June 16, 2019
Batter my heart, three-person’d God – J. Barry Vaughn – Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019
Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (from “Holy Sonnets” by John Donne (1572-1631))
Seventeenth century priest and poet John Donne uses violent and contradictory language to speak of the Trinity: “Batter my heart,” “bend your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new,” “imprison me, for I except you enthrall me, never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
The Trinity is a doctrine that defies our power to reason and explain. We say that God is one but that there are three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Probably everyone has seen the traditional image of the Trinity as a triangle. The line from the Father to the Son says “The Father is not the Son,” and the line from the Son to the Spirit says “The Son is not the Spirit,” and the line from the Spirit to the Father says, “The Spirit is not the Father,” but in the middle of the triangle is the word “God” and lines from each Person to the word “God” say “is”: The Father, Son, and Spirit are all God.
The apparent irrationality of the idea of the Trinity led 18th century Deists such as Thomas Jefferson to reject the idea of the Trinity. Jefferson wrote, “Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions such as the Trinity. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them, and no man ever had a distinct idea of the Trinity. It is the mere abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
I admit that there is a part of me that is sympathetic to Jefferson. When we think of the Trinity in the abstract, it almost always leads us into the land of the absurd and irrational. But when we look at reality, especially human nature, we often find the Trinity to be at least a useful metaphor for understanding it.
There are several traditional metaphors that are useful illustrations of the Trinity. For example, time: Time obviously consists of three parts – past, present, and future. They are obviously not the same, but equally obviously they are a single reality. Also consider the three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas. Ice, liquid water, and steam bear no resemblance to each other, but they are, in fact, the same thing.
But it is social reality that best helps me understand the idea of Trinity. Human beings exist as individuals, families, and communities. Again, John Donne put it well when he said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”
The Trinity illustrates our social reality in a beautiful way. God is both one and many, three but one. None of us exists alone. We become ourselves in our relationships with each other. A child does not learn to speak by studying books of grammar; she learns by listening to her parents, to other children, to the television and radio.
Recently, it has been said with some urgency that we are living in an age of incivility. The left does not listen to the right and the right ignores the left. Politicians on the left denounce those on the right as lacking in compassion, and those on the right denounce those on the left as fiscally irresponsible. But the fact is that we need each other. No one political party and certainly no one politician has the whole truth.
When the left calls for more spending on education, health care, and unemployment, the right responds that our national debt is out of control. And when the right calls for fiscal austerity, the left responds that we must invest in our infrastructure. But the fact is that both are right and both are wrong.
What we need is a renewed national conversation, and a conversation requires that we recognize the humanity and fundamental decency of those with whom we are conversing. A renewed national conversation does not mean that we do not get angry or raise our voices, but it does mean that we do not storm out of the room. It means that we do not belittle or dismiss those with whom we disagree. A conversation means that we stay engaged with others.
Perhaps that is the best metaphor for the Trinity. The Trinity is an eternal conversation.
A conversation is never about words alone. A conversation always includes silence. And conversation also includes actions.
Perhaps the best conversations are those that take place around the dinner table. Good food and good wine have a way of loosening our tongues and lowering our inhibitions. But the fact that we are together at table also means that we are on our best behavior. We say “please” and “thank you”. I offer you the rolls and you refrain from taking the last piece of fried chicken.
One of the most familiar images of the Trinity is the so-called “icon of hospitality” by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is the image of Abraham entertaining the three angels who came to tell him that he and Sarah would be the parents of Isaac.
Perhaps I should speak of the Trinity not as a conversation but as a dinner party. And perhaps the best way for us to understand the Trinity is not by talking about it but by coming to the table, by kneeling and taking the bread and wine that are offered to us by the eternal Son in obedience to his Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit.