A Trinity Commentary

In the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, His Excellency Most Rev. David McGough has a column about the Mass to be celebrated on Sunday’s (on the same page as my own column, as a matter of fact). This week, Bp. McGough’s column is posted not just in the pages of The Catholic Herald, but also on its site.

Far from overwhelming us with an inscrutable mystery, the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity invites us to rejoice in the God who reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not to deny the hidden depths of God that no creature can ever fathom. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than ours, his thoughts beyond ours. The wonder that we celebrate in the Trinity is that this God, so far beyond us, invites us to share his innermost life. The Trinity is not a problem to be solved, but a life to be lived.

Deuteronomy is lost in wonder at the God who so graciously revealed himself to the children of Israel. “Did ever a people hear the voice of the living God, as you heard it, and live?”

The whole Book of Deuteronomy rejoices in the God who delivered his people from the enslavement of Egypt, chose them in love and brought them to a land that would be their home. Human relationships are only possible as the hidden self is revealed to the other, thereby enabling a communion between those who had previously remained apart. The experience is life-giving. Here we begin to understand the wonder and joy of Moses’s address to the people. The God of Israel is not hidden in mystery. He has revealed himself as the one who has Fathered his people and prospered their children.

In his Letter to the Romans St Paul named the Holy Spirit as God’s power creating the bond between God and man. In the earlier chapters of this same letter Paul had outlined the frustrated efforts of sinful humanity to find peace with God. We have minds that can reason their way to God and yet, because of our sinfulness, reason alone had not brought us into communion with God. The children of Israel had enjoyed the inestimable gift of God’s law and, once again because of their sin, a flawed observance of the law had not brought them into the presence of God.

In his triumphant conclusion Paul rejoiced in the Holy Spirit as the unmerited grace that alone enables our longing for a life with God. “Everyone moved by the Spirit is a Son of God. The Spirit you have received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again. It is the spirit of Sons, and it makes us cry out ‘Abba, Father’.”

We long to be embraced by God and yet every instinct of our sinful humanity seems to mock this possibility. Of ourselves we have neither the strength nor the virtue to live such a life. It is from the slavery of this fear that the Holy Spirit delivers us. “The Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are the children of God.”

As the children of God our lives become one with Christ, the eternal Son of the Father. Suffering is no longer the frustration of hope, but a sharing in the death and Resurrection of the Lord.

Matthew’s account of the commissioning of the Apostles uses the words proclaimed at our baptism. “Make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And know that I am with you always, to the end of time.”

It is through the grace of baptism that we know God as Father, live our lives in communion with his Son and our selfish love is transformed by the Holy Spirit.

I will add that belief in God as One God in Three Divine Persons – though probably the hardest of all dogmas to grasp – is necessary for a Christian to believe. Christians believe in the Holy Trinity as the Church teaches about the Trinity (and therefore not in some other kind of trinity).

Each year we, a little changed by our life’s journey, come back around to these unchanging truths of our Catholic Faith. We should be able to glean more from them and about them. We should make a constant review of the tenets of our faith, not because they change (they don’t) because we are changing. Faith seeks understanding, even of those doctrines which are the hardest, either because they are in themselves difficult, or because they challenge how we are living.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    What a fantastic meditation. And, Moses knew God. We need to be willing to be known. This is my favorite part of this piece:

    “The whole Book of Deuteronomy rejoices in the God who delivered his people from the enslavement of Egypt, chose them in love and brought them to a land that would be their home. Human relationships are only possible as the hidden self is revealed to the other, thereby enabling a communion between those who had previously remained apart. The experience is life-giving. Here we begin to understand the wonder and joy of Moses’s address to the people. The God of Israel is not hidden in mystery. He has revealed himself as the one who has Fathered his people and prospered their children.”

    So many people today of all ages are afraid to be known. They chose to live isolated lives. Others, because of age, poverty, or illness, are side-lined, and live lives of isolation. God does not want this. The fact that He is a Trinity shows us that we are to live in relationship with others. It is so hard when we are denied this. Only in relationship can we become who we are meant to be. There are many young people who are afraid to become involved with others. They need not be afraid.

    I had cancer, I was dropped by friends. I was divorced, I was dropped by friends. I became unemployed, I was dropped by friends. I have siblings who do not even know who I am, nor do they want to do so. Isolation is from selfishness and the fear of suffering. The message for the Catholic is to be engaged in the lives of others, no matter how painful. Now, I do not care about any circumstances in my life, as I consider all things happen for the glory of God and my own salvation. But, the way is engagement, involvement, not isolation. This has been lost in the Catholic circles. The Trinity shows us the way. Thank you, Father Z. The feast day is a meditation for all of us to consider how we live out the Indwelling of the Trinity, through Baptism and Confirmation, in our lives. How exciting, how challenging, how wonderful, and this is real life. Anything else is mediocrity and a life unfilled. As we have a faith based on the Incarnation, we can see the ultimate involvement-Christ taking us into His Life, the Trinitarian Life, It is too wonderful.

