The Spirit who builds up communion in love creates between us a new fraternity and solidarity, a true reflection of the mystery of mutual self-giving and receiving proper to the Most Holy Trinity. — Pope St. John Paul II
[I wrote this originally for Trinity Sunday years ago]
The mystery of the Trinity means that God is One but not solitary, because love can never be solitary. This mystery of God was revealed to us to raise up in this world the very-same pattern of love among us. The Trinity is not a numeric logic puzzle to be solved but a truth to be entered in mystery and lived in reality. At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a window into the Trinity that he opens to us and invites us to enter:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
God is joy, and joy pulses at the heart of the Trinity precisely because God is love. Joy dawns in our angry, depressed and anxious world only when we abide in this love, make it our home, receiving it and then giving it all away.
Realize what we celebrate today is not an obtuse mystery, but a majestic gift and weighty demand.
[this is an excerpt from an email I sent someone last year in response to their question about what Catholics mean by transubstantiation. I have not edited the email, so excuse any mistakes]
I know, transubstantiation is a strange word. It’s a term taken from Aristotle and used, beginning in the high medieval period, to describe the radical and mysterious nature of what is going on in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
trans=across + substantia=substance
Substance, which for Aristotle refers to the definable and essential nature of something, whatever-it-means-to-be this or that. It’s a term that locates a particular thing in the realm of existence, of ‘being,’ in the realm of the real — as opposed to something virtual or imagined. Companion to ‘substance’ are its ‘accidents,’ the variable qualities a thing can have while still remaining itself. My substance as a human includes universal characteristics that must be there for me to be human, i.e. a rational animal. But my accidents include being tall, with white skin, gray hair, etc. I am substantially a human, but of a particular sort. Accidents are the way a substance ‘appears’ to us in the world, revealing that thing’s variable characteristics that inhere in a stable identity.
Okay, there’s a lot more to these terms, and that’s not very clear, but i’s a vague gist. What’s important especially is that these are not terms taken from chemistry or physics, describing a thing’s molecular composition. It’s a term of metaphysics, describing their identifiable, stable, intelligible characteristics as specific and existent things. It identifies them at the level of being, with both universal-stable and particular-variable qualities.
Okay, so bread and wine are each a unique substance, each with accidental appearances that can vary even as they each still remain bread and wine. Our confession of Faith argues that in the celebration of the Eucharist, at a certain moment in the ritual celebration, the substance of the bread and wine (their existent reality as things in the world) is changed into something new, i.e. the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, while the accidents (their unique manner of appearing to us) remain unchanged. But the accidents remain now, by an act of God’s power, by way of a sign. The bread and wine have become part of the sacramental order, communicating to us what they have become — Christ — not physically but meta-physically as signs of the new substance. You see, the transaction between old and new creation is by way of signs as the new reveals itself in the old as the old’s God-designed destiny.
What’s important also here is to remember that the new substance of Christ’s risen existence is not unrelated to the substance of this world. Rather, this new substance, this new mode of existing flows from Christ’s corpse being resurrected, transformed, glorified in God to participate in God’s life and eternity — and now, in the sacraments, but above all the Eucharistic, Christ is drawing, through his Spirit, all of creation with him into the Trinitarian mode of existence by way of participation (koinonia).
For Aristotle, this talk of transubstantiation would all be pure nonsense. On every level. Substance and accidents always go together. If a substance changes, the accidents also change. But in transubstantiation, the substance passes over into a new substance, but the accidents remain as signs, reminding us God does no violence to this world, but only perfects it in new beauty. For Aristotle, who knew nothing of new creation, and only described this world, transubstantiation would simply be an affirmation of an absurd impossibility and contradiction.
So when Aquinas takes Aristotle’s metaphysics and turns it on its head, he’s reminding us that what happens in the Eucharist is not part of this world any longer. We have entered the realm of transcendent mystery, known only through faith. The bread and wine have, in the moment of Consecration, pass-over (trans-) into a whole new order of being and existence (substantia), a whole new manner in which their substance exists, re-veiled by signs and marked by radically new laws. The consecrated elements exist now in the same manner-of-being that allowed the body of the Risen Jesus to pass through locked doors, or to be present to appear anywhere and everywhere he wills — “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).
