By Christian Bergmann
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is foundational for the Catholic faith. Without it, everything falls apart. But with it, everything changes, and it changes radically. If we let it, this doctrine can revolutionise everything about how we see the faith, the Sacraments, and love itself.
There is a lot to be said about the Trinity. Since we can’t say everything, I thought I might share a couple of the insights that revolutionised my understanding of the Trinity and thus my understanding of the faith. Of course, we’re raised with the teaching that yes, there is God the Father; yes, there is God the Son; and yes, there is God the Holy Spirit. But when you begin to get it, when you begin to see the entirety of your faith through the lens of the Trinity, you can’t go back from that.
The first thing that changed everything for me was this: the doctrine of the Trinity makes the most sense of our claim that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The Catholic tradition has always taken this claim seriously. God does not simply love in the way we love; that is to say, sporadically and maybe inconsistently. We could never say of ourselves: we are love. No, we are creatures who even in our creaturely-ness are capable of love. But, on the contrary, God is not only capable of love, He is love in His essence. This is the radicality of the New Testament witness. It is also, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in Deus Caritas Est, the foundation of the Christian life: “We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life” (1).
What might this mean, though? How does this relate to the Trinity? One of Pope John-Paul II’s most consistent phrases whenever he spoke about love, especially marital love, was “the law of the gift”. Love, he said, only ever truly manifests in the form of gift: the giving of ourselves in our entirety, hearts and minds and bodies, for the sake of another. The result of this gift, inevitably, is a union that would not have been possible otherwise: a communion of persons. Marriage becomes a witness to this communion: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his son and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In the gift of each other, they form a communion otherwise impossible. So, we can say that love cannot exist in isolation, but must always be directed towards something, must always to given to somebody. When we talk about God being love in His very essence, then, we’re not necessarily talking about something entirely vague and abstract. Maybe, we’re talking about a love that is so real that it is an eternal communion of persons: Father, Son and Spirit. And the Spirit, in this loving dance of the Trinity, we can see spoken of in the Catholic tradition as the manifestation of the love between the Father and the Son. This is why Fulton Sheen speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “breath of love” that passes between the Father and the Son: the gift of their love is so intense that it can only be expressed by a sigh, by a breath.
In some ways, this is an almost inescapable conclusion. If God has existed from all eternity as the uncreated Creator, and if it is true that God is love, then even before any part of creation was formed, God was a communion of persons.
We don’t have to keep this philosophical, though. The biblical account reveals this to us in moving ways. It is something Jesus reveals to us in the Gospel of John. Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel is a moving, intimate prayer to God the Father, in which Jesus reveals to us the centrality of love.
He also reveals the love that exists between Him and the Father: “you loved me before the foundation of the world”
(John 17:24). And just like that, we have it: before the creation of everything, God was a communion of persons. Only two verses later, Jesus says something even more incredible: “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” (v.26).
God wants to draw us into this communion of persons, into the interior life of the Trinity. He wants the love that exists between the Father, Son and Spirit, to be in us, His Church. In the next article, we can explore how God does that through the Sacraments.
The second thing that changed everything for me when it came to understanding the meaning and significance of the Trinity was this: through baptism, our day to day life is now lived in participation with the Triune God. Everything about the Christian spiritual life, from beginning to end, is a participation in the life of the Trinity.
The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches have this idea of theosis, which refers to a kind of “deification”. The idea is this: fundamental to God’s plan of salvation is a transformative process by which He elevates and restores creation to take part in His own life. Salvation is not simply about “going to heaven when we die”, as if going to Church is a kind of after-life insurance. Salvation is about entering into communion with God and through that communion becoming “like God”. Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Communion with God begins now. Eternal life begins now.
This communion with God begins with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, God makes us a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). He so transforms us that we are now a new creature. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, now dwells within us, makes His home in us, and we are now “temples of the holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). What this means is that right now, this moment, and every moment of our Christian life, we live in communion with the Triune God; we live in participation with the life of the Trinity. We are not simply aspiring towards heaven; heaven has already made its home in us and is drawing us to ever deeper union with God.
If we spent time meditating on this point, reflecting on the reality that we now dwell in the Trinitarian life and the Trinitarian life now dwells in us, it will help us see anew everything about the life of the Church. We can begin to see that the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation are not simply entry points into a human institution, or a club, but are means of entering into the life of the Trinity, which is the life of the Church.
We can see that the Mass becomes, not simply a gathering of like-minded people, but a people drawn by the Spirit to participate in Jesus’ worship of the Father. More than that, the prayers of the Mass become, not simply us praying – as adequate as our prayers might be – but Jesus praying through us. This is why we make the sign of the cross before and after Mass: it is in the recognition that this entire event is a Trinitarian event, and we are entering into the life of the Trinity in a singular and unique and unsurpassable way.
We can see that the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing are actually a means of restoring us to communion with God, spiritually and bodily, as we are either blessed or absolved “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”. We can see that the Sacraments of Service, in Marriage and Ordination, become a unique means by which people become Christ for others and lead us in worship of the Father, who created heaven and earth and sustains us from moment to moment.
Without the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Church becomes just another religious institution, one among many. It becomes just another social club for those who are interested. But with the Trinity, we can see everything in a new light. We can see that our life begins and ends with this mystery, and without this mystery, we are nothing. No matter where we find ourselves in life, I hope we can find ourselves conscious of this reality, that each moment we live in the mystery of the Trinity and have been taken up into that mystery already.