Not a Puzzle but a Mystery
June 6, 2004
The Trinity is not a puzzle. It is a mystery. And those are two very different things. A puzzle has an answer. It is something that you try to figure out, something that you attempt to understand. A mystery has no answer. You cannot understand it because it is greater than you are, something beyond your grasp. You cannot comprehend a mystery, but you can appreciate it. Like a great piece of music it takes you deeper. You cannot solve a mystery, but you can stand before it and allow it to lead you to contemplation. Like beholding a beautiful sunset, it can move your soul.
So as we gather together today to celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity it would be foolish to try to explain it and impossible to understand it. All we can do is stand before this description of God’s life and ask, “How does it deepen us? How does it reveal the truth about God and about ourselves?” Even doing that is difficult. For any effort to express the dogma of the Trinity is contrary to human logic. But I am going to give it a shot.
We believe that the Trinity reveals to us the very life of God. This is important because God is the source of all things and so everything that exists is somehow reflective of God, reflective of the Trinity. The Trinity tells us that God is one, that there are no parts and pieces to God. Like our brothers and sisters in Judaism and Islam, we are monotheists. We believe that God is simple, perfect, one. Now that much is something that you can at least get you mind around. However, the next piece totally complicates it. Because we as Christians believe in Christ, and because we believe that Christ is God, and because we believe that Christ is not the Father, or the Spirit, Christians believe that there are three persons in God: Father, Son, and Spirit. We believe that the Father is God, that the Son is God, and that the Spirit is God. But we believe that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, and neither the Father nor the Son is the Spirit. And yet there is one perfect, simple God.
Confused? We certainly are if we approach the Trinity as a puzzle, trying to figure it out. But what would happen if we approached it as a mystery? What would happen if we stood before it and allowed it to lead us deeper? If we asked, “What does the Trinity tell us about God? What does the Trinity tell us about ourselves?” Now when we ask that question there is no one answer. It would be like standing in front of a sunset and saying, “What does this mean?” It could mean many things, and in some ways it means all things. But just for the focus of today’s liturgy, let me offer one possibility of how the Trinity speaks to our lives.
The Trinity tells us that there is a contrast in God between oneness and personhood. God is totally one, and yet the persons of Father, Son, and Spirit do not lose their distinctiveness. Since God is the model for all things, the Trinity invites us to mirror a similar contrast in our own lives. What the Trinity is telling us is that if we are going to love deeply we must have within ourselves a tension between our union with others, our oneness, and our own personhood, our individuality.
The Trinity tells us that if we are going to love deeply, we cannot live life alone, we must seek oneness with others. Relationships are essential in order to live a full life. But at the same time, the Trinity says that, as we seek that union, we can not lose our own personalities or individual characteristics. Even as we seek union with others, those things that make us unique cannot be forgotten.
The mystery of the Trinity implies that all healthy human love will experience this tension between oneness and personhood. Spouses seek intimacy and yet that intimacy cannot involve the loss of their own personal identities. Parents love their children but must try to do so without smothering them. Children seek their own independence but at the same time must maintain a connection with their parents. Friends move towards closeness yet cannot do so by denying the differences that make them unique. If we are going to be fully alive and deeply in love, we must somehow mirror this tension between oneness and individuality.
Now, each one of us will find ourselves in a different place across that tension. Some people are very good at being independent and appreciating their own uniqueness. The Trinity would lead them towards greater unity with others, inviting them to build relationships. Others might constantly be giving themselves in service for others. What the Trinity would call them to appreciate their own individuality and to give voice to their own uniqueness.
The Trinity is not a puzzle. It is a mystery, a mystery that applies to us. Let us listen, then, to the call of the Trinity. Let us see in it an invitation to love others deeply and, at the same time, preserve and treasure our own selves. We can find in the Trinity a model for ourselves, a way of loving deeper and of living better. +
The Good for Which We Were Made
June 3, 2007
There was a bizarre commercial a while back, so bizarre that I cannot remember what it was selling. In it a teenage girl in wild attire was intently watching a television screen. On the screen was a rapid and incoherent succession of colors and images. When the screen finally went dark she turned and said “I totally don’t understand what that was, but I want it!”
This strange statement is a passable description of our relationship to God. We cannot understand God, but we want God. We cannot understand God because God is totally other, absolute mystery. Today’s feast of the Holy Trinity makes that clear. We are unable to understand how God could at once be perfectly one and also distinctly three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. But our inability to understand God does not prevent us from wanting God. In fact it would be true to say that we want nothing else. All we really want is God.
