Sunday, May 18, 2008

the energies of the trinity

How wonderful the Three-in-One,
Whose energies of dancing light
are undivided, pure and good,
communing love in shared delight.
Brian Wren

Ten years ago I celebrated and preached at my first Mass at New Camaldoli on the feast that we celebrate today, the feast of the Holy Trinity. It happens so rarely that I can count on my hands how many times I have been nervous in front of people, and there weren’t a lot of people there that day, at my first Mass, but I was so nervous my hands were shaking. Not only acting as priest for the first time but preaching on the most sublime mystery of the Christian faith on my first time out of the shoot. A little daunting. It went alright, if I recall, but I did stick pretty closely to the written text.

I am covering for Mark at Holy Cross these week and I was half tempted to dig out that old homily partially to see if I still agreed with myself, and partially to save myself the trouble of writing a new one, since that one was only delivered once. But, though I did still agree with what I wrote back then, there were some new thoughts about the Trinity that have been fascinating me, mainly drawn from Ewert Cousins and Raimundo Pannikar, so I decided to write a whole new one. As it turns out, I didn’t have to preach after all––there was a guest presenter at Holy Cross––so that gives me all the more excuse to post this one for you all.

When dealing with the Trinity, I’ve always started out with the Second Person of the Trinity who we associate mainly, and usually exclusively, with the person of Jesus. But in a sense there is a reality that is behind the person of Jesus. Yes, the fullness of the godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily––that’s my favorite description-definition of Jesus––but Jesus is the Word made flesh. I remember that startling moment in Christology class when I asked a very na├»ve question of my professor, “But who was the second person of the Trinity before Jesus was born?” Up to that point I really had never considered it before. And he glared at me with his fierce Irish eyes and said, “The Word, man! The Word!” That is somehow the reality behind Jesus. The Word!

And what is that Word? The Word is what comes forth from the mouth of God, and not only that, it is, in a sense, all that comes forth from God. ”God spoke and it came be; God commanded, it came into being,” the psalmist tells us. God said, “Let there be light––and there was light!” Just because God said so. And this has been my bridge to see God everywhere. Everything that exists does so because a word was spoken that called it into being. And, especially, wherever there is beauty, truth, goodness––what the philosophers call the Transcendentals––being manifested, that is a manifestation of the Word. Wherever there is beauty––be it in a blooming flower, a poem, a face, a delicious meal; wherever there is truth¬¬––be it in science or philosophy, in the work of therapy or counseling, or the fine tuning of a computer program; wherever there is goodness, especially the goodness of concrete actions––the long suffering of a spouse caring for a life partner through the last stages of Alzheimer’s or cancer, people dedicating their lives to social justice and care of the poor, simple acts of kindness that become the habit of virtue: there is the Word manifesting. And the fullness of that Word, Christians believe, was made flesh in Jesus.

This understanding of the Word has also been my bridge to understanding other religious traditions, and why the Catholic Church can say (in Nostra Aetate) that it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy” in other religions, and why we have such “a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and the doctrines” of these other traditions. Even if they differ in many ways from our own teaching, nevertheless they “often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people.” In other words, because they too are manifestations of the Word, that ultimately became flesh in Jesus. And whenever anyone has an encounter with the Word, through any means, they are ultimately having an encounter with what leads to the Christ.

But there is something behind the Word too. There is the silence out of which the Word comes. There is an ancient tradition that speaks of the silence of the first person of the Trinity, as we say in Trinitarian language, that/who Jesus calls Abba–Father. The silence does not just mean a lack of noise; this silence is the reality behind all rites, the truth behind all dogma, the womb of creation, the power behind desire. Pope Benedict wrote of this recently in a discourse about an ancient Christian thinker Pseudo-Dionysius who taught what we call “negative theology”––“that God is above every concept”––and “our incapacity to truly express what [God] is.” Sometimes, the Holy Father explains, “It is easier to say what God is not than to express what he really is.” And he, surprisingly, says that he sees in this a bridge “between Christianity and the mystical theologies of Asia,” that are often “marked by the conviction that it is impossible to say who God is,” and that sometimes “only negative expressions can be used to speak of [God], that “God can only be spoken of with ‘no,’ and that it is ultimately only possible to reach God “by entering into this experience of ‘no.’” This is this silence of the Father, and it is what many are rediscovering in this day and age through meditation, and through contemplative prayer.

And last but not least, that which connects those two together is yet another energy in Trinitarian theology, that/who we call the Spirit. There is power inside the Word––that power is the Spirit. There is a love between the Father and the Son––and that love is the Spirit. It is that Spirit, that love, which was the driving force behind Jesus’ life and ministry and ultimately that same Spirit which thrust Jesus out of the grave. It was also that very same Spirit that came to rest on the heads of the apostles like tongues of flame, and, even more, as the Scriptures promise over and over again, that love of God, which is the energy of God, who is the Spirit, is poured into our hearts and is meant to flow from out of our hearts––by the Spirit living in us. In the depths of our own being, in the silent depths of our being, in our silence, that Spirit dwells as our deepest reality, as our real self hidden with Christ in the silence of the Father, as the pray-er behind our prayers, like a groan or a sigh too deep for words, and as power, like a stream of life giving water that is meant to flow from out of our hearts in love and service, in beauty, truth and goodness.

Mind you, I do not want merely to reduce the persons of the Trinity to energies, though it is a helpful tool when speaking to people who are not of our faith tradition, because it takes faith that some may not have to see these energies as persons. But it takes another kind of faith, an adult faith, for us to see the energies behind the persons; and also to realize that these energies are, in a sense, universal aspects of a holistic spirituality, and perhaps untapped aspects of our own spirituality––especially the silence of the Father and the power of the Spirit.

On this feast of the Trinity, I suggest that this feast inspire us to try to understand fully the Second Person of the Trinity, made manifest in Jesus: and see God manifested everywhere there is beauty, truth and goodness. But also challenge ourselves to discover the silent depths of God, of the Father, that we might have the humility (and perhaps the humor) necessary to recognize that God is beyond our paltry attempts at definition and description. This realization can open us up to real awe and a sense of mystery. Remarkably, the way to discover this silent depths of God is by discovering our own silent depths, into which the love of God––who is the Holy Spirit––is poured as our invitation into the relationship––as branches on the vine, and, even further, as our participation in the divine nature, our sharing in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity, and thus our power to manifest beauty, truth and goodness in our world, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

It seems appropriate to share this adaptation of the final blessing from the Indian rite:
May God beyond all name and form share with you glory beyond measure...
May God who became manifest in Jesus Christ enlighten your mind, strengthen your will and fill your heart with love...
May God the indweller in the cave of the heart animate you with life...