RE-READING Michael Downey’s wonderful “Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality” (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, pp. 143, $12), I have been thinking about how I studied the doctrine of the Trinity as a seminary student in the 1950s. I certainly did not find it the most exciting theological topic nor a doctrine that had practical implications for my life and the lives of any Christian believers.
Looking back, I think that I approached the doctrine almost as a problem that I should try to solve, try to figure out and understand clearly. I suspect that I emphasized reason rather than faith. I cannot recall ever trying to relate what I was doing in class concerning the Trinity with what I was doing in chapel. If I had to state my approach in one sentence I would say that I was trying to grasp the Trinity rather than allow myself to be grasped by the Trinity. Downey expresses a better approach by suggesting that it is the mystery which enfolds us, rather than we who comprehend it by means of our intellectual efforts. Downey writes the following:
“What is most mysterious is God’s superabundant life pouring itself forth, the love of God who gives and gives again but is never emptied in the giving. The self-giving is at the very heart of who God is. The incomprehensibility of God lies in the utter gratuity of life and love, is God’s constant coming as gift. God is inexhaustible Gift. … This is who and how God is. Whatever may be known of this ineffable mystery, unfathomable because of the depth and prodigality of this life pouring itself forth in love, is known in and through the gift of the indwelling Spirit of God enabling us to recognize the Word made flesh whose life, passion, death, and Resurrection are the very disclosure of God’s mystery. The life, suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus bespeak, reveal, God’s self-giving as gift. Mystery is always more, always ahead of us, inviting us to greater life, light, and love.” (p. 43)
The first time I read Downey’s book his emphasis on gift made a strong impression on me. This may be because for much of my life I was influenced by a kind of Pelagianism that had infiltrated the way Catholicism was taught to me and also by some spiritual practices I was encouraged to embrace. There was definitely an emphasis that we could pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and frame and mold ourselves to be followers of Jesus. Of course, there are practices that we can embrace that might help us grow closer to Jesus, but we should never forget that God initiates the process and that God’s love and involvement in our lives are always gifts that we cannot merit, earn or win.
A Profound Change
Downey’s book so impressed me and influenced me that for several weeks I used the word “gift” to start a daily meditation. I don’t think the emphasis on God’s self-gift, on God’s love for us, should lead to a kind of laziness or an attitude that we don’t need to do anything, that God will do everything. That attitude the Church tags as “quietism,” the heresy that says we do not need to cooperate with God’s grace. Rather, what should happen is that our gratitude will lead us to fall more deeply in love with God. Though we are sinners, our self-image should change profoundly because of our realization of how much God loves us. At a Cursillo retreat, I heard a statement which is a tremendous understatement: “God does not make junk.” Even at this point in my life I am amazed at the number of Catholics I meet who have a terrible self-image and don’t seem to believe in God’s love for them. However much we imagine God loving us, God still loves more than we can even imagine.
Downey’s book has started me thinking about God’s providence and about how God involves our free decisions in His plan for all of us. I am thinking of the years Downey spent studying theology and spirituality. Eventually, he sat down and wrote “Altogether Gift.” I read the book, am deeply impressed by it and try to encourage others to read it. Perhaps those others encourage others. Used by God, Downey’s book is like a pebble thrown into a lake. We never know how far the ripples will go.
Father Robert Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).