Now by saying that I am not trying to be pious or implying that we prefer to spend all our time in church praying. When I say that all we want is God, I am saying that in our deepest self, in our heart of hearts, what we ultimately desire is God. Why is this true? Because this is the way we were made. St. Augustine probably says this more beautifully than anyone else. He says, “You have made us, O God, for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
What Augustine is saying is that all through our life, with every choice we make, with every relationship we develop, with every dream that we dream, what is driving us forward is our desire to possess the goodness, the power, the presence of God. Augustine believes that every good thing we see, every person that we love, every dream that attracts us is only a reflection of the ultimate goodness that is God. Therefore, whether we are aware of it or not, we are always searching, always seeking, always wanting God.
Now St. Thomas Aquinas makes the same point from a different angle. He argues that because we were made for God, we are necessarily directed towards God. We are hard wired, if you will, to always choose goodness, because every good thing is a reflection of God. St. Thomas goes so far as to say that no one ever chooses evil. We always choose goodness. Now wait a minute, you say. People choose evil all the time. Yes they do. Thomas would admit this. But he insists that they never choose evil as evil. They only choose evil because they perceive it as good. Evil is not attractive to us. It does not draw us. Only goodness draws us, because it is a reflection of God’s goodness. That’s they way we are made.
So according to Thomas, even people such as Adolph Hitler, who killed millions of people in an effort to dominate the world, do not make such choices because they see them as evil. They perceived them as good. Hitler believed that his slaughter of Europe was good: good for himself, good for his country, good for his third Reich. As Hitler reached out for power in a warped and horrible way, he was nevertheless reaching out for the power that was ultimately a reflection of the power of God.
Now there is no way we can ever condone or accept what Hitler did. But even in his megalomania, he was sinfully reaching out for what was good. When he reached out for power in a sick and unacceptable way, he was perversely reaching out for God.
Therefore, the challenge for us is not to desire God. In truth we can desire nothing else. We are hardwired to reach out always for what we see as good. The challenge for us is to see correctly, to reach out not for a false good but for a genuine one, to reach out for a true good rather than one that is illusionary. This is why it is so important in today’s Gospel that Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, the one who will guide us in all truth. It is the role of the spirit to clarify for us what is genuine goodness and what is an illusion. It is the Spirit who shows us that when we make choices based upon greed or selfishness or violence, they are lies and they will never bring us happiness, even though they appear to be good. It is the same spirit who shows us that when we base our life on justice, generosity and love, we will be making choices and claiming the genuine good that we so deeply desire.
All of us ultimately desire God, we cannot help but to do so. All of us are hardwired to reach out and seize the good that we perceive in our midst. The challenge for us is to perceive correctly. Therefore our prayer on this feast of the Holy Trinity is that the Spirit of God will guide us so that the good for which we reach, the good to which we commit our lives may not be a false good but a true one. We pray that the good which we choose will not be a horror but a blessing, not a lie but a genuine reflection of the goodness for which our hearts were made.
Repenting, Changing, and Continuing
May 30, 2010
Today is the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, and I would like to take this occasion to speak with you about the sexual abuse crisis that is surrounding the church presently, especially in Europe. Now you might say, “Why choose the Feast of the Trinity to talk about this crisis?” But there is a connection, actually a very strong connection, between this doctrine that we profess today and the issues with which the church is now dealing.
We believe in one God in three divine persons. This belief in the Trinity reveals to us that God is a perfect community of truth, love, and goodness. But the truth of the Trinity does not only tell us about God. It also reveals something about us. Each one of us has been made in the image of this perfect God. Therefore, the Trinity is a goal against which we measure ourselves. We are called to reflect as best as we can the goodness and truth of our perfect God. Having said that, it is obvious from the start that none of us will perfectly succeed in this mirroring. God is God, and we are not. Therefore, we will always fall short of reflecting the God who loves us and has made us. The Trinity, then, provides an occasion in which we can reflect about what we should do when we fall short.
The Trinity reveals the perfect image in which we have been made. At the same time it reminds us that we will never match God’s perfection and prepares us to deal with our shortcomings. In light of those shortcomings, then, the Trinity invites us to adopt a pattern by which we can address the imperfections of our lives. That pattern calls us to repent, to change, and to continue.
