Sunday, June 19, 2011

What I Never Learned, Part III: The Trinity

Years ago, I sent out some "catechesis emails" to interested friends and family. They, like me, never really learned much in Catholic religious education and CCD classes (I was catechized in the 1970s and '80s). What I wrote was pretty basic stuff, and I thought some of the Bubble readers might like the overview. Part one of this series can be found here. Part two, here.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and that seems a fitting time to talk about, well, the Holy Trinity! 

The Trinity is the trickiest thing in the world to try to explain, because it is impossible to explain the unexplainable. The Trinity is the greatest mystery of all. But let's go over the basics of what we can know.

The fundamental belief of all Christians -- both Catholic and Protestant*-- is that God is a Trinity. 

The Holy Trinity consists of three Persons in One God. Not three Gods, but one God. Yet in the one Godhead, we have three Persons, all co-equal, all co-eternal, and all with the same divine nature. 

  • The first Person of the Holy Trinity is the Father 
  • The second Person of the Holy Trinity is the Son
  • The third Person of the Holy Trinity is the Holy Spirit (sometimes called the Holy Ghost)

There has never been a time when one of these Persons existed without the other two, and there is not one Person who is “superior” to the others. They have existed together from all eternity, they have always been equal in power and glory, they share the same divine nature, and yet the Three are still distinct Persons. 

The big question, of course: Why is God a Trinity? Why isn't He just one Person?

Answer: Because of the nature of love.  

Remember, God is perfect truth, perfect goodness, and perfect beauty. Most of all, He is perfect love. But think about the very nature of love: Can love be solitary? Can love be one person, alone? No. By it’s very nature, love must have an object. There must be someone to receive love, or else it isn’t love.  

If God weren’t a Trinity, if He were solitary, then God would, in a sense, just sit around "loving" Himself. But think if you just sat around, alone, "loving" yourself. Can you imagine this being the icon of "true love" or a compelling "love story"? Of course not; such a scenario is not an image of love at all.  

Love must go out, go forth to another. And in the case of perfect love, it goes out, is received and accepted by the other (who is the object of the love), then returned in fullness to the first lover.  

It is an endless cycle of love that is given out, received fully and returned, and given out, received fully and returned, in perfection, in fullness, for eternity! 

So, wait…. Then why isn’t God a Duo, instead of a Trinity? Why not just two divine Persons? 

Again, we go back to the nature of love: Love is, by its very nature, generativefruitful, and life-giving.  

True and perfect love cannot be contained even between the two Lovers! The love between the Father and the Son is so powerful, true, perfect and good that it overflows in an abundance of Life! And this Life is so real that He is a distinct Person. We call Him the Holy Spirit.

So, we can take tentative steps to understanding: The Father’s love is poured out for the Son; the Son receives the Father’s love and returns that perfect love back to the Father; and the Holy Spirit, then, is the overflowing, the outpouring of that love, which cannot be contained, which is spinning forth from the Father and the Son. Catholics acknowledge this every Sunday, when we profess in the Nicene Creed that The Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”.

Because we humans are finite, and because we exist in space and time, we tend to want to think that the Father preceded the Son, and the Holy Spirit came after the other Two. In fact, however, none is more important than the others, none was there “first.” 

It helps to remember that God exists outside of time and space. God actually created time and space, and since time and space are creations, they do not have any bearing on Who God is. Time and space mean an awful lot to us humans, however, and so as we sit here in time and space, we can talk about the ways that the Persons of the Trinity have been revealed to us, or manifested: 

The Old Testament of the Bible is the part of “the story” which came before Christ. It covers the important points of salvation history from the time of Creation to just before the time of Jesus. The New Testament is the part of the Bible that covers the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and the early Christian Church. 

We see God the Father revealed to us in a profound way in the Old Testament, in all that history before the coming of Christ. We see Him creating the world and all its inhabitants, we see Him interacting with Adam and Eve, promising a Savior when they fall from grace. We see Him making covenants with His people: He had relationships with Noah, Abraham, Moses and all those other wonderful Old Testament biblical figures.

