Prayer in the Trinity


Karl Rahner, writing some years ago, made the observation that the majority of Catholics are unitarians in that, as far as their conscious experience goes, the mystery of the Holy Trinity is merely a dogma and a totally baffling one at that: an 'article of faith' to which as good Catholics they ascribe but which seems to have no relationship to life. I have difficulty in accepting this criticism. Surely, to believe in Jesus Christ implies some sort of experience or awareness of the Trinity in relation to ourselves?

The Christian prayer, the Our Father, inescapably confronts us with a Twosome. St Teresa of Avila, introducing a sister to the practice of mental prayer as she would call it, shows her how to recite the Our Father in such a way that she is praying mentally: ' daughter, as you are alone, you must look for a companion-and who could be a better companion than the very Master who taught you the prayer you are about to say?' (Way of Perfection c.26). And further on:'...for however much your thoughts may wander, between such a Son and such a Father there must needs be the Holy Spirit' (Ibid c.27). It seems to me that what is missing is not experience but lack of reflection, and St Teresa excelled in reflecting on her experience.

Today the Church enjoys a vibrant liturgical life and Catholics are exposed to the riches of liturgical texts in their own language, texts that are, of course, wholly trinitarian. Maybe Rahner's stricture referred to a time preceding the reform and hopefully it no longer pertains. Still, I think an enormous amount is to be gained from reflecting on our own experience and this is what I intend to do.

Agreeing to write on the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer, 'drawing on personal experience', forces me to examine carefully what the Trinity actually means to me, not what I think it ought to mean (a temptation in an article like this because it is a safe evasion). To the questions implicitly (and often explicitly) raised: 'Does the mystery of the Holy Trinity affect your prayer? Would your prayer be any different abstracting from it?', my immediate, unhesitating answer is that without the mystery of the Trinity, I would have no prayer. I simply cannot imagine praying to a monad, a Great Alone. What would I be doing, a tiny consciousness looking into nothingness just hoping that something, or someone, is there but with no certainty whatsoever? And if I took the risk of saying, 'yes, there is Something', even a 'Someone', what then? What does it do for me? Where does it lead me? How is this 'Whatever-it-is' related to me? Even the attempt to express the hypothesis seems absurd. I affirm that with no Trinity, prayer would not make sense to me. So I have to try to explain that even to myself because I don't suppose that, objectively, it is obvious.

I was born into and brought up in a Catholic home and community and therefore the names Father, Son, Holy Spirit were constantly on my lips. Did they mean anything? Hard to say. I always realised that Jesus was not Father; that when we prayed 'Our Father', we did not mean Jesus but 'God the Father'. The familiar figure was, of course, Jesus - as the Sacred Heart, the good Shepherd, the Infant of Bethlehem. What is more, I knew that Jesus was God, that I adored him in the Blessed Sacrament, that I could pray to him. The Mass in those far-off days was in Latin. Our parents always followed the Mass from an English missal and, as soon as we were old enough, we were taught to do the same and in this way I came to know that it was the sacrifice of Jesus, offered to God. At school we invoked the Holy Spirit for help in our studies. The school year opened with the Mass of the Holy Spirit, and there was, of course, the feast of Whitsunday. Some idea of Trinity was there from the start but I cannot say that, consciously, it made any impression on me.

When I was sixteen my inmost depths were smitten by a 'realisation' of the reality of God. There is nothing to be said of that 'moment' other than that it turned me upside down. I knew that there was the only Answer for me; life had no meaning except that Unutterable. Looking back, I think I could say that I was faced with a real puzzle. I knew that that mysterious, hidden, silent One was the answer and the only answer to the huge question mark, the nameless yearning that was I. Yet this One was inaccessible: there, but not, apparently, for me. Was I sure that God wanted me? Catholic Christian though I was, in actual conscious experience I was faced with the Monad who had, nevertheless, 'bewitched' me. From where I stand now in a wholly trinitarian context, I know that it was the Holy Spirit who held me in the Catholic Church and in fidelity to the sacraments. Yet I could not see the connection. The Church, the sacraments, doctrine, seemed incongruous, unconnected with that Absolute. Thoughts about Jesus, devotional practices could never satisfy me: they seemed far removed from that Something. The keen awareness, the sharp edge of 'realisation' inevitably wore off but the powerful effect remains to this day. It took years before the apparent rift between the two experiences disappeared. It happened imperceptibly.

