Today we begin in Exodus where Moses ascended Mount Sinai with two stone tablets. When there the Lord descended in a cloud and told Moses that he was a “merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” Moses then bowed down and asked for God’s favor because this “is indeed a stiff necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” John’s Gospel announced that “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.” He continued to write that anyone who believed in Jesus would not be condemned, but anyone who did not believe in him had already been condemned.
When I was a child almost nothing gave me more joy that watching adults struggle to explain something to me. I grew up during a time when adults dared not say to a child: “I don’t know the answer to that” and they would invariably give me an answer that they prayed I would not challenge. I’m sure they are still bearing the scars. As you can imagine religious questions dominated this. A kid in my class is Jewish. Is he going to hell? What happens if you forget and eat a hamburger on a Friday in Lent? Is the sin real even if it was unintentional?
But my favorite question was this: What is the Trinity? I was told that God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Ghost). But I have to confess I found this answer unsatisfying. Does that mean that the Father is in charge and the Son and Spirit answer to him? No, I was told. Are they all equal? That doesn’t make any sense because I know lots of fathers and sons and they don’t appear equal to me. Did they all appear together, or did the Father create the Son and Spirit? When the Son appeared in our history as Jesus and prayed to the Father, did that make him subservient? Nobody prays to a peer, only to a superior.
Sometimes I was told about St. Patrick, who drew attention to the three leafed clover. It had three leaves but it was one plant. This rang hollow as a clover was just another plant that depended on sunlight and soil and I couldn’t find any relationship between the leaves (and I also pointed out that a four leaved clover was considered a sign of good luck).
Sometimes I would be pointed to a hymn we often sang at mass: Holy God We Praise Thy Name. In the fourth stanza we sang this:
Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.
That just made things worse. Does “undivided” mean they always agreed with each other? And what does “essence” mean?
All kidding aside, I later learned that the doctrine of the Trinity occupied debate for centuries in the early Church. I really don’t want to wander too far into the weeds on this for fear of losing you long before recognizing I’m lost. If you’re interested, google the words “Filioque” and “Homoousios.” I’ll pray for your safe return.
Many years ago I finally made my peace with the understanding that the Trinity is all about relationship. What matters most isn’t so much who the Father, Son, and Spirit are, but how they relate to each other and how their love for one another mirrors how we are supposed to relate to and love one another.
And yes, I understand that it’s a stretch to think that we can love each other with the unconditional love that they do. After all, they don’t need to negotiate who’s going to take out the trash or mow the lawn. None of them need to assert that “my job is important too” or navigate between our birth family and our marriage. But in a sense that misses th point.
I write this at a time when polarization between us appears as strong as I’ve ever seen. Many of us live in different “camps” where we get our news from different sources, where we feel there is no point in listening to those who disagree with us because “they’ll never change.” Listening sessions are deemed signs of weakness and “we’d all be better off if everyone knew that I’m right.”
But I’m finding it’s even gotten worse than this. A news commentator that I respect (and won’t reveal because I don’t want to turn this into a political rant) recently said this: “If you are on the other side of the argument, you are not wrong, you are not mistaken, your facts aren’t incorrect. You are evil, you are part of a conspiracy.”
It’s not supposed to be like this. Simply put, we’re all in this together. And much as we try we simply cannot place ourselves entirely in groups where we all agree. This August I will celebrate the 28th anniversary of my entrance into seminary. There were seven of us and we hailed from Plentywood, Montana; Toronto, Ontario; Santa Clara, California; Brooklyn, New York; Tucson, Arizon; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, California. We were drawn together by our common belief that God may have been calling us to become Catholic priests, and we had nothing else in common.
In the course of that first year together we all recognized that our call to build community would not be easy. We all brought beliefs and assumptions, different experiences, and hopes that were not as congruent as we expected. Any dreams we brought that we would achieve the perfect community didn’t last long. But we did listen and we did learn from each other. We were never perfect with each other, but we did grow together; we helped each other through various crises (self inflicted or otherwise) and we honed our skills together. And while I have to confess that I remain in touch with only one my classmates, I carry to this day the lessons I learned that year.
We never reached the perfect relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity, but that was never the point. Living in community calls us to progress, not perfection. It doesn’t call us to stop listening to people who agree with us, but it does call us to start (or continue) listening to those who don’t agree with us. They aren’t evil and they aren’t part of a conspiracy. They come to the same issues with the same needs, desires, fears, and hopes as we do. The fact that they come to different conclusions doesn’t call us to explain why they are wrong and it doesn’t give us the right to shout them down.
Instead it calls us to listen and understand, and also to speak our own truth. And while praying for the adults who were subject to my questions, it calls us continue to ask. The quest for truth ends up in God, and our desire to mirror the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit brings us closer the reality of the Trinity.
And so to all my teachers who prayed I wouldn’t ask about this, let me say this: I thank you for your desire to relate to me in a way that made me who I am today.