Father Cantalamessa's 2nd Lenten Homily

St. Gregory of Nazianzen and Faith in the Trinity

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 16, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa's second Lenten reflection. The preacher of the Pontifical Household gave the homily today.

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Not too many years ago, there were theological proposals that, despite the profound differences between them, had a common scheme as background, sometimes clear, sometimes implicit. The scheme is extremely simple because it is reductive. The two greatest mysteries of our faith are the Trinity and the Incarnation: God is One and Triune; Jesus Christ is God and man. In the proposals I referred to, this nucleus was articulated thus: God is one, and Jesus Christ is man: the divinity of Christ collapses and with it, the Trinity.

The result of this process is that one ends by accepting tacitly and hypocritically the existence of two faiths, and two different Christianities, which have nothing in common except the name: the Christianity of the Creed of the Church, of joint ecumenical declarations in which, with the words of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan symbol, one continues to profess faith in the Trinity and in the full divinity of Christ, and the Christianity of a wide strata of culture, also exegetic and theological, in which these same truths are ignored or interpreted in a wholly different way.

In such a climate, how opportune it is to revisit the Fathers of the Church, not only to know the content of the dogma in its nascent state, but even more so to rediscover the vital unity between professed faith and lived faith, between the “thing” and its “enunciation.” For the Fathers, the Trinity and the unity of God, the duality of the natures and the unity of the person of Christ were not truths to be decided at table or discussed in books in dialogue with other books; they were vital realities. Paraphrasing a phrase that circulates in sports environments, we can say that such truths were not questions of life or death for them, they were much more!

 1.      Gregory of Nazianzen, Singer of the Trinity

The giant on whose shoulders we wish to climb today is Saint Gregory of Nazianzen; the horizon we wish to scrutinize with him is the Trinity. His is the grandiose picture that shows the unfolding of the revelation of the Trinity in the history and the pedagogy of God who reveals itself in it. The Old Testament, he writes, proclaims openly the existence of the Father and begins to proclaim, in a veiled manner, that of the Son. The New Testament proclaims the Son openly and begins to reveal the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Now, in the Church, the Spirit grants us distinctly his manifestation and the glory of the Blessed Trinity is confessed. God has measured out his manifestation, adapting it to the times and the receptive capacity of men.[1]

 This threefold division has nothing to do with the thesis, known under the name of Gioacchino da Fiore, of the three different periods: that of the Father, in the Old Testament, that of the Son in the New and that of the Spirit in the Church. Saint Gregory’s distinction refers to the order of the manifestation, not of the being or acting of the Three Persons, who are present and act together throughout the span of time.

In the Tradition, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen has received the appellative “the Theologian” (ho Theologos), precisely because of his contribution to the clarification of the Trinitarian dogma. His merit is to have given Trinitarian orthodoxy its perfect formulation, with phrases destined to become common patrimony of theology. The pseudo-Athanasian symbol “Quicumque,” composed about a century later, owes not a little to Gregory of Nazianzen.

Here are some of his crystalline formulas:

“He was, and was, and was: but was only one. He was light and light and light: but only one light. This is what David imagined when he said: ‘in thy light do we see light’ (Psalm 35:10). And now we have contemplated it and proclaim it, from the light that is the Father understanding the light that is the Son in the light of the Spirit: here is the brief and concise theology of the Trinity […] God is, if it is licit to speak succinctly, undivided in beings divided one from the other.”[2];

The main contribution of the Cappadocians in the formulation of the Trinitarian dogma is that of having clarified the distinction of the two concepts of ousia and hypostasis, substance and person, creating the permanent conceptual base with which faith in the Trinity is expressed. It is one of the most grandiose innovations that Christian theology introduced in human thought. Developed from it was the modern concept of persons as relationships.

