When I was a child, I thought of the Trinity as something of a celestial committee. There was God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The last character used to be called God the Holy Ghost, but, about the same time that the Beatles came to America, he decided to change his name to Holy Spirit.
I didn’t want to offend any one of the committee members through neglect, so I assigned each of them two days of the week, in which I would direct my prayer to him. Of course there are seven days of the week, so I gave one of them to the Blessed Virgin. I was covered.
Sadly, many Christians share my youthful perception of the Trinity. It seems so superfluous. The acclaimed Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante perfectly capture this attitude in her wonderful story of childhood companions, My Brilliant Friend (2012). Growing up in post-war Naples, Elena is one of the few smart girls and is chosen for high school studies. Her even-smarter friend, Lila, is not, as she is needed at home. When Elena shares what she is learning in high school religion, Lila finds it meaningless in comparison to crawling out of poverty. Already a young Communist, to her mind
the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit—this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son—was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.
Lila has a point. Christians profess the Trinity, but, let us admit, we don’t know what to make of it. How does this mystery of the Godhead impact our lives? What difference does it make?
I want to say, it causes us to rethink ourselves, to see our own humanity as lying open to mystery. To profess God to be a trinity of persons is say that God is not a fact, which we master, but a personhood, whom we encounter, and, like all other persons, to encounter God is not superfluity but rather superabundance. Our knowledge of God never exhausts who God is, because as a person, as the basis of our human personhood, God is an ocean depth of mystery.
There’s a delightful little passage from My Brilliant Friend, which captures the sheer depth of human encounter. To love another is to drown in abundance. We never exhaust the other, never find the bottom of his or her person. Elena remembers walking the streets of Naples with Lila.
We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.
A single person can become all the world to another, because there is a depth, a transcendence, to our humanity. You can’t draw a line around our persons and say, “This is where we begin, and this is where we end.” To love another is to know abundance. “No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.”
The rich receptivity of our humanity mirrors the transcendence of the Trinity. God doesn’t simply encounter us in love. God is an encounter of love. God is an ocean depth of exchange and delight. God is love content.
To love another is to enter a world that never exhausts itself, never goes down into entropy. Don’t tell a bride and groom you hope that their love will be always as strong as on the day of their wedding. It should grow fiercer in each day of encounter. True love is an abundance. That’s why love is the great cipher to the meaning of the universe, which, we Christians say, is love itself, the Most Holy Trinity.
Does that make a difference in the streets? Does this mystery have a meaning for humans? It depends. The Trinity doesn’t exist to be examined. It exists to be embraced by us, and we exist to be enfolded by it. But how do we open ourselves to the mystery of the Trinity? By opening to the mystery of ourselves.
Proverbs 8: 22-31 Romans 5: 1-5 John 16: 12-15