As a middle-schooler, my dad and I often got into theological discussions. I was an inquisitive kid (who would grow up to study theology in college and graduate school) and he was studying theology in a lay ministry formation program. It was my dad who first told me about the analogy between the family and the Trinity.
Of course, it is a far from perfect analogy, for many reasons. It is merely an illustration for some aspects of the mystery of the Trinitarian relationship.
The Family as Community of Persons
In the Trinity, there are three Divine Persons, but only one nature – the Divine Nature. In a human family, there are any number of persons, but they do not share the same, singular human nature. There is an otherness and lack of union between the members of a human family that are simply not possible in the Trinity.
Although the family is a community of persons, what a messy community it often is! Opinions differ between spouses and siblings. Minor disagreements are daily occurrences in even the best of families. It is a daily struggle to put aside the individual’s desires for the desires of the other.
And all too often, our families are marred with the effects of the Fall. Members might manipulate or even abuse other members. There is selfishness. There is discord. There are grumpy mornings and sleepless nights.
Yet, the unity of the Trinity is what the family is meant to imitate.
The family is not the same now as it would have been before the Fall of Adam and Eve. But we don’t need to throw up our collective arms and despair of the life of sanctity and wholeness for which we were created. We can contemplate and pray with the Trinity, in order to understand what our families can be, if we entrust them to God.
The Union of the Trinity
The union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are alluded to throughout the Gospels. “The Father and I are one.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” “The Spirit descended upon him…” But what is the dynamic of the relationship?
Catholic theology tells us that the Father is eternally gazing with love at the Son, and the Son at the Father. The love between them is so real that it is a third Person – the Holy Spirit. (Hence, Catholic theology asserts that the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both.) This is a simplification of this rich doctrine, and it is, ultimately, a mystery. When the Church says that a truth of the faith is a “mystery,” she doesn’t mean it in the way that a mother will insist to a protesting child, “It’s true because I said so!” Rather, the Church means that there are vast depths to that particular truth – depths that we will plunge for all eternity without reaching the end.
The life of the Trinity isn’t meant to be a distant, abstract reality. The perfect, eternal exchange of love – that is what each of us has been created to rest in the heart of, for all eternity. By the grace of our Baptism, we are destined for eternal union with the Trinity, partaking in Trinitarian life. The name of this doctrine is “Divinization” and the first time I heard it articulated in a college theology class, it changed my life. St. Athanasius famously said, “God became man, so that man might become God.” This reality is what he was referring to – not that we would become divine, but that we would be caught up in a loving union so profound that we would be partaking in the life of God.
Of course, the Incarnation made this a reality. Because of the Incarnation, and Christ’s subsequent Ascension (as one fully human and fully divine) human nature now rests in the heart of the Trinity. Christ did not shed his human nature when he returned to the Father. Because of the union that occurred in him – his divine nature wedded to human nature – he has brought human nature where it would be impossible for it to tread otherwise.
The Destiny of the Family
The life of the Trinity is one of selfless love, poured out endlessly for the other. This love is not about happy feelings, but about a deeper, profound joy – the kind of joy that only is possible when all has been given over for the beloved.
In our imperfect families, this is the kind of love that we are called to, too. How can that look in broken, imperfect families?
This deeper theological meaning does not mean that we should brush aside the poor behavior of others. It does not mean that we should endure abuse from a spouse, parent, or child. Rather, it means that – worthy or not – we are called to eventually come to a place of longing for the sanctity of the other.
In some families, this is less complicated. Each person is relatively healthy in body and mind, and all get along fairly well. Even in such a family as that, though, there will be challenges – a child who falls away from the Church in adulthood, a sibling who lives a lifestyle different from the one they were raised in, etc. Any sort of engagement with one another must be done with the love of the Trinity in mind. Disagreements should not be about winning an argument, but rather about winning a heart. This doesn’t mean that families will always agree. But if they are functioning from a place of love modelled on the life of the Trinity, turning back to God in their weakness, it will go a long way.
Sadly, there are families where the picture is more complicated. If, for example, there is abuse, love does not demand that you remain. Love demands not just mercy, but also justice. Justice is God’s, ultimately, but part of that process is disengaging from the abusive member of the family – not only for the victim’s healing and safety, but also for the accountability and healing of the abuser. Some of these relationships may never be healed in this lifetime, but time and space apart may be necessary to allow the healing that is possible in this life.
What of those with no family? They, too, are called to rest in the heart of the Trinity. Perhaps those with no one else recognize the need for that more than those with families.
It is too easy to make the family – an image of the Trinity – a higher ideal that the reality it is meant to reflect. The family is not the end goal. It is only meant to be a part of our journey to heaven, where all will be united in the mystical body of Christ and the life of the Trinity – a bond far stronger than any human bonds on this earth.
With hope, let us turn to the Holy Trinity, trusting that God will lead us all to deeper union with each other and with him.