Mystery, analogy and metaphor

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Having contemplated the action of God in the history of the universe and our own personal history, this Sunday the Church invites us to contemplate the very nature of God, the Most Holy Trinity.

To contemplate the work of God in history is, of course, to contemplate the Most Holy Trinity too. The only true God who is a communion of persons is the one acting in history. Theologians use the expression Economic Trinity to designate the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity in its relationship with creation, whereas the expression Immanent Trinity refers to the study of the nature of God Himself and the relations that exist between the three Divine Persons.

When we talk about the things of God, we are always dealing with a mystery. It is important to define a mystery because we do not quite use the word in the same sense that we do in ordinary speech. In our daily use, the word mystery designates a problem to be solved, a matter of detectives, something that we do not know. In the Church, however, when we state that something is a mystery we mean that this reality is so vast, so deep, so profound that even though we may know a great deal about it, our knowledge is not exhaustive. There is a lot more to learn about that reality because it exceeds us, it is superior to the powers of our intellect. A mystery is a reality that is not only known but lived. We participate in a mystery.

The Most Holy Trinity is a mystery in that sense. We know many things about God. We are in a relationship of love with Him. We have received the gift of his self-revelation. We have come to know God because of his self-manifestation in history. We have encountered Jesus Christ who is the definitive revelation of God. Yet there is much more about God that we do not know, and we cannot know because of the limitations of our nature.

To contemplate the nature of God is to stand at the threshold of mystery. It is like looking directly at the sun. The excess of light overwhelms our eyes and could even lead to blindness. The great trinitarian heresies in the history of the Church are due, in part, to an inability to live the mystery.

Additionally, when we speak of the things of God, our language is always analogical and sometimes metaphorical. A metaphor is a resource of language that assimilates a reality to a figurative sense. Our patron saint, St. Patrick, used the metaphor of a shamrock to try to explain the nature of God. Obviously, God is not a plant. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, yet, even though it is often represented as such, we know that the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity is not a bird. There are many other examples from the Bible, theology and popular piety.

An analogy, on the other hand, is a relation of real similarity between two different things. For example, when we say that God loves and Mother Teresa of Calcutta loves, we are predicating something about God and the saint by analogy. The love of God and human love have in common that they are both real and have common attributes. The love of God is perfect and infinite whereas human love is not. They both share similar characteristics, but they are different realities. In an analogy there are many things in common, yet there are many more that are different. If one pushes the analogy to the limit or ignores what is being said one can end up very confused or fall into serious error.

Many confusions in the contemplation of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity and many heresies down the history of the Church are due to a strict interpretation of metaphors or forgetting the analogical character of a statement.

Going back to the example of our patron saint, St. Patrick, the shamrock enables us to get an idea of the unity in the Trinity. It presents us with an image of the three divine persons. Yet if we understand it in a strict sense it leads us into the error of thinking that the Most Holy Trinity is an association of three different elements which do not constitute one essence. It is clear that each one of the leaves of the shamrock considered independently is not a shamrock whereas each person of the Most Holy Trinity is fully God. The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. They are three persons but only one divine nature.

Analogies can also lead to error if they are pushed to the limit because they collapse. The first person of the Most Holy Trinity reveals Himself as Father by analogy with human fatherhood. As St. John Paul II pointed out, the paternity of God is enriched by characteristics that are proper to human motherhood, as shown, for example, by a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah. God is Father, yet divine fatherhood is not based on a patriarchal model of society. It is rather the other way around, it is the model on which every human father ought to find inspiration to be truly faithful to their vocation.

To worship God who is One and Three, to contemplate Him is to taste his love, to live in Him, cultivating our relationship with Him, imitating Him in our daily lives, loving our neighbor out of love for Him who is love, who loves, who loves Himself with ecstatic love, who is the object of his love and who is the very bond of love. The One and Triune God who created us out of love invites us to participate of the mystery of his very life for all eternity!

Fr. Roberto M. Cid