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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Holy Trinity (Part 1)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present conference is on the Holy Trinity. It will in fact be one of two: this is the first and the next one will also be on the Holy Trinity. We have been speaking so far about the Divine Attributes - reflecting on them and applying them to our spiritual lives. Before we go on any further however in reflecting on the Divine Attributes, we should pause and have two meditations on the Holy Trinity. Why? Because although God is surely One and Only One whose attributes we are to believe in and as far as we can, even imitate, but the same One God, not only One but uniquely One, there not only is One God, there can be only One God: this One God however, is a Trinity of Persons.
We begin first by asking ourselves, "Isn't there a contradiction? Is God One, or is God Three." And more pointedly, "How can God Who is Absolutely Unique, be also (what we are affirming), He is also a Plurality. Indeed, how can God who is Absolutely One be also a Community." Before we go on, let's just state the obvious. God we believe is One in Nature. But the same God who is absolutely one in nature, He is Three Individuals. And let's be sure we understand God's plurality of Persons. Not merely, (Lord forbid!) not merely that we look at God from three different perspectives. The Trinity is not (is emphatically not!), three aspects or three viewpoints of one God. There are three REALLY, objectively, distinct Persons. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit: each in the profoundest sense, in which we can use these words - "God is Three Individuals."
We now ask ourselves and we will try to answer: "How is the Trinity at the Heart of Christianity?" For the sake of convenience, we might divide the whole believing world which means, most of the human race, into three classes of Religions. There are first of all the Polytheists for whom there are many hence "poly" - there are many "theore" - many gods: in the hour, I believe, most of the human race. Then there are persons who believe in One God, indeed, we call them Monotheists but who are not Christians and they are the believing Jews and the believing Moslems. For the Jew as for the Moslem, there is only One God Yahweh for the Jew and Allah for the Moslem. But as Mohammed keeps repeating in the Koran, "But Allah has no partners. Allah is absolutely, utterly One." One of the least publicized persecutions of Christianity in modern times is the persecution to the death of Christians by Moslems. The official figure for the number of Christians put to death by the Moslems in the Sudan in the fifties and sixties was two million starved to death for refusing (these are believing Christians), for refusing to deny the Holy Trinity.
Then there are the believers who are Trinitarian Monotheists - Monotheists because like the Jews and Moslems, they believe there is only One God, but Trinitarian because they also (and emphatically) believe that this One God, is not One Person! - that He is Three. Everything in our Christian Faith depends on our belief in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. We may say, "There had to be a plurality for the First Person of the Trinity to send the Second Person to redeem the World." Unless there is a plurality of Persons in God, there could not have been (listen!), there could not have been an Incarnation.
The First Person, distinct from the Second Person had to send the Second Person who then took on flesh, was conceived, born, suffered and died then by His death on the Cross, He redeemed the World. (Ah), but in order to redeem the world, He had to be, as He was, a Person Distinct from the First Person. The Second Person could not sacrifice Himself to the Father unless Father and Son were two, separate, distinct individuals. We speak so easily and comfortably about Christ's obedience - obedience to whom? Obedience to His Heavenly Father. Well quite frankly, no one obeys himself! There had to be a Father to be obeyed. And the Son who is Man, thus obeying! And then the Second Person, distinct from the First, having suffered and died as Man, risen, from the dead and ascended into heaven - that Second Person, then, sent the Third Person on Pentecost Sunday. These are not figures of speech! This is our Faith!!
Finally, Jesus Christ could not continue as our High Priest unless He was subject to the Father and then at Mass, the same Jesus, the Second Person as Man, continuing to offer Himself day after day until the end of time in order that having redeemed us on the Cross - He might now communicate the graces that He merited for us on Calvary. So much by way of introduction.
I now wish to spend some time (in fact much of the rest of the time) for this meditation on understanding the Trinity. The Holy Trinity is a strict mystery, meaning what? Unless God had revealed it, we would not even SUSPECT that God was One God in Three Persons. By now having revealed Himself as Triune, although God has revealed Himself as three Persons, it is impossible to fully understand what we believe. Let's be clear: a mystery is not something we are not to understand. A mystery is a revealed truth that we cannot FULLY understand. The Holy Trinity is a Strict Mystery.
I would use for the rest of the meditation, the Holy Trinity as a Prime Example because it is the deepest mystery of our Faith of the need we have to grow, to grow in our grasp of what we believe, otherwise, (50 years ago not having been a priest then, I would not be talking that way, but I am now) - the main reason for the most serious convulsion thru which the Church has gone in Her 2,000 years of History is right now! Rome's figures - 100,000 priests have left the active priesthood in the Church since the close of the Vatican Council. I have struggled with too many priests not to know - it is their FAITH that is on trial!! And so many have given up. And once priests give up their Faith, millions follow in their footsteps.
