Triune Living – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Wisdom 7:7-14 &John 8:25-32

Feast of St. Gregory of Nazianzus

When I read and reflect upon our SSJE Rule, I am still often caught off guard at how core theological tenets of Christian faith are so vividly applied to the pressing realities of everyday human existence. For example, I return again and again to these words in our chapter on “The Witness of Life in Community”:

Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son, and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer, we can see that this flows from the Triune life of God.[1]

This indeed has been my experience of life in monastic community, which has by far been my most powerful teacher in regard to the mystery of the Trinity. Before coming to life in this community, I struggled long and hard to appropriate this mystery of the faith as anything approaching a personal reality. Of course, this is what theology does at its best. The sublime and the mundane are brought into genuine conversation in such a way that human hearts are kindled, human desires are transfigured, and even human suffering becomes the royal road to larger Life. Rather than static words on the pages of books, however fascinating, theology begins to dance: it weaves a pattern of vibrant and dynamic movement into the shuffling steps of our pilgrimage even as it plants our feet firmly on stable ground that can bear our weight.

Gregory of Nazianzus, whom we remember today, is not a household name in the Western Church. But his mature and powerful theological reflections on the nature of God as Trinity have hada deep and formative impact on the course of church history. In the Eastern Church, Gregory is not remembered primarily as one member of a trio, the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, all born in the same region of Turkey around 330 and responsible in a creative, collaborative and collegial way for developing a profound and coherent Trinitarian theology. The relationships between these men were not always as easy as hagiography would lead us to believe. They bickered and competed, were capable of clinging narrowly to their own opinions, and even broke one another’s hearts. Now, I am not a scholar of patristics. My primary love of the Triune God has come to me by way of the costly grace of personal communion and the stretching and transfiguring tensions of our common life in the Church. But in that light, I can tell you why the witness of Gregory of Nazianzus is relevant to me.I cannot continue in the word of Christ into that knowledge of the truth that I know will set me free without the grace of the Triune God.And I cannot hope to glimpse the creating, saving, and unifying interrelationship within the Trinity without the unrelenting synergy of shared discipleship, by which I am who I am and through which I am yet becoming who God intends me to be. Just as God is not a self-sufficient monad, neither can I do this alone. And, I’d say, neither can you.

Gregory of Nazianzus couldn’t have walked his own, unreproducible path of discipleship without his closest friend, Basil, and Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa. It was that synergy of discipleship mirroring the self-spending love of the Trinity, as it unfolded around and between Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil that I want to reflect upon.

First, what does church history on a grand scale tell us about these two? Gregory and Basil are credited with heroic and singular contributions in defending the faith enshrined in the Nicene Creed from lesser, heretical viewpoints. What is heresy? In some cases, the thinkers, writers and leaders whom the early Church came over time to regard as heretical were simply more daringly creative or speculative in their theology than the majority could stomach. But perhaps the majority of the early doctrinal tendenciesultimately labeled “heretical” suffered most from a lack of willingness to embrace mystery and patiently behold paradox. Neither exotic nor scandalous by our standards, they were rather marked by a tendency to flatten or rationalize mystery beyond proportion. Their followers preferred sophisticated philosophy that validated the intellect over the simple faith of Galilean fishermen. They chose a divine Christ or a human Christ, and found these categories mutually exclusive. They chose a view of human nature or the created order that elevated spirit far above matter, rather than maintaining its unity.

On a doctrinal level, Basil and Gregory exercised authority in the church as bishops in the service of tenaciously holding the central paradoxes of the Christian faith: not logical arguments to be assented to but mysteries of faith to be adored. They were indeed heroic in their shared capacity to hold the tension between antagonistic ideological camps and two-dimensional Christologies in favor of a Christ who is fully human and fully divine and a Triune God who is One and Three.

Gregory writes about the Trinity:

No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one. When I think of anyone of the three I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”[2]

This dynamic, paradoxical, and contemplative vision of the Trinity is condensed with the most poetic force in the Greek word perichoresis. This one word is used by Gregory and Basil over and over to characterize the relationship within and among the divine persons. In our Rule of Life, we write “A ceaseless interchange of mutual love unites the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[3]Perichoresis, literally a “dance around,” is that ceaseless interchange. It is also a mutual outpouring, and the propulsion that fuels the interchange of Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier is self-emptying: God’s infinitely creative letting be and letting go. This self-emptying – kenosis in Greek – is the staggering risk that God, who is Being itself, is continually taking on behalf of the individual beings God has let be. This, of course, was the risk that Christ consummated in his human death on the cross. God gives Godself. Sometimes we accept and are filled to the brim, and like buckets on a water wheel we overspill in Love to be filled once more and receive Godself afresh. Each time we overspill, it seems as though we will lose ourselves in the process. The opposite is true. Each time the letting be and letting go of the Trinity happens in us, genuinely and with our consent, the more lightly and more provisionally we hold ourselves, and with greater trust in Christ.

Gregory and Basil were radically committed to this transformative vision of God and the Christian life and were willing to shoulder the burden of defending it together because they hadreceived a taste of that ceaseless interchange in their own friendship. At the third anniversary of Basil’s death, in 382, Gregory gave a short but powerful oration, as follows:

Basil and I were both students at Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of  learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay…

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for one another. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that ‘everything is contained in everything,’ yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other. …Different men have different names, which they own to their parents or themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.[4]

This oration is all the more remarkable in light of the reality that, ten years before, Gregory and Basil had a major falling out with one another that had, as far as history usually records it, ended their friendship. Basil had pressured Gregory into consecration as a bishop of a territory that was strategically crucial to the stronghold of orthodox faith they had tirelessly worked to safeguard. It was a barren place with, apparently, few redeeming qualities. Gregory felt manipulated, and Basil felt exasperated at Gregory’s refusal to cooperate in the interest of their shared goal. It seems that, in spite of this major breach, Gregory still recognized a depth of personal communion with Basil that transcended the vicissitudes of their friendship. In a poem written not long before his own death, Gregory wrote:

I had thought that a body could as well
live without a soul
as me without you,
Basil, beloved servant of Christ;
but you’re gone and I remain.
What will become of us?
Will you not set me, when I arise
there with you in the choir of the blessed?
No, don’t leave me: I swear by my grave
I won’t leave yours, not willingly.
You have Gregory’s word.[5]

In our Rule, we write:

The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer, we can see that this flows from the Triune life of God.

It seems to me that Gregory was able to perceive this transcendent unity with remarkable grace. Of his departed friend, Gregory asks not “What will become of me?” but “What will become of us?” It seems that he continued to live in the grace of personal communion though the ties of mutuality on earth had dissolved. In the life, theology, and witness of Gregory, I see the Trinity as an icon in eternity of the personal communion we can come to know even now in the relentless synergy of shared discipleship. Gregory couldn’t do it alone. And neither can we.

[1]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Chapter 4: “The Witness of Life in Community.”

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Oration 40.

[3]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Chapter 21: “The Mystery of Prayer.”

[4] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43.

[5][5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Epitaph 119, PG 38.72.


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  1. Connie K Smith on June 26, 2019 at 11:35

    Br. Keith; I, too, enjoyed your history of the early fathers, tho I am no scholar. I’ve wanted to read more of them and this reflection increases that desire. So, thank you.
    My 2 take-aways today are the self-emptying and refilling of the water wheel analogy. I see this as an infinite way of life. Secondly, the poem of St.Gregory strikes a personal chord. In the poem when he rights of Basil, “but you are gone and I remain, what will become of US.” My twin brother died 5 yrs ago at age of 64 and i feel this “what will become us statement” as my statement. It hurts but it puts into words what i feel. Thank you.

  2. Jeanne DeFazio on June 26, 2019 at 08:52

    I teach Theology and truly appreciate what you just wrote about the love between the Father Son and Holy Spirit.


  3. Virginia W. Nagel on May 13, 2017 at 12:31

    Brother Keith, thank you so much for this sermon. When I was in seminary, in the 1980s, I became fascinated by the Cappadocian saints (which do include a couple of women, by the way) and wrote my Church History term paper on them…eventually receiving the Church History prize. I still read everything I can find on the Cappadocians. They have become a large part of my thinking and praying, over the years. Perhaps you have found, as I did, that Basil’s Rule is a wonderful source for meditation on incorporating the Cappadocian’S theology into one’s thinking and praying? I am bookmarking your sermon for many future rereading and meditations. Again, thank yours.

  4. Ruth West on May 13, 2017 at 00:20

    Br. Keith, this was great theological essay, an enlightenment on these saints. Thank you. It inspired me to do a little research on these early fathers of the church. We definitely need to know why we embrace the doctrines which we hold true and dear to us. It was interesting to me to see the evolution of the eastern views, still held in most cases, and the western views of the Trinity. I know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by experience, but it is still good to know something of the history of Christian thought. I am so appreciative of the councils which helped to settle many opposing views. I love the Nicene Creed, which we recite at every Eucharist, and is borne out by the teachings of the scriptures.

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