Realize: Christ is now, by his transubstantiating resurrection, part of a whole new order of being in eternity that radically transcends this one. No words can capture it, only gesturing-signs like water, oil, bread, wine — or the miracle of lifelong faithful, fruitful, selfless sacrificial cruciform marriage.
Let me say again: what we call the New Creation can only be seen, known and received in faith — faith, a share in God’s own knowing, is the new epistemology [way of knowing], a new Rosetta Stone, that alone can decipher the infinite mystery of this New Creation. And the Eucharist becomes a singular (sui generis) artifact of that New Creation lodged in this one; there to draw this one into the Next and the Next into this one.
Christ created this crazed Pass-over Meal, the Holy Eucharist, as the Sign of signs of the new Substantial-inbreaking-Kingdom. Eucharist becomes for us the locus, the sacramental and significant time-space where the metamorphosis of this world into a New Creation reaches its apogee-of-near-breaking. Well, actually, not just near-breaking: shattering! Transubstantiation means those symbols-signs have wholly passed-over, with the risen Christ, into the Imperishable, Immortal, Eternal Kingdom.
Also — super cool — in the Eucharist the substance of thiswhole world is, you could say, hyper-compressed into these super-enriched sign/symbols — bread and wine, which are themselves artifacts of BOTH cosmic history AND human culture — passes over into the infinitely energetic risen Body of Jesus. His Body is itself the singularity, the Big Bang, the Alpha and Omega of the New Creation.
The Eucharist is, like all the sacraments, a divine sign-language of the new order of Being. Interpreted by Faith. Communicating the truth of the manner by which Earth passes-over into the Heaven.
And what is that manner, you ask? The answer is writ into how the bread and wine are changed. By the Spirit-borne Words of Consecration Jesus spoke at the Passover Meal:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my body which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant. which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.
This is it. The whole Language. Everything. The Way in shorthand. Agapē, oblative love is the only way God has for the substance of this world is transformed into the new Substance. The divine-human love of Christ is the Stairway to Heaven, brought to its completion on the Divine Ladder of the Cross, when Jesus said:
Tetelestai “It is complete.” (Jn. 19:30)
Creation is complete. Transubstantiated by his total act of nuptial, self-emptying, merciful love; of total self-gift to the Father. And the Eucharist is our passageway into this Act. For all who eat his torn-Flesh and drink his spilled-Blood, that New Order which endures for all ages, which is made of love, Dawns.
I have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them. ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
I had a philosophy professor back in 1989 who, more than any teacher I’ve had before or after, communicated a contagious sense of wonder with a striking interest in students’ thoughts. What amazed me most is that he had been teaching this same course, he told us, for over thirty years. To undergrads! That’s nearly miraculous.
At the end of the course, I thanked him for what I had learned and expressed to him how moved I was by his freshness in teaching. “It always felt like this was your first time exploring these ideas with us,” I said. Then I added, ”How do you do that?”
Whatever else he said to me in reply, the thing I remember most from his response was his sincerity. He said something like this: “Well, son, I think it’s really because I make certain to be around children as often as I can. They always teach me something new, and remind me how to learn. The key to all education is being willing to be surprised by the new. No matter how many times you explore some idea or thing, if you ask the right questions and are really open to it you can learn something new. Right?”
Then he said, “Remember I told you all Prince Myshkin in The Idiot said, ‘Children soothe and heal the wounded heart’? Do you remember what I said about that? What they really heal is our adult dullness and boredom. And our cynicism, which is really the gangrene that forms around dead wonder.”
“Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile.” ― Caryll Houselander
I remember my grandfather telling me when I was in college that the preoccupation young people (like me) have to be ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilled’ in their job leaves them without a steady rudder in life. The steady rudder needed, he argued, must be a firm commitment to contribute first to the good of others. That should be the prime motive for all our labor, and is the ground of stability required for human flourishing.
