September 19, 2008

More than meets the eye

A meditation delivered by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG at Trinity Church San Francisco, September 13, 2008

Julian of Norwich wrote: “Suddenly the Trinity completely filled my heart with the greatest joy. And so, I understood, it will be in heaven, without an end, for those who come there, For the Trinity is God; God is the Trinity. The Trinity is our maker. The Trinity is our keeper. The Trinity is our everlasting lover. The Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss, through our Lord Jesus Christ and in our Lord Jesus Christ. This truth was shown in the first showing and in all the showings, for where Jesus appears, the blessed Trinity is understood, as I see it.”[4]

More words have been spoken, more ink spilled, and probably more blood shed on account of the Trinity than any other Christian doctrine. I alluded to this in my first meditation. So I want to follow through, and I hope deliver on something of what I promised, in thinking about the Trinity not so much doctrinally as liturgically, in particular the ascetical disciplines of religious life, and the gift of contemplation.

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First of all, I start with the assertion that the Trinity is not a doctrine, but a Person — in fact, three Persons. “Trinity” is the name of the God whom we worship, the God we then know — insofar as we can know God — as Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit — and we get that Name from the liturgy of Baptism: told by Jesus to do it to the ends of the world, not to think about it. We worship before we understand, before we know. Like the Athenians, we worship a God to a large extent unknown — yet faith and grace support our worship even with the partial knowledge we have. God has not left us entirely clueless, as Paul told the Athenians. As Julian reminds us, God gave us as it were an ABC, so that here on earth we can have a little of the knowledge that we will have in full measure in heaven.

The first thing we gather from the Baptismal ordinance is that God is One in Three, a love so powerful it could not exist simply as a singularity but had to be more dynamic — and paradoxical. And so we give our God the name of Trinity, for this is the only way we have to grasp the hem of the transcendent garment. For though there are many doctrines about the Trinity, many unpackings of the meaning of this name, the Trinity God’s-self is not a doctrine to be discussed but a mystery to be contemplated.

Now, in liturgical theology — unlike a Hercule Poirot story — a mystery isn’t a puzzle we can figure out if given enough clues. No: mystery stems from the Greek word for sacrament — not something to be solved with the little gray cells, but to be experienced as an exercise — an askesis — of the whole self, with, as George Herbert said, the heart bearing the longest part.

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A mystery, a sacrament, is something that brings us beyond the surface to some deeper or higher reality — effectively, so that it becomes a means to experience it. There is more than meets the eye in a sacrament: some inward reality to which the appearance directs, draws, invites, and brings us. The water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist reveal truths that words cannot express, truths not simply assented to with the mind, but experienced with the self — living truths from the hand of the one who is living, loving Truth.

This doesn’t mean that theologians give up trying to understand or communicate these truths in other ways, though the effort is like translating poetry into prose. Often, rather than deepening our understanding only confusion results. Worse than that, over the years theologians’ efforts to define exactly how (and if) baptism regenerates, or how bread and wine can (or can’t) be at the same time the Body and Blood of Christ have led to division and persecution in the church. And if we are to apply the touchstone, “By their fruits you shall know them,” it appears we have been wandering in a forest of very bad trees. How often have we forgotten the wisdom C.S. Lewis encapsulated in his brief epigram, “The Lord said, Take, eat; not Take, understand.”

The same is true of efforts to “explain” or “understand” the Trinity — and I am not about to add to the succession of failures. Rather, I invite you to approach the Trinity today and every day much as you do the eucharistic bread and wine, as a sacrament to contemplate and experience rather than as a proposition to analyze. Just as the bread and wine of the eucharist are not about baking and wine-making (though these arts have a place in bringing the sacrament to fulfillment) so too the Trinity is not about precise definitions meant to rule the limits beyond whose bounds we stray into the dangerous territory of heresy. Our efforts at understanding, our doctrinal formulations and creeds, for all their usefulness in defining boundaries, are at best thumbnail sketches of the Being and Loving and Doing who lies behind and beyond all that is.

