For the past thousand years, friends of God aspiring to the Way of Jesus have traditionally celebrated this first Sunday after Pentecost as “the Feast of the Holy Trinity.” In gatherings from catacombs to cathedrals, potlucks and Eucharists have been shared in honor of this daring revelation, unique among our monotheistic siblings:
That the One God and Source of Creation is one precisely through dynamic relating: a Holy Unity in Three Aspects, held together by a common Love: affirming the wholeness of our parts, too, and inviting us in.
But in recent centuries, this vision of God’s Three-in-One-ness has fallen onto hard times. The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant famously quipped, all the way back in the 18th century, that “Absolutely nothing worthwhile for the practical life can be made out of the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally.”
Taken ‘literally,’ Kant is quite right: ‘God’ is terribly impractical in general, the Trinity moreso. But Kant and his fellow Enlightenment-era thinkers conjured this idea of literality out of the zeitgeist of an increasingly industrialized world.
The 20th-century poet-philosopher Owen Barfield was a conscientious objector to this mass disenchantment. He and fellow ‘Inklings’ C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Williams and others sought to reignite the life of the heart and imagination through storytelling and re-examining what was taken for granted in their world.
Tracing the loss of the sacred in a milieu of increasingly stark materialism, Barfield would observe that “Mere perception – perception without imagination – is the sword thrust between spirit and matter.”
If this sword of pitiless perception has indeed torn asunder what God joined together, what pain is hemorrhaging from this wound?
- How about a police force whose mission is ostensibly to protect our communities, instead killing members of our communities on-camera, and often getting away with it?
- How about the asymmetry of a desperate people in the Middle East firing hand-made rockets after decades of being walled from their own neighborhoods, being met with heavy-bombing campaigns?
- How about an eco-sphere where a once-marginal species has multiplied in decidedly un-fruitful ways, threatening to overheat a preciously rare planet?
How can we so injure each other, our world, and the Divine image inside of us?
Barfield returns here, to name a lost ‘organ’ of imaginative perception: Original participation, an inter-subjectivity that gifted our ancestors with a deeply-felt exchange between one’s tribe, immediate surroundings, and the rich Spirit world that lingered as close as their own breathing. The mutual give-and-take that was for hundreds of thousands of years the default experience of human being is now tricky to describe accurately: Even naming layers like ‘tribe’ and ‘surroundings’ and ‘Spirit’ introduces a separation that our ancestors did not feel.
This division feels especially stark to me this week — not only because of what’s going on in the world, but because of what’s going on in my chosen family of faith. All week on social media, I witnessed my minister friends wringing their hands about what, if anything, they could possibly say this Sunday about the Triune life of God gracing our world. Trinity feels too elusive, too abstract, too ‘make-believe.’
I feel like all the reductive materialist embarrassment of contemporary Christianity comes out on Trinity Sunday, where we’ve reduced the Mystery of Inter-Being to some kind of theological math problem. Perhaps it gives the lie to our entire modern edifice of faith, a rickety con-fab of ancient words paired with modern fears.
But what if we give ourselves permission to feel this existential awkwardness deeply, not flinching away from it?
What if we recognize our need for what it is: Not a feast day of the Holy Trinity, but a life of feasting on the Holy Trinity?
And who better to set the table for this feast than a chef?
Robert Farrar Capon was a gourmand and a priest, who penned cookbooks, marriage advice tomes, half-finished movie scripts and experimental novels, all with a singular aim: to scandalize his readers with just how surprising the Sacred could actually be, freed from our overly-familiar assumptions and contempts.
Here’s a taste appropriate for today:
In the eighteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, it is reported that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost sat down once and had lunch with Abraham in the plains of Mamre. The table has been the hallmark of the Trinity ever since. The world is about the mystery by which the created order of pieces and parts is to become the image of the coinherence of the three divine Persons; about the forming of the Body of Christ, the building of the City of God. And the Board is the first of the places at which it happens.
