The Trinity and the Second Person

Trinity Sunday. Prov 8:22-31; Ps 8; Rom 5:1-5; Jn 16:12-15

Today is Trinity Sunday, an opportunity given to us to recollect that the one God is three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Merely to state this teaching, however, fails to communicate its richness. So in today’s homily I intend to examine the Trinity obliquely, looking first at how modern society thinks of the human person, to help to highlight what is so unique and important about the revelation of the Trinity.

In today’s society, there are two main ways we think about the human person. The first approach is one that is inspired by the philosopher Descartes. Descartes taught us, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, the starting point for Descartes and indeed for many of his successors is ‘I’, the first person. This focus on ‘I’ has now spread like a cult throughout our culture. Some politicians refer constantly back to themselves when speaking about the good of the earthly city. Celebrities go on television to talk about themselves. Many teenage magazines actually encourage readers to focus entirely on themselves, with happiness defined as being admired by others and being the centre of attention. The same phenomenon sometimes dominates entire countries, with dictators encouraging or even enforcing adulation of themselves. A cameo for this cult of the first person is an ancient Greek myth, the story of Narcissus, a youth who fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away to death.

Besides the first person, the second main way of thinking about the human person is the ‘third person’, human beings regarded in a detached way, sometimes even in a cold and an impersonal way. There are many ways in which this de-personalising attitude has taken root today: for example, the images of human beings killed on computer screens or in films; the raising of money to the status of a god instead of a servant; medical treatments being reduced to utility without dignity; marriage reduced to a contract instead of a covenant and the increasing toleration of legal means to put people to death. Spiritually speaking, one might describe such a world as a world without faces, in which human beings are mere objects valued largely for their utility. Such a world can appear to be efficient and successful in material terms, at least for a short time, but such societies are also brittle, because there is nothing but mutual self-interest to hold people together.

Since modern society has these two distortions, a first personal egoism and a third personal coldness towards others, it is clear that what is missing, of course, are genuine second personal relationships: the relationship expressed in grammar by ‘I’ relating to ‘You’, the relationship that enables a person to say, genuinely, “I love you,” meaning “I desire your good in union with you” or “I love with you the things that you love.” Given the loss of this kind of stance in society, resulting in a sense of coldness and emptiness, it is important that we, as Christians, recover our sense of the Trinity, since each of the Divine Persons relates to others as an ‘I’ to a ‘You’. None of the Divine Persons could ever be de-personalised or absorbed into the others, and yet they are never isolated. In today’s Gospel, for example, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as speaking not from Himself, which would be the work of an isolated ego, but only what He has learnt in union with the other Persons. These relationships are why it is meaningful to say, as St John declares, that God is Love.

How, then, can an appreciation of the Trinity transform our prayers and our lives? I shall just make a few practical suggestions, though much more could be said. First, have an increased awareness of Trinitatian prayer, especially in the Mass. Second, pray more to the Trinity in a conscious manner: we can pray to the Trinity or to any person of the Holy Trinity, but remembering that some prayers are most fittingly addressed to one of the divine persons. An example of a Trinitarian prayer is the Sign of the Cross, “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In the liturgy, we generally pray to the Father, through the Son and in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Prayers for God’s mercy, especially to the Sacred Heart, are often addressed to the Son. In praying for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit or for the fire of divine love, we generally address the Holy Spirit. Finally, avoid our prayer becoming either too first-personal or too third-personal. First-personal prayer, in which persons focus exclusively on themselves, risks spiritual narcissism. On the other, merely mouthing the words of prayers as formulas risks prayer becoming barren and worthless. Our prayer should express that relationship which is our privilege through Baptism, a second-personal ‘I’ –‘You’ relationship with God to be consummated in the Kingdom of Heaven. Moreover, when we relate to God in a second-personal way, our relationships with other people are also transformed. Therefore, even on earth, those people who enjoy a deep ‘I’-‘You’ relationship with the Trinity, transform their lives, families and the entire world.

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