Love on the Move: Of the Divine “Dance” In the Holy Trinity

There is a kind of tension in some of the imagery we use for God. On the one hand we call Him the “Unmoved Mover.” We also say that God is everywhere. If He is everywhere then there is nowhere for him to go, no need for Him to move because He is already there. Yet we also speak of “processions” in the Trinity.

St. Thomas artfully and with precision speaks of the Trinity and the two “processions” as Gentori Genitoque laus et jubilation … Procedenti abutroque compar sit laudatio (To the One who generates and to the One who is generated be praise and jubilation … To the One proceeding from them both be equal praise).

St. Thomas also points out an important difference between material procession and divine procession:

In material things, what comes forth from another is no longer in it, since it comes from it by a separation from it in essence or in space. But in God, coming forth does not arise in this way. The Son came forth eternally from the Father in such a way that the Son is still in the Father from all eternity. And so, when he is in the Father, he comes forth. And when he comes forth, he is in him, in such a way that he is always coming forth, and always in him (Commentary on John, 16:28).

So, it would seem that the Unmoved Mover, our Triune God, has processions of love within. There is a kind of dynamism of love! Of course, our feeble words fall short and our analogies are weak.

There is a beautiful Greek word used by the Church Fathers (e.g., St. John Damascene) to describe the inner life of the Trinity: perichoresis. It is a combination of two words: peri, meaning “around” and chorein, meaning “to make space.” Therefore perichoresis, literally translated, means “to make space around.” It points to the way in which someone or something makes space around itself for others or for something else.

What a picturesque word! It suggests a kind of swirling or a dance. It is close in its spelling to the Greek word for dance, choreuo, so many people refer to it as the dance of love in the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make room for one another; they “dance” about and “with” one another in a way that shows a mutual indwelling while still maintaining space for each person.

Yes, love is dynamic. There is a movement of love between the persons of the Trinity. This imagery is powerfully different than the one that most people have of the Trinity (God the Father on one throne, sitting next to His Son on another, with the Holy Spirit hovering like a dove between them). This is not wrong. Scripture speaks of thrones in Heaven and of the Father and the Son seated, but the thrones are likely more an image of authority than of inactivity.

Surely the inner life of the Trinity is more than merely being seated. It is a glorious procession of love: The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the love proceeding from them both. Yes, there is a great movement, a dance of love.

To this “dance” of love, Christ draws His Bride, the Church. It is our destiny and dignity to be caught up one day to the great dance of love of the Trinity. Heaven is not a static vision of God from some distance; it is a beatific vision, an experience of love that is dynamic and moving, a dance of ecstasy.

Put on your dancing shoes and get ready for the dance! Remember that to dance well we must surrender all pride and learn to dance as if no one is watching. Only the humble can really dance well, only those who can make space for the Lord and let Him lead.

I hope you will forgive the secular source, but below is an image of Christ drawing His bride to the dance.

A Less Well-Known but Essential Role of the Priest

Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin (c. 1851)

There are many roles that come to mind when one thinks of a parish priest or pastor: he is to celebrate the Liturgy, to preach, to teach, and to care for the people’s pastoral needs. In the reading for Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent, Jeremiah refers to a role many of us would not think of. As he reflects on his prophetic role, Jeremiah says to the Lord,

Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them (Jer 18:20).

Very few people would say, “My pastor turns away God’s wrath from me.” Part of the reason for this is that we have “domesticated” God, even trivialized Him. Many think of God more as a grandfather than a father. The idea that we need to be prepared to see Him has often been replaced by the notion that He will simply welcome us into Heaven.

We must also be careful to understand what is meant by the “wrath” of God. It does not mean that He is angry or in a bad temper; God is not moody. Scripture says,

  • In God there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17).
  • For I, the LORD, do not change (Malachi 3:6).
  • And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: (Ex 3:14).

God is not wrathful one moment and serene the next.

The wrath of God is not in Him; it is in us. It is our possible experience of God if we are not ready to encounter Him. For example, if we are used to moral darkness, the glorious brightness of God’s holiness will seem harsh and unbearable to us. We might call this the “horror of God,” but the horror is in us not in Him. Similarly, if we are used to the coldness of this world of sin, the fiery warmth of God’s love will seem to us as a blazing, wrathful inferno. The problem is in us, not in God. (I have written more on this topic here: What is the Wrath of God?.)

Jeremiah sees a role for the preacher as turning away the wrath of God from His people. The bishop, priest, or deacon does this by accustoming God’s people to the light of truth and the temperature of glory. As we are repeatedly taught God’s ways and learn them, the proclaimed word of God does more than inform us; it transforms us (if we let it). This prepares us to see God—and we must be prepared to see Him.

St Gregory the Great says this of the priest:

The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts … Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows (Pope Gregory Pastoral Guide, Book 2:4).

We almost never speak of Jesus this way, as “terrible judge.” Of course, “terrible” is used here more in the sense of awe or reverential fear. The word “terrible” literally means “able to cause terror.” If there is a terror, though, it is in us, not in God, who is love. Thus St. Gregory is actually saying the same thing that Jeremiah did: the role of the priest is to prepare God’s people so that terror is not their experience on their day of judgment. The judgment seat of Christ is nothing to be cavalier about. It will be a place of great honesty—and most of us are made uncomfortable by that! Therefore, we must be prepared by Word and Sacrament for our day of judgment.

Before There Was an Everywhere, I AM

The Baltimore Catechism asked the question Where is God? The answer given was God is everywhere. While this is certainly true, it is even more true that God is beyond the concept of “where.” Everywhere is too limiting to contain God, for He transcends His creation and cannot be contained even by the “everywhere” of it.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting analogy:

Looking for God by exploring space is a bit like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare …. Shakespeare is, in one sense, present at every moment of the play, but he is never present in the same way … but to look for him as one item within the framework he himself invented is nonsensical [The Business of Heaven, p. 47].

So, just as Shakespeare is far more than and far beyond even the sum total of all his writings, even more is God far beyond the “everywhere” of this world. God is not this or that thing. He is not here or over there. He is existence itself, the very definition of “to be” (ipsum esse).

Yet unlike Shakespeare, God is not merely bigger than and outside what He has made. God is no mere writer or creator who left an impression of himself in what he made. No, God is at the same time both transcendent and immanent. He is inside what He created, sustaining everything He made from moment to moment.

C.S. Lewis continues,

[And so with God] mere movement in space will not bring you any nearer to him or farther from him that you are at this very moment. You can neither reach him, nor avoid him by travelling to … other galaxies [ibid].

This of course raises the question: Why do we attribute a special presence to Christ in the Eucharist or the tabernacles of our churches? Like the ancient Jews, who found a special presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, we do not lack sophistication. We understand that God is not merely in this place or that one, but we do accept by His own revelation that He is uniquely and powerfully present in certain places and in certain ways designated by Him to confer that special presence. Thus, while God speaks in and through His creation, He speaks even more clearly and powerfully in his revealed Word. And while He is everywhere immanently present, He is profoundly present in a special way in the Eucharist and in certain holy places.

In the end, God is everywhere, but he is also “beyond where,” “beneath where,” and “above where.” He is God, who said, “Before there ever was an everywhere, I AM.”

Our God Sits High Yet Looks Low – A Meditation on Our Smallness

There is a rather humorous aspect of the story of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. You likely know the basic story, which begins with the men of that early time saying, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4). It was an image of pride, of grandiosity. The humor comes in that although the great tower has a top that seems to reach up to the heavens, it is actually so small that God must come down from Heaven in order to see it. The text says, And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built (Gen 11:5).

Of course God, omniscient as He is, sees everything. The humor is for our benefit. It makes the point that man’s greatest, tallest, most prominent, and glorious work is in fact so puny that God must stoop in order to get a glimpse of it. God isn’t surprised by how great we are; what does alarm Him is how colossal our pride is. In response He has to humble us, by confusing our language and scattering us about the planet.

I recalled this story as I was on a long flight today. I noticed that even the tall buildings of some large cities were difficult to see from 30,000 feet. I also remembered the video below, which shows some amazing footage of Earth taken from the International Space Station (ISS). The narrator explains some of the features we are seeing and where on the globe we are looking as the pictures pass by. Although the view is amazing, what is even more remarkable is what we do not see: us!

It is astonishing that even though the ISS is passing over well-populated areas, there is no visual evidence that we even exist. No cities or buildings are visible, no planes streaking through the skies, even large-scale agricultural features seem lacking. There is only one mention of a color difference across the Great Salt Lake, due to a railroad bridge preventing lake circulation. The bridge itself, however, is not visible—only its effect.

We think of ourselves as so important, so impressive. Yet we cannot be seen even from low Earth orbit. It is true that at night our cities light the view, but during the day next to nothing says that we are even here. Even when I magnified the video on my 30-inch iMac screen, I can see no sign of us below.

Watching the video makes me think of Psalm 8:

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet, You made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Yes, we are powerful (by God’s gift), yet so tiny as to be nearly invisible from a short distance into space. Our mighty buildings rise, but they rise from a speck of space dust called Earth, which revolves around a fiery point of light called the Sun. Yet our huge sun is but one point of light in the Milky Way galaxy of over 100 billion other stars. And the Milky Way galaxy, so huge that its size is nearly incomprehensible to us, is but one of an estimated 200 billion galaxies.

What is man that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Jesus says of us: And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matt 10:30). God, who knows the numbers of the stars and calls them by name, also knows the number of hairs on each of our heads. Nothing escapes Him.

There’s an old preacher’s saying that “We serve a God who sits high, yet looks low.” Indeed, we should never forget how tiny we are and never cease to marvel that God knit us together in our mother’s womb and sustains every fiber of our being. We cannot even be seen from low Earth orbit. Yet God, who sees all, looks into our very heart. Though tiny, we are wonderfully, fearfully made (Psalm 139) and God has put all things under our feet.

A Meditation on the Delay and Silence of God

I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry about most things. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

We live in a loud, fast-paced world, one of constantly “breaking news,” in which crisis and urgency are the predominant mode. Instant communication and quick responses are expected, even demanded.

At the national level, there is hardly any reporting at all by the media before there is a rush to analyze, comment, and demand a reaction and plan of action from public officials.

At the personal level, someone will often express irritation at not hearing back from me within the day, or even within minutes. “I sent you a text! Did you get it?” If I do not answer a text quickly enough I may get another one that simply says “Father …?” An email may begin with a subject like this: “** Second Attempt **” if the previous email went unanswered for even a day.

In many companies, voice mail has been discontinued because it’s “too slow.” Many younger people seldom answer their phones let alone initiate phone calls. Communication is more commonly accomplished through instant messages, texts, and tweets. This results in a clipped quality to conversations that limits thoughtful discussion.

Yes, we are in a big hurry. But back to my question: Have you noticed that God doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry? God could easily solve everything instantly with a mere snap of His fingers; one word and it would be fixed. He does not do this, however, and He has His reasons. Perhaps it is important for us to live some of our questions in order to appreciate their depths. Perhaps the problems we want solved are themselves part of a deeper solution that God is working to make us humbler, wiser, and /or stronger.

Beyond puzzling, God’s slow pace can also be dismaying. Why does God allow the wicked to inflict so much damage for so long? Why does He allow error and heresy to go unchecked? Why does He permit sinners to remain unpunished and uncorrected?

The Church too is often rather slow to respond or act. We will go on for decades, even centuries, pondering and reflecting while the world rushes forward at light speed into error, darkness, and confusion. We often want the Church to have quick answers and effective responses to all of this; we want the Church to turn on a dime but that’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around.

Though at times imponderable, God’s delay is sinless. The Church’s delay, however, may be admixed with sin, sloth, and resistance. This does not mean that all the delay of the Church is sinful. Especially in today’s world of quick, often rash reaction, there is still the need for careful, thoughtful, prayerful deliberation. Our faith doesn’t reduce easily to sound bites. The Gospel does not fit on a bumper sticker. The Church should not be reduced to a fire department, but she should keep her identity as a careful medical practice. The urgent should not eclipse the important.

Yes, all of this has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I am impatient by nature; I tap my foot incessantly in meetings, thinking, let’s get to work already! I am a bit like the impatient field hand in the Gospel (Mat 13:24ff), who wanted to tear out the weeds from amongst the wheat. The Lord cautioned against doing so might because it might harm the wheat. He said that they should be allowed to grow together until the harvest; the day of judgement will come, but not yet.

Indeed, rash actions can cause harm, even if unintentionally. Quick or draconian measures to eliminate error and sin may harm the saints and ration the Spirit. Conflicts have their place. They can call the question and sharpen the distinction between the good and the wicked; darkness can allow the light shine even more gloriously.

But Father, but Father! What about the many souls who are lost and confused in the silence while the Church delays, reflecting and pondering? I know, I know; I have no simple answer, except to point back to God. While the Church’s delay may be prudent or imprudent, in these hurried times of instant communication and demanded answers, God’s sinless delay and lengthy silences still shine before us and challenge our often-rash instincts.

God takes His time. The Jewish people were 400 years in slavery and 40 years in the desert. From then it was 1800 years to the Christ, who spent thirty of His thirty-three years in seclusion and silence.

Yes, for reasons of His own, God is not in a big hurry. For my part, I must learn this hard lesson and be careful to enter into the silence of God through prayer. Having prayed in that silence I must emerge to patiently, teaching and preaching the faith that God has revealed. I can do no more, but I can do no less.

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s words are a fitting conclusion to this hard lesson for us modern compulsives:

Silence is of capital importance because it enables the Church to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, imitating his thirty silent years of Nazareth….and his intimate dialogue with the Father in the solitude and silence of the desert….

Light makes no noise. If we want to approach this luminous source, we must assume an attitude of contemplation and silence….The true nature of the Church is not found in what she does but in what she testifies. Christ asked us to be light. He ordered us not to conquer the world, but to show men the way, the truth and the life.

I know well that God’s silence constantly runs into man’s impatience…[but] nowadays man fosters a kind of compulsive relationship with time. One day we will understand everything. Until then it is necessary to seek without making noise.  

Who can understand God?…As with all questions connected with God, there is a stage when the search can go no farther. The only thing to do is to raise our eyes, to stretch out our hands toward God, and to pray in silence while awaiting the dawn…. [Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, pp. 219-221]

On Titles and Truth

Most Catholics have heard the critique from non-Catholics that it is wrong to call priests “Father.” It is a rather tired old charge, which basically goes as follows:

  1. Jesus says, “Call no man on earth your father.”
  2. But Catholics call their priests “Father.”
  3. Therefore, the Catholic Church is wrong to espouse this and is likely wrong in many other things as well.

The problem stems from a rather absolute and literal reading of Jesus’ words. At daily Mass on Saturday, we read this passage:

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt 23:10-11).

The problem with reading the text literally (and thereby absolutely) is that it amounts to a complete banishing of the word “father.” Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father.” The phrase “no one on earth,” if interpreted literally, is about as absolute a forbiddance as could be imagined. In effect, the term “father” must never be uttered in reference to any earthly, human male, ever!

If that be the case, though, then none of the New Testament authors seem to have gotten the message. In the New Testament there are nearly 200 occurrences of the word “father” in reference to earthly males. Most “egregiously,” St Paul wrote, For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15). Didn’t St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him) know that Jesus forbade the use of the word except to refer to the Father in Heaven?

In fact, Jesus didn’t even appear to get his own memo; either that or He somehow forgot!

I have compiled a list of all of these “violations” here: New Testament verses using the term “father”. It is quite a long list and many of the verses came directly from the mouth of Jesus.

Obviously, then, Jesus does not mean to forbid or eliminate the use of the term or title. Getting into a tedious debate about the linguistics misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching—and it is a very important one.

The central point that Jesus makes is that no one on this earth should have more authority in one’s life than God. No teacher, no matter how eloquent or convincing; no master, no matter how many advanced degrees; no expert, no matter how many letters come after his name; has the authority to overrule or set aside God’s teaching. None of them should have a greater prominence or influence on us than the Lord. Everything they say should be tested in the light of God’s revealed truth.

Sadly, this is too often not the case. We so easily allow worldly thinking and the views of “experts” or cultural icons to eclipse God’s teaching and His authority in our life.

St. Paul says,

Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 4:21-22).

Is this what we do in practice? When a popular musician comes out with a song celebrating fornication, many say, “I know, I know, but it is a pretty song.” They’ll even play it at Catholic wedding receptions and school dances. When an eloquent spokesperson for any number of sinful practices contrary to God’s law and teaching comes along, too many Christians fall for the false notions of compassion and tolerance. Do we really “test everything” with the measuring rod of God’s teaching? Sadly, often we do not. More often it is God’s teachings that go on trial, to be judged by worldly standards.

St. Paul laments,

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim 4:3-4).

This leads us back to Jesus true concern: no one, be it a teacher, a rabbi, an expert, a scientist, a parent, or a clergyman, should have more authority in one’s life than God does. In effect, Jesus says, “If even your earthly father, whom you should otherwise honor, asks you to do evil or seeks your assent to teachings contrary to what my Father and I have taught, disregard his request and refuse to cooperate.”

Jesus is not focused here on titles, as some erroneously think; He is focused on truth. He is not removing words from our dictionary; He is requiring the truth that He teaches to be the measure by which we test everything else. No one should have a higher authority in our mind than God. We should have no greater devotion in our heart than to the Lord. Too easily we miss Jesus’ crucial point by debating the details.