  2. guatadopt says:

    St Athanasius, the Godhead’s greatest defender….pray for us!

  3. Brad says:

    Please see Blessed Emmerich’s visualization of the Holy Trinity on her wikipedia page, interesting.

  4. lhuizenga says:

    Good stuff. Here’s another one by a Lutheran friend of mine, drawing on Rublev’s famous icon: http://www.clcumary.com/trinity-sunday-3-june-2012/

  5. digdigby says:

    If we are created in the Image of God then we must reflect the nature of the Trinity. The Son, the Logos is like a ‘thought’ in the mind of the Father. The thought is of the same ‘substance’ as the mind but is distinct. The Holy Spirit is thus, to continue the analogy, equivalent to the human ‘Free Will’. The Father, the ‘mind’ contains all that could ever be or not be without limit. The Logos, the ‘Word’ is ‘spoken’ of the Mind of God and is not in anyway ‘not God’. The whole incarnation of Jesus Christ is One Word spoken to man by God the Father. The most mysterious of all is the ‘Will’ of God which is the Holy Spirit. Is not the Holy Spirit – Love?

  6. rhhenry says:

    A priest I knew once asked in a homily how seriously Christians lived the reality of the Trinity. How well do we (try to) understand it? How does it affect our lives. Put in challenging terms, how would our lives look any different if we believed not in the Trinity, but in a quarternary, or a duality? How would that different conception of God change how we (are supposed to) live our lives?

    Any thoughts?

  7. ContraMundum says:


    If the Trinity is a dogma that could not have been known without Divine Revelation, then it cannot be “derived” from any consideration about how we should live our lives that would have been possible for a virtuous pagan or pious and thoughtful Jew prior to the Incarnation. On those grounds I would answer that it is silly to expect the dogma of the Trinity to make a difference in the way we live our lives. Did your priest really think that dogmas have to be “practical” to be important?

  8. Supertradmum says:

    ContraMundum, of course, all the Dogmas are practical. We are flesh and blood as well as spirit. We are not disembodied beings, but have a religion which directly effects our bodies and our souls. If the Dogmas are not practical, not part of the Incarnation, they are meaningless theological or philosophical ideals.

    The practicality lies in the absorption, the adherence of our individual daily lives to the Truth. If God is Father, we are sons and daughters. That relationship defines a practical attitude both towards God and what we expect from God. That Mary is in heaven body and soul determines our lives-that our goal is eternity, not the world. That leads to daily practical decisions. That Jesus is True God and True Man, ascended into heaven, sitting at the Right Hand of the Father changes how we look at humanity, the individual, the body and the soul. That the Holy Spirit is a Person in the Blessed Trinity and dwells in you and in me, changes every decision, habit, practice of my life and yours.

    There is nothing impractical about the Dogmas. We LIVE the Creed.

  9. rhhenry says:

    @ ContraMundum

    I wasn’t very clear in my post (trying to be brief). The priest was not questioning the dogma at all, certainly not by suggesting that it had no effect on our lives.

    It was more of a thought experiment, I suppose. Suppose — I know this can’t happen, but just for the thought-experiment, stay with me — that later today the Magisterium infallibly replaced the dogma of the Trinity with the dogma of the Quaternary. Would this fundamental shift in our understanding of God’s nature / being / essence (whatever the proper term is) affect how we live our lives?

    I think the priest was trying to get us to spin things out along the lines that Supertradmum did — trying to get us to reflect on how our understanding of God, Christ, Mary, etc. should affect how we see the world (both natural and supernatural) and how those understandings should affect how we live our lives. For example, if God were a Monad, rather than a Trinity, living completely “sealed up” in Himself, with no releationship with anything external, would that affect how we understand our relationships with other people? What if God were made up of millions of people? Would our understanding of relationships change then? Should they?

    Not trying to stir up trouble, just trying to think a little deeper about what the dogma of the Trinity means — or should mean — to my everyday human life . . .

  10. ContraMundum says:

    If the Dogmas are not practical, not part of the Incarnation, they are meaningless theological or philosophical ideals.

    I strongly disagree. “Meaningful” may start with “me”, but that’s a false lead; something can be both very meaningful and have nothing to do with “me” whatsoever.