Happiness, he loved to say, comes from the word ‘hap,’ which means chance or fortune. Like ‘hapless’ or ‘happenstance.’ Happiness, he told me, is unstable, chancy, comes and goes, but the determined resolve to first do good for others can always remain without succumbing to hap. And, he added, when you forge a character through this kind of consistent commitment, happiness comes in a form less fickle and fleeting — a form we can never know if we don’t set aside our ego-driven approach to life.
Though he did not use Houselander’s language, my grandfather’s philosophy was really a refraction of Christ. His life of hard work and sacrificing for his family and his business, as well as his 75+ years of faithful marriage to my grandmother through thick and thin revealed Christ the “faithful witness” [martys ho pistis] (Rev. 1:15) to me. And to countless others.
Though I am, in all sincerity, far weaker and more self-centered than my grandparents, their example and influence live on in me. Inspire me. Judge me.
Our Church exists to give birth to men and women “for others.” Generations of people who are ready to live by that same steady otherward resolve. “It’s not about me, it’s about thee.”
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. ― Simone Weil
We live in a society plagued by attention deficit. I’m not talking about the psychological disorder as much as a cultural disease.
Attention is supremely important. It’s what establishes and maintains relationships, permits communication, gives rise to intentionality and decision-making, opens the heart to another — in short, it is what makes us truly human in the divine image. In fact, prayer itself, which is of course attention to God, is also the encounter with the attention of God toward us. It is our radical presupposition in every prayer that God never suffers attention deficit:
To my words give ear, O Lord; give heed to my sighs. Attend to the sound of my cry, my King and my God. – Psalm 5:1-2
Attention requires first an inner focus and recollection, an inner unity and self-possession of mind and heart. It is sustained by an asceticism of the senses and acts of self-mastery that resist the incessant pull toward fragmentation and dissipation of our vital psychic and spiritual energies.
The breakdown of our capacity to attend is the enemy of mental and spiritual health, and so the enemy of love. Without attention and its pre-recs, there is no self for you to give. You are merely a bundle of perceptions and impulses, living enslaved to powers of the soul entangled like tentacles enmeshed in an external web of things — especially these days, tethered to a thousand shards of LED light manipulated by powers not our own.
In our attention-impoverished culture, children live in homes with parents as orphans, starved for attention. Parents become absorbed — digested — in distant worlds, sedating their children with distractions. Our time and attention are frittered away, sold to strangers.
Your attention is the most precious gift you have. It is you. Beg God to save it, and then cultivate it with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Flee all that steals it it. And give it first to those who claim you first: God, and the ones God has given you.
Happy Feast! Excuse my mania today on this Trinity Sunday.
Let me simply say today to you, as a person of faith with a deep sense of gravity in my soul: I can see clearer now than I ever have that the single most important action of every day, the single most important commitment to sustain that is equivalent to the necessity of breathing to life is the commitment to consecrate a period of time every day to personal prayer.
Without it, all that is good is lost, our compass is disabled, our rudder cracked, our sail limp, our balance set off, and we are guaranteed to lose our way and wander off into dark valleys where there is much to fear — for we are not with Him.
The Catechism paragraph 2725 says it all: “Prayer is a battle against ourselves and against the wiles of the Tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer.” Read that again. The Evil One cares not for our good deeds, as they are ours alone. But he hates and fears prayer, because it introduces into our works and world the whole of God, whose kingdom breaks in to deliver us from evil. Fr. Tom Hopko captures this with his usual verve:
When we do try to personally pray as Christ teaches us, every demon in Hell tries to mess it up and destroy it and screw it up and make us crazy. You know, anyone who starts praying, you’ve got to know, boy, you’re opening yourself to a huge battle. One of the Desert Fathers was asked, “What’s the hardest thing of the Christian way?” He said, “Everything can be accomplished easily, by the grace of God, if he so wills. But for us creatures, fallen, sick, sinful, to remain steadfast and constant in prayer,” he said, “is blood to the end.” Blood to the end. There are going to be times when we don’t feel like praying, when we have to force ourself. There’s times when we feel we hit a brick wall; we have to know that’s the grace of God: he wants us to accept something, he wants us to let go of something, he wants us to repent of something. It’s always a signal from God when things go tough and things get dark and things get dry: we can’t do it by ourselves.
