Up Front and Personal

You’ll Never Solve the Mystery of the Trinity

by Carol Powell’

Every year, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Trinity, a central doctrine of Christianity, the belief that God is one in three Persons. We have been told over and over again that this is a mystery that no one can possibly understand. Yet, to the degree that we can penetrate this mystery, it has the power to transform our lives.

The story of St. Augustine trying to grapple with this mystery has been told over and over again, how he was walking along the seashore trying to come to grips with the essence of what Trinity means. He sees a little boy with a pail who is pouring water from the sea into the pail. The water is already overflowing. He questions the child, “What are you doing?” The child replies, “I am trying to get all that sea water into that pail.” Augustine smiles at the child’s foolishness. He says, “You can’t do that. The sea is too vast and your pail is too small.”

Different versions disagree as to whether it was the child who replied or if Augustine himself came to the conclusion later. But Augustine realized that just as that child could not get the whole sea into a tiny pail, so it was impossible for him with his puny human brain to understand the mystery of the Trinity.

If this is true of a great theologian like Augustine, what can the rest of us possibly do with this mystery?

As a child, I was told that St. Patrick explained the mystery to the Irish people by showing them a shamrock, one stem with three leaves. I remember wondering if God had three heads and one body. I laugh now at such childish musings but at the same time wonder how we can avoid misunderstanding this doctrine.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that He and the Father are one. He tells us to live in Him, and He will live in us. He says He will ask the Father, and the Father will send us the Holy Spirit. God the Father pours Himself out to the Son in total self-giving. The Son pours Himself out to the Father with the same self-giving, and that self-giving love we call the Holy Spirit. Then the Son becomes human and pours Himself out in self-giving love on the cross, and that Spirit of Love, the Holy Spirit, is released on the world for those who will receive it by becoming one with Christ. It is a dance of Love with God who is Love itself. Is this completely understandable? Of course it is not. But it does tell us that everything that is was created in Love and that the meaning of the Trinity is self-giving love, relationship, pouring out, giving, sacrificing for the Beloved.

As Catholics, we believe in the Divine Indwelling, the idea that the Trinity dwells within those who love God. So the dance of love continues in the friends of God, the oneness with Christ and thus with the Father by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The lovers of God are the tabernacles of the Trinity. The Trinity seeks to gradually transform each and every lover of God so that the whole world might ultimately be transformed.

The mystery of the Trinity is not a dilemma to be solved or figured out. It is a deep mystical spiritual reality that cannot be intellectualized or analyzed completely. It can only be experienced through love, the love that is poured out from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

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