No truth is (perhaps) more complex than that of the Trinity, one God in three persons. But I am persuaded that no truth is more central to living well as a follower of Christ. The Trinity is not a debate, at least for me. It is revealed yet it is a stunning mystery. A professor, playing on an earlier line, once said, “If you deny the Trinity you may loose your soul but if you accept the Trinity (and truly embrace it) you will likely find life and freedom.” So true.
My journey into God has been deeply Trinitarian for decades but much more so in the last twenty-plus years. My first memories of God, as a young child, were a mixture of terror with that of a friendly person who loved me. So far as I remember I always believed in God. But I also believed in hell and believed I might go there. (Massive confusion helps create this fear yet Scripture does, quite plainly, warn us of judgment.) I also believed in Holy God, everywhere present and all-powerful. I think as a child I imagined heaven as a place that I would go where God would allow me to take a “guided tour.” It was quite literal and highly imaginative, as is often the case with children.
So many small children are taught that they should not be naughty but nice. But what is “nice”? Who knows for sure. And what if “nice” is not enough? I remember several children dying in my circle of friends before I reached age sixteen. I was always aware that I too would die. I actually thought about dying almost every day. At times I was terrorized by these thoughts. In fact, one day as a storm rolled across my area I ran into the house and asked my mom, “What happens to me at death?” Sometime later I “understood” that Jesus came to take away my sin and because of His grace and forgiveness He would save me if I trusted him. My mom wisely showed me that following Jesus was not a “simple formula prayer” and over time I “gave my life” to Him (daily) to follow Him wherever He would lead me. I still have the flannel board piece that has the cross mom used to show me “the way” as she explained his death and my hope for forgiveness through Him. Later, I was baptized since I grew up in a Baptist church. That was a powerful moment as I entered into what “felt” like a dying experience to come out feeling like I was “new” (cf. 1 Peter 3:21). My first sense that baptism had some sacramental consequence was that experience at age seven. Strange as it is, I was in a church that opposed this notion but I “felt” otherwise and later would learn why.
But what about the Trinity? It was a mystery, as I said above. But that never stopped me from trying to solve it. I love solving problems. The question is: “What is a mystery?” Many back off once you put it this way. Not me. As I reached my teen years I was puzzled and kept reading. I asked a lot of questions. Very few around me were interested but I was deeply interested. Words like “I and the Father are one” and “I will send you the Spirit” were deeply puzzling yet filled with power for me.
During my freshman year at the University of Alabama I finally heard some serious teaching on the Holy Spirit. (Some of it was most unsatisfactory but at least I began to desire the fulness and power of the Spirit in my life and I saw that this reality would make a huge difference if the Spirit indeed filled me with his grace and power.) I conceived of the Spirit as a “breeze” who enflamed my soul with power to witness and love for God. That’s a start but not a solid place to stay.
Yet deep inside of me the “fear of hell” remained strong. What if I had not really repented as a child? What if I had been deceived? What if my faith was not from God but a delusion? I was searching for the elements of the Christian religion that are gentle and helpful towards removing craven fear and destructive thoughts.
Gerald O’Mahony, SJ, in his most excellent memoir A Way to the Trinity: The Story of a Journey (1988), had a very different experience than my own, growing up in a pre-Vatican II home in Ireland. But he refers to his fear as “that old schizophrenia,” a term I can relate to as a childhood Baptist. The weight of my struggle came down more often than I care to admit on fear rather than grace and forgiveness. For example, I would sit through “invitations” to come to Christ and time and again want to go forward to “be sure” I had done it right. This is pure Pelagianism, one of the ancient heresies of the church, but I had no idea what this meant at the time.
What was missing? I believe it was a healthy view of the Trinity but I will come to that in a later post. For now it was a failure to understand that grace was a deeply personal and very human relationship.
The way of St. Ignatius has helped me in my adult life. In The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola the believer is urged to think for thirty days on God calling me to and for the future. Ignatius introduces the Trinity by showing three persons jointly deciding what to do about the the terrible state of the world. He decided to send His Son into the world as one of us. Once this is grasped the retreatant is urged to contemplate scenes from the early life, public ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. What I began to realize from this practice was that I had a much deeper consciousness of the life of Jesus as a continuous whole. Joined with this I had a deeper and stronger sense of myself as His follower. I could picture Jesus here and there and me with him, following and loving. I was on the way to living in the life of the Trinity but did not know it for some time.
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