Poetry Needed to Understand Trinity

Thomas Barthas, "Icon of the Holy Trinity" (16th Century)

Thomas Barthas, “Icon of the Holy Trinity” (16th Century)

Spiritual Sunday

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday and I heard a very good sermon about the Holy Trinity as I attended Otay Parish, the church of my childhood in Sewanee, Tennessee. I knew the sermon was promising when Rev. Joe Ballard opened it with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations.”

The concept of the Holy Trinity—one god in three and three in one—has always been a difficult concept to grasp, and has led some religions to accuse Christianity of polytheism. Rev. Ballard talked about the arrogance of thinking that we can ever fully grasp the Trinity but said that poetry can sometimes helps us get close. One poem he cited was a Celtic Christian prayer:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.

The frost-snowflakes-ice framing makes particular sense to me, suggesting that the Trinity is a narrative unfolding in time: God is distant (God the Father), God manifests God’s self in a human being (God the Son), God manifests God’s self in each one of us (God the Holy Spirit).

The cloth, finger, and shamrock analogies, meanwhile, get closer to the idea that God can be seen as different aspects of the same being—perhaps (to cite one theological view cited by Rev. Ballard, perhaps inspired by Julian of Norwich) God as creator, as redeemer, and as sustainer.

To throw another idea into the hopper, I have sometimes thought of the Trilogy as analogous to wave-particle theories of light. Seen from the vantage point of points on a timeline where we strive to freeze moments, God appears three particles/particular beings. But seen from a vantage point beyond time, God is a single wave. It all depends on what you need at a particular moment.

I should mention one other poem mentioned by Rev. Ballard although it may cast doubt on the Trinity rather than reaffirm it: “Batter my heart, three personed God,” John Donne writes in Holy Sonnet 14 as he begs God to penetrate and humble his obdurate will. It’s as though Donne has lost faith in a gentler Jesus or Holy Spirit and thinks that he needs a wrathful Old Testament God—one who doesn’t merely “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”—to break through his defenses. Then again, maybe therein lies the power of the Trinity formulation: we turn to the particular face of God that we need at a certain time, even while knowing that this is not all there is to God and that there are other faces available to us.

But returning to the sermon, the idea that I liked best was that of poetic humility. Rev. Ballard spurred me to think of the Trinity functioning like a great poetic metaphor. Figurative language, after all, is language attempting to get at something that cannot be expressed in language. Poetry will never explain God, but it gets closer than any other use of language can. The fact that the Trinity is a poetic paradox is a strong point in its favor. Rather than settle for a narrow (or as Emerson would say, foolish) consistency, inspired theologians came up with an articulation that did more justice to the mystery of God than a one-personed conceptualization would have.

If we think of Christianity’s stories and Christianity’s formulations as poetry, then we can come closer to its true spirit: God is not something to be tacked down and codified but something to open our hearts in wonder. Seen as poetry rather than as fact, the holy texts move us beyond dogma.

Or has Kennedy would say in the remainder of the passage that Rev. Ballard quoted,

“When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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