One in three and three in one

The Trinity – ah we know all about that. Or do we? Insofar as the subject come into Catholic conversation – which isn’t very often – a secular eavesdropper would take in no more than that it is three persons in one God, that it doesn’t mean three Gods and that, being a mystery, we can’t understand it. That seems scant pickings from the most central and most important doctrine in our faith. We wonder that Frank Sheed, the great spirit behind the Catholic Evidence Guild, could carry out an enlightened dialogue on the Trinity with the miscellaneous crowd at Speakers Corner. I cut my teeth there too, under Sheed’s guidance – although I was too junior to speak of the Trinity and was confined to such simple subjects as papal infallibility.

In his classic book Theology and Sanity Sheed describes the Trinity. He explains the difference between person and nature, and shows how logically the persons of the Trinity take their place from the very nature of the infinity of God. Our understanding of God is greatly deepened while showing us why it is a mystery always to be mined even if we can never reach the bottom. And I am not going to summarise it here because Sheed’s masterpiece of rational theology is readily available on, say, Amazon. It is a simple book in the sense that Sheed developed it from his conversations with the crowd and, if they could understand what he was saying, so can we. If you read the book with care you will find that you know more real and relevant theology than almost anyone you meet – and I include clergy and bishops.

But I return to the Trinity. To which person of the Trinity do we most naturally pray? I think most naturally of the Father. I imagine that is because I am a father, and a grandfather and a great grandfather. I know something of the feelings and the love of a father and my limited grasp gives me starting cues which extended infinitely point me towards the Father after whom all fatherhood is named. But without a detailed check, I think I pray most often to the Holy Spirit. Sheed explains how the Spirit is the personalised fusion of the infinite love exchanged between the Father and the Son. That is almost too wonderful an idea for me to put to practical use. But I do find that the Spirit obliges me to come to terms with my real self (not always a pretty sight) and inspires elements in my thinking which I could not achieve without divine help. In my years of marriage counselling I saw the Spirit so clearly working in my clients as they struggled to surmount the tangle of their lives. The Spirit then was as plain as a pikestaff.

But enough of me, how do you see the Trinity? Is it a live doctrine for you or is it kept in a jewelled box in Heaven’s safety deposit – highly valued of course but rarely opened? To which person of the Trinity do you most naturally return in your thoughts? Whom do you most often feel is by your side? Come and share your thoughts about the Trinity, so that we can all understand more, and perhaps place the Trinity more centrally in our lives.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Quentin queries, Spirituality and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to One in three and three in one

  1. Tom McIntyre says:

    Though we can’t comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, perhaps modern experience helps us as much as Augustine’s reasoning did to be at peace with it. That a single entity can be observed as a particle and behave as a wave makes the idea of God as a person and also infinite love less explosive a doctrine; and if love draws persons together, God’s oneness becomes less devastating a thought given that infinite love must then draw persons infinitely together.

  2. Brendan says:

    Because The Holy Trinity is a mystery beyond ones ‘ ken ‘, I don’t believe one can ponder it as a single entity unless one experiences it as coming from three different directions. Then one can only worship and adore in awe.
    For me as a child into early manhood it was just an Article of Faith ; that is not to say other people do not ‘ feel ‘ its power as ‘ the Triune God ‘. If Jews , Muslims and Unitarians can feel’ graced ‘ by the presence of ‘ God ‘ in their lives , so can a Trinitarian know only this one God …as I did in times past. It was only though ‘ faith in Jesus Christ ‘ as son of God ( The Father ) and my growing in personal knowledge of Him ( God Incarnate ) that I come closer to the Father . The Advocate ( Paraclete ) made known to us by Christ draws one ever closer to the Father. Our Lords life ….” he who sees me sees the Father ..” is the ‘ bridge ‘ to the knowledge by The Spirit to the Father then and the meaning of the Holy Trinity… the paradigm of living human holiness. Christ is the ” keystone ” of the understanding of the Triune God in human existence because of The Incarnation. Without that wonderful, portentous historical fact ,Christianity or Creationwould be meaningless.
    it is only by ‘ knowing ‘ Christ that we can know the Fathers mercy by its touch. Pope Francis ‘ knows ‘.

  3. Galerimo says:

    Thank you. What a magnificent topic. It was Catherine LaCugna’s Book “God for Us” and in particular her contrast between the Economic and the Immanent Trinity that broke up so much as an entry point into the mystery for me. It is so sad that she died so young.

    It is more of a spirituality and as such more connecting as such than a doctrine.

    The discernment of that pattern everywhere as Tom has pointed out so beautifully that affords an answer to the question. Not a good question – I mean it seems to return so much to the “Hydraulics” of the mystery which has been the preoccupation of wester theology.

    The Eastern Fathers, especially the Cappadocians were really blessed with such an amazing intuitive ability – I think we in the west don’t like to acknowledge it too much. Augustine!

    Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit is about the height of it.

    The theologies are snakes and ladders. Those wonderful Eastern creatures that can go so deep into the darkness and the great Western Architects with their constructions.

    It feels most of the time like we have missed the movie but happily it is for ever and ever. Amen

  4. Brendan says:

    And so , like a lighthouse beacon we keep the Holy Trinity in our sights during the swells and squalls of life ; through the fog and clear vision of our lives we keep sight of its penetrating three-fold beam. Too close and we are dazzled and lose sight ( through intellectualising )…. we founder .
    Our lives a beacon to others who ‘ see ‘ their way by its seering light. God -in- Christ the centre of our understanding…” he who sees the Father sees me ”… in perpetuity with The Spirit.
    Pope Francis says… ” do not make your Christianity into a museum piece ” . It is to be lived in the light of the Most Holy Trinity …… our true existentialist home ; its name being forever ‘ mercy .’.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Pope Francis says ‘do not make your Christianity into a museum piece’
      Maybe he is suggesting we should give ‘up everything and give it to the poor and then follow Him’ as Jesus said
      I think perhaps we could start with the Vatican Palaces. then our own homes, then do what Henry did to our Church’s and Monasterie’s and religious images etc.
      Is that what Jesus meant?

      • Brendan says:

        St. Joseph – He might have included that ; but I think the deeper meaning was not to regard ones Christian living as just a matter of ‘ sticking to the rules ‘…. ‘ a going-through-the-motions ‘ – sadly like so many of us today … but surrendering to the Spirit !
        This tectonic plate shift in ‘ Catholic life , understanding , practice ‘ was first attempted in our lifetime by Blessed Pope John xxiii and Vat. ii . It still continues through the Church today despite misunderstandings and flagrant abuse of Council declarations ; negative cultural Catholicism / the secular world , being a strong barrier to change in our lives and society ( The Kingdom of God ) . Remember the Pharisees of Our Lords time ?

      • St.Joseph says:

        Brendan.
        I understand what you are saying I think Pope Francis sees the world through different eyes than we who are living a completely different environment to himself.
        He see’s through his eyes millions of people and young ones included following him .as more like a celebrity ‘ It sometimes reminds me of the 1960’ flower people who sang Love Love Love and do as they like.
        A misinterpretation of God’s love. Do they all understand what he preaches. Do many go to Holy Mas to hear his message on what Christianity really means.
        We all understand that the ‘church’ is not a building. It is the Body of Jesus Christ’ but the building is the home of the Body of Jesus Christ in the Tabernacle which we share in our immortal bodies, through the power of the Holy Spirit from the Graces we receive through the Sacraments.
        We also must remember what the Catholic Church is doing in the world and how we as Christians subscribe to all these charities. that is also the work of the Holy Spirit.
        The holy priests who had to suffer the publicity of the child abuse and carry on faithfully carrying out their Priesthood under a cloud where people may look at them and think they may be all the same.
        We could forgive them for leaving but thank God they carry their Cross as we all do under that cloud.
        We will never be a’ One World Religion’ all having our different belief’s under one faith called Love.
        Jesus became man. showed mercy to the sinners yes. then told them to repent. then died on the Cross for every ones salvation to follow and love Him first as the one true God and Father Almighty the first Person of the Blessed Trinity.
        .