    Many people have dedicated their lives to learning obscure facts of science or mathematics, not out of any consideration that it might lead to some new technology or in any other way change how they live their lives, but because it is a part of human nature to want to know the truth and to admire beauty. How much more, then, should we admire the truth and beauty revealed to us in the Trinity?

    For, amen, I say to you, many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them: and to hear the things that you hear and have not heard them.

    That does not mean, though, that the dogma will have any effect whatsoever in how we treat our family or our neighbors. It is one thing that God has revealed to us that He did not reveal to our remote ancestors, but there is much, much more that He has still not revealed; we can be grateful for it, but it is only one of a long list of things for which we must be grateful. It has a small but concrete effect on the form of our prayers, but not on how often we should pray. All of these things — how we should treat our family and neighbors, that we should be grateful to God, that we should spend our lives in prayer — were in fact known (though much misunderstood and ignored, as also they are now) long before the Trinity was revealed to our forebears.

  11. ContraMundum says:

    Or, to put it another way: Sitting at the feet of Jesus will not get the dishes done, as Martha once pointed out. It is not “practical” in any such sense. It’s only the purpose for our creation.

  12. Imrahil says:

    And not to forget, as Chesterton said: Wanted: An Unpractical Man.

    Besides, if I myself may utter some challenging terms, there’s always that thing about the jargon of the faithful. I don’t mind if it’s the jargon of theologians, which after all expressly says something, but I can’t bring myself to be overly enthousiastic (please take no offense) if it is another jargon rather moralizing without knowing, where preciser or the normal terms could be used. Thus in German, people keep complaining about modern day’s haste and say we need to “entschleunigen”, a term that unlike its English translation (decelerate) does not exist (slowing a car down is called “bremsen”).

    Long story, short sense: You cannot live a creed. You cannot live the Gospel. You cannot live the faith.
    According to grammar, the only direct object that the word “to live” can take is “life”.
    You can live according to the creed, the Gospel, the faith. You can put the rules of Christian morality into practice, etc. That’s what we can do.

    Of course, also, it is not true that religion is about morality. This funspoiling error, I concede, has been hold by such distinct people such as Mahomet, Lessing, or Kant, floats quite around since some centuries, and does draw much strength from its core of truth which is that a man’s view of everything has most likely effects in and is seen from its morals. Still, it is not really true. The Christian tries not to sin because sin offends God which the Christian does not want (and all the other things that make the sin bad); but that is in the most strict sense a by-product of religion.

    Still, after saying all this, I may finally still give an attempt of a thought on your (@rhhenry) question. First, it is (in my view) not only a principle of logics but also one with some quite extraordinary practical effects that ex falso quodlibet. (If 1 = 2, then Albert Einstein was Pope, for he said: “The Pope and I are two persons. 2 being 1, we are one person, hence I’m the Pope.”) Thus, once we make a false assumption about God, we can get to any wrong place.

    Putting also that asside, if we saw God as a duality I do not see how we could avoid the thought of assigning the Good to one person and the Bad to the other, and arrive in Manichaeanism (with all that brings with itself). If we thought Him a quaternity, I have a feeling that although even as it is we cannot understand the Divine Processions and the Unity of the Persons, still it would be much harder with four persons than with 3, in fact, impossible, and we’d arrive in polytheism, i. e. classical heathenry (with all that brings with itself). If we thought He were only one person… I fold, as they say when they play poker. I cannot answer the question.

    I’ve even read an aside-note by Fr Messner that he has high respect (though does not treat himself at the place) for “real moral theology” (as opposed to ethics) when it treats questions as: can, from the dogma of the Trinity, the Commandment of loving one’s neighbor be deduced? I do not know anything about the topic, but I find quite interesting even the possibility.

    Still, the most practical effect of the dogma of the Trinity is that we see what a wondrous being God is in himself, and hope that we may one day (viz., after this life) have enough time, and the means (the light of glory) to study Himself how He is. Drawing back to today’s everyday life, it is the moments of wonder, silence and useless contemplation which are here in question; and then with much space in between, even the useless act of having fun, viz. enjoying the gifts created by the same Trinity out of nothing. Contemplation as opposed to mere action; having fun as opposed to mere leisure (making oneself again fit for the next work).

  13. Imrahil says:

    “its morals” (4th paragraph) = his morals.


  14. ContraMundum says:

    It does seem that those who make a mistake about the nature of God also make mistakes about the nature of man, which makes sense, because man was made in the image and likeness of God. However, the nature of man is not enough to deduce the nature of God; there are some things that can only be supplied by Divine Revelation. Even more emphatically, the nature of God is not somehow dependent on any convenience for our understanding.

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