God the Son was certainly right there with the Father when all those Old Testament events took place, but He was not yet revealed to us. We see the Son revealed to us in the New Testament. God the Son took on a human nature (this is known as the Incarnation) and from the time of His Incarnation, we call Him Jesus Christ. The four Gospels in the New Testament (the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), tell us all about His birth, life, and teachings, the establishment of His Church, His death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven. 

God the Holy Spirit was also with the Father and the Son all along (after all, He is the one Who “has spoken through the Prophets” as we say in the Nicene Creed). After Jesus Christ left this earth (forty days after His resurrection), we begin to see more clearly the action of the Holy Spirit, Whom Jesus sent to the world to ensure that we would “not be left orphans.”  The Holy Spirit descended upon the young Christian Church at Pentecost, and He has been guiding and sanctifying the Church ever since, especially through the sacraments.

So, first the Father was revealed to us, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. How each was revealed helps us know the Persons better, thus bringing us closer to our goal: Union with God.

Untold volumes have been written about the Holy Trinity over the past two millenia, and yet this legend of St. Augustine might be the most illustrative of all:

The scene is the seashore, where there is a small pool, a little boy with a seashell, and a sandy beach on which St. Augustine, clad in his episcopal robes, is walking, pondering with difficulty the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. 

“Father, Son, Holy Spirit; three in one!” he muttered, shaking his head.

As he approached the little boy who was running back and forth between the sea and the pool with a seashell of water, Augustine craned his neck and asked him: “Son, what are you doing?”

“Can’t you see?” said the boy. “I’m emptying the sea into this pool!”

“Son, you can’t do that!” Augustine countered. 

The boy replied: “I will sooner empty the sea into this pool than you will manage to get the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity into your head!”

Upon saying that, the boy, who was an angel according to the legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine alone with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

*Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not technically Christians, because they do not believe in the Trinity. They have a completely different understanding of God the Father, of Jesus, and of the Holy Spirit. Although they do not accept the traditional Christian understanding of God, these groups do consider themselves to be Christian.


  1. Hey, have you read The Shack? It was lent to me by a Catholic family member when I was starting to convert. I liked it a lot, it helped me understand the trinity.

  2. So this logic behind the Trinity & the Holy Spirit -- specifically where you say the Holy Spirit comes from the outpouring of love between the Father & Son -- would be one of the important differences between Roman Catholicism & Eastern Orthodoxy, right? Since they reject the addition of “and the Son” (a.k.a. the filioque) to the creed, they must have some other understanding of the Holy Spirit. Is that correct?

  3. alek, I've never read it!

    Eliz, I knew someone would ask that, ha ha! I don't think their idea of the Trinity is different, although they don't use those words, it's true. The east is much more about the 'mystery' and the west has always been a bit more linear, wanting to explain. The Church needs both (which is why it's so nice that some of the Eastern churches have come back under the Pope. My parents attend a Melkite Catholic Church which does not include the filioque, but is fully Catholic.

    The Eastern Orthodox do believe that the Three Persons are co-eternal, co-equal, and of the same substance.

  4. Leila, you have a way of making the truth understandable to me! This post set me back with an awe for the Holy Trinity. It's true we will never be able to fully comprehend it, and no wonder, it's such a mystery! But the small part we do understand just blows my mind.

  5. I read The Shack awhile back and it went from being a heavy-duty story to being a little too preachy to me. I felt it lost the art of the story, but maybe that was the intention.


  6. Leila, you have such a gift. Thank you for the beautiful writing. I love that story about St. Augustine and the little boy.

  7. Love the story of St. Augustine and the angel.

  8. Still don't get it, but I'm not sure I ever will, lol! <3

  9. Thanks (again!) Leila :). Our priest actually told this story of St. Augustine and the little boy as part of our homily this week. And of course St. Patrick's explanation using the Shamrock. One plant - 3 leaves. One God - 3 persons.

  10. Leila - If you want to read "The Shack" I can loan it to you via Kindle. The theology is a bit too "protestant" for me (speaking from a former Presbyterian/now Roman Catholic perspective).

  11. Wonderful write-up on the Trinity... <3

  12. Nice description. I am overwhelmed to read your post. Thanks a lot for sharing. Even I also got the real time inspiration for trinity.

  13. what a great explanation of the the trinity. It makes it very understandable.


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