  5. Brendan says:

    Let’s get this straight before this blog continues !. The manifestation of The Holy Trinity in the world , is not some ego-trip , some neo-gnostic heresy from times past. Through our Lord and Saviour it is a revelation to all.Creation ; first touched on from The Beginning through The Old Testament made fully known through The New Covenant.
    ” I am he who is ”… Exodus 3:14 ( NJB ) , now disclosed to Creation in The Most Holy Trinity.

    • G.D. says:

      The manifestation of God ( we have come to accept as ‘The Trinity’ ) was from the beginning of creation, fully One God in/with creation. Original Blessing.
      And God was ‘known’ by many, Our Lady for one, most certainly, as fully as we now ‘know’, if not more so; but not as Trinity.

      The intellectual concept of the Trinity is only that. A concept of intellect to explain intellectually the Graced Presence of an Infinite God (as creator sustainer and redeemer) that is beyond the mind of man to ‘know’.

      I ‘know’ the truth of the concept, have no problems at all with Three into One!
      But the reality of God goes way beyond that finite intellectual representation, and i don’t know that reality – yet! Please God one day!

      As beneficial as it is to use the concept to try and make intellectual sense of God, it’s not God!
      We infer that, which is well and good, but to limit God to it?

      It’s the complete and utter infinite indivisible interchangeable relation of One essence shared by the Three ‘Persons’ that make the One Trinitarian (as we see it) God.
      I know that doesn’t make sense logically, but i know the truth of the statement!

      (The hypo-static union of God & Man Jesus is of the same ilk! An intellectual concept to try and explain the unexplainable. Jesus never claimed to be God, just that the Father & I are one. Another ‘mystery’ that isn’t!)

      We accept those concepts. If others don’t see God as such does it matter? (That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s one I’m trying to resolve).

      And we (everyone that ever has been and ever will be) are made in the image and likeness of all that! That’s the real mystery!

      • Quentin says:

        G.D. you write of “shared by the Three ‘Persons”. I know what you mean but we have to be careful here. Each person in the Trinity has the whole divine nature, they do not share it.

  6. John L says:

    One could write a book, let alone a blog, without penetrating this topic. I will merely say, in answer to Quentin’s query, that my limited grasp of the Trinity is based on some (grossly inadequate) images from past RI, but which serve to help thoughts on the topic. As for prayer, I tend towards the second Person because what I know of Him reaches me via his human personality. That is not to exclude the Other Two – it often depends on context. I look forward to other views on this aspect.

  7. Geordie says:

    The reason, that I believe in God, is that the concept of the Trinity is ridiculous. No man, no ancient philosopher, no modern theologian could come up with the idea that God is made up of three distinct persons who are all equally God but there is only one God. It doesn’t make mathematical sense. The greatest genius in the world couldn’t come up with such an idea.
    It must therefore come from God, who has revealed it to us, although it is beyond our understanding. It is wonderful; mind blowing.
    I once had a discussion with a young man who had converted to Islam. He said he couldn’t accept Christianity because the teaching of the Trinity was ridiculous. My response was that this was one of the reasons I firmly believed in Christianity because such a teaching couldn’t have been conceived it the mind of a human being.

  8. Brendan says:

    st. Joseph – …” Pope Francis sees the world through different eyes”… No one is denying the ‘ faith’ of The Catholic Church as an Institutional good for mankind ( except the tormentors/ destroyers of genuine ‘ faith ‘ in action ). He ‘sees ‘ what is surmountable because we ( the World) only sees what seems insurmountable. In directing us in this Year of Mercy to the Father through his Son we will come to see what he sees – not a different world – but the real world transformed in our lives ( and the life of the World ). This is the grace- filled presence of The Triune God , St. Joseph.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan.
      I don’t see a problem with that. we have always as Christians been missioneries and always will be even. if there are those who disagree with us. Even as close as our next door neighbours
      However we can not always go along with the crowd
      Our faith is quite simple there is no need for anyone to try to explain it by some philosophical reasoning .
      Jesus spoke in Parables simple enough for us to understand. He gave us our faith and the reason why we should keep.
      The things He kept from the clever and learned..
      Pope Francis has told us about mercy , how has he told us how to use it other than what our faith teaches us already.
      Mercy can be a very controversial subject.
      As I said in my post above Jesus showed mercy to the sinner, but told them to repent.
      Has Pope Francis told us that?