If that sounds a little fancy for your own table full of upset glasses and brawling children, remember Abraham: he set God the best table he could, but his wife embarrassed him by being rude. From his point of view, the occasion was hardly a success. As it turned out, however, it didn’t matter; he became the father of the people of the coinherence anyway. The City of God began with a meal that didn’t go right; your spilled milk isn’t going to hold up the building of it too much.
Doesn’t this account from Genesis give 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 accounting, 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. In this post-civilizational world where original participation has been lost, we have humanity still unidirectionally feeding God; it’s taking some time to make this experience mutual again.
“Surely, we ourselves are not invited to this divine table,” they (and we) presume.
This unique and multifaceted story inspired an equally unique and multifaceted piece of devotional religious art entitled The Hospitality of Abraham—also called, simply The Trinity.
I believe 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.
I didn’t grow up with icons, being a good Protestant lad. But ever since my friend Carl McColman introduced me to this icon at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in the early 2000s, I’ve carried a portable representation of it in my bag—aka ‘man purse’—giving it room to breathe on nightstands when I travel. (By the way, Carl has a new book releasing: Eternal Heart. You’ll want to take, and read.)
More recently I was gifted a pendant version of Rublev’s Trinity, of Greek or Russian Orthodox vintage, by a dear friend who had in turn received it from a mutual friend. When I co-officiated my mom’s funeral last week, I wore an all-black suit ensemble but decided to forego the traditional Western tie, instead wearing this pendant. Resting just above my heart, it served as a tangible reminder of God’s fellowship in the midst of our pain, a moveable feast in our most arid seasons.
In a perplexing passage that I’ll let you read for yourself if you’re so inclined, Jesus tells his apprentices that if they eat his flesh and drink his blood, they will live nourished by his life, just as he lives by the life of his Abba. Later in this same Gospel, Jesus completes the circuit, breathing Holy Breath into his apprentices, and saying that their presence will in turn nourish the world through the ages.
My Divine Dance collaborator Richard Rohr insists that there’s a touch of glue present in Rublev’s original Trinity icon, still on display in the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow — and that this glue held a mirror! Because Blessed Trinity doesn’t eat alone: we’re all invited to feast, digest, and in turn become food ourselves.
The 20th century esoteric teacher Gurdjieff held this process at the core of his rigorous training for the transformation of consciousness: He called it reciprocal feeding, the means by which we take in food, air, and impressions. If we do this consciously, we transform these various elements within ourselves to not only nourish ourselves, but the entire cosmos, up and down the Ray of Creation.
It’s in this way, taken beyond literally, that I think today’s Feast of the Trinity can lead us back to original participation. It’s a way that caregiver, contemplative, priest and professor Henri Nouwen exclaimed in refreshingly frank terms:
“Isn’t ‘tasting’ the best word to express the experience of intimacy? Don’t lovers in their ecstatic moments experience their love as a desire to eat and drink each other? That is the most intimate expression of our deepest desire to give ourselves to each other.”
This same intimacy, perhaps uncomfortable for some of us, is surely rooted in Jesus’ unsettling words from John chapter 6 named above. This invitation is amplified even more evocatively in the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas:
“Jesus said, ‘Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to them.’” (Logion 108)
A Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess enters this conversation in a way that I’ve always found darkly humorous, in the pages of The Wanting Seed:
“‘But if you eat this chap who’s God,’ said Llewelyn stoutly, ‘how can it be horrible? If it’s all right to eat God, why is it horrible to eat Jim Whittle?’
‘Because,’ said Dymphna reasonably, ‘if you eat God there’s always plenty left. You can’t eat up God because God just goes on and on and on and God can’t ever be finished. You silly clot,’ she added and then went on cutting holly leaves.”
God gives of Godself. It is the nature of God to be a giver, withholding nothing. And as Chef Capon says, this Trinitarian feast is a resilient spread, even in the face of its most rascally table guests.
Jesus, our maître d’, invites us all to God’s table. He forbears our brokenness so that we can do the same—for ourselves and, finally, for one another. He knows, as only the mind of God can, that what we refer to as evil is really goodness tortured by its own hunger and thirst, goodness that has not been able to experience being received and given back.