The weak side of their Trinitarian theology, which they themselves were aware of, was the danger of conceiving the relationship between the one divine substance and the three hypostasis of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit on a level with the relationship that exists in nature between the species and individuals (for example, between the human species and individual men), thus leaving themselves open to the accusation of tritheism.[3]

Gregory of Nazianzen makes an effort to respond to this difficulty, asserting that each one of the three Divine Persons is not less united to the other two than he is united to himself.[4] For the same reason, he refutes the traditional similitudes of “source, stream, river” or “sun, ray, light.”[5] In the end, however, he admits candidly that he prefers this risk to the opposite one of modalism: “It is better, he says, to have an idea, even if insufficient, of the union of the Three, rather than risking an absolute blasphemy.”[6]

Why should we choose Saint Gregory of Nazianzen as a teacher of faith in the Trinity? The reason is the same as that for choosing Athanasius as a teacher of faith in the divinity of Christ. It is because for Gregory, the Trinity is not an abstract truth or just a dogma. It is his passion, his vital environment, something that makes his heart vibrate just to name it.

The Orthodox call him “the singer of the Trinity.” This corresponds perfectly with what we know of his human personality. Gregory was a man with a heart that was even greater than his mind, a sensitive temperament to the point of excess, so much so as to procure for himself not a few disappointments and sufferings in his relations with others, beginning with his friend Saint Basil.

It is in his poetic production, above all, that his enthusiasm for the Trinity is revealed. He uses expressions such as “my Trinity,” “the dear Trinity.”[7] Gregory was in love with the Trinity. He wrote of himself:

“Since the day in which I gave up the things of this world to consecrate my soul to luminous and heavenly contemplations, when the supreme intelligence stole me from down here to set me down far from all that is carnal, from that day my eyes have been dazzled by the light of the Trinity … From its sublime seat it sheds its ineffable radiance on everything … Since that day, I have been dead to the world and the world is dead to me.”[8]

Suffice it to compare these words with the technically perfect but cold words of the “Quicumque” symbol which was once recited in Sunday’s Divine Office to realize the distance that separates the lived faith of the Fathers from the formal and repetitive one that was instituted after them, even if the latter also carried out an important task.

2.      We Cannot Live without the Trinity

Now, as usual, some reflections on what the Fathers can offer us in this field for a renewal of our faith. It is well-known that Western theology has always had to defend itself from the risk opposite to that of tritheism from which, we saw, Gregory of Nazianzen had to defend himself, that is, the risk of accentuating the unity of the divine nature, to the detriment of the distinction of the persons.

In this area the deistic vision of Descartes and the followers of the Enlightenment was able to develop, which does not consider the Trinity at all but concentrates solely on God, conceived as Supreme Being or as “the divinity.” Kant came up with the noted conclusion, according to which “from the Trinitarian doctrine, taken literally, it is not possible to draw anything practical.”[9] In other words, it is a mystery irrelevant for the life of men and of the Church.

This was undoubtedly one of the factors that smoothed the path for modern atheism. If the idea of the One and Triune God had been kept alive in theology, rather than speaking of a vague “Supreme Being,” it would not have been so easy for Feuerbach to have his thesis triumph that God is a projection that man makes of himself and of his essence. What need would man have, in fact, to split himself into three: in Father, Son and Holy Spirit? And in what sense can the Trinity be the projection and sublimation that the human spirit makes of itself? It is the vague deism that is demolished by Feuerbach, not faith in God One and Triune.

However, if on one hand the Latin vision of the Trinity leaves itself open to this deistic deviation, on the other it contains the most effective remedy against it. We will never be sufficiently grateful to Augustine for having based his discourse on the Trinity on John’s words: “God is love” (1 John 4:10). God is love: because of this, concludes Augustine, he is Trinity! “Love implies one who loves, that which is loved and love itself.”[10] In the Trinity the Father is he who loves, the source and principle of everything; the Son is he who is loved; the Holy Spirit is the love with which they love one another.

All love is love of someone or something, just as all knowledge, explained Husserl, is knowledge of something. Love is not given “to a void,” without object. Now who does God love, to be defined love? Man? But then he would be love for some hundreds of millions of years. The universe? But then he would only have been love for some tens of billions of years. And before who loved God to be love? The Greek thinkers and, in general, the religious philosophies of all times, conceiving God above all as “thought,” could answer: God thought of himself; he was “pure thought,” “thought of thought.” But this is no longer possible the moment in which it is said that God is first of all love, because “pure love of himself” would be pure egoism, which is not the highest exaltation of love, but its total negation.