  9. G.D. says:

    The Trinity is only ‘mystery’ because it’s an impossible construct of intellect.
    Trying to make limited sense of the Reality of an Infinite God.
    It’s when we let go of the need to ‘reason’ it, it becomes an experience of reality. ‘Surprised by Joy’.

    Yes, of course, we must (preach the Gospel, and if we must use words) communicate in words but if we can always keep one eye on the fact that we don’t know, what we say is not God, then the words may be more like The Creative Word! And stand a better chance of being accepted, incarnated, in us (creation).

    The eternal creative(F)-relationship(S)-of-love(Sp).
    Not eternal & creative & relationship & love … Just the God of Love.
    (‘Cloud of Unknowing’ type idea of God can be ‘known’ by love)
    Just a thought.

  10. Brendan says:

    St. Joseph – I have followed the Holy Father assiduously lately (feeling more closer than usual) and I know he never fails to call us to repentance ; as he is often seen himself at Confession.
    In the ‘ Catholic Herald ‘ today ( perhaps its too early for you ) , an editorial reads … ” It must be hard for Francis to be a flinty reformer and a kindly shepherd .”
    I agree that all the philosophising in the world may not necessarily deepen our faith in God…. the old saying ‘faith is caught not taught ‘ suffices here. However we have only words to communicate our inevitable failure to grasp fully , theological mysteries to others when asked about ‘ meaning ‘ in our lives.
    Pope Francis I believe wants to rarefy this ‘ meaning ‘ in our daily Christian living ( testimony ) . By Stressing Gods infinite Mercy he sees this as the best way to be a messenger of the the light of The Fathers overwhelming glow of Mercy – by consequence enthused in us by Gods grace – which has no room for sinful nature in us and compels us to repentance ….in a world that is largely deaf at present.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Brendan
      Thank you, it was never hard for St Pope John Paul 2nd to be a flinty reformer and kindly shepherd.
      I love Pope Francis dearly and the way he loves people and children, no different to Pope Paul but half a truth is not good enough. I know he will be exploited by some reporters to take him down, this worries me, especially when he leaves himself open to misinterpretation.
      The millions of people who listen to him in his travels will not be reading the CH this week.
      Or will they be going to Church to hear the priest expressing his proper comments on
      the teaching of Holy Mother Church, of which they will have misunderstood!
      He is leaving himself open for people to judge their own conscience! And that is the way human nature sadly works today.
      It is very Christian to be kind, and to be liked, but also it is our duty to be Apostles.

      • Brendan says:

        St. Joseph – I agree Pope Francis is walking a thin tightrope , leaving himself to misunderstandings; I will leave it there for now .

      • Vincent says:

        Brendan, there are no tightropes here that I can see. He expressed himself briefly and informally on the matter in hand, and his spokesman filled it out in more detail. What could be more straightforward than that?

      • St.Joseph says:

        Vincent,
        Pope Francis is in no position to give a general absolution, he was not speaking ex-cathedra.
        As I said in an earlier post he ought to have said, ‘in the case of the Zika infection, try to avoid becoming pregnant- then if one with their own conscience decided to use a condom they could confess it in the Sacrament of Confession. That is not the only sin we confess. God will understand then- no confusion or misunderstanding.
        If one is excused for having intercourse without being open to life, what will homosexual acts think- will they be absolved too.? Like I said it is opening a can of worms.
        Can we not move on!

