Welcome to the Society of Saint John the Evangelist

It's a Matter of the Heart – Br. Robert L'Esperance

Belief is primarily a matter of the heart rather than a matter of intellectual assent.  Our pre-Enlightenment ancestors seem to have understood this much more clearly, some would say instinctively, than we do today.  Before modern thought emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was commonly accepted that there were two valid ways of thinking about reality.  The Greeks called these two ways of thinking Logos and Mythos.  Logos here doesn’t refer to the Logos of the Prologue to John’s gospel, it refers to that mode of thinking that is focused on the future and that seeks to better understand nature and improve upon old ways of doing things.1 But unlike most people today, the Greeks understood that Logos could not help us understood the matters of the heart:  love, joy, awe, hope, grief, anger, despair.  In those matters of the heart, the Greeks and other pre-Enlightenment mortals turned to myth; the Greek, Mythos.

Today Mythos is in disrepute and Logos rules the day.  When we hear the word “myth” we are likely to think of something that is not true or things that are seen as fantasy.  Our pre-modern ancestors did not think that the stories contained in myths were true in the sense of being factual even though they might have at one time occurred in something like the form in which they were handed down.  Rather, myths helped people explain things that seemed and still seem inexplicable.  The truth of myths lies in their power to explain the inexplicable.

But there is another dimension to this idea of myth that is equally important.  Myths are essentially blueprints for action.  Very early in human history, myths were re-enacted in ritual and liturgy.  The purpose of ritual, and we are performing ritual here today, is to allow us to think outside normal categories and in moving into another way of thinking to make the truth that lies behind the myth our own truth.  It would make no sense to imagine that you could build a birdhouse or plant a garden by reading a manual about how to build a birdhouse or plant a garden.  You could only know what it is to paint a picture by painting pictures.  When you looked at one of those pictures, how you achieved those colors and shapes might very well remain hidden and mysterious, but you would have moved beyond mere speculation and stepped into something new and wonderful.  The Greeks called this ekstasis.  Knowing that comes from doing.  By performing the ritual or practice ekstasis occurs and the truth of the myth is apprehended.

We often think about religion as a set of beliefs, doctrines, propositions or formulae for right thinking.  But it’s not about that at all.  Religion is essentially a program of action; a program of practices, both ritual and ethical practices, and it is by faithfully and repeatedly performing our practice that we come to believe.  And when we believe then we are changed.  Early Christians were never required to “believe” dogmas.  But they were required to undergo the rituals so that they could enter “into wholly different way of thinking about the divine.”2

That’s what we are doing here this morning.  We are doing a particular religious ritual that we call Eucharist.  That practice, that some repeat on a daily basis, is practically the same each time we do it.  And we do it over and over and over again.  We repeat the practice because like people who believe in myths, we believe that in the doing of our practice we will come to believe; we will come to apprehend; we will receive insight and then we will be changed.  We are here seeking ekstasis; we have stepped outside our normative actions and thinking performing a ritual so that we might enter into the truth.  We are here to push the limits of our hearts.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  It’s one of the Christian Church’s most important solemnities.  It directs us to focus on a central Mythos of the Christian faith.  It shouldn’t be surprising, given what I’ve just said about religious and scientific thought, that many people today do not find the Trinity a helpful concept.  In Logos terms it is nonsense to say that 1 plus 1 plus 1 equals one.

Logos thinking here is neither helpful nor can it do anything to help us apprehend the deep and profound truth that lies behind the dogma of the Trinity.  That’s only going to make sense if we move back into Mythos and that is only going to happen as we hone our practice.

So, what is the truth, the profound insight behind the Trinity?  One thing and one thing only:  that God is unknowable.  God is beyond all language, all thought, all categories, and all concepts.  God is beyond comprehension.

In point of fact, God is nothing or no-thing.  That’s n-o space t-h-i-n-g; God is no-thing.  God is not even a being.  The only thing we might say is that God is that which makes Being possible.  But God is not a being and since God is not a being we can’t conceptualize God because the only things we can conceptualize are beings. That is the limit of human thought.