So, from my own many failures and few successes, from the testimony of so many I have known, and from the wisdom of the ages, please hear me when I say to you: never ever abandon your commitment to set aside time only for being with God in prayer. Every day. I beg you. To hell with productivity, distractions, things to do, imperfect methods, a lack of ‘feeling it.’ Utterly irrelevant to this point. If you feel you have nothing, spend your consecrated time, whatever it is, saying in endless repetition: “Help me, O God! Help me, O God! Help me, O God!” Whatever allows you to be before his Face alone and undivided. Just do something. Commit today, now, till you die. Never ever stop. All hinges on it.
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Lewis vividly describes a conversation between the Devil and one of his subordinate demons. After a lengthy exchange about the best way to draw someone away from God, one of the demons says: “I thought I would just go and persuade them that they have plenty of time in which to make their minds up.” After he says this, there is silence for a moment. The devil raises his head slowly with the most delightfully evil grin on his face and says: “Yes. Excellent. The prize is yours. Go now to it.”
Plenty of time? There isn’t. Today is all we have.
The dead are silent because they live, just as we chatter so loudly to try to make ourselves forget that we are dying. Their silence is really their call to me, the assurance of their immortal love for me. ― Karl Rahner
Over the last three years I have frequented my mother’s grave. There I find a sanctuary, a space of silence and proximity to her. The tomb is a womb birthing this world into a New One, the perishable into the imperishable, and revering the dead catches one up into life’s final sweep. If willing.
Her silence in death is no indifference, but rather her exquisitely close listening. Her ear inclined. Not a sound, to ensure catching the faintest flutter of my heart — and turn it Upward.
They say the last two sanctuaries of silence in our civilization are churches and libraries. Sadly, libraries more than churches of late. But I would also add graveyards, protected because unfrequented; unfrequented because of our deathly fear of silence, of finality, of the total loss of all control. And yet, these three are what frame life’s beauty and permit its liberation. These alone. Remove any of them and your life becomes shallow, pale, anemic.
The dead who are dead to themselves are the greatest of listeners. They know best the silence that is the secret mystery of the Age to Come.
Be still, and know. Allow this, allow the dead to teach you freedom.
I live here in exile My home is not my heart They’re miles and oceans apart So i long for the mountains Beyond the grey city walls I pray tonight they’ll fall
Chorus: Then the sun will shine on me Send the light and set me free I’ll be off and on my way On my Independence Day All the songs i could not sing And all the words i could not say I’ll be shouting everything On my Independence Day Every day i dream of leaving Cause there’s no end in sight I got to shine my own light Just can’t wait any longer For you to make it alright It’s time to live my own life
I can feel trouble disappear Anywhere the road will lead If it takes me far away from here
“Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.” ― Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe
These days after Pentecost have me thinking about creation, new creation, and the marvel above all marvels that anything exists at all. I never tire of thinking of creation as a sacramental window into the mind of God. To see the cosmos is to see God’s creative genius, so to speak.
The Book of Genesis begins the biblical narrative dramatically, by framing the story of human history within a backdrop of cosmic immensity. We’re so tiny. From the first “let there be light,” the explosion of everything from nothing at the beginning sets into irresistible motion a roaring divine oikonomia, a “house plan” racing toward the origin-less Architect’s own Incarnation. God’s intention from the beginning is to sweep up the whole of his creation into himself, allowing all things share in the fullness of his infinite ocean of Being. He created the world with Christ in mind.
When all things [panta] are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things [panta] in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all [panta en pasin]. – 1 Cor. 15:28
I also love to consider that the complex molecules necessary for life were first born in the birth and death of stars over billions of years. The whole of creation, and life itself, is writ deep with the dying-rising God; is “hidden with Christ in God.”
And so seeing imaginative re-creations of the cosmic evolution story always stretches my horizons, making them ever more worthy of the immensity of the Creator of creation.
