Photo: Pereda, Antonio de La Santísima Trinidad, The Holy Trinity
Part 2: St. Faustina and the Secret of the Holy Trinity
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jul 22, 2010)
Last week, in the first of a three-part series on the Holy Trinity, we started our reflections on the mystery of the Holy Trinity according to St. Faustina by walking through several of the most important passages in her Diary. Clearly, one of the things Faustina came to appreciate was that the mystery of the Trinity is ultimately "inconceivable" and "unfathomable." Jesus Himself told her this (see Diary, 30).
We should hardly be surprised: The doctrine of the Trinity sums up God's deepest revelation of Himself to us, and since God is by definition infinite, finite creatures like ourselves are not likely to be able to fully comprehend Him.
A passage in Job (11:7) rightly asks: "Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven — what can you do? Deeper than Sheol — what can you know?"
Over and over the Bible tells us God cannot precisely be compared to any finite thing (Is 40:18), and that the finite human mind cannot fully encompass Him: "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Is 55:8-9).
Even in the light of what God has revealed about Himself to us through His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, the eternal God still remains partially enshrouded in mystery (Col 2:2-3). Though He has shown us His divine Heart of merciful love through His Son, He has not thereby unveiled for us all the mystery of His Being. As St. Paul wrote: "Now [in this life] I know in part; then [in heaven] I shall understand fully" (1 Cor 13:12). In this life we can know God's mystery "in part." We have some sure knowledge of the nature and essence of God, summed up in the doctrine of His Tripersonal nature. But perfect and complete knowledge of God, to the extent that human minds can contain it, is not possible this side of the kingdom of heaven.
Nevertheless, if the doctrine of the Trinity tells us of One who is unlike anything on earth, and beyond the full grasp of our understanding, this does not mean that the doctrine is contrary to human reason. In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity is not self-contradictory, mere verbal nonsense. If many people remain confused about it today, it is because the Church, at various times and places, has failed in its task of clearly explaining the wonder and beauty of this central truth about God.
An important Protestant theologian of the last century, Dr. Walter Martin, once defined the doctrine of the Trinity as simply and succinctly as possible:
Within the unity of the One God, there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three share the same nature and attributes. In effect, then, the three Persons are the One God.
Now at first, this may simply sound like a contradiction in terms: How can Three divine Persons make One God, and not Three Gods? Yet most theologians and philosophers are convinced that the doctrine of the Trinity is not, in fact, a contradiction in terms. "The Law of Contradiction" in logic states that "a thing cannot both be and not be, in one and the same sense, at one and the same time." Little kids learn this logical principle of reality right at the start of their lives, and it causes them delight and wonder. In fact, it is the foundation of the child's game of "peek-a-boo": Mommy's face is visible at one moment, and then hidden the next, but cannot be both visible and invisible at the same time!
The doctrine of the Trinity, however, does not violate the logic of peek-a-boo! It does not say God is Three Persons and at the same time One Person, or that He has Three Natures and One Nature. That would be a mere contradiction in terms — mere nonsense talk. Rather, the doctrine says that in one sense, God is Three (three personal subjects), but in another sense God is One (one manifestation of all the attributes of the divine nature: e.g., omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence). This means that the Three Persons share all the divine attributes and never exercise them independently from each other. So, for example, we have one eternal manifestation of divine power, exercised in tandem by Three Divine Persons. In other words, the Father never exercises His power alone, but always with and through His Son and His Spirit — and the same holds true for exercise of all the other divine attributes. The Son never exercises His wisdom alone. Rather, it flows from the Father and is shared with the Spirit. The Spirit is never present in the world without the Father and the Son also being present, and so on. In short, the divine nature is Tripersonal in that it is shared and eternally "lived out," so to speak, by all Three Divine Persons together.
Now we can see why St. Faustina claims in Diary that she understood "distinctly" that there are Three Divine Persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — "but their being, their equality, and their majesty are one." And she rightly added: "Whoever is united to One of the Three Persons is thereby united to the whole Blessed Trinity, for this Oneness is indivisible" (472).
Of course, all this is difficult for us to comprehend, but it is not a logical contradiction. In our world, one human person is always one being, the sole subject of his or her human nature and attributes. But we have no reason to say that in other dimensions of reality, such as the heavenly dimension (so to speak), three persons cannot share a single set of attributes — and especially when we are talking about God, we have no reason to set limits in advance on the mystery of His Being.
In fact, this is what scientists, philosophers, and theologians simply call a "paradox." A paradox is something that seems contradictory and nonsensical at first glance, but when examined more closely it is found not to be so.
The real world is full of paradoxes. For example, scientists know that in trying adequately to describe natural "light," they have to make seemingly contradictory statements about it, because in some respects light behaves like "particles" and in other respects it behaves more like "waves." So it is just as true to speak of light waves as it is to speak of light particles. But this kind of paradoxical language is entirely appropriate to the mystery of light as we experience it in the real world. In a similar way, the nature of our infinitely glorious God is so full of mystery that we have to make paradoxical statements about Him in order to do justice to all that He has revealed about Himself through the ancient people of Israel, through Jesus Christ, and through His Church.
Let's look first at the Old Testament. Now, the people of Israel were certainly not aware of the doctrine of the Trinity, because God had not revealed that mystery to them yet. But we find the divinely inspired writers of the Old Testament books making paradoxical and mysterious statements about God that certainly foreshadow the truth that God is Tripersonal.