When Christian theology began to come to terms with this understanding, it found the Trinity useful as a way of keeping us silent before the mystery of God.  It is the insight that God is beyond all thought that lies behind our doctrine of the Trinity.

We simply cannot know what lies behind or beyond the universe.  Our minds freeze when we try to think of “Creator.” We cannot conceive of a state without time or matter.  But the ancient Greeks and the early Church Fathers had some important insights into the unknowable God.  While realizing that only silence would suffice before God’s essential nature, they taught that we do glimpse God from what we observe of God’s activities or energies in the world.  Those same energies that we experience in our practice can translate what is ineffable into “a human idiom:  the incarnate Word and the immanent divine presence within us that scripture calls the Holy Spirit.”3

In other words, knowing God and understanding God is not a matter for my Logos thinking.  And my Mythos thinking isn’t going to help me here until I am willing to enter into the Unknown and Unknowable.  And only by faithfully performing my religious practice will I enter into the Unknowable.

“To show Christians that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were not three distinct ‘Gods,’ Basil” of Caesarea “formulated the doctrine of the Trinity.  At first Christians thought that Jesus, the incarnate [Word], and the Holy Spirit were two separate divine beings.  But Paul… explained that they were one and the same:  ‘This Lord is the Spirit,’” said Paul.  In fact they are not beings at all but manifestations of divine forces.  “Because they [are] divine forces, [Word] and Spirit [are] not finite or discrete like the beings of our ordinary experience.  Over time, Christians realized that because the divine energies they experienced in the rituals and practices of the church were indefinable and illimitable, ‘[Word]’ and ‘Spirit’ must refer to the same divine power.  God was not the sort of being that was defined by number or extension, so Father, Son, and Spirit were not three separate ‘gods.’  Pagans thought of their ‘gods’ as members of the cosmos, with separate personalities and functions,  but the Christian God [is] not that sort of being.  When we [speak] of Father, Son, and Spirit being one God, we [are] not saying, ‘One plus one plus one equals three but ‘Unknown infinity plus unknown infinity plus unknown infinity equals unknown infinity.’  We think of the beings we know as single items or collections of different items.  But God is not like that.  Again, the absolute ineffability of the divine [is] key to understanding the Trinity.  The reason the Trinity is not a logical or numerical absurdity is because God is not a being that can be restricted to such human categories as number.”4

While rational scientific thinking has reaped many benefits for mankind it has almost completely stifled our ability to think about God.  Enlightenment philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of Basil’s formulation.  But for Basil and his brother, “Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus…the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians from thinking about God in rational terms.  If you did that you could only think of God as a ‘being,’ because that [is] all our mind [is] capable of.  The Trinity is not a ‘mystery’ that [has] to be believed but an image that [we] are supposed to contemplate in a particular way.  It [is] mythos, because it [speaks] of a truth that is not accessible to [rational, scientific thinking, what the Greeks referred to as logos thinking] and like any myth, it makes sense only when you translate it into practical action.  When [we meditate] on the God that [we] know as Three and One, [we become] aware that God [bears] no relation at all to any being in [our] experience.  If we think of God as a “being” we are dangerously close to idolatry.  The Trinity reminds [us] not to think about God as a simple personality and that what we call ‘God’ [is] inaccessible to rational analysis.  [The Trinity in its essence] is a meditative device to counter [our tendency to think of] God as a mere being.

If you want to get behind what I’m trying to talk about here take a look at Andrei Rublev’s icon, The Old Testament Trinity.  Three angels, the Unknowable God’s messengers to Abraham, all look interchangeable.  Only the symbolism of the colored garments hints at identify.  Here, Abraham’s table is a Eucharistic altar and bread and wine rest upon it with the three figures seated in a circle, the ancient emblem of perfection and infinity.  The suggestion is that Christians experience the truth of the Trinity in Eucharistic liturgy, in communion with God and one another, and in a life of compassion.  The Son at the center will attract your attention but he does not return your gaze but looks toward the Father, the angel on his right.  Instead of returning his regard, the Father directs his attention to the figure at the right of the icon whose gaze is directed within.  There is no selfhood in this Trinity only adoring silence and perfect self-emptying.5

As you receive Holy Communion today remember that you are receiving the perfect self-emptying of the Son for you.  Nothing is held back.  Remember this and believe it with your heart, not your head, and you will enter the mythos of the Holy Trinity.

1.     Armstrong, Karen.  The Case for God.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. xi.

2.     Armstrong, p. 116.

3.     Armstrong, p. 114.

4.     Armstrong, p. 114-115

5.     Armstrong, p. 118.

Many of the thoughts behind this sermon owe their original to Karen Armstrong’s book cited above.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Support SSJE


Please support the Brothers work.

Click here to Donate

21 Comments

  1. Anders Benson on June 21, 2017 at 10:58

    Thank you for elevating the concept of the Trinity to integrate Mythos. My experience of contemporary Western Christianity is that Logos reigns. Logos practical definition becomes “the logical understanding as expressed through church teachings” and it becomes the binary basis for belonging or remaining “other”. Implicit is the requirement to believe dogma and disdain ekstais or mythos as beyond control – and a threat. These teachings have caused me suffering, from which I have also gained compassion, insight and gratitude.

    Despite my earlier rejection of the Trinity as having no Biblical basis, I have been exploring it as a discipline of triangulation. To be grounded, to have my place in this world, a sense of belonging and being known and loved by God, I need to move away from any adherence to just the Father, Son or Holy Spirit, and choose to live in the vague midst of all three. In secular language, it’s about equally honoring the Body, Mind and Spirit. At a minimum it gives me the ability to step outside of myself in ekstasis, and it is good.

  2. Nicki on June 21, 2017 at 09:52

    It’s my nature to analyze to understand. Much of my Christian formation has born up under this pressure, yet acceptance of my belief is my real goal. This amazing sermon has helped me see that and escorts me gently on my way. Thank you Brother Robert!

  3. Paul on November 15, 2016 at 10:32

    For me, this is a sermon to simply be with, hang out with, a question I will pray and meditate over.

  4. Andrew Malcolm on November 15, 2016 at 08:47

    What a powerful and lucid sermon Bro. Robert. This makes so much sense and clears the way from getting too bogged down in theological argument and counter argument. Thank you for providing such a meaningful yet challenging thought for my day … it will last a lot longer than that!!

  5. Roderic Brawn on November 15, 2016 at 05:34

    We sang, “Praise him; Praise him; all ye little children. God is Love. ” God is much more. Who can say!

  6. Carla Bigum on September 13, 2015 at 10:45

    Yes, believing is knowing. I know God because of my experiences of and with Him. Whew! I loved the explanation of Logos/Mythos. Today’s people live so much in rational thought as well as disconnected discourse, in MY opinion, that to know God is a hard. Thank you for a new reference about the Trinity. Your explanation was fabulous. I still have much to learn about the depth of God as expressed by the Trinity but the word of the day, Practice, gives me confidence to do just that, in prayer, with community and in the secular world, a very distracting place from quiet.

  7. Willeva Weems on September 13, 2015 at 06:33

    Thank you, Robert. When I was a very small child I heard my mother and a friend discussing the fact that some people did not believe in God. I was amazed. I said, “-but Mother, all they have to do is look at trees!” I still remember the moment so vividly after more than eighty years. Nature explains God to me. I love the Christian faith with its Blessed Trinity. It provides all the comfort and joy I have needed to survive. WW

  8. John Backman on June 1, 2015 at 09:31

    What a wonderful meditation. Ironically, it reminds me of the incredible resonance I’ve found among various faith traditions. The idea that the Trinity causes us to become silent before mystery reminds me of the Zen koan, impossible to reason out but invaluable for fostering insight. And I’ve always loved the Hindu concept of Brahman, so utterly ineffable that we cannot even speak of it intelligently; I hear that in the Br. Robert’s thoughts on the Trinity as well. AND, as if that weren’t enough (and as folks above have commented), this unknowable no-self God has made God’s self known. What a wonderful faith.

  9. Margaret Dungan on May 31, 2015 at 18:29

    Br.Robert, I have already come to love the “Trinity” of recent years but your sermon has put into words what I have already come to know in my heart and I am so grateful to you. Thank you and Bless you.

    Margaret.

  10. Ruth West on November 17, 2014 at 11:44

    Br. Robert, it seems to me that the depth of this explanation can be very close to obscurity.
    The N. T. Scriptures pull from dim understanding to knowing the reality of the Trinity by experience. You stated it very well in your last paragraph.
    We know God from the heart, as well as from the head. Some writings only serve to confuse us.
    The Bible, read and studied without bias, is our clearest and safest guide. May God bless you!

  11. Polly Chatfield on November 17, 2014 at 10:17

    What a gift you have given us! Long ago when i was in college I spent hours trying to wrap my head around Thomas Aquinas’ long passage on the Trinity. I thought it was mind-work. If only I had had your sermon then.

  12. Christina on November 17, 2014 at 09:44

    When he was an old man, Carl Jung was interviewed. He was asked if he believed in God. His reply was that he didn’t need to believe – he knew.
    And, that’s how it is for me. Weekly, we say, “I believe…’ but, again, for me it is a transference from the head to the heart: I KNOW. (I don’t need to visualize my God, but I look around my world and that indescribable presence is everywhere. Christina

  13. Sister Carin Bridgit Delfs, SSG on May 27, 2013 at 10:55

    Dear Brother Robert, You have articulated the best discussion of the Trinity I have read. I often shrink at the thought of preaching on the Trinity. I shall have to read Karen Armstrong’s book. I believe ritual is the experience that pulls us into the mystery of God. In fact when I ask people what draws them to the church the reply usually includes entering in to the ritual.

  14. Leslie Sterling on May 26, 2013 at 17:23

    Of course it is nonsense to say that one plus one plus one equals one.

    But one times one times one equals one…!

  15. Polly Chatfield on May 26, 2013 at 15:25

    Extraordinary, very beautiful, and wonderfully helpful. Thank you, Robert.

  16. barbara frazer lowe on May 26, 2013 at 10:52

    Dear Br. L’Espenance – Ineffable words. “Hi-tech”even provided a role to reach me! Heartfeltedly, barbara lowe

  17. Mino Sullivan on May 26, 2013 at 07:54

    Thank you so much, Robert!
    What a fascinating and inspiring understanding of the Trinity.

  18. Allene Taylor on May 26, 2013 at 07:51

    Bro. Robert: Thank you for these thoughts on the TRINITY – something that
    has been difficult for me to understand. But then, I don’t have to understand,
    but believe. Allene Taylor

  19. Bill Coats on May 26, 2013 at 07:27

    Well Br Bob I can see where Karen Armstrong has influenced you. Many of us think, God bless her, her theology just won’t do. Yes God is unknowable but at the same time God, on his (sic) own, has made himself (sic) known. And it is this self-revelation (not his (sic) unknowability which is at the heart of Christian faith. And what this knowness is is crucial for us as persons and actors (and not some Armstrongian mythos).
    God Bless.
    Bill Coats

  20. Mark Bennett Larson on May 26, 2013 at 06:50

    AWESOME thoughts. Thank you. I will digest and share.

    I pray for Brother Tom.

    Love and fellowship,
    Brother in Christ Mark Bennett Larson

  21. Beth Dunn on May 26, 2013 at 01:19

    Love this meditation on the Trinity. I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how ritual and action bring us to belief, and not the other way around. Practice, practice, practice. It’s not just the way to get to Carnegie Hall.

Leave a Comment