In Michael Brendan Dougherty’s achingly beautiful letters to his Irish father, now published as My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search for Home (2019), the author recalls a meal that he, as an adult, shared with his father, who was visiting New York City, along with his Irish children, Mr. Dougherty’s half-siblings.
As the train made its way back to my mother’s house in the suburbs, my girlfriend told me how she and my siblings studied the two of us as we sat next to each other. You and I each took turns running the table with storytelling. They had been comparing notes through the night, totaling up the expressions and gestures that we shared. They began tallying all these things I had inherited from you—the smirks, and shrugs, a boyish gleam—even though I could not have learned them by imitation. My friends saw the same thing, she said. Everyone could see it, she said. Everyone except me. It begins to dawn on me that relationship wasn’t a series of events, but an unalterable and primordial fact. The events were just the record of how we coped with this truth.
A father is a father even when he is absent. That is, as Mr. Dougherty puts it, “a primordial fact.” Yet it took Mr. Dougherty years to learn this lesson as he was raised solely by his American mother. Before his birth, his father had parted from her and returned to Ireland, where he would marry and have other children. Growing up, there were attempts to reconnect, but an ocean and a mother never-wed certainly limited contact between father and son.
The Trinity began as an experience and grew by reflection into the revelation of God’s own self.
Yet even when he remains in the life of his child, a father and child remain two individuals. Even with all that they share, all that they do together, no father can be everything to his children. That is because we humans love each other from a distance, from the outside, the other. We cannot be the other. Indeed, we must take care to love in a way that allows the other to be his or her own self.
Our knowledge of the Most Holy Trinity does not come from theoretical reflection. At least, it did not begin there. We always knew that we had a mysterious origin and even when God intervened in our history, God remained faceless and transcendent. It is Jesus who called God his father and who spoke to him in prayer. When Christ rose triumphant and glorified, we knew that God had been in our midst, that God did indeed have a face. But what did it mean that “God” had spoken to “God” in prayer? And then, just as Christ promised, we found “God” living within us, so we had to speak of a Spirit, whom Christ gave to us. Within us, but not of us, this Holy Spirit was nothing less than God.
Put another way, the Trinity began as an experience and grew by reflection into the revelation of God’s own self. The Son and the Spirit could not be divine unless they were eternal. And so, put rather poorly in our grammar of time, the Son has always come forth from the Father. He is everything the Father is, save that he is Son, not Father. The Holy Spirit is the love shared by Father and Son. He unites both and is neither. Yet the Holy Spirit is equally God.
The Trinity reveals that at the heart of reality, the home where our own hearts are summoned, there is nothing the human heart can miss.
In the course of writing his book, Mr. Dougherty made an admission to his father—really, to himself. The night after he had dined with his father and his half-siblings, he recalls: “I broke down and bawled my eyes out until sunlight. You leave; I cry. Again.”
Sadly, too many children lack the love of parents. But even when parents are present, they remain distinct from their children. They must struggle to understand, to accept, to guide and to accompany their children. Human hearts touch but do not merge. This is why the human heart is always a hungering.
In speaking of his lifelong separation from his father, Mr. Dougherty wrote:
There was no ironic distance, no getting away from this sorrow. I simply accepted it, in full. I was not fatherless. I had missed you. Not “missed” in the sense of having spent my time pining for your company or mourning your absence. I didn’t pine that way. I had not been an emotional wreck. I had simply missed you, the way one discovers having missed an entire way of life when it is too late.
This missing, this absence, though sadly pronounced in this father-son relationship, is part of what it means to be human. The heart always hungers. Saint Augustine said it would do so until it rests in God.
But the life, death and resurrection of Jesus reveal that it is not so within God. Within God there is distinction but no difference. Within God there is love without distance or diminishment. Love pours out itself completely and receives itself fully. The Trinity reveals that at the heart of reality, the home where our own hearts are summoned, there is nothing the human heart can miss.