The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is, as stated in the General Catechetical Directory, “the most fundamental and essential teaching in the hierarchy of the truths of faith.” The unfathomable nature of the Trinity beckons us to the highest reaches of the human intellect and beyond to that real understanding only possible by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and even then at best we will bask in what remains a glorious mystery. In paragraph 234 of the Catechism we are instructed that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” To know with our hearts what has been revealed to us about the Most Holy Trinity, we must commit to arduous intellectual work which is best carried out with the help of a learned tutor.
Catholic apologist Frank Sheed is able to convey ancient truths in a modern vernacular in such a way that the average Catholic can begin to see what is really there. In his excellent book Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed reminds us that God’s graces perfect the human heart by sanctification in the same way the graces work on the intellect to bring about sanity. The Catholic intellect is nearly as important as the Catholic heart. Among the many topics Frank Sheed organizes for the sake of the sane mind, he deals accessibly and honestly with the nature of the Most Holy Trinity.
In this age of parsimony gone mad, in a time when we are likely to oversimplify truth drastically because our desire to know takes precedence over accurate conveyance of overarching truth, we are inclined to accept the easy oversimplification in place of putting in the strenuous mental work required to see reality rightly. Concerning understanding the nature of the Trinity, Sheed starts by pointing out that the modern misconception concerning explanations of the Trinity is that most claim it is a mathematical mystery. One is likely to reduce the mystery to numbers, meaning, how can 3 equal 1 and 1 equal 3? The Trinity is a mystery, best known by faith, but not about the above numbers. There is no mystery concerning the numbers because 1 is not 3 and 3 are not one.
It is revealed truth that the Most Holy Trinity is three persons in one Divine Nature. To apprehend this is to understand God’s most profound secret, a secret not required for our salvation, a secret He did not have to reveal. To understand the Trinity is to know the “inner most life of God.” That God revealed this is an act of Love demonstrating His desire for us to know Him, as Sheed wrote “it is the surest mark of love to want to be known.” This fact calls for us to desire to know Him too.
The main difficulty we face in understanding the Trinity by the statement “three persons in one Divine nature” is that we no longer attach a proper meaning to the words “person” and “nature.” If we assume that “person” and “nature” are as bereft of meaning as our modern age would suggest, then naturally we are left with a numbers question. But since this is not the case, let us consider briefly what is meant by the philosophical terms “person” and “nature.” Fortunately, when delving into the nature of person, we can begin with ourselves.
If we refer to “my nature” we imply that there is a person attached to that nature, for a person “cannot exist without a nature.” The important distinction is that “it is the person who possess the nature and not the other way around.” The nature does not possess a person. Nature answers the question of “what we are, and person answers the question of who we are.” All beings have natures, and when we ask what a being is we are asking about its nature. However, not every being is a person, “only rational beings are persons.” At a minimum let us define the person as a being possessed of consciousness, self-awareness, an intellect and a will. These facts allude to a wide range of intellectual and moral implications nonexistent in beings which are not persons.
Sheed goes on to explain that it is by our natures that we discover what we are. “It follows that by our nature we do what we do for every being acts according to what it is.” By these facts we discover another distinction between nature and person. By our natures we do many things, speak, love, sing, and breathe. A dog, by his nature, can do only one of those, and a stone by its nature can do none. So nature is “not only what we are, but the source of what we can do.” Even though it is by our natures that we see what kinds of things we are capable of doing, it is not our natures that decide to do them, it is the person that decides to do them. As Frank Sheed summarizes “the person is that which does the actions, the nature is that by virtue of which the actions are done, or better, that from which the actions are drawn.”
With the above distinctions in mind, let us consider the Doctrine of the Trinity in four statements:
“1. In the one divine Nature, there are three Persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
“2. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost is not the Father: no one of the Persons is either of the others.”
“3. The Father is God, the Son is God, The Holy Ghost is God.”
“4. There are not three Gods but one God.”
Our struggle here may be to contemplate the notion that more than one person can have access to a single nature. It is humanly conceivable for a person have access to more than one nature and so to be able to act in more than one field of operation, but the inverse, according to Sheed, is inconceivable and reflects our human limitations. We must admit difficulty in understanding the notion of three persons operating in a single nature. Try to imagine another person operating with your mind or your will. Despite modern sophistical objections, this would be impossible. And as Sheed concludes, we are limited by an anthropomorphism demonstrating our tendency to make God in our image, rather than to accept the limits of human intelligence and to realize that our limits do not necessarily reflect a limit on our Creator.
To illustrate this, Sheed uses the example of a statue of a man and its maker. “The statue is rigid, not because the man is rigid, but because stone is rigid. So with any quality you may observe in an image: the question arises whether that quality is there because the original was like that or because the materials of which the image is made is like that. So with man and God.” The question becomes, are we the way we are because God is like this? Or, is this is the best that can be done by a material reduction of the image and likeness of God? We must not forget, that we are the image of God, not the other way around.
The scenario with the statue and the man comes to bear as we consider that it is inconceivable that more than one person is able to share a particular single individual nature and we must conclude that this is an artifact of our finite existence, not a limitation on God. Our apprehension, seeing with the mind’s eye, cannot possibly follow all the data to its deepest roots in the eternal Creator. We are in need of the supernatural virtue of Faith infused by the Holy Spirit for the appropriate understanding of revealed mysteries that we cannot fully grasp on this side of heaven.
Sheed concludes that “the one infinite nature is totally possessed by three distinct persons.” For precision’s sake we must remark that these distinct persons are not separate, “and they do not share the divine nature, but each possesses it fully.” Although none of the three persons are either of the other, they are inseparable, because each is what He is “by His total possession of the one same nature.”
For one more point of explanation, Sheed asks us to consider three men. They of course have their own separate natures and we cannot conceive of the second one thinking with the mind of the first or the first loving with the heart of the third, thus they are truly three separate men. If the three persons of the Trinity had three separate natures, then they too would be three gods. They are not, they are three distinct persons with a single nature. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost all think with the same intellect and love with the same will because they are One Divine Substance.
Frank Sheed summarizes that “the Father possesses the whole nature of God as His own, the Son possess the whole nature of God as His own, The Holy Ghost possess the whole nature of God as His own. Thus since the nature of any being decides what the being is, each person is God, wholly, and therefore equally with the others. Further, the nature decides what the person can do: therefore each of the three persons who thus totally possess the Divine Nature can do all the things that go with being God.” In knowing what God has revealed to us about the Most Holy Trinity, we are gifted a glimpse into the deepest nature of ourselves as God’s creatures, created in His image and likeness.
In the preface on the Most Holy Trinity in the old Roman Missal, we learn that the “Father Almighty, eternal God: Who with thy only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost, art one God, one Lord: not in the singleness of one person, but in the trinity of one substance. Whatever we believe, on Thy revelation, of Thy Glory, we hold the same of the Son, the same of the Holy Ghost, without any difference to separate them. So that in the affirmation of the true and eternal Godhead, we adore distinction in the Persons, oneness in the Essence, equality in majesty.”
The mystery of the Trinity is not mathematical, but metaphysical. A return to the General Catechetical Directory, paragraph 47 allows the fathers to teach us that “the whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men and reconciles and unites with himself those who turn away from sin.” Let us embrace the Mystery of the Most Holy Trinity and commit to the intellectual labor required for the gifts of the Holy Spirit have their maximum effect on us by our cooperation with grace. For to repeat what cannot be repeated enough, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is “the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.”