a way that people every now and then become curious – why are you so different? Why don’t you cheat at school, or badmouth the boss at work? Why are you so honest with your timecard when you punch in and out, why do you have such a good marriage? Why do you seem so happy even when you ought to be frustrated, or have such respectful children? When these sorts of questions arise, it is our responsibility to be ready with an explanation. In this day and age, it helps simply to be able to say what your faith means to you and how it has given you a reason for hope and a sense of purpose; a non-confrontational, simple declaration of happiness. This is the sort of witness that is winsome. We’re all part of a story – it’s your task to point out that it has a happy ending.

 

But ultimately, when we talk about faith it isn’t about an idea or a philosophy or a community organization; we are referencing the greatest expression of love in the history of the universe, how God made us out of nothing simply to share a life with us, how he showed up on earth to find us and rescue us, how he meets us in the grace and power of Holy Communion in a fragile and vulnerable state under the shadow of mere bread. In the Eucharistic host he is at our mercy, powerless, but is thrilled to do so because it is the way in which he joins with us in our very physical selves and shapes our souls to his own. This is pure love – How do you talk about that?

 

I’m reminded of being back in high school and, when there was a girl I liked how intensely tongue-tied I would get. I never talked to girls I liked, that would’ve been terrifying, no, but I would try to be nearby. Being a teenager is hilarious, I’m sorry guys, it’s true, and all of those emotions and warm fuzzies get your head turned around and you can’t think straight because you are in love with this girl you’ve never talked to and can’t talk to and can’t you can’t even admit it to your friends because they will mercilessly troll you about it. The problem isn’t new, and 200 years ago Jane Austen wrote in her novel Emma, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

 

This is why St. Paul doesn’t leave his advice merely at telling us to be ready with explanations; he first insists that we must sanctify Christ in our hearts. No explanation in the world, no intellectual commitment can fill the place that would be left empty without Jesus. He is not merely an idea. He is a person, and people are meant to be loved.

 

Jesus says something pretty challenging, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Don’t hear those words as a moral rulebook or a contingency, as in, if you really loved me you would do this for me. Jesus isn’t passive aggressively guilt tripping or blackmailing us into being good people. What he is saying is, you say you love me and that is really great, but true love goes beyond words. True love is an act of the will, embodied in a million tiny little actions every day, the faithfulness and commitment of a life lived sacrificially for another person.

 

Jesus goes on to assure us that we aren’t left alone in a struggle to earn his love. That’s not the way grace works. The way grace works is that God tells us how great we can be and then he helps us actually achieve it. Jesus says that God the Father “remains with you, and will be in you.” The two shall become one.

 

Pope Benedict XVI says, “The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.” (Deus Caritas Est) In other words, love is deeper than words alone. It shows itself in visible acts of Christian devotion, in keeping the law, and treating our neighbor as ourselves.

 

This will only happen when we give ourselves totally to God. Benedict goes on to teach, “the ‘commandment’ of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given.”

 

All of this is a gift. Our lives, our families, the Church, deep conversations at the coffee shop, the stippled spots on a trout’s shining side, the smell of a baby’s head, finches’ wings in flight…all of it is a gift of love poured out upon us by God the Father. He says not a word; his creation does the speaking for him. And if it wasn’t clear enough, the death of Our Lord on the Cross, the silence of his tomb, and that quiet moment when you receive his precious body onto your tongue in Holy Communion speak the loudest word of all.

 

Dear Jesus, may we love you beyond all words.

 

 

 

 

Mary, our mother in the spiritual house of God

download

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared on May 13 to three small children and insisted, among other things, on the startling revelation that, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

 

How amazing is that?

 

Think about it, this past year was the deadliest year ever for Christians, who are being martyred indiscriminately all over the world. There is violence daily in the news. Various nations are threatening to send nuclear bombs our way. In our daily lives we contend with road rage, family problems, and stress at work. At school there is peer pressure and bullying. For some of us, life is going great, but for others each day might be a struggle right now. Even in the Church there is contention about something the pope said, or I said…

 

And here is what’s amazing. Over it all, the powers and principalities of this world, more powerful than our sinful actions, our jaded cynicism, stronger than world leaders and violence and hatred – Our Lady and her Immaculate Heart will triumph.

 

Our Mother, our pure and maternal Mary will hold our charred, wrecked world in her lap and she will squeeze us tight and never let us go no matter how much we kick or scream. It’s kind of how, kids, when your mom drops you off at school and yells I love you out the car window while you desperately try to scurry away because she is embarrassing you in front of your friends, but secretly you really like it. Or even as an adult how when I go to my parents house and my mom grabs my face and all but forces a kiss onto my cheek but in a quiet sort of way I’m perfectly fine with it.

 

Nothing will stop the love of Our Lady for her Son Jesus, or for her spiritual children, for you and me. This isn’t a meaningless phrase, either. A mother’s love is the strongest force in the universe, because it becomes one with the outpouring of God the Father’s grace and participates in his nurturing, world-creating activity. In 7 days God made the world. For 9 months Mary carried Christ within her womb. Which is the greater miracle? Honestly, it’s hard to say.

 

Such is the awe inspired by Our Lady that the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins compares Mary to the very air we breathe, referencing the way in which she is fundamental to our very spiritual existence.

 

“Wild air, world-mothering air,” he writes. Every breath he takes is a reminder that Our Lady’s love is fierce and untamed, it is procreative and daring. It is such, Hopkins writes, that she is, “Mary Immaculate,/Merely a woman” and yet through her flows all of God’s mercy. He goes on, “I say that we are wound/With mercy round and round/As if with air.”

