LET’s begin with the shocking and oft quoted idea from Karl Rahner, the German Jesuit who was such a major influence at the Second Vatican Council. In his classic study The Trinity (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999), he said, “Christians are, in their practical life, almost mere ‘monotheists’. We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.”
We would have to admit this was largely true until William Paul Young wrote his worldwide best-selling novel The Shack (Windblown Media, 2007), in the past decade. For the first time since fourth-century Cappadocia, the Trinity actually became an inspired subject of conversation and rather pleasant questioning in homes and restaurants. And it continues!
But 17 centuries of being missing in action — how could this have been true? Could this absence help us to understand how we might still be in the infancy stage of Christianity? Could it help explain the simple ineffectiveness and lack of transformation we witness in so much of the Christian world? When you are off at the center, the whole edifice is quite shaky and unsure of itself.
If Trinity is supposed to describe the very heart of the nature of God, and yet it has almost no practical or pastoral implications in most of our lives . . . if it’s even possible that we could drop it tomorrow and it would be a forgettable, throwaway doctrine . . . then either it can’t be true or we don’t understand it!
The very mystical Cappadocian Fathers of fourth-century eastern Turkey eventually developed some highly sophisticated thinking on what we soon called the Trinity. Here it is in the words of Brother Elias Marechal, a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, writing in his book Tears of an Innocent God (Paulist Press, 2015): “The ancient Greek Fathers depict the Trinity as a Round Dance: an event that has continued for six thousand years, and six times six thousand, and beyond the time when humans first knew time.
“An infinite current of love streams without ceasing, to and fro, to and fro, to and fro: gliding from the Father to the Son, and back to the Father, in one timeless happening. This circular current of Trinitarian love continues night and day. The orderly and rhythmic process of subatomic particles spinning round and round at immense speed echoes its dynamism.”
LET’s observe this divine dance in an enigmatic story from the very first book of our sacred texts that we call the Bible, in Genesis 18.1-8. This account gives us a lot to chew on. The scene is set up as ”the Lord” appearing to Abraham, but in the realm of discernable form, those appearing to him are seen as ”three men”.
In the centuries of reflection, theology, and storytelling that have followed this original story, these three are often regarded as angels, and perhaps something more. Abraham — bowing low before them — seems to intuitively recognize this something more, and invites them to a meal and a rest. He does not join them in the meal, but observes them eating from afar, standing ”under a tree”. A place at God’s table is still too much to imagine. Abraham and Sarah seem to see the Holy One in the presence of the three, and their first instinct is one of invitation and hospitality — to create a space of food and drink for them.
Here we have humanity still feeding God; it will take a long time to turn that around in the human imagination. “Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table,” they presume. This unique and multifaceted story inspired an equally unique and multifaceted piece of devotional religious art, The Hospitality of Abraham — also called, simply (and for reasons we’ll get into) The Trinity.
I BELIEVE that all genuine art is sacred. Self-consciously “religious” art is often trying too hard, and descends into cheap sentiment. But the particular form of artistic expression The Trinity belongs to — the icon — attempts to point beyond itself, inviting in its viewers a sense of both the beyond and the communion that exists in our midst.
Created by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev in the 15th century, The Trinity is the icon of icons for many of us — and, as I would discover years after first encountering it, even more invitational than most. By my lights, it is the most perfect piece of religious art there is; I’ve always had a copy of it hanging in my room. The original is still on display in the Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow. There’s a story told that one artist became a follower of Jesus just from gazing at this icon, exclaiming, “If that’s the nature of God, then I’m a believer.” And I can fully understand this.
In Rublev’s icon there are three primary colors, which illustrate facets of the Holy One, all contained in the Three. Rublev considered gold the color of “the Father” — perfection, fullness, wholeness, the ultimate Source. He considered blue the color of “the Human” — both sea and sky mirroring one another — and therefore God in Christ taking on the world, taking on humanity. Thus, Rublev pictures the Christ as blue, displaying his two fingers to tell us that he has put spirit and matter, divinity and humanity, together within himself — and for us!
And then there’s green, easily representative of “the Spirit”. Hildegard of Bingen, the German Benedictine abbess, musical composer, writer, philosopher, mystic, and overall visionary, living three centuries before Rublev, called the Spirit’s endless fertility and fecundity veriditas — a quality of divine aliveness that makes everything blossom and bloom in endless shades of green.
Hildegard was likely inspired by the lushness of her surroundings at her Rhineland monastery, which I was recently able to visit. Rublev, in similar reverence for the natural world, chose green to represent, as it were, the divine photosynthesis that grows everything from within by transforming light into itself — precisely the work of the Holy Spirit.
IS THAT good or what? The Holy One in the form of Three — eating and drinking, in infinite hospitality and utter enjoyment between themselves. If we take the depiction of God in The Trinity seriously, we have to say, “In the beginning was the Relationship.”
This icon yields more fruits the more you gaze on it. Every part of it was obviously meditated on with great care: the gaze between the Three; the deep respect between them as they all share from a common bowl.
And note the hand of the Spirit pointing toward the open and fourth place at the table! Is the Holy Spirit inviting, offering, and clearing space? If so, for what? As magnificent as this icon — and this fellowship — is . . . there’s something missing. They’re circling a shared table, and if you look on the front of the table there appears to be a little rectangular hole painted there. Most people just pass right over it, but art historians say that the remaining glue on the original icon indicates that there was perhaps once a mirror glued to the front of the table!
If you don’t come from an Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican background, this might not strike you as odd, but you should know that this is a most unusual feature for an icon. One would normally not put a real mirror on the front of a holy icon. If so, it is entirely unique and courageous.
This might have been Rublev’s final design flourish. Or maybe it was added later — we’re not sure. But can you imagine what its meaning might be? It’s stunning when you think about it — there was room at this table for a fourth. The observer. You!
At the heart of Christian revelation, God is not seen as a distant, static monarch but a divine circle dance, as the early Fathers of the Church dared to call it (in Greek perichoresis, the origin of our word choreography). God is the Holy One presenced in the dynamic and loving action of Three. But even this Three-Fullness does not like to eat alone. This invitation to share at the divine table is probably the first biblical hint of what we would eventually call “salvation”.
Jesus comes forth from this Eternal Fullness, allowing us to see ourselves mirrored, as a part of this table fellowship — as a participant at this banquet and as a partner in God’s eternal dance of love and communion. The mirror seems to have been lost over the centuries, both in the icon and in our on-the-ground understanding of who God is, and who we therefore are, created in God’s “image and likeness” (Genesis 1.26–27).
This is an edited extract from The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your transformation, by Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell, published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).