Today is Trinity Sunday, and in my imagination I’m going to mark the day by having coffee with a trinity of old friends: the great Jewish prophet Isaiah, English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, and American writer Annie Dillard. It may seem an odd assortment, but they have this in common: Each of them challenges me to see the glory of God all around.
My three friends came to mind as I was pondering the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. That’s the fourth-century understanding that one God is known to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Most theologians consider it a central doctrine of the Christian faith, but to me it seems the result of trying to explain the unexplainable, and increasingly I find it marginal in my own faith.
The basic idea of God in three persons is helpful, I think, especially when I recall what Monk Bryan told us about the Trinity one Sunday in worship. Monk was a former pastor of my congregation in Columbia, Missouri, who later became a bishop. He told us about the word “person,” how it came from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s mask or a character in a drama.
In the ancient Greek theater, the chief actors would portray several roles in the same play, each role represented by a mask the actor held in front of his face. When it was time to change roles in the play, the actor would simply hold up a different mask, a different persona. Everyone knew it was the same actor behind the different masks, but the illusion helped make sense of the drama.
Thinking of God in three persons, wearing three personae, helps me make a little more sense of life. The main problem I have with the three persons of God, however, is that there are too few of them. The story of one God in relationship with this unfolding creation is more complex, needs more personae. Isaiah, Hopkins, and Dillard help awaken my imagination so I can see more of the ways God is present in the drama of my life, more of the roles God plays in this continuing creation.
Isaiah gave me my earliest mask of God, “sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). What a vision! It’s the persona Michelangelo picked up in his Sistine Chapel paintings: a glorious and awesome God, ancient, powerful, white-bearded, hurling stars and planets into space like pebbles into the sea – a God to take your breath away and make you shrink before the incomprehensible majesty and mystery of eternity.
That’s one mask of God, one persona, one role God plays. Dark. Mysterious. It’s the face of the God whom Job encountered at the end of his story, the inscrutable God who answers not in the “sound of sheer silence” that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:12) but out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1ff), the God of the deep, pulsing music of the spheres.
God wears other masks, too. There’s the grandeur of God, the poet Hopkins wrote, that “will flame out, like shining from shook foil,”1 or the glory that shows itself in “dappled things . . . skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.”2 Have you really given your attention for more than a glance to the intricate beauty that lies all around us? I confess I crush so much of it underfoot as I walk past without noticing. But there, too, are many personae of God.
And here Annie Dillard throws a word into my imaginary conversation over coffee. She reminds me of the “tree with the lights in it” that she saw on one of her walks along Tinker Creek. She explains, “I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. . . . It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”3
It was years after reading her description before I saw the tree with the lights in it. My cedar was in an old hill-top cemetery overlooking the Mississippi not far from where Indian Creek gives up its waters to the southern flow, and ghosts of five or more generations of my family – Neals, McLaughlins, Gohlsons, Nolans – gather close. It’s a mask God has worn but once in my life, but it, too, is one persona of the Divine for me, and it took my breath away. It still does.
I’ve hardly begun to catalog the many persons of God. There was gruff, cantankerous, hard-as-nails Dorothy Elmer who, in one of the tenderest moments I’ve witnessed, paused to help a struggling fellow traveler adjust her load of luggage for a better carry. There were the neighbors in Weybridge, Vermont, who spent themselves to help a neighboring family – new residents whom they barely knew – replace their mobile home and all its contents that were lost in a fire.
There was the anonymous member of this congregation who, when my sister hit a particularly rough stretch of life a few years ago, offered up a generous cash donation that turned out to be exactly the amount she still needed to get through. I could go on, but do I need to? What masks have you seen God wear? In what persons, behind what personae, have you come face-to-face with the Divine Mystery at the heart of creation?
“The whole earth is full of [God’s] glory,” Isaiah wrote. You can’t take a breath without inhaling its fragrance; you can’t take a step without brushing past it; you can’t blink without looking on another of the persons of God. To paraphrase William Blake, “If the [eyes] of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to [us] as it is, Infinite.”4 Holy, holy, holy Lord, the whole earth is full of God’s glory!
notes — 1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur.” ▪ 2. Hopkins, “Pied Beauty.” ▪ 3. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974), 33. ▪ 4. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.