I may have already shared this story from my seminary days, but it’s worth repeating.
One morning, in the discussion section for my Introduction to Theology class, we were discussing the Trinity and various ways of talking about it through the centuries. Our teaching assistant was a relatively quiet Lutheran doctoral student. We were really wrestling with it, and after about five minutes of vigorous discussion we had come to a point where we thought, “Aha! We’ve got it!” From the corner of the room, the TA piped up, “Nope. Heresy.”
(Heresy, remember, is any non-orthodox belief. Perhaps another time we can talk about who gets to decide what counts as heresy.)
So we backed up, and started again. And after another five minutes, we were feeling confident about this new direction.
Again from the corner we heard, “Heresy.” (I have this image of her knitting, although I know she was not.)
This was the pattern for about half an hour—five minutes of intense discussion, a sense of confidence, then “Heresy.”
Finally in frustration one of us said in exasperation, “What do you want from us? It seems like the only way we can avoid falling into heresy is to just be quiet!”
The TA smiled and said, “Orthodoxy.”
The only way to avoid wandering off into some incorrect understanding of the Trinity is to stay silent about it, to simply contemplate the mystery in love and awe.
However, the Sunday after Pentecost every year is Trinity Sunday, and as tempted as I have been at times to have us simply sit in silence and contemplate the mystery, I know you expect me to preach.
So this week I was thinking about the impossible task of preaching on Trinity Sunday, and thought about Jesus’ approach to talking about big things, like the kingdom of God.
He would never say, “The kingdom of God is” and then give a definitive description. He would always say, “The kingdom of God is like…” He would teach with simile and metaphor, using imagery familiar to people to open their hearts and minds to the mystery too deep and profound for words.
So that’s what I’m going to do. And then, if you are tempted to sit in the corner and say, “Heresy!” I can argue that I didn’t say it was exactly like that, only that it was like it.
When I was on clergy retreat last February, we were at the Samoset up in Rockland. Every window looks out onto Penobscot Bay, and I would find myself being drawn into a sort of mystical contemplation every time I saw that deep blue in motion. On the final morning, the bishop had invited us to explore our own imagery and language for God, and as I sat there I came up with an image of the Trinity, based on what I was seeing.
Now I have heard people use water as an image for the Trinity before, talking about the three states of hydrogen dioxide: as a solid we call it ice, as a liquid we call it water, as a gas we call it steam. (That TA just stood up and screamed, “HERESY!” in my head.)
Instead, I want to offer us another approach.
The Trinity is like water. There is the water we look at from a distance, the deep blue waters of Penobscot Bay or the roiling rolling Androscoggin in the spring—beauty and power that inspire awe. That is a bit like the first person of the Trinity, whom you would probably call the Father or the Creator.
Then there is the water we swim in, the water beside us, the water that touches us. The water that becomes much more real to us because we are experiencing it rather than just observing it. We might see a similarity to the second person of the Trinity, the Son. The Redeemer in whose waters we are baptized and made new. The tide that pulls us in a direction we might not choose for ourselves.
And then there is the water that swims in us. I grew up hearing that the human body is 70% water; that’s probably an inaccurate number, but it’s still true that we are absolutely dependent upon water for survival. Likewise, our faith life is absolutely dependent upon the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. We don’t just get the Holy Spirit once, on Pentecost—we need it every day.
I know my metaphor is imperfect. But it is only a metaphor, a bit of poetry to offer us a different access point to the mystery. If it helps, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay. Trinity will roll around again next year.
One last thought, though. Many years ago I was at a different clergy retreat (although I’m pretty sure that one was also at the Samoset) with Gwen Bohr, a woman priest who lived in Bethel and, I was told his week, the first clergywoman to ever preach at Christ Church. We were once again wrestling with this question of the Trinity, how to talk about it, how to preach about it. Gwen sat quietly in the corner, much like that teaching assistant from years before, and in a pause she said something I have never forgotten.
“You don’t have to understand the Trinity to offer hospitality to the Trinity.”
We don’t have to fully understand the mysterious relationship and interplay within the Trinity to make room for God. I would even venture to say that the angels rejoice when we stop resisting and simply open our hearts and minds to God, when we stop worrying about the crazy math and simply dive into their eternal song:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts.