As a former Marine and an alumnus of Yale Law School, J. D. Vance was all but guaranteed a successful law career. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2017) has also made him a best-selling author. It records the rise of this young man out of the poverty of a Kentucky hillbilly family and into the highest echelons of American life.
Mr. Vance sets himself the challenging task of explaining the two very disparate worlds of his life—to each other. Having lived in both, he is convinced that the poor have no idea why life works so well for the privileged, while they, in turn, are baffled about what keeps generations of families in poverty.
Mr. Vance offers three insights:
- The poor grow up without roots, in fractured families and without networks of support.
- Moving frequently from one place to another, from one household to another, they do not develop the identity and the security that comes from knowing who one is.
- Seeing nothing of the world beyond their own circle of poverty, they lack any vision of how life itself might be different.
Reading the book, it is a challenge to keep track of the sheer number of homes in which Mr. Vance passed his childhood or the number of men his mother brought into his life. Some of them weren’t bad men, but the lack of roots, identity and vision would have destroyed his young life were it not for the woman he calls Mamaw.
His redeemer was his hillbilly grandmother, a baggy-jeaned and t-shirted smoker with a foul mouth. She took J. D. into her home during his high school years, giving him a stability his young life had never before known. Finally rooted in a relationship, he discovers who he was and who he could be.
Those three years with Mamaw—uninterrupted and alone—saved me. I didn’t notice the causality of the change, how living with her turned by life around. I didn’t notice that my grades began to improve immediately after I moved in. And I couldn’t have known that I was making lifelong friends.
How is it that some immigrant groups rise quickly from poverty and embrace the American dream? What keeps other mired in generations of indigence? A self-identified conservative, Mr. Vance is not opposed to government-sponsored assistance. He simply suggests that it cannot redeem those who are not rooted in stable relationships. If you do not belong, you have no identity, and if you don’t know who you are, you cannot imagine any existence other than the waves that carry you from one setback to another.
The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is not accessed through reason. Reason does not reveal the Trinity. The Trinity reveals itself to us, and reason can do little more than to curb our errant speculations about such sacred reality.
The Trinity isn’t something we discover. It is the mystery from which we come, by which we live, and toward which we strive.
God is not some “thing” that we encounter in our world—not even an all-powerful, invisible thing. Likewise, the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—are not three things that we find in the world. God, as Trinity, is the mystery in which our world rests, around which it aligns and toward which it strives.
God the Father, the creator, is the mystery in which our world rests. Pure existence, pure love, his is the relationship that grounds us in all other relationships. The Father is our origin. An origin is not something that we can see. We only know that we have one. We come from love. We are created for love.
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 (Jn 3:16).
The Son is our deepest, truest identity. In him, we know who we are: We are those who receive and return the Father’s love, through all the days of our lives. An identity is not something we choose and then become. No, we sense that the events of our lives and our responses to them form us into something already envisioned by another. Identity always comes from others. Ours comes from Christ and from his saints.
Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you (2 Cor 13:11).
The Spirit is the horizon that beckons to us. You never claim the horizon. Because we come from love and have been created for love, the Spirit is that ever-fruitful vista that opens before us. The Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, is our guarantee that love, which is our origin and our identity, is also our destiny. It will not exhaust itself.
The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity (Ex 34:6).
You might not fare all that well in defining the Trinity, but, by virtue of your baptism, you can share the Trinity with the world. That is what you have been called to do. If you have ever sensed that you were made for love, if you have ever felt capable of giving yourself away in love and if you still really believe that love will prevail, then you have known the Trinity in the depths of your own being.
The Trinity isn’t something we discover. It is the mystery from which we come, by which we live, and toward which we strive. The Trinity is behind us, within us, before us. Human life thrives in relationship, in identity and in destiny. When it knows these three, it has known the Most Holy Trinity.
Readings: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 John 3:16-18