For this 10 minute one, full screen and AirPods really are best…
Unless the eye catch fire, The God will not be seen. Unless the ear catch fire The God will not be heard. Unless the tongue catch fire The God will not be named. Unless the heart catch fire, The God will not be loved. Unless the mind catch fire, The God will not be known. — William Blake
This Sunday is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. This is the first of two ‘dogmatic’ Sunday feasts that allow us to recover our equilibrium in the wake of Pentecost and peer into the cracked window in Heaven, the shattering-Day that ended in Flames as God slammed into the earth with an infinite force, leaving the Church behind as the great crater formed by Christ’s impact.
Trinity Sunday gathers the Church at the edge of that crater and allows us to be-hold the Mystery in fragile shards of human language. While the second dogmatic feast of Corpus Christi allows us to ingest Mystery into the fragile clay of our image-bearing bodies. Beneath the homely surface of the human body burns the glorious magma of trinitarian Life.
And so it is eminently true that these twin Feasts allow us little stability beneath our feet as they posit at the ground of all existence what Meister Eckhart called the Ebullitio — a limitless, beginningless, unfathomable Abyss of boiling-over Being endlessly giving itself away. We say God is changeless, but certainly in no sense we are familiar with. St. Gregory Nazianzen thus calls God rest-in-motion, unsettling logic with paradox. Our foundation is a God “born of the Father before all ages,” who Twice (or Once?) timelessly emanates forth a Third infinite Face of Love that binds this true-God-from-true-God as One, Thricely. Father, Son, Spirit, one in Essence and undivided.
Apologies, but once I migrate into Trinity my language trips.
We must sing with the Armenian Liturgy:
O Mystery deep, inscrutable, without beginning. Thou hast decked thy supernatural realm as a chamber unto the light unapproachable and hast adorned with splendid glory the ranks of thy fiery spirits.
And echo with Augustine, Si enim comprehendis, non est Deus — “if you understand, it isn’t God.” Which is why St. Paul says, “you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God.” (Gal. 4:9). He can’t be known directly, but in the experience of being known in love by him, we come to know him — like this:
Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6)
Being known by a God who loves himself in us, with us. Read 4:6 again — this is forever happening in God, and you’re ‘let in.’ This is prayer, the only path to knowing Trinity, and it rightly reduces you to child’s language. Prose to poetry to stammering to silence.
Our two great Looking Glasses into this chasm Mystery — creation and redemption — afford us small comfort if we seek some easy idol to wrap our minds around and tame to our wishing. No! Instead we see: At the beginning of things, a God speaking existence out of nothing, setting us precariously (!) on the precipice of non-being, forging us each as an inescapable act of utter dependence. No wonder we, dizzied and grasping at divinity, fell! Yet, only to then hear the Father’s with-us-falling Word who spoke into our encroaching non-existence ever-rising Life, Eternity — what exactly is that? His, now our Eternity knows neither dawn nor dusk; past nor future; here nor there. Only love, amor ipse notitia est, which is itself a form of knowing.
And so these two Feasts, born of All Three, are all from, and all form love.
What exactly is that?
Well, look Up, look around you, see Their Faces, see your neighbor’s face. There, there, there is love, awaiting. Nearby, see the crater? Jump in.
Y así, por toda dulzura Nunca yo me perderé, Sino por un no sé qué Que se halla por ventura.
And so even for all sweetness I will never lose myself, but for an I-know-not-what that fortunately is found. — San Juan…de la Cruz
Eternal Light has come among mankind Yet mankind has chosen darkness If we openly confess We need his light We need his love Light has created all the world Yet the world did not receive him If we walk within the light As He is the Light He is the light Though we have sinned we’ll stand forgiven
Bridge: (a complex polyphony containing these phrases) The Lord our God is One The Lord our God is One The Lord is watching from on high He is watching from on high The Lord is One
So let us come as little children To turn from the sins of prideful men So let us come with hearts of sorrow So we may know his joy again To be with him now as little children (Be with him now as little children) So when he reveals himself again (He will come again) We shall not stand within the darkness (We are not children of darkness) So walk in his light until the end We need his light We need his love We need to stand forgiven Lyrics found here