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I mentioned askesis — asceticism — in passing a few moments ago, and I want to expand a bit on that. The popular mind links asceticism to not doing things — but the root meaning of the word is an exercise or practice, or as we might say, a discipline. The point of ascetical poverty, for instance, is not impoverishment — the absence of possessions — but the freedom from attachment to them, the ability as Saint Gregory the Great once said, “to make use of the things of this world without being ensnared by them.” I recall that a monk to whom I sent a membership pin for a church group returned it with a kind note saying his community didn’t pin anything on their habits. This has remained a wonderful image: religious are people who aren’t pinned down, people who are truly alive and free because they have given themselves to the One-in-Three, the source of all life and freedom. In a way, the ascetic knows things best, for she will have them in perspective, at arm’s length far enough away to be seen, reflected upon, and made proper use of as needed, without worrying whether there will be enough — because all of it is a gift. At the same time, the ascetic will be one close to God, thoroughly known by God, able to participate in the divine life that does not consist in the abundance of possessions, but in the transparency of personhood.

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True asceticism is a kind of disciplined awareness of relationships freed from the desire to possess, awareness of relationships between the self and the other, that other who is God or neighbor, or God in neighbor. And this awareness, cultivated through discipline, may explain the paradoxical spiritual richness that ascetics experience in spite of the sometimes external austerity of their lives, enjoying the rich harvest of contemplation — which is, in some ways, the simplest liturgical act which we undertake, when we remove our worldly shoes and kneel on holy ground before a flame that burns but does not consume. In these moments the soul is stilled and receptive before the One-in-Three who Simply Is Who Is.

Contemplation is not to be mistaken for passivity, as if the contemplative were simply an audience-member looking on with the view to diversion. On the contrary, diversion is just what contemplation isn’t. Just as the world mistakes poverty for impoverishment, it looks at contemplation and sees stasis. But no, the contemplative is inwardly active at the level of the soul, participating intimately, not static but ecstatic: absorbed in the divine other; and ascetic: exercising inwardly, fanning the warmth of that divine spark, dancing with God, experiencing God’s revelation not only in rumination over words from the past, but hearing new promises spoken in their personal present, or read by that glowing flame that burns but does not consume, savoring the words written long ago on stone and parchment, and exulting in the wordless words inscribed on their very human hearts.

Thus absorbed in the holy Trinity, we come to know God; but we also come to know ourselves. As Julian of Norwich said,

for our soul sits in God in true rest, and our soul stands in God in sure strength, and our soul is naturally rooted in God in endless love. And therefore if we want to have knowledge of our own soul... we must seek it in our Lord God in whom it is enclosed.[56]

And so the dance goes on!

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As I said before, the discipline of prayer and presence is related to detachment — not being pinned to things. Look at what happens when liturgical things are pinned down: in Corinth, for example. Paul warned them about being caught up in disagreements that made them forget the reason for their worship and their fellowship. His warning holds for us today, for we too live in the “already but not yet” that lies between creation and culmination; the urge to want to pin things down in a time of uncertainty is great; labels are so tempting and categories so seductive.

Whenever the church gets so caught up in seeking to define or limit the means of grace that it forgets about the hope of glory, and thereby obstructs or withholds their grace-giving power, the church is in trouble. From what we can tell about the church in Corinth this was a congregation that never did quite “get it.” And what they didn’t “get” was that the sacraments and the gifts of the Spirit point us beyond themselves and ourselves to God. Sacraments are means, not ends. People are ends, not means. And the Corinthians had it backwards. By the end of his association with them, Paul was ready to tear the whole thing down and start over! They had turned the eucharist into a dinner party, and come to see speaking in tongues as an end in itself. They got caught up in the personalities of the apostles instead their teaching. They were, strictly speaking, shallow: caught up in the surface — pinned to it, if you will — and could not see beyond what meets the eye, all the while considering themselves especially profound and holy. They were so worried about idolatry, that their very worry became an idol in itself. They missed the truth that the difference between an idol and a sacrament is that the sacrament is a means to something greater, while the idol is an end in itself. Those who worship idols, however holy they appear, are clipped to the level of what meets the eye, like water-beetles skimming the surface. What is needed is the true gift of contemplation, which can look past the reflective surfaces, past the flickering lights, past the water even, so that the one who contemplates can see the everlasting rocky foundation of the stream-bed below.