So we ask ourselves, "Why do we believe in the Holy Trinity?" We believe in the Holy Trinity because Jesus Christ revealed it. There had indeed been what we call foreshadowings of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but no Revelation until the coming of the Second Person who kept repeating and repeating that He was sent by the Father and kept repeating that He would send the Holy Spirit. Clearly, Christ could not have been more emphatic in telling us "One God, indeed but Three, very distinct Individuals".
To emphasize the need for our believing in the Holy Trinity, in His final commission to the Apostles, Jesus told them: "Go ye therefore, preach the Gospel to all Nations, baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. What Christ wished to do and the Church which we believe will last until the end of time will continue doing until the end of days is to exact Faith in the Trinity as the first condition for being a Christian. It is not only that no one becomes a Christian unless and until they are baptized. But it is not only baptism, the pouring of water and the pronunciation of the names of the Holy Trinity, (hear it!), the one baptized (hear it!), the one baptized must BELIEVE in the Trinity. And for those baptized in infancy, someone (parents, godparents), someone must have the Faith in the Trinity in order that the baptism might take effect. There is no Sacrament of Baptism without Faith in the Trinity.
Having said that, we now ask ourselves (if the Holy Trinity is a mystery, but it is not and should not be an unintelligible mystery), "Can we know something of what we believe when we profess 'I believe in the Holy Trinity?'" Yes. Over the centuries, the Church's greatest minds have thought, prayed, studied and have written extensively in order to give believers some inkling into the meaning of "Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit" - three Persons, nevertheless, only One God. The most profound, the most extensive and the most authoritative study of the Holy Trinity was done by St. Augustine: very simple Latin title - "De Trinitate" - "Of The Trinity" - depending on the edition, four, five, six hundred pages. Here is the way Augustine approaches the subject: (In our next conference, he will go more intimately into the meaning of Faith in the Holy Trinity as the bedrock of our spiritual life). Here, we will just look at something of St. Augustine's methodology.
He begins by pointing out that by believing the Holy Trinity, we do not believe in something that is contrary to reason. Objections are raised: "You Christians are an open contradiction. You are claiming that Three is One and One is Three." Says Augustine, "Nonsense." We do not believe that God is one person and three persons. That would be a contradiction. We do not believe that God is One God and three Gods. That, too would be a contradiction. We believe (given our very limited human understanding), that in one sense, God is One and Unique. In another sense, He is Triune. God in terms of His Individuality or Personality is Three. But God in terms of His Nature, is One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit - distinct individuals - yet, have (we dare not say - SHARE as though the Father had one third of the Divine Nature, the Son had the second third and the Holy Spirit had the third share. NO!) All three have the fullness of the Divine Nature.
Says Augustine: "There are two questions we can ask about God. We can ask what is God and we answer God is that Being whose Nature is to Exist. God is the Being who Cannot Not Exist. God is the Being who must Be." Everything else in the universe - (how we need to hear this - including us) God alone is necessary Being. He alone Must Be. The rest of the world (I repeat) including us is unnecessary being. We do not have to exist. Only One Being Must Be. He cannot Not Be. And that is God. This is the answer to the question "What is God". We now ask another question: "Who is God?" And the answer is: God the Being who cannot Not Be is the Eternal Society - a Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Who is God? God is an Everlasting Community where the Father from all eternity (to use our human language) has been generating the Son.
Who is God? God is that Divine Community where the mutual love of Father and Son has (as we say) "May the Holy Spirit proceed from the First and Second Persons" as a distinct individual, neither the Father nor the Son. And we ask: "Who is the Father?" The Father existed from all eternity. He is the Un-originated Person in the Divine Community. Who is the Son? The Son is the Mind of God, the Intelligence of God, the Wisdom of God, but a distinct Person from the Father. And who is the Holy Spirit? He is the Infinite Eternal Love of God proceeding from Father and Son - never began because Father and Son had always loved one another and (what are we saying?) - their mutual love is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. St. Augustine in order to help strengthen the Faith of believing Christians in the Trinity (I counted them, I counted 54! similarities in Nature) - had Augustine lived in the 20th century, he might have had 154 to show that the same One Substance can exist in three different ways.
Says Augustine: "Mist, flowing water and ice - all the same substance. Ice is not mist, mist is not flowing water. In the human soul," quote Augustine: "we have a memory, an intellect and a will. Our memory is not our mind; our mind is not our will. One soul, one substance but three distinct faculties or powers." All comparisons however, even those of the genius St. Augustine are pale - only faith reflections of what we know must be the deepest truth in existence because it is God.
What I wish to share with you for the rest of this meditation in some of the lessons that the Holy Trinity should teach us - lessons for our Christian Faith. The longer I live, the more people I deal with, the more difficult their lives (and some people's lives can be living agony), the more convinced I am that unless our Faith is strong, everything else that as believing Christians we are supposed to do on our way to heaven will be not only difficult but maybe (and I mean it), impossible. The mystery of the Trinity, therefore, brings out what we most need to know about Christianity: that it is based on God's Revelation which we must accept on faith. The Trinity shows us why Faith (underlined in my notes), why Faith is the foundation of everything, (EVERYTHING), in our Christian lives. I can talk about humility. I can talk about charity. I can talk about patience. I can discourse on chastity. I have conferences on obedience. All right, all right. But we will only be as humble, only as chaste, only as patient, only as loving as our Faith is strong.