“Evil” is what happens when human beings become tortured with this desire for goodness that they cannot experience. And then we do the kind of horrible things we see on our televisions and social media streams: killing each other, humiliating each other, hurting each other in abuses of power and privilege, showing a complete inability to even recognize the Imago Dei in other beings or in ourselves.
True seeing extends your sight even further: the people you want to hate, the people who carry out the worst atrocities, are not evil at their core—they’re simply tortured human beings. They still carry the divine image. I am not inclined to admit this, but it’s the only conclusion that full seeing leads me toward. The forbearance of God toward me allows me to witness reciprocal feeding in all the other fractured vessels I encounter.
If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that seeing in this way robs me of a certain privilege I’ve allowed myself my whole life: I have always eaten generously from the ‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.’ The categories are clear in my mind, which makes judging come naturally.
Kindness and forbearance? Much less so.
As I’ve set at God’s table more and more, the fellowship of the Trinity has taken away my power to choose who are the good folks and who are bad ones; I no longer have the freedom to choose who I show respect to, who I feel more comfortable around, and what religions—or religious subgroups—I don’t like.
Sara Miles illustrates this surprise of being led where she doesn’t initially want to go over and over again in the pages of her gorgeous memoir, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. Here’s a taste:
“What I heard, and continue to hear, is a voice that can crack religious and political convictions open, that advocates for the least qualified, least official, least likely; that upsets the established order and makes a joke of certainty. It proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life. And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s.
This theology isn’t mine alone. It comes from conversation with other believers, tradition, and Scripture; books and prayer and liturgy. It comes, even more, from my years outside church: from unbelieving and unbelievers, from doubt, from questions that still echo unanswered for me. Faith for me, isn’t an argument, a catechism, a philosophical ‘proof.’ It is instead, a lens, a way of experiencing life, a willingness to act.
As the Bible says: taste and see.”
Genesis and Revelation bookend our Holy Writ with an invitation to eat from another tree, planted by something called living water: the Tree of Life. Sprouting in a primordial Garden and growing into a Garden City dubbed New Jerusalem, this heavenly spore implants on Earth with fruit for eating and leaves for healing: original participation restored.
Somewhere in-between on the plains of Mamre, Abraham and Sarah stand in the shade, hesitating to join the meal-in-progress. But Rublev’s Trinity reveals even this off-center shrub as a centerpiece of Divine communion: perhaps it, too, is the Tree of Life in drag.
Will we risk becoming partakers of the Divine Nature?
To me, this bearing of the Imago Dei — revealed in our collective possibility as Imago Tres — holds the only Good News that might redeem humanity in these alienated and fractious times.
Trinity’s feast is available for all who enter the flow with wide-open, forbearing hearts. What a difference it makes: in this glorious, undifferentiated, freely-offered life, there is no longer a ‘they,’ there.
It’s all ‘we.’
Now we stand defenseless before such a Generous Outpouring, utterly vulnerable before such Infinite Mercy.
The giving side from God is constant; all is given, all the time!
This Divine generosity only waits for a Mary-like womb, a beloved Son.
Any bit of batter willing to receive the yeast;
Any bit of matter willing to receive the Feast.
PS: How can we make this practical? It’s crucial — not only for our ‘spiritual’ edification (whatever that is), but for our very survival as a species. I don’t take for granted that you’re reading these words, and it’s my pledge to you that in this next year we’ll explore shifts in everyday habits that will make this reciprocal feeding a real possibility in our lived experience.
In the meantime, please scroll down this email and download, if you haven’t already, the bonus chapter that some of the best bits from this reflection are ‘re-mixed’ from: The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr, which I was honored to contribute to. There are exercises in the back of this bonus chapter that you can try — solo or with a loved one — right now. There are additional exercises in the full-length book, which recently came out in paperback. The Divine Dance is also available in audiobook format, and in its original, glorious, hardcover. If you read it, please let me know what you think!
OH, Michael. This is a brilliant piece! Bless you for so eloquently honoring TRINITY. I especially appreciated your perspective on EVIL. Well said, my wise friend!
Thank you! I read The Divine Dance when it first came out and was spellbound.