For example, in the Old Testament, God repeatedly describes Himself as "One" — "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord" (Dt 6:4) — but the Hebrew language, like the English language, has several words for "one." The word "yachid" means numerically one, single and solitary one, but God never used this word when describing Himself in the Old Testament. Rather, the word He chose is "echad" which is a word meaning a composite unity. It is the same word used when the Bible says that Adam and Eve became "one flesh." Ezra 2:64 says that the "whole assembly" of Israel numbered 42,360. The word "whole assembly" in English is a translation of the single Hebrew word "echad": one assembly with many members. In other words, God seems to be indicating that in the mystery of His Being, He is more like a community of persons than like a single, solitary person.
Several other Old Testament passages give hints of this mystery as well. In Genesis 1:26-27 for example, God the Creator says: "'Let us make man in our own image.'... [So] God created man in His own image." Well, which is it: is God an "Us" or a "Him"? In the New Testament, of course, we will find the teaching that God the Father made the world through and for His Word or Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn 1:1-3; Col 1:16; Heb 1:3): so "Us" is every bit an appropriate way to say it as "Him"! But in the Genesis account of creation there are only hints of all this: God creates the world by His word of power, "Let there be," while the Spirit of God was present and at work, too, "moving over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:1-2).
One more example: Listen to what the angels sing in the midst of the prophet Isaiah's vision of the glory of the Lord: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory" (Is 6:3). So God is the thrice-holy One. But why not the four times holy One? Or seven? Or 12? Why is He the thrice holy One? The Old Testament does not say. It foreshadows the mystery, but cannot explain it.
I am not claiming that the Old Testament writers deliberately intended to foreshadow the mystery of the Trinity in what they wrote, or even that they always fully understood all the implications of what they set down in writing. Nevertheless, as St. Peter suggests, the Biblical authors sometimes wrote more than they knew, because they wrote under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit (1Peter 1:10-12, and 2 Peter 1:20-21).
In the New Testament the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity become clear and unmistakable. Saint Paul, for example, blesses the Corinthians in a Trinitarian way: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor 13:14).
"God" here is short for "God the Father." Jesus is called the "Lord" ("Kyrios" in the Greek language spoken by the Corinthians), which is the way the Greek version of the Old Testament translated the name of God. The "fellowship" of the Holy Spirit literally means sharing in the life of the Holy Spirit ("koinonia" in Greek), for the Spirit of God was said to permeate and give life the whole Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:1-13).
The early Christians also usually baptized new members with a Trinitarian formula. In fact, they received the command to do so from risen Lord Himself: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Mt 28:19). Notice that Jesus did not say "in the names" but in the "name" of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The implication is clearly that the name of God is threefold, expressing the composite, Tripersonal unity of His Being.
The early Christians even experienced God in prayer in a Tripersonal way. Almost all of the early liturgical prayers of the Church are addressed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. In other words, they prayed to God as a loving Father, alongside Jesus His Son, with the Holy Spirit within them helping them to pray. Saint Paul even tells us that the Holy Spirit is deep within the heart of every true Christian, enabling him or her to cry out to God, "Abba, Father," in the same way that His Son Jesus did, and in the same way that the Spirit Himself addresses God the Father. The Book of Romans translated literally says that the Spirit "pleads for God's people in God's own way" (8:27), that is, in the "Abba, Father" way! (8:15-17).
So you see, the doctrine of the Trinity was not something invented by theologians in some academic "ivory tower" in order to make God too complicated for average Christians to understand. On the contrary, the earliest Christians experienced God in prayer and worship, in baptism, and in apostolic blessings in a Trinitarian way, and Jesus their Savior had taught them about the Trinity as well. So they could not help but speak of God as Tripersonal if they were going too be true to what they were taught, and to what they were experiencing, however paradoxical it all must have seemed to them at first.
And St. Faustina had much the same experience. As we discussed last week, it was after receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion that she experienced most deeply the Trinitarian reality of God:
Once after Holy Communion, I heard these words: You are our dwelling place. At that moment I felt in my soul the presence of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I felt that I was the Temple of God [that is, of God the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19]. I felt that I was a child of the Father.
Above all, the apostles experienced God as Holy Trinity in the life of Jesus Himself. Throughout His whole life story, the Trinity was on full display. At His Baptism and on the Mount of Transfiguration, for example, the voice of God the Father spoke of Jesus as His "beloved Son," and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove, and like a "bright cloud." From His miracles and His teachings, but above all from His resurrection, His disciples could not help but confess that Jesus is the divine Lord in human flesh (see Jn 20:28), but at the same time they clearly heard Him address another Divine Person in prayer, and speak of God as His heavenly Father (see Mk 14:36; Jn 17:1-26; Mt 11:25-27; Lk 10:21-22). Not only that, Jesus promised to send to them from the Father yet another heavenly reality, the Holy Spirit, to abide with them forever (see Lk 24:49; Jn 14:15-17, 15:26, 16:7,12-15). In fact, Jesus emphasized both the divine and personal nature of the Holy Spirit by saying that the Spirit is not a "created" being but one who "proceeds" (or "flows out") from the Father (Jn 15:26), and Jesus ascribes the personal pronoun "He" to the Holy Spirit nine times in St. John's gospel, chapter 16:12-15, in violation of the laws of grammar, because technically the word for "spirit" in Greek is neuter, not a "He"!
Can you imagine how baffled the disciples were at first by all this? After all, they were Jews who had always confessed that there is only One God. And yet, through the life of Jesus, they began to see that the mystery of God is so rich and wonderful that He is more like a community or a family — a personal Triunity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — than like a solitary heavenly monarch. Again, this is not something the disciples made up; it was something they were compelled to come to terms with, if they were to be true to all that God was showing us about Himself, through Jesus Christ.
Still, we have not yet discussed perhaps the deepest mystery of God, the deepest secret of His Trinitarian Being that was unveiled to St. Faustina when she wrote of the Trinity as the "burning" and "glowing center" of Divine Love.
Go to Part 3 where we finish this series by doing just that.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.