 

There is this famous color in medieval painting that I call Marian Blue. It is the most expensive, most saturated and gorgeous color there was, and painters lavished money on painting Our Lady’s cloak Marian Blue. This is the mantle of Our Lady, and it is of great significance. It covers the globe, and we are covered by her protecting presence, which is how we can be assured that the air itself is saturated with God’s mercy. Mary is in charge of dispensing it, and we must always remember that the ministry of Jesus begins at her prompting and that he continues to minister to us through her because she is our Mother the Church. Her vocation begins with her Son Jesus but soon enough her motherhood extends to all of us. She chooses to be mother to everyone. No one is left out.

 

And what mother would choose differently? What mother would abandon one of her children? What mother would play favorites? Mary, writes Hopkins, “holds high motherhood.” And in reference to her mantle he writes that it will, “Fold home, fast fold thy child.”

 

There is this whole dimension to the visible Church that we see front and center every day: the hierarchy, the pope, the bishops, the priests and deacons. This is our home, the Body of Christ. It is a beautiful reality and I love being a part of it. St. Peter encourages us all to do so when he writes, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” The problem is that, sometimes, it can be hard to see where we fit. What gifts can I bring? Of what use am I? Am I even worthy of being here with all these people who seem so devout and holy? I know I feel those doubts myself sometimes, especially as a priest when I’m expected to stand up here and say meaningful, profound things to you but my own heart is capable of so much waywardness and coldness towards God. It’s one thing to be told that we are in the house of God, another to actually live that reality.

 

So how are we built into the house of God – through the mediation of Mother Mary. The Body of Christ is received from his Mother, and there is this whole other, even more important spiritual reality by which we approach God, and that reality is Marian. She folds us into her mantle and thus into the Body of Christ our true home.

 

So when it comes to your faith or any of the worries of this world, don’t worry, take a deep breath, and pray.

 

Immaculate Heart of Mary, may our hearts be ever united with yours

You never return home the same

 

Year A Easter 4

The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch describing one day in the life of a prisoner in the communist prison system, knew what he was talking about. As a young man in the 1930’s, Solzhenitsyn was a dedicated Marxist, but it turns out that in spite of how much he loved Marx, he didn’t quite love Stalin enough (Stalin by the way, is probably responsible for upwards of tens of millions of deaths so he isn’t really very lovable). For the crime of not loving Stalin enough, Solzhenitsyn was sent to slave labor in a prison system called the Gulag for 8 years.

While he was imprisoned, he recalls that his wife sent him a letter that dreamed of, “When you come back…” He later wrote of his despair at reading those words, “The horror was that there was no going back. To return was impossible… Although the man who came back would have the same surname as her husband, he would be a different person, and she would realize that her one and only, for whom she had waited fourteen lonely years, was not this man at all – he no longer existed.”

Many of us know the feeling. For instance, when I return to a place where I used to live, like New Haven Connecticut, I feel as though I am accompanied by the ghost of past memories. The people I knew have changed or moved on, and although it’s a place I spent a part of my life, it isn’t the same – not at all. What we experience when we return to a place we’ve been, or look at old family photos, or go to the art museum and gaze at the beautiful Ecce Homo painting by Titian, is nostalgia. Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of feeling homesick for a past time and place? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. It creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments: driving your car alone at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…

Nostalgia is a positive sort of heartbreak, a sense that life is pretty wonderful and yet we are never able to linger in the places and with the people with whom we want to linger, because in the attempt to return we find that we are not the same and those places are not the same. This longing for a permanent home is actually a sign that we are not made for this world. We are made for eternity. The heartbreak is the overflow of a dreaming soul. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, would not hope, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.

To borrow from and slightly amend the philosopher Aristotle (don’t tell my philosophy teacher from school that I’m butchering everything he taught me), our longing for heaven is the longing for what might be and what should be. We’re not there yet, though, and so cannot help but proceed except by a sideways glance. Pope Benedict says, “The arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him, and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”

When we feel nostalgia, it creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better, to seek the home beyond the homesickness. Our longing for are Heaven remains an enigma – inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is the romance that precedes nuptial bliss itself.

This is the sort of longing that creates great poetry. That Aristotle quote I mangled earlier is actually about how poetry is the language of possibility, what might be and ought to be. If you’ve ever wondered why the Church loves poetry like the Song of Songs and the Psalms, and why we use poetic, elevated language during our prayers, this is because poetry is the language that addresses the God beyond our everyday words. Today specifically, we prayed the most enduringly beloved of the Psalms, which begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” The ending is beautiful, too, “Only goodness and kindness follow me/ all the days of my life;/ and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD/ for years to come.” In other words, God is Our Shepherd leading us to new places of rest. The reality we yearn for when we are nostalgic, that is where Christ leads us – He is the fulfillment of our dreams.

Our Lord fulfills the poetic wonder of Psalm 23. He makes this clear by teaching, “I am the gate.” He is the way, the only way, by which we will find our way home. The difficulty that Alexander Solzhenitsyn encountered was that nothing could ever be the way it was before he went to prison, and he felt that as a lack. And it is true that none of us can ever quite remain the same, but as we follow Our Lord, our Good Shepherd, the ways in which we change don’t make us less ourselves but help us to come home to our true selves. Jesus gives us our lives back and although he changes our lives forever, he leads us and guides us to our true resting place, where our souls can find the true purpose of our creation.

We might ask ourselves, do I belong to his flock? Have I walked through that gate? Have I made my home with Jesus?

I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;

I know my sheep, and mine know me.