Understanding the Trinity

Clover representing the Trinity

When we are aware of the beauty and loving interactions in our lives, we are actually recognizing the Trinity.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” When we begin our prayer with the Sign of the Cross, we are calling to mind one of the core beliefs of the Christian faith: that God is one, and God is three.

We invoke the Trinity often in prayer and liturgy. We pray the Glory Be at the end of every decade of the rosary. We were baptized in the name of the Trinity. We profess our faith in the Trinity each time we recite the Nicene Creed. At the end of Mass, we are blessed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As often as we call upon the Trinity, however, our understanding of it is sketchy at best. Think about the homilies we hear on Trinity Sunday. Typically the homilist begins by saying something like this: “The Trinity is a mystery, beyond our understanding. We just have to accept it and believe in it.”

I’m not faulting homilists; it’s a challenge to translate concepts from the fourth century like consubstantiality, begetting, and proceeding into language that we in the pews can grasp. But there is a much more accessible way of understanding the Trinity—through the lens of our everyday experience.

Create, Redeem, Inspire, and Love

The transcendent, infinite God is beyond our comprehension—but we can come to know about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by what they do—in us, through us, and among us.  Experiences of the Trinity are all around us.

Take God the Father, whom we affirm as creator. Think about the creativity we experience every day: a serene, glorious sunrise; the flowers and vegetables we cultivate in our gardens; the book so compelling that we can’t put it down; the statue we stop to admire; the meal lovingly prepared; the love between spouses that brings children into the world.

Creativity is all around us. It is the very creativity of God the Father. We profess God the Son to be the redeemer. But Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is no longer with us in the flesh.

The ongoing work of redemption is entrusted to us, his disciples. We are presented with opportunities to redeem and be redeemed every day. We restore relationships and build the unity Jesus called for whenever we forgive someone who has hurt us. The one who listens with empathy to a grieving friend is helping to redeem them from the pain and isolation of their loss.

A counselor can bring healing to a broken marriage. A program, a mentor, or a support group can lead to redemption from addiction. We do the redemptive work of peacemaking when we resolve conflicts without raised voices or harsh words. We help heal the open wound of racism when we learn to think and act in anti-racist ways. Our acts of charity and justice help to bring redemption to persons suffering from poverty and prejudice.

We believe God the Holy Spirit to be our advocate, the one who inspires and guides us on our journey of faith. But we don’t have to be at Mass or deep in prayer to be moved by the Spirit. We can be inspired by the words of a great orator or homilist. We are enthralled by our favorite novelist. Our spirits soar when we hear the music of a great composer or songwriter. We are moved by the selflessness of a fellow parishioner, or called to action by the example of a neighbor or friend.

We believe the Trinity is three distinct persons, but we also affirm the Trinity as a community of persons united in their unshakable, passionate love for each other. We experience that kind of intimate unity with a beloved spouse, in the bonds of love within families and religious congregations, in the sense of community at the celebration of the Eucharist, and in the social contract of mutual rights and responsibilities that is the ideal upon which the American experiment is based.

Knowing God

In a talk I presented about the theology of the Trinity as it came to be formulated in the Nicene Creed, I tried to make sense of consubstantiality, begetting in eternity, and the divine procession. I hope the folks who attended didn’t leave in a greater state of confusion than when they came. A theological, ontological grasp of the Trinity—an understanding of the Trinity in itself—is difficult but important. The mystery of the Trinity—the God who is one and three—is central to our Christian faith.

But there’s another way to come to know about the Trinitarian God: through our everyday experiences of creativity, redemption, inspiration, and community. Our knowledge of God is more immediate and tangible when we experience God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in this way—when we come to know who God is by what God does.

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