by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28, 16-20
We are often reminded that we are all made in the image of God. A close reading of the creation stories in Genesis will lead us to conclude that “made in God’s image” means that we are good (even though we sometimes struggle to believe it), we are free (and have a deep desire to grow into ever greater freedom) and that we have deeply seated capacities to love and be creative. Discovering our vocation in life is the slow process of coming to choose freely how best we can express our goodness, our creativity and the love in our hearts in ways that we know are true to ourselves. It does not take us long to discover that we can do that only in relationship with others.
If the focus of today’s celebration of the Trinity is on anything, it is on the revelation that God is relational; that God reaches out in love to all of humanity. The corollary of that is that we, in our turn, grow towards our full human potential only when we reach out to others in love, loving them in ways that reflect the love that God has for us.
None of us will ever grasp or even come close to understanding the mystery we call God. However, we know from reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament, that our ancestors in faith used stories to offer the people of their time and of ours, the insights they had into God. So, the best I can do to share my limited insights into the significance of God as Trinity, is through story. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that I believe that there is no point in thinking and talking about God as Trinity because it is a mystery. We all know that we encounter other mysteries around which we cannot get our brains. The Trinity is a mystery of faith, the universe is a mystery of physics and astronomy, death is a mystery of life. That we will never understand these things doesn’t stop us from exploring them. They will exhaust us before we exhaust them. But to dismiss thinking about and discussing the concept of God as Trinity is to do a disservice to ourselves and theologians as searching, faithful Christians. But what we do know is that Jesus is God in human flesh, that Jesus called God “Father”, and that Jesus promised to send the Spirit to keep alive his memory in and for our world. Still, I find story the most appealing way to reflect on God as Father, Son and Spirit, for no other reason than that I understand the Trinity as relational, that we human beings reach our full potential in loving relationship, and that we build relationships by engaging with one another in storytelling.
Dan Yashinsky is a distinguished, Canadian storyteller. In the preface of his book, Suddenly They Heard Footsteps: Storytelling for the Twenty-First Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2004) he shares this story of his encounter with a young girl, after he had told a ghost story to a group of children:
“When the lights came on, the children lined up to leave, talking excitedly about their shocking experience. I noticed one girl standing quietly, holding something around her neck. I asked if she liked the stories and she said, ‘Oh, yes. But when you told the last one I didn’t jump.’
‘I noticed,’ I said. ‘How come?’
‘Because when I knew it was going to be scary, I held the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ She showed me the medal she was still holding: ‘You should get one, too.’
‘I’m not sure I should,’ I answered. ‘I’m Jewish.’
‘That’s okay,’ she said sagely. ‘Get a Jewish one.’
Writing this book about storytelling as an art and a way of life, I have often remembered the girl’s good counsel. When you know something scary is coming you must find and hold on to your own source of reassurance and wisdom. My young friend had a medal. What I hold on to is the passionate belief that knowing good stories by heart and telling them to a circle of listeners makes a haven for the human spirit.”
When life gets stressful and challenging, you and I hold on to the assurance that God loves us, and that God’s love is reflected in the personal relationships on which we build our lives. The relationships of our lives are built and developed on the stories we tell one another. (In his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton, New York, 2012, Jonathan Gottschall presents a rationale of storytelling similar to that of Dan Yashinsky.)
Zorba the Greek is the story of a somewhat larger-than-life man who had a passion for living life to the full. On another level, it’s the story of the relationship between God and humanity, of the struggle we all have to find purpose and meaning in our lives. It offers some uplifting insights into the desire of every human heart to find love. In one episode, Zorba tells of an encounter he had with a man he describes as “an old Turk, a neighbour of mine”:
“Well, this Hussein Aghas I’m telling you about was a saintly person. One day he put me on his knees and placed his hand on my head as though giving me his blessing. “Alexis”, he said, “I’m going to confide something to you. You’re young and you won’t understand this, but you will understand it when you grow up. Listen, my child: The seven stories of both heaven and earth are too small to contain God, yet the human heart is big enough to do so. For this reason, take care, Alexis, if you want my blessing – take care never to wound the human heart.” (Zorba the Greek, p.308, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1946)
Surely, it is better to know the love of God as Trinity in the depths of our hearts, rather than understand the mystery. And so, I leave the final word to John Garvey, former Commonweal columnist of more than forty years:
“We do not now, and never can, possess or control what we are finally meant to become. Someone who loves us more than we could possibly love ourselves is in charge of that.” (Essay by Patrick Jordan, Constant in the Struggle: The Life and Writing of John Garvey, April 11, 2018)
Perhaps we come to know God as Trinity by developing to the best of our ability the image that we each are of the God who is the essence of love.