      • Vincent says:

        Unfortunately not. The can is open and the worms are out. The Pope has clearly said that contraception (condoms were the example given) is legitimate in serious cases. No, it’s not an infallible statement, but then nor was Humanae Vitae. Either Paul VI was right in specifying that there were no exceptions, or Francis was right in specifying an exception. Janet E Smith (a reputable expert in such matters) says that the consequence are potentially ‘mind blowing’. It is interesting, isn’t it, that using a condom to prevent the transmission of infection is an act of responsibility provided that a prostitute is using it, but a mortal sin if a married Catholic is using it to protect his wife. Mind you, several bishops disagree with this but the Vatican has avoided saying anything — although it has been seriously requested. Just another example of the Church trying to cover up.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Vincent. You are confused
        A prostitute is committing a sin any way in her life style.
        A homosexuality is not a sin. Any form of sexual intercourse outside being open to life is a sin however not the only sin and probably not the most serious either. However it is not up to Pope Francis to give the go ahead for a sinful act to take place. When there is an alternative which could have been solved years ago. Non Catholics have a duty to be obedient to the Truth Catholics can not please them selves, but others can do as they always do.

        I will not answer anymore on this subject, as far as I am concerned the matter is closed.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Non Catholics have a duty to should have read ‘Catholics’

  11. Brian Hamill says:

    Perhaps a ‘new’ way of looking at the Three-in-One, One-in-Three God is to use a different image. not the shamrock but the earth, i.e a bipolar God not a tripolar One. As there can no North pole without a South pole so there can be no Father without Son. And where does the Holy Spirit come in this? In the middle, the Joiner. What joins the North Pole to the South Pole is the earth itself the material manifestion of the magnetic field between North and South poles. So the Holy Spirit is the magnetic field of Love joining Father to Son and Son to Father and providing the necessary distinction between them. This produces a more creative and dynamic view of God’s nature whereby our relationships on earth match those in heaven since the force of love which binds us on earth is the manifestation in time and space of the Force of Love, the Holy Spirit, which binds Father to Son in eternity. This is not really new as the the Eastern Father’s doctrine of perichoresis picks up this vision and St Bernard of Clairvaux brings it our beautifully in his Sermon 8 on the Song of Songs where he refers to the Holy Spirit as ‘the Kiss between Father and Son’.

  12. Brendan says:

    Another Latin meets Greek theologian of the Early Church was St. Gregory Nazianzus , called the ‘ Trinitarian Theologian ‘ . he catches the beauty of its meaning ……” I have not ever begun to think of unity when the Trinity bathes me in its splendour. I have no even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me… ” CCC, 256.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I can only understand the Trinity, from what I learned many years ago in a early 1921 Student Catholic Doctrine. Which teaches;
      This Infinite and all perfect Being is one and single in nature ‘ Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deut.vi.4) yet in the one Divine Nature there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. each possessing certain personal qualities which can not be attributed to the others. Thus the Father the First Person of the Trinity proceeds from no one; this can not be said of the Son or of the Holy Ghost.
      The Son derives His origin from the Father by an eternal generation; ‘Born of the Father from all Eternity’; This can not be said of the Father or of The Holy Ghost.
      The Third Person, The Holy Ghost, proceeds also from eternity from the Father and the Son as from a single principle; this can not be said of the First or of the Second Person.
      Yet the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity though numerically distinct from one another, are consubstantial; that is that they have one and the same indivisible Divine nature and substance. The Father is truly God, the Son is truly God the Holy Ghost is truly God, and yet these Three Persons are not three Gods, but one God in every way equal, as tu Persons they are distinct; as to substance, they are one.
      There are three that give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one. (1John v 7) consubstantial, co-eternal and co-equal,
      In the language of Scripture, power and the work of Creation are attributed in a special manner to the Father, wisdom and the work of Redemption to the Son, holiness and the work of our Sanctification to the Holy Ghost, yet power and wisdom and holiness and all the attributes of the Divine essence, except what constitutes the distinction of Persons, are common and belong equally to the whole Trinity. Our finite minds can never grasp this most sublime and profound of all mysteries, it is enough for us to know that the Blessed Trinity has been revealed. It is the principle and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and to deny it would be to reject the Catholic faith.