When we fall short from God’s image, when we have marred the perfection of God that is within us, the first thing we must do is repent. We must admit our fault. We must say that we have fallen short, that we have sinned. But repentance is not enough. We also must be willing to change, to see if there is anything that we can alter or adjust, so that the mistake will not be repeated again. Once we have repented and changed, then we are called to continue. Then we are free to go back to our responsibilities, to our vocation, to our mission. As imperfect as we are, we can nevertheless continue to reflect the image of God that is within us.
This, then, is the pattern: repent, change, continue. Parents know this pattern. Parents often fall short of the people their children need them to be. But they admit their faults. They look for things to change, so that those faults may not repeat endlessly. Then they continue. They go back to being the parents their children need them to be, because that is their vocation and mission. Spouses, friends, anyone in any relationship knows this pattern. When we have disappointed or hurt the people in our life, we first repent and admit our fault. Then we see if there are things that can change. Finally we continue in the relationships of the people that we care about.
The pattern of repenting, changing and continuing is the pattern of human life. Every person, every human institution must follow it, because no person and no human institution is a perfect reflection of our Triune God. Obviously, then, this applies to our church and the leadership of our church. Our church leaders are not immune from imperfection. They, like all of us, have to follow that same pattern in order to continue. The most recent copy of Time Magazine has a cover article on the sexual abuse crisis in the church. It is a very good article. The title of the article is, “Why Being Pope Means You Don’t Have to Say You’re Sorry.” The title, of course, is ironic, because the author of the article as well as anyone who reads it knows that the pope does need to say he is sorry. He is responsible for the church, for its guidance and governance. Our church has significantly fallen short in the area of sexual abuse. We know that hundreds of priests and nuns throughout the world have abused children who were entrusted to their care. Moreover, we know that all too often bishops who were in authority over these individuals chose to cover or hide their crimes rather than expose them. They, therefore, allowed the abuse to continue.
Now it is true that most of these abuses occurred in the past, but those sins remain as a scar on our church, a stain which we must seek to address and remove. In doing this, those who are responsible for the leadership of our church must follow the same pattern that each one of us must follow in our own lives. First they must admit the things that are wrong and ask for forgiveness. But forgiveness is not enough. The structures of our church need to change, because flawed structures allowed these abuses to happen in the first place. Our Holy Father has already admitted the need for forgiveness. He has spoken of the sins of the church. He further recognized that forgiveness does not replace justice, and that changes need to be made within our church institution. We must, then, as people of faith, follow his lead and support changes in our church so that our children will not be endangered in the future.
Now these decisions are not in my hands or your hands. They are in the hands of the pope and the bishops. So what can we do on a local level in light of this crisis? First of all, we can see that no child in our parish community is in any way threatened by abuse. The United States bishops have set in place excellent guidelines to prevent such possibilities. As your pastor I can assure you that those who are in charge of the care and education of our children in this parish have all passed background checks and have received education on the reality of sexual abuse. The other thing that we can do is pray for our pope and our bishops so that they will have the courage to follow the pattern which we know is part of the gospel. Let us pray that they will have the courage to admit that things were done that were wrong and sinful, and then the courage to change the structures which might allow sexual abuse again in the future.
We must really pray that those who speak for the church have the courage to follow this pattern. Because the church’s moral authority is on the line. If there is any attempt to cover over or hide sins and crimes of the past, the moral authority of our church will be terribly harmed. The way forward is clear. It is only by repenting and changing that we as a church will be able to continue to reflect the goodness and the love of our Triune God.
Waiting for the Ticket
May 26, 21013
Doesn’t it drive you crazy when someone comes up to you and says, “Oh I’ve heard such terrible news. It’s so sad. But I can’t tell you what it is, because I promised I would say nothing.” I hate that! I just want tell the person, “Why did you bring it up at all, if you can’t tell me what it is?”
At first, it might seem that Jesus is adopting this frustrating practice in today’s gospel. He tells the disciples, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” You can imagine the disciples saying, “If you can’t tell us now, why did you even bring it up?” But Jesus does not speak in this way to frustrate the disciples. His words are not meant to worry us about the things to come but rather to assure us that whatever comes, he will be there to help us.
No matter what age we are, we know that there will be challenges to come: a new school, the loss of a friend, a mistake that we make as parents, a serious illness, the death of someone we love. As we imagine these challenges approaching, as we watch other people dealing with them, our first reaction is: “I don’t have the strength to face that. There is no way I will be able to cope, if those things happen to me.” It is then that we must trust in the Lord. Jesus tells us, “You do not even know what is going to happen, but I do. I am already taking steps so that when the challenges in your life come, you will have the resources to deal with them.”