And here is the answer of revelation, made explicit by the Church with her doctrine of the Trinity. God has always been love, ab eterno, because before an object existed outside of him to love, he had in himself the Word, the Son whom he loved with an infinite love, that is, “in the Holy Spirit.” This does not explain how unity can be contemporaneously Trinity (this is an unknowable mystery for us because it happens only in God), but it is enough at least to intuit why unity in God must also be plurality, also Trinity.

A God who was pure Knowledge and pure Law, or pure Power would certainly have no need to be triune (this, in fact, would greatly complicate things); but a God who is first of all Love does, because with less than between two, there cannot be love.” “The world– wrote de Lubac – needs to know this: the revelation of God as Love upsets all that it had conceived of the divinity.”[11]

Love is certainly a human analogy, but it is, undoubtedly, the one that best enables us to cast a look on the mysterious profundity of God. Seen in this is how Latin theology integrates Greek theology, and the two cannot do without one another. The concept of love is almost totally absent from the Trinitarian theology of the Orientals who prefer to use the analogy of light. We must wait for Gregory Palamas to read, in the Greek ambit, something analogous to what Augustine says on love in the Trinity.[12]

Some today would like to set aside the dogma of the Trinity to facilitate the dialogue with the other great monotheistic religions. It is a suicidal operation. It would be like removing a person’s spinal cord to make him walk faster! The Trinity has so imprinted itself on theology, the liturgy, spirituality and the whole of Christian life that to renounce it would mean to initiate another completely different religion.

What should be done, rather, as the Fathers teach us, is to bring this mystery from the books of theology to our life, so that the Trinity is not just a mystery that is studied or correctly formulated, but lived, adored, enjoyed. Christian life unfolds, from beginning to end, in the sign and the presence of the Trinity. At the dawn of life we were baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and at the end, if we have the grace to die in a Christian way, these words will be recited at our bedside: “Go forth, Christian soul, from this world: in the name of the Father who created you, of the Son who redeemed you and of the Holy Spirit who sanctified you.”

Between these two extreme moments, there are other so-called moments “of passage” that, for a Christian, are all countersigned by the invocation of the Trinity. In the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit spouses are joined in marriage and exchange rings, and priests and bishops are consecrated. There was a time when contracts, sentences and every important act of civil and religious life began in the name of the Trinity. The Trinity is the womb in which we were conceived (cf. Ephesians 1:4) and it is also the port towards which all of us navigate. It is “the ocean of peace” from which everything flows and to which everything flows back.

 3.      “O Blessed Trinity!”

Saint Gregory of Nazianzen should have awakened in us an ardent desire for the Trinity: to make it “our” Trinity, the “dear” Trinity, the “beloved” Trinity. Some of these accents of overwhelming adoration and wonder resound in texts of the solemnity of the Most Blessed Trinity. We must make them pass from the liturgy to life. There is something more blessed that we can do in regard to the Trinity than to seek to understand it, and it is to enter into it! We cannot embrace the ocean, but we can enter into it; we cannot embrace the mystery of the Trinity with our mind, but we can enter into it!

The “door” to enter into the Trinity is one, Jesus Christ. With his death and resurrection he inaugurated for us a new a living way to enter into the holy of holies which is the Trinity (cf. Hebrews 10, 19-20), and he has left us the means to be able to follow him on this path of return. The first and most universal is the Church. When one wishes to go across a strait of the sea, Augustine said, the most important thing is not to be on the bank and to point our sight to see what is on the opposite shore, but it is to get into the boat that takes one to the other bank. Also for us the most important thing is not to speculate about the Trinity, but to remain in the faith of the Church which goes to it.[13]

In the Church, the means par excellence is the Eucharist. The Mass is a Trinitarian action from beginning to end; it begins in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and it ends with the blessing of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is the offering that Jesus, Head and Mystical Body, makes of himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Through it we truly enter into the heart of the Trinity.

For our Orthodox brothers an important means to enter into the mystery is the icon. Rublev’s Trinity is a visual synthesis of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Cappadocians and, in particular, of Gregory the Nazianzen. In it one perceives, in equal measure, incessant movement and superhuman stillness, transcendence and condescendence. The dogma of the unity and Trinity of God is expressed by the fact that the figures present are three and clearly distinct, but very like one another. They are contained ideally within a circle that brings their unity to light; but with their different movement and disposition also proclaims their distinction.

