The Trinity

We resume ordinary time for 2011 with the solemnity of Trinity Sunday for June 19 of 2011.  Today, we recall that the universal Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’  LG 4  This phrase is borrowed from Saint Cyprian, who himself paraphrased Scripture. (1)

I’d like to switch gears and step back from exegesis and look at the mystics of the Catholic church for their view on the Trinity.   We’ll look at Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591), two members of the renaissance Spanish church who were not shy about discussing their encounter with God. They were unique in that they wrote about their spiritual life and their encounter with the Father, Son and Spirit.  In fact, John of the Cross and Teresa are worth mentioning for the upcoming solemnity, since they occasionally speak of the God that they know as Trinity.

The personal love of God that Teresa and John of the Cross describe in their writing and poetry is alluded to in Christ’s prayer to the Father in John 17.  Jesus concludes the prayer at verse 26 by petitioning the Father that we might come to know the Father the way Jesus knows and loves his Father:

Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because You loved me before the foundation of the world.  Righteous Father, the world also does not know You, but I know You, and they know that You sent me.  I made known to them Your name and I will make it known, that the love with which You loved me may be in them and I in them.”

The relationship between and among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was given a technical term, perichoresis, by the one of the greatest Trinitarian theologians of the early church: Gregory Nazianzus (329-390). The term is still used today; Oxford-educated theologian Alistair McGrath explains that periochoresis:

allows the individuality of the [divine] persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two. An image often used to express this idea is that of a ‘community of being,’ in which each person [of the Trinity], while maintaining its distinctive identity, penetrates the others and is penetrated by them. (2)

In simple terms, we might say that while they Father, Son and Spirit are theologically distinct expressions of the Godhead, their love indwells in each other, and they constitute one God.  Pope Benedict offered this reflection on Teresa of Avila:

Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorization by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity… it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.

John of the Cross

Two Spanish mystics, John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila, recorded their spirtual life for posterity.  What they have in common is that they both describe their spiritual encounter with God as an experience in the “fire of love.” Before we look at a quote from John of the Cross, consider what Jesus said in Luke 12:48-49,

I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!  There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

For Jesus, the cross is both an act of love and a trial, or baptism by fire.  Paul’s letters speak of the same fire within us that is the Spirit.  In 2 Tim 1:6, the original Greek term used to “rekindle the Spirit” is ἀναζωπυρέω or, “fan the flame.”  And the mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila clearly experienced the fire of the Trinitarian love.

It should not be held as incredible in a soul now examined, purged, and tried in the fire of tribulations, trials, and many kinds of temptations, and found faithful in love, that the promise of the Son of God be fulfilled, the promise that the Most Blessed Trinity will come and dwell in anyone who loves him [Jn. 14:23]. The Blessed Trinity inhabits the soul by divinely illumining its intellect with the wisdom of the Son, delighting its will in the Holy Spirit, and absorbing it powerfully and mightily in the unfathomed embrace of the Father’s sweetness.

John of the Cross goes on to say that this love between the person and God

are somehow comparable to the fire of God which, Isaiah says, is in Zion, and to his furnace which is in Jerusalem [Is. 31:9].

Teresa of Avila

Teresa encounters the Trinity. Bernini, 1652. Vatican.

Teresa wrote about her spiritual experience in the book, The Interior Castle.   She explains how a person passes through several stages of trial and spiritual experience.  Borrowing imagery directly form scripture (John 14:2), she refers to the these stages as interior or spiritual mansions.  In the final mansion, or the deepest spiritual room of her soul, she has an encounter with the Triune God.

Like John of the Cross, she described her occasional direct spiritual encounters with God as “the fire from a lighted furnace, from which some spark will fly out and touch the soul, in such a way that the soul can feel the burning heat of the fire...” (4).   Teresa calls the experience of this burning fire a wound of love that pierces the heart.  Teresa also believes that her experience is entirely spiritual.  She did not encounter the person of Jesus on the side of the road, as did Paul. nor was she “caught up into heaven,” as Paul says of another believer in 2 Corinthians 12:2.  The spirituality of Teresa and John are interior, meaning they encountered God in the context of prayer and contemplation.

The Trinity in the Fourth Gospel

I will wrap up my blog post with a quick review of John’s trinitarian theology.  The Fourth Evangelist is a source of much of our understanding of the Trinity, and his thinking is very carefully developed. Only John tells us that Jesus is the Word, that he existed from the beginning with the Father, and that the world was created through the Word.  And of course, John tells us that Christ is Word-become-flesh. This theology is encapsulated in John 1:1-16.

John also tells us of the Holy Spirit in John 14:15-26. This passage is a discourse on the Paraclete.  Jesus assures the disciples that even when he is not present, he will send the Paraclete (in English, the advocate or comforter) to assist them.   Quite simply, Jesus tells the disciples that when he is not present in person, God is present in Spirit.

In John 14:1-14, Jesus also tells his disciples that no one can approach God the Father except through Jesus. He tells the disciples that Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in him.  Not only does Jesus claim to speak on the Father’s behalf, but he says, “whoever has seen me has seen the father.” In other words, both Jesus and the Father are God.

1) John 17; Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:4-5. Also,S. Cyprianus, De Orat Dom. 23: PL 4, 5S3, Hartel, III A, p. 28S. S. Augustinus, Serm. 71, 20, 33: PL 38, 463 s. S. Io. Damascenus, Adv. Iconocl. 12: PG 96, 1358 D.

2) Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Blackwell, 2001. p325.

3) Teresa of Avila. Interior Castle. Seventh Mansion, chapter 1.

4) ibid. Sixth Mansion, chapter 2.



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