In her classic book, The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of an experience that happened to her when she was 8 years old, just before the Second World War. A family in her neighborhood experienced the tragic crib death of a three-month old child. Corrie went with her mother to pay respects. As her mother spoke to the grieving parents, Corrie approached the crib in which the dead child lay. She reached out her hand and touched him. He was cold. For the first time in her life, Corrie had touched death. That coldness entered her heart. It followed her home. That evening she could not fall asleep, and she began to cry.
Her father heard her and came into her room. “Corrie,” he said, “what’s the matter.” “I touched the dead child today and I know that death is real. I know that one day it will come and take you and momma from me. I can’t face that. I will never be strong enough to let you go.” “Oh, I see,” said the father.
Then he thought for a while. “Corrie,” he said, “when we take the train to Amsterdam, do I give you your ticket while we are at home?” “No,” she said. “When do I give you the ticket?” “You give it to me just before we climb on the train, because you are afraid that if you give it earlier I will lose it.” “Exactly,” said her father. “You need to know that your heavenly father is much wiser than I am. Today, you do not have the strength to face the challenges to come. But when the day comes on which you must take that ride of loss, or pain, or even death, your ticket will be ready. Your heavenly father has already bought it and is holding it for you. It will be there when you need it.”
We all want to hold our ticket in our hand. We want to know that we have the strength today to face whatever will come. But we do not even know what we will have to face. God does. And God has already prepared a way for us to address the difficulties ahead. That is why we must entrust our future to God’s care, believing that God will never abandon us. We trust that when we must face loss, pain or death, then the ticket will be placed in our hand.
June 16, 2019
It was perhaps the most painful appointment I’ve ever experienced in my priesthood. An eight-year-old child from a family of the parish had died after a long struggle with a rare cancer. Of course, the parish community reached out to the family, offering them prayers, food, and other kinds of support. But after three weeks the mother of the child called me for an appointment. When she sat down in my office she said, “I have questions for you.” “I’ll do my best,” I said. Then she began. “Father” she said, “we believe, do we not, that God loves us deeply?” “We do,” I said. “And we also believe that God is all powerful and can do whatever God wants? “We do,” I said. “So tell me, Father, why would an all-powerful God who loves me not save my son from dying. If I had God’s power I would do it in a heartbeat.” “I’m sure you would,” I said. “Tell me, why did God not save my son?” There was a pause. If ever I had wished to have an answer to a question, it would have been in that moment. But all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I could have made answers up. I could have said that everything happens for a reason or maybe this is a blessing in disguise or God could give you other children. But those answers would simply be insults to this woman. From the depths of her soul she posed a profound question, and all I could say to her was, “I don’t know.” “It’s not enough,” she said. “How can I pray to a God I do not understand? How can I can I worship a God who makes no sense to me? I’m sorry to say, Father, but you won’t see me in church anymore.” I did not for many months. Then one Sunday I saw her sitting in the back corner of the church. I knew that she was there because of the love of the community, not because she had found a better understanding of God. I believe to this day that she carries the questions in her heart for which there are no answers.
I share this incident with you on the Feast of The Most Holy Trinity because if there is one thing the Trinity makes clear, it is this: we will never fully understand God. We believe that God is three divine persons, Father, Son and Spirit. We also believe that God is one. How can God be one and three at the same time? Our only answer is, “I don’t know.” The Trinity reminds us that saying, “I don’t know,” is a part of faith. We believe in God not because we understand God, but because we have come to trust God.
So, the pattern of the Christian life is this: humility and praise. We need to praise God for all the blessings, for all the good things that come from God’s hand. But at the same time we have to humbly admit that we never fully understand God. We do not understand why God allows diseases to continue in our world or innocent children to die. We don’t understand how people we care for continue to make terrible decisions or fall into addiction. We don’t understand why despite our best efforts we cannot break habits of sin that still control us. But even as we admit we do not understand, we are called to praise God for the gifts in our life that are real: for the people who love us, for the ability to be creative and productive, for the promise of eternal life.
We will never fully understand God. That is a truth that we will have to humbly accept. But we must also praise God for the blessings we know flow from his love. And through God’s grace, the blessings we know will be able to outweigh the many things we do not understand.