Proverbs 8: 14, 22 – 31
Romans 5: 1 – 5
John 16: 12 – 15
One of the great lines from Father Benson, which is among my favourites, is something he said about the Holy Trinity. Writing to Father Rivington in 1875, he says:
I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. The Church – the Sacraments – Hagilogy, I had almost said Mythology – have filled the minds of devout people, partly for good partly for evil. ‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
It seems like a bit of an outrageous claim, that the decay of Christendom is because of the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity. Any school child, after all, can tell you that three does not equal one, and nor does one equal three. For many however, the Trinity is just that: a mathematical impossibility. So how is it then, that the neglect of this mathematical formula, and a nonsensical one at that, is the cause of the decay of Christendom?
For Father Benson, the Trinity had nothing to do with mathematics. It’s not about trying to convince people that something which makes no sense, actually does. The Trinity isn’t about math. It is about God, and it has to do with the reality of God who can be known, felt, and loved, in practice. And that’s what Father Benson is getting at here. He’s not speaking of the almost or nearly neglect, as in saying about something well that’s practically impossible, as in it’s unlikely to happen. Instead Father Benson is speaking of the practice, the experience, the experiential. What he is saying, is that people are no longer experiencing the Trinity and that the circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power or a loved reality. Because that circulating life of the eternal Godhead is no longer a felt power, or loved reality, it is rejected as a nonsensical mathematical formula, and one more thing to discredit, an already largely discredited, and irrelevant Church.
One of the themes that Father Benson hammers home over and again, is that the purpose of the monastic life, and I would argue that we can extend that to the life of all the baptized, is to live in union with God. In one of his addresses to the early members of the community he tells them that We must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God….This living for God was not an abstract idea or ideal. Rather, it was the reality upon which he lived his whole life, because he firmly believed that [the] true, the normal, the old condition of our humanity is a condition of union with God.
This was the condition of humanity in the Garden of Eden, when we walked with God at the time of the evening breeze.
So if, as Father Benson teaches us, our normal, our natural, our intended condition and purpose, is to live in union with God, then in order to discover what that union, what that natural condition might look like for ourselves, we need to have some understanding of the nature and being of God.
The fundamental Christian experience of God is that God can be known. There is that wonderful passage from 1 John that we use here at the monastery every time we receive a new member into the Fellowship of Saint John:We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
As Christians, we believe that God can be known, or in the words of John, that God can be heard, and seen, and touched. That ability to know God, is primary to our belief in, and our experience of, God.
As Christians, we say more. We say that the way in which we have come to hear, and see, and touch, and know, God, is through an experience of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, and that God’s nature, and purpose, has been revealed to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. This is the mysterious circulating lifewhich Father Benson speaks of, and while we don’t say that we comprehend three gods, we claim that the one God is revealed to us in these three ways.
Once we have said this, we have said something profound about God, and if we have said it about God, we have said it about ourselves, who have been created in the image and likeness of God, for God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; …. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
What we have said about God, is that God is revealed to us in communion, and community, in Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; in Father, Son, and Spirit. What is more is that we have said that if God is revealed to us in communion and community, then community, and communion can be revelations of the Divine.
And so we come back to Father Benson. I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the Trinity has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom….‘Thyself unmoved, all motion’s source’ this mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead, has been almost lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality. Or to put it another way: I quite feel that the practical neglect of the doctrine of the community and communion of God has been the great cause of the decay of Christendom. Knowing God as communion and community has been lost to sight, spoken of us a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
As fewer and fewer of us have a real, lived experience of what it means to live in communion, and community, where we know, not our independence, but our interdependence, we become more and more distant from God who is community, and from that life of communion and community which God intended for us from the beginning. Being made in the image and likeness of God who is communion and community, we have been made for communion and community. As Father Benson reminds us:
[Humanity] was formed in the image of the Blessed Trinity, with a social nature representative of the Being of [our] Creator. When [we were] put into the world it was said, ‘It is not good for [humanity] to be alone.’ (Genesis 2: 18) Human society is therefore of divine appointment, for the exercise of those faculties which are in our nature, in their highest form. A [person] who can so advance in everything as to be in any sense of the world self – sufficient, or independent, is advancing into a position at variance with the primary law of our nature. [Someone] who is so self – contained as not to be bound to the sympathies of society round about [them] is violating the true law of [their] being.
We say something similar in our Rule of Life:
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. If we are true to our calling as a community, our Society will be a revelation of God.
Today as we celebrate the Trinity, we are celebrating, not a mathematical imponderability, but a truth about the nature and being of God who is communion and community. But we celebrate more. We celebrate the truth that this Divine communion and community can be known, heard, seen, and touched, and that as Christians we know, hear, see, and touch the reality of the Divine community in our experience of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we celebrate more. We celebrate the truth that as women and men created in the image and likeness of God, we have been created to live in communion and community with God, and that communion and community with God is our true, or normal, our natural condition. We were created for community. But we celebrate more. We celebrate that wherever we find communion and community, we find God.
It seems to me that is what lies at the heart of what Father Benson is saying: as our structures of interdependence and community decay, so our experience of God decays and as we discover what it truly means to live in union with God, we discover the grace and mystery, and if truth be told, the challenges, of life in communion and community with those around us.
A celebration about the life of the Trinity is not a mathematical puzzle, it is a profound declaration about the nature and being of God, and thus it is a reminder of our calling as Christians to live in communion and community.
We often decry the condition of the Church today, but perhaps the Church is so decayed, because we have forgotten what it means to live in communion and community, and perhaps that is because the mystery of the circulating life of the eternal Godhead [as community], has been … lost to sight, spoken of as a mystery, and not felt as a power or loved as a reality.
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson SSJE, A.R. Mowbray Co. Ltd., 1916, page 187
Benson, Richard Meux, The Religious Vocation:Of the Objects of the Society, Chapter 1, page 37
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life,Second Series, 1935, page 71
1 John 1: 1 – 4
Father Benson is referring here to a hymn, normally sung at noon: O God, creation’s secret force, yourself unmoved, all motion’s source. The Hymnal 1982, hymn 14
Genesis 1: 26 – 27
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life,Second Series, 1935, page 19
SSJE, Rule of Life, The Witness of Life on Community, chapter 4, page 9
Benson, Richard Meux, Letters of Richard Meux Benson SSJE, A.R. Mowbray Co. Ltd., 1916, page 187
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