"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 03, 2007

On The Same Old Thing

One of C.S. Lewis' most memorable characters, the senior tempter Screwtape writing to his protegé Wormword, said:

The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart - an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. You must of course unbalance your patient, lest he realises and accepts that both change and permanence are desirable in equal measure. Whether it be in eating, relationships, faith, or anything else, above all make the patient desire change even if he is quite happy and content with what he already has.

I thought of that passage this morning before Mass today, which is Trinity Sunday in the Roman calendar. In several different respects, the theme of the Holy Trinity is the Same Old Thing. Most of those respects are bad; some result from the kind of imbalance that the real Screwtapes constantly strive to bring about. But the respect that's good is by far the most important.

The doctrine of the Trinity tells us, inadequately but truly, that the Creator of all things is a community of persons who exist co-eternally, so intimately united with one another that each is the same God as the others. It is the life of that community which the baptized are called to participate in, forever. What could be more important than that? There is nothing nearly as great to give one's heart to. The Trinity is the Same Old Thing in so fundamental and good a way that if one does not praise, wonder, and rejoice, one is spiritually dead.

Nearly every morning, the first thing I do when I get up is to bow before the crucifix and recite an ancient doxology: "Glory be to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, forever and ever. Amen." I do that not just because God is God and should be so acknowledged in the attitude of worship. I do it because, like Sam Gamgee looking up at the stars while lying in the depths of Morder, I need and get assurance that reality is unimaginably great and good regardless of what happens to me in particular, that my only reasonable choice is to be part of that reality by giving praise, thanks, and glory to God by how I live my life, no matter how disappointing or painful my life (or indeed anyone's life) can sometimes be. I hope that, even if by nothing more than habit, it is the prayer on my lips as I stand at death's door.

The doxology I favor was in use in the Church before the Arian heresy, after which the orthodox preferred the form better-known today: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit...." The shift was understandable inasmuch as the older form easily admits an Arian or otherwise subordinationist understanding, whereas the the newer form more reliably connotes the co-equality of the divine persons. But I also believe the older form to be more...well, informative, if one understands it in an orthodox sense. It intimates more strongly the dynamic structure of the Christian life itself, which is that of divinization through engrafting into Christ. The newer form irons out that intimation for the sake of discouraging a certain kind of heresy. Thus, a good thing was done with the Same Old Thing that made it bit less relevant to the mind of the ordinary Christian.

Part of the problem, of course, was and is that we can never fully comprehend the Trinity. Most Christians, even among the most devout, don't even try. We can hardly expect otherwise. For well over a millennium, the doctrine of the Trinity has been the Same Old Thing; if the S.O.T. is also incomprehensible, say most Christians to themselves, why bother with more than ritual bows in its direction? Even the almost equally incomprehensible Incarnation was at least tangible to some people; it even extends itself tangibly in the Church, the sacraments, indeed anyone put before us to love ("Whenever you do it to the least of my brethren...."). But in practice, the Trinity is a mere abstraction for most Christians. The ever-running filioque issue between East and West does nothing to discourage that standpoint. Such news is so old that it too has become the Same Old Thing.

Generally speaking, priests only encourage the corresponding attitude. Most of the homilies I hear on Trinity Sunday are not much more closely related to the Trinity than are most other homilies. The Mass I attended today, for example, was a new priest's first Mass; unsurprisingly the homilist, who had been one of the new priest's teachers in seminary, said rather little directly about the Trinity. And yet there's usually a reason for homilists, or catechists for that matter, not to say much about the Trinity: such truths as they would utter would usually not be original, and such original things as they might utter would usually not be true. Lately, I've even been accused of that myself!

Still, there are unoriginal truths here which are so rarely stated that stating them would be helpful to many. Last year at this time, I offered the following:

Consider the structure of the ancient baptismal formula known as "The Apostles' Creed." I insert the text here for convenience:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth;

I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord;
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
and born of the Virgin Mary,
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day He rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. AMEN.

Jesus comes forth from the Father and comes down to us. He takes flesh, suffers, dies, is buried, and descends even to Hades; he then rises from the dead and ascends into heaven. This is what St. Thomas Aquinas, following the Pseudo-Dionysius, called the exitus and reditus of God. Creation itself had come forth from God in a free choice of love and finds its goal in God, whose Holy Spirit vivifies and orders it. When it fell from that plan through the fall of Lucifer and the human race he seduced, God himself had to recapitulate the necessary movement by descending into the depths of creation so that he could elevate it by his victory and ascension. The exitus-reditus model is that of descent and ascent. The fullness of glory is thus attained by self-emptying for others who do not merit it: a process of pure love. Such is the dynamic model of all reality, both divine and created. In and through us, the reality of the divine love makes that of creation both possible and actual.

Such, then, is the structure of divine revelation itself. How God thus reveals himself also tells us what God in himself is like: a communion of persons who love one another by giving themselves to, and thus emptying themselves into, each other. The eternity and changelessness of God is thus dynamic not static. It is that of love. But it takes no time to be complete in God himself. It only takes time to be expressed and revealed in creation. That's what Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God the Son, was and is about. By doing in time and flesh what he eternally does in the Godhead and in spirit, the Son made it possible for us to participate in the very life of God. To avail ourselves of that staggering opportunity, we must agree to be reborn "by water and the Holy Spirit," becoming part of his Body, the Church, so that he does in us what he did once for all in his Pasch. Thus we are to love as he did, which can happen only because we are loved as he is loved eternally by the Father.

Properly appreciated, therefore, the doctrine of the Trinity tells us what life is for. The doctrines of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ tells us how God made it possible for us to attain the goal. For motivation's sake, it's always best to keep that big picture in view.

After all, if we did keep that picture in view, the Same Old Thing would appear more often in its eternal youth.

blog comments powered by Disqus