      • Brian Hamill says:

        “Our finite minds can never grasp this most sublime and profound of all mysteries, it is enough for us to know that the Blessed Trinity has been revealed. It is the principle and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, and to deny it would be to reject the Catholic faith.” I would maintain that nothing is ever revealed, such as the Trinity, just to be something beyond our ken. All revelation has meaning for us in the here and now – ‘for us men and for our salvation’. The reality of the Trinity must have a meaning and influence on our lives and the way we live them. That is why I speak about the sanctity of our human relationships through the presence of Him who binds Father to Son in the Trinity. The second sentence quoted above also does not seem to make sense, since one cannot reject something which one cannot in any way understand except by some apparently jumbled use of mathematical and philosophical formulae. One can only reject a doctrine which is capable of real meaning in our lives. Perhaps the answer lies in the last phrase ‘the Catholic faith’ (meaning of course the Christian faith), since our faith is rooted in the Love of Father, manifested in the face of his Son, Jesus.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Brian Hamill.
        It is a mystery. But like the song Do Ra Me- we have to start from the very beginning.
        As St John Gospel says’ In the beginning was the Word. Then turn to the beginning Gen 1.11., Every Seed (even ours own that’s planted ‘each according to its OWN kind. bears fruit.
        Then Jeremiah 1-5.I Knew you before you entered your mothers Womb.
        Then we move on the Comforter that Jesus promised.
        I love Jesus’ last prayer to His Apostles that is comforting in itself.
        Then Pentecost.
        Then the Book of Revelation.
        A bit of a quick movement from past to future, but it is the only way I can describe the jigsaw of placing it together my way probably. In fact our journey is the blink of an eyelid comparing it with Eternity. The beginning which has no end.

  13. Brendan says:

    Holy Mother Church gives us Lent – a perfect time/ opportunity to ponder the Holy Trinity in tune with our natural anthropological link with Christ-in-God-made-man leading to the Father through the Spirit.
    Through penance and self sacrifice we mirror Christs ‘ journey ‘ to immolate himself closer to the
    Father by ‘burning off ‘ all worldly attachments ( temptations of Satan ) in complete association with/in realising The Father in Him through the Spirit. As Trinitarian Christians we also endeavour to achieve this state of grace /whole-ness Isn’t this in Franciscan( both men ) terms where we encounter The Merciful Father ( the essence of Christian anthropology ) ?
    In the readings for today the implications for Gods ineffable Mercy become clear ….. ” to die at the age of a hundred will be dying young ; not to live to a hundred will be the sign of a curse . They will build houses and inhabit them , plant vineyards and eat their fruit .” Isaiah 65:20-21.

  14. Iona says:

    Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity wrote a beautiful poem, “Holy Trinity whom I adore”

    http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/holy-trinity-whom-i-adore/

    I can’t say it illuminates the nature of the Trinity intellectually; but it does make it seem as though this hardly matters.
    Apparently she’s going to be canonised this year; I wonder did Quentin know this when he fixed on the Trinity as the subject of this week’s discussion.

    • Martha says:

      Thank you, Iona, for such a lovely, spiritual prayer. The full prayer life that saints have with God, must lead them more deeply into the mystery than abstract thoughts about it, just as lovers come to know each other beyond words of description. I think St. Patrick’s shamrock has an honoured place, but at a different level.

  15. Brendan says:

    Truly we are blessed with The Saints in heaven who are gifted with a special insight into the mysteries of our Faith and reveal them in such vivid ways ….from East to West.

  16. Kensy says:

    As I remember it, prayer is addressed TO the Father THROUGH the Son IN the Holy Spirit.

  17. overload says:

    I recently watched a Youtube video
    The Good Heart: John Main Seminar 1994, and was stuck by a little exchange, which for me coincided with this post…

    Question to the Dalai Lama from the audience (Eileen O’Hea): “If your holiness could have a meeting with Jesus, are there any particular questions you would ask him?”
    DL: “The first question I would ask him is: could you describe the nature of the Father? — because, our lack of understanding about the exact nature of the Father is leading to so much confusion here!”
    Fr. Laurence Freeman: “Quite so!”
    Eileen: “And now we think it is both Father and Mother!”
    Fr. Laurence: “Perhaps Mary could be at the meeting also!”
    DL: “To me Mary is the symbol of compassion and love.”

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