As a young Carmelite I was constantly exposed to the liturgy. I studied the prayers of the Mass and the texts for the Divine Office throughout the liturgical year. The only 'piety' that made any appeal to me was what I would now call biblical theology. I read and read the Gospels, prayed and prayed the stories and dialogues, seeing myself as the person Jesus confronted and begging Jesus for the same grace of cleansing and healing; for sight, living water, food, faith, love... I prayed his own prayers: in the course of his ministry, at the last supper and in the garden and, of course, these prayers were to the Father. I used often to think of those nights he spent alone praying to his Father and wanting to identify with this prayer. I did all this as the obvious response to what I was being shown and offered in the gospel. I found similar incentives to pray in the words of Paul, John and others, turning magnificent statements of theology into personal prayers, and I would beg with all my heart for the fulfilment in me of what these wonderful texts were revealing of God's incredible designs of love. I was aware that I was not a lone individual; praying for everyone else. The New Testament became prayer. I realised that God spoke to me, revealed himself to me in these texts and my prayer was my response.

In this way, almost unconsciously, my prayer took a trinitarian form. I knew that the Lodestone of my being, inaccessible, utterly beyond the range of thought or feeling, had come to us and looked at us in pure friendliness and love through the eyes of Jesus.

In Jesus, the Inaccessible was accessible and very intimate:'dwelling within'. There was no need to climb to heaven, no need to strive for illumination. Useless, anyway. Through looking at Jesus, praying and trying to live the gospel, I came to realise that the Inaccessible is absolute Love and nothing but love. Love has come to us, is with us. God is not just God but always God-with-us, God-who-has-'man'-in-his-heart. This is God, there is no other. It is not for us to raise irrelevant questions and indulge in speculations as to 'what God is in God's own self'. I tried to grapple with St Thomas Aquinas' treatise on the Trinity. It seemed to me brilliant speculation not Truth and it left me untouched. It was unusable and I believe that all that God has revealed to us is for use. Truth I found in the Gospel of St John, in the letters of Paul, particularly in the letter to the Romans, and elsewhere in the New Testament - in that event which we know as the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit. We know the Trinity as experience and only thus.

A teacher of prayer

I think I am jumping ahead somewhat. It is very important for me to express how absolutely central and indispensable the human Jesus has become. In her famous treatise on prayer, The Interior Castle, St Teresa, in the fullness of spiritual maturity and understanding of the ways of prayer (God gave her special light in order to become a teacher of prayer in the Church), states emphatically that it is impossible to become truly holy, totally surrendered to God and transformed in God, except through conscious adherence to the sacred humanity of Jesus. (She is, of course addressing Christians.) If we would be wholly united to God then we must take with practical seriousness that he is our only door into the divine Mystery; our way, our truth and our life. I learned this through actual experience, finding myself utterly helpless, spiritually speaking. Having determined to give my life to prayer in the deepest meaning of the word, my expectations, vague though they were, were utterly shattered. I had no ability to pray, God remained, on the level of conscious experience, utterly remote. I had no sense of his presence, of being enfolded in love. Did I have any faith? I would ask myself. Certain it was that I did not, could not, love either my neighbour or God. If I had relied only on my human perception, how I felt things to be, I would have despaired and given up, telling myself it was all a great confidence trick! Or, if not that, then I myself was an abject failure and it was no use going on trying.

But I did not rely on myself, I took Jesus very seriously. I saw that my total helplessness was expressing the truth: we cannot save ourselves, cannot attain God, cannot cope with God, still less show off in his presence. To the bewildered disciples' question, 'Who then can be saved?', Jesus answered: 'It is impossible for humans but not for God. For everything is possible to God' (Mark 10:27). I was experiencing this truth. God has given us Jesus to be, as Paul tells us, 'our wisdom, our unhindered access to God, our holiness, our atonement' (1 Cor 1:30). So, it does not matter that we feel that our faith is very weak, hardly exists, or that we do not see, cannot make sense of things: Jesus sees, Jesus knows and we are in Jesus: 'Christ is mine and all for me' (St John of the Cross). He is my wisdom, my faith, and his love is mine to love with. So we can afford to live with our poverty and when we do it means Jesus is really our only saviour which is what he is for. I do not want the impossible task of saving myself, of producing, from any supposed resources of my own, faith that moves mountains. I have come to understand that God has done it all for us in giving us Jesus. Our part is to use him to the uttermost.

This taking Jesus for ourselves, or, conversely, living only in Jesus without any self-claim, is 'in the Holy Spirit'. Identified with Jesus, we can afford to be very small, 'little children', and, like confident, cherished children, take it for granted that our Father will do everything for us. In the Divine Office for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lovely antiphon: 'The Lord has clothed me head to foot in his redemption, thrown around me the cloak of his love, and made me holy.' Provided we try to do God's will in all things and this means, essentially, loving others 'as I have loved you', with a self-sacrificing love; and trust blindly in God-All-Love, each one of us can make this humble boast.

Overlooking the Spirit?

So far the concentration has been on the love of the Father for the Son and the Son's love for the Father, and our entrance into that exchange of love. Am I open to the oft-heard criticism that the Holy Spirit is thereby overlooked? I would find such criticism absurd. 'Between such a Son and such a Father, there must needs be the Holy Spirit', of course, there must. I am reflecting on experience and not theologising, and my personal experience is , I believe, the experience of everyone who really has faith in Jesus and lives that faith: gradual enlightenment, insight into scripture, dialogue between the 'word' and self. It could seem that all this is a human activity: a human person, addressing the Son, Jesus, and, with him, addressing the Father. And so it is.

But, if we look closely, we see clearly that this 'activity' simply cannot derive merely from ourselves. Often enough, it runs clean counter to natural perception, to what our senses tell us. 'Flesh and blood' do not reveal these things nor enable us to respond. There is a force, a 'Spirit' within, that prompts, urges, enables us to ignore our own natural estimate and choose to believe. Nothing runs so counter to our nature as the experience of spiritual poverty and a practical love for it can only be the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. Do we not recognise the truth of scripture that in spite of everything that is 'against us', we are grounded in an invincible hope', because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us'(Rom 5:5)?

We are being led, not by nature, but by the Spirit, for we are indeed God's children and the Spirit inspires our own spirit to cry our in confidence: 'Father, my dear Father!' (cf. Rom 8:14-16). It is the Spirit who continually upholds our natural weakness with divine strength, who is always praying deep within us even when our hearts seem mute; uttering our own most authentic desires, desires that we hardly know we have; they are Jesus' desires, formed and uttered in us as our very own, by the Holy Spirit, the mutual love-exchange of Father and Son. This prayer is infallibly heard (cf. Rom 8:26). I am sure we are not meant to peer into the Spirit's face, so to speak; we cannot do so any more than we can turn around and peer into our own. Jesus is the face that we gaze on without ceasing and it is this face that the Spirit unveils to us. 'He will bear witness to me' (John 15:26), and 'He will lead you into all the truth' (John 16:12). The Holy Spirit that proceeds from the Father and yet is sent to us by Jesus himself, is nothing less than the love between the Father and the Son, their 'communion'. Our prayer is one with that communion of love between Jesus and his Father which is the Holy Spirit.

Through the giving of the Beloved Son to the world (all God has to give, for God holds nothing back from us); and through that Son's love to the uttermost, to total self-emptying, identifying with us in the whole range of our mortal life from conception to death; through the Father's lifting him out of death into his own eternal life, endowing him with the 'glory which I had with you before the world began' (John 17:5), we have come to know that Absolute Reality is love, a dynamic holy communion between Persons. We cannot 'sort it out', make a pattern of it - only surmise it and experience and live with the glorious consequences. 'The life of God is not something which belongs to God alone. Trinitarian life is also our life...there is one life of the Triune god, a life in which we graciously have been included as partners...a comprehensive plan of God reaching from creation to consummation, in which God and all creatures are destined to exist together in the mystery of love and communion'(God For Us, by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. San Francisco: harper, 1993). Jesus prays that we may be with him where he is in the Father's heart, loved as he is loved:'that they all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you...the glory which you have given to me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one' (cf John 17). Surely it is fitting to give time in prayer to appreciating, realising and deepening our insertion into this communion of love?

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