I would like to ask a few questions. First, what is this Divine Faith as we call it? What is it? Our faith is the acceptance with our intellect of what God has revealed which we believe on His Word. That's it. Notice, we believe with the intellect. That is why I never tire repeating: "The foundation of sanctity is in the mind." The basis of holiness is in the mind. Growth in virtue is in the mind. What do I mean? I mean that unless we believe clearly with the mind, other virtues either cannot exist or will be no stronger than our faith. Another question: "Is our faith reasonable?" Or do we just believe, well, because everybody else is believing I might just as well believe something, too. Yes, and after 25 years of teaching other religious systems besides Christianity and Catholicism, I tell people (including my Protestant students at Protestant Seminaries), "There is only one fully rational religion in the world: (they jot it down) That is Roman Catholicism." (They look up). We can establish on reason that there is a God. We can prove from reason that God made a Revelation. We can prove from reason that that Revelation is credible; it's not irrational. We can defend our faith at the bar of reason. (And how this needs to be said: Anyone who abandons the True Faith, abandons reason)". No wonder so many wise, intelligent people who had been believers and give up their faith become so incredibly irrational.
Next question: "What does it mean to grow in the Faith?" And there is one underlying theme to this retreat, it's this one. The other virtues have still to be practiced. But I assure you they will be taken, cared of provided, are provided, our faith is strong. So what does it mean to grow in the faith? We cannot measure faith in inches or feet. (What do you mean by growing in the faith or in size -- from a 100 pounds to 125). Growing in the faith means three things. It means that we believe more certainly than we have believed before. And as we go thru life, our faith convictions should be stronger, more firm, more unshakable. To grow in the faith means that we believe more clearly. Over the years of my teaching Theology, I have examined too many priests (hundreds of them), smart men. They know the vocabulary. You press, you push, you scratch beneath the surface of their minds. They don't get it clearly! We grow in the faith as we more clearly SEE what we believe. But growth in the faith especially means that we grow in our understanding of what we believe. Every chance I get, I repeat what (I hope you've heard many times before). From the 13th chapter of Matthews' Gospel where Christ tells the parable of the sower sowing the same good seed falling on different kinds of ground, where the last kind of soil produces any yield but it is the first kind of fruitless soil that I wish to emphasize here. Said Christ: "Some of the seeds fell on the pathway and after a short while the birds of the air came along and picked them up so it produced no yield. But then" said Jesus, and they are those (that's the first class), "they are those having received the Word of God, (hear it!), "fail to understand what they believe and so the Evil One comes, (the Devil), and steals it from their hearts." That statement, in my theology, is the main reason why millions of once believing Catholics in our own generation have abandoned the Faith. Finishing Doctorates in Academic subjects from Astronomy to Zoology, but fail to grasp the meaning of what they believe, so what happens? The Devil picks it up. And that is the end of the Faith.
One last question sparked by our meditation on the Holy Trinity which is the primary mystery of Christianity: "How are we to grow, how are we to grow in our Faith in whatever mystery revealed beginning with our faith in the Trinity?" We grow in our faith by prayer. Those who pray grow in the faith. Those who do not pray lose their faith. And we repeat: Those who pray, grow in the faith; those who do not pray, lose the faith. And I can name names (some big names) in public print who have lost their Catholic Faith. How do we grow in the Faith? By reflecting on the Faith and when, we do in God's presence, we call it meditation. We beg the dear Lord to help us understand, pleading like some blind people in the Gospel: "Lord that I may see. I believe but I want to SEE what I believe."
Finally, how do we grow in the Faith? By living the Faith. No wonder Faith in the Real Presence has become so dimmed and I am afraid in millions of once believing minds. If I believe, IF I believe, IF I BELIEVE that Jesus Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, then I will come to Him, I will talk to Him. Can you imagine Christ's contemporaries in Palestine, hearing about Jesus of Nazareth - "OH yes I know, but I can't be bothered listening to him." If I believe that my salvation depends on my controlling my passions, I believe it, well, common sense tells me, I will control my passions. So what's new? If I believe that to please God and become more and more like the Christ who redeemed us, I am to love others even when (how this needs saying), especially when they don't love ME. If I believe that, what do I do? Nobody is saying it's easy. Nobody is saying, "I like it." That's not the point! I will love those who obviously couldn't care less about me because I believe. By putting my faith into practice, my faith will grow.
Henceforth, a closing prayer: "Most holy Trinity, I believe that you are the Eternal Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do not comprehend how this can be, but I accept your word Most Holy Trinity - your Word that you are indeed One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the Eternal Society from whom I came when you made me and to whom I am going because You, Most Holy Trinity are my eternal destiny. Amen. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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