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In the end, contemplation is the liturgy of heaven. Because there is always more to God than meets the eye, even the eye of faith, we will never be bored with God the Trinity. The Trinity has been doing that inward dynamic dance of its own self-subsisting uncreated existence, God simply being Who God Is in uncontainable joy and love, from before time and for ever. And we are invited, nay plucked from our wallflower seats to join that dance, to contemplate and participate in that divine energy, that love that drives the sun and the other stars. That is what we are doing now, here, together, in this place. Our gathering is an opportunity to look at the record of God’s saving deeds, and humanity’s struggling, stumbling, and sometimes surprisingly graceful efforts to respond. But by starting with the Trinity, we focus not upon the saving story of what God has done, but with the untellable reality of Who God Is.

Corinth shows us how not to proceed — but even in their failure there is guidance. I said that the Corinthians were pinned to surface issues. The problem was that they were looking at the wrong surfaces. They were looking at walls when they should have been looking in each other’s faces.

For, however much the natural world can tell us about who God is, however much is revealed about God in the mighty acts of grace and salvation, however much is captured in the words of theologians, the most powerful and revealing thing God has ever done was to create creatures bearing the divine image and likeness; and then, in the fulness of time, to become incarnate in that same image of Who God Is. If we want to know what God is like, we can do no better than to look at each other, at our brothers and sisters, each of whom is a living, breathing sacrament of God. And in them and through them we will find God, and in God we will find ourselves, all enclosed, as Julian said, wrapped in the threefold love of God the Three-in-One.

This is where the askesis of chastity comes in: for the chaste soul treats the other with the respect due a child of God, never as a means, but always as an end — not just a way to God, but God’s real presence. This is why Paul concludes his appeal to the Corinthians by urging them to agree with each other, be at peace, and kiss each other. When we have quieted our family struggles in the church, calmed the reflecting surface so that recognizable likenesses emerge, we can then take the next step, beyond the mirror’s surface, to see Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who is himself the perfect revelation of God.

Coming to agreement and peace in the church will mean further detachment, giving in and giving up — to use the fancy phrase, it will mean the sacrifice and oblation of ourselves. Each of us will have to step off our own little pedestal if we are to reach each other and face each other and embrace each other in the holy kiss of peace: it is no accident the Peace comes at the center of our liturgy. Each of us will have to take off those worldly shoes, to tread on holy ground.

In this very action our divine likeness is revealed, and the sacramental mystery bears fruit, enabled by the gift of the Holy Sprit. This is what Jesus did in becoming one of us. This is what Julian experienced when she chose to find no heaven other than that which is revealed in Jesus Christ, and him in his passion.[19] This is what God did in risking to create creatures that would be capable of being truly free — which means being capable of rejecting their Creator. In the paschal giving of ourselves to one another, in the setting aside our own needs for the sake of one whose need is greater, our resemblance to God emerges, and we become recognizable as what we are meant to be: the children of God.

In embracing our brothers and sisters we are re-enacting and celebrating and contemplating the cosmic turnabout when Love Divine came down and lived among us as one of us, and we penetrate beneath the surface and see beyond what meets the eye to what enlivens the mind, touches the heart, and lifts up the spirit. We encounter and contemplate the Trinity: Who God Is in all richness and infinite variety. As Julian said,

I am he, the might and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the Unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love; I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires.”[59]

For the Trinity is: the Giver, the Gift, and the Giving — the one great God, so in love with the world that creation itself will not be complete until the Triune Name is carried to its ends, and everything that has breath praises the Lord in the never-ending dance of contemplation whose center and whose music is the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.+

The numbers in brackets refer to sections of Julian's Shewings.


Anonymous said...

"...sections of Julian's Shewings."


That is the bloody WORST translation of Julian's work in print!

It could have been "...sections of 'A Lesson of Love: The Revelations of Julian of Norwich' translated by Fr. John-Julian, OJN.

But you non-Julians will simply never learn!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Father in God, I do know that your translation is the best. The "Shewings" tho is the original Middle English, which is my favored version. (Medieval studies as an undergrad, with a focus on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.) The translation I included in this essay is an older one, but not from the one called "Showings" and dates from before yours was available.

In compensation for this oversight, I am adding a link to your title in the side column.

Anonymous said...

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You can take a look and let me know by comment at either blog or at

I give of course a direct link and encouragement to read your blog. Thanks for such a beautiful statement about Trinity.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Please feel free to post and/or refer from "Here I Am Lord." Thanks for your kind words on this reflection.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Stunning meditation; you've taken a positive-Spong-esque line of "Being, Loving and Doing" and made poetry all your own - "Contemplation is the liturgy of heaven". A good way to spend more than just my lunchtime reading and pondering.