Saint Sergius of Radonez, for whose monastery the icon was painted, is distinguished in Russian history for having brought unity between the leaders in discord among themselves and thus having made possible the liberation of Russia from the Tartars that had invaded her. His motto – which Rublev made an effort to interpret with the icon – was: “Contemplating the Most Holy Trinity, conquer the hateful discord of this world.” Saint Gregory of Nazianzen expressed a similar thought in these verses, which are as his spiritual testament:

            I seek solitude, a place inaccessible to evil,

            Where with undivided mind I seek my God

            And alleviate my old age with the sweet hope of heaven.

            What will I leave to the Church? I will leave my tears! …

            I turn my thoughts to the abode that does not fade,

            To my dear Trinity, only light,

            Of which only the dark shadow now moves me.”[14]

Latin spirituality is no less rich of aids to make the Trinity a close, loved mystery. It also insists on the reverse movement: not us who enter the Trinity but the Trinity who enters us. In the Orthodox tradition, the doctrine of the indwelling is referred by preference to the person of the Holy Spirit. It is Latin theology that developed in all its potentiality, the biblical doctrine of the indwelling of the whole Trinity in the soul: “my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).[15] Pius XII reserved a place for it in his encyclical Mystici corporis, saying that thanks to it we “participate from now on in the joy and blessedness of the Trinity.”[16]

Saint John of the Cross says that “the love that was poured into our heart through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) is none other than the love with which the Father has always loved the Son. It is an overflowing of the divine love of the Trinity in us. God communicates to the soul “the same love that he communicates to the Son, even though this does not happen by nature, but by union … The soul participates in God, fulfilling, together with him, the work of the Most Holy Trinity.”[17] Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity suggests a simple method to us to translate all this into a program of life: “All my exercise consists in entering into myself and losing myself in the Three who are there.”[18]

I see in this another motive, and among them the most profound, to evangelize. A few days ago I read in the Liturgy of the Hours, the words of God in Isaiah: “But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). I was struck by a thought. Look, I said to myself, in what the great difference consists between one who is baptized and one who is not: on one who is not baptized, God “turns his gaze,” is present intentionally, with his love and his Providence; on one who is baptized, he does not only turn his gaze but comes to dwell in him in person, with all three divine Persons. It is true that a corresponded intentional presence can be more accepted by God than a neglected or rejected baptismal presence (and this must fill us with responsibility and humility), but it would be ingratitude not to recognize the difference that exists between being and not being Christians.

We end by reciting together the doxology that concludes the canon of the Mass, which is the briefest and densest Trinitarian prayer of the Church: “Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ to you, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen”

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1.    Cf. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 31, 26. Ital. trans. By C. Moreschini, Five Theological Discourses, Rome, Citta Nuova, 1986.

2.   Oratio 31, 3.14.

3.   Cf. Basil, Epistola 236, 6.

4.   Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio, 31, 16.

5.   Ibid., 31, 31-33.

6.   Ibid., 31, 12.

7.   Gregory of Nazianzen, Poemata de seipso, I, 15; I, 87 (PG 37, 1251 f.; 1434). 

8.   Ibid., I, 1 (PG 37, 984-985).

9.   E. Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, A 50 (WW, ed. W. Weischedel, VI, p. 303).

10.  Augustine, De Trinitate, VIII, 10, 14.

11.  H. de Lubac, Historie et Espirt, Aubier, Paris 1950, chapt. 5.

12.  Gregory Palamas, Capita physica, 36 (PG 150, 1144f.).

13.  Augustine, De Trinitate, IV, 15, 30; Confessions, VII, 21.

14.  Gregory of Nazianzen, Poemata de seipso, I, 11 (PG 37, 1165 f.).

15.   Cf. R. Moretti – G. M. Bertrand, Inhabitation, in “Dict. Spir.”, 7, 1735.1767.

16.   Pius XII, Mystici corporis, AAS, 35, 1943, pp. 231 f.

17.   Saint John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle A, stanza 38.

18.   Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letters, 151, (Scritti, Rome 1967, p. 274).