A Short Reflection on Beauty

It is common to link the good, the true, and the beautiful; this is proper because truth is beautiful and a very high good. But as with most insights, some distinctions are necessary, because while truth is always beautiful, not everyone or everything that appears to be beautiful is thereby true.

St. Augustine comments on this, saying,

Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses beauty even to the wicked (The City of God, XV, 22).

Essentially, St. Augustine is distinguishing physical beauty from spiritual beauty, teaching us that we can become too focused on lesser beauty and thereby neglect higher beauty and goods.

Physical beauty, though defined somewhat differently by different people, does exist and is a gift of God to behold. It is possible, however, to esteem it too much, failing to realize that spiritual beauty — truth, goodness, holiness, and God Himself — is a far greater gift. God signals the limits of physical beauty by sometimes bestowing it on those who seem undeserving, in order to teach us that it is a limited and often transitory good.

Scripture cautions, Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is praised (Proverbs 31:30). Both men and women are cautioned that charm and physical beauty, while pleasant, can easily deceive us into concluding too much. In our highly visual and noisy culture we are too easily influenced by the views of movie stars, singers, sports figures, and others among the cultural elite. Swayed by the fact that they are attractive, or sing beautifully, or act well, we too easily ascribe intellectual and moral authority to them which they have not merited.

St. Augustine continues,

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.

The problem is not with beauty but with us.

So, Augustine adds,

When the miser prefers gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.

Enjoy the good things of God, but never in preference to the very God who made them. In our fallen condition, we are easily deceived by beauty. As St. Augustine notes, the problem is not in the beauty; the problem is in us. Stay sober, my friends!

Heaven is an Acquired Taste

There is a tendency today to forget that Heaven is an acquired taste; not everyone wants what God offers. While everyone wants to be happy, often happiness is conceived of in an egocentric way. Heaven is thought of as a personally designed paradise where we will be happy on our own terms.

But that is not what Heaven is. Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Its values and qualities are manifold but include many things that are not immediately desirable to those who live with hearts and minds that are worldly and sinful. The Kingdom of God features ideas that are often unpopular: love of one’s enemies, generosity, love of the poor, and chastity. Heaven features God and His teachings at the center, not me and what I think. Yes, Heaven is a place where every aspect of God’s law is perfectly manifested. Yet many find some of these things not only undesirable but downright obnoxious; some even call them hateful and intolerant. To those in darkness, the light seems harsh.

Yes, Heaven is an acquired taste. This helps to explain that the existence of Hell is not due to a “mean” God trying to remove people whom He doesn’t like from His presence. It is a respectful acceptance by God of the free decision made by those who do not want what He is offering. They do not want to think differently or even be told what to think. They do not want to give up their favorite sins or have their hearts purified of unruly or disordered appetites. In the end, God will not force us to love what and whom He loves. He will not force us to live in His Kingdom.

In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis makes this very point. In it, many people come to “tour” Heaven, some of whom do not like what they find. Some struggle to adjust, others are resentful and say, in effect, “No thanks.” If you have not read it, I strongly encourage you to do so; it is an important book to read and ponder.

In yesterday’s Gospel, the Lord inquires after our hearts by giving us the images of buried treasure and a pearl of great price. The one who finds them goes and sells all he has in order to obtain them. Does this describe your heart? Does it describe the hearts of our family, friends, and compatriots? Often, the answer is no. Most people are not will to give up everything for the Kingdom of Heaven. Our hearts are disordered. We easily desire things that are sinful and harmful, and not so much those that are good, holy, and lasting. We prefer apparent goods to true goods. If we are faithful, the Lord can get us to that disposition of heart—but it takes time. At least grant Him your willingness to get to that place!

In yesterday’s Gospel the Lord also speaks of a dragnet. While he uses it as an image for the final judgment, that final judgement ultimately depends on the myriad judgments we make in our daily life. As you haul the net of your life ashore, what do you keep, finding it valuable, and what do you discard? Do you value what God is offering and retain it or do you more highly value other things in the net? What do you keep and what do you discard? The answers to questions like these points to your place in the net at the last judgment. God will gather into His Kingdom those who have desired it, not those who have rejected it.

Give the Lord your heart. Open when He knocks. Let Him create a desire in you for the very things He is offering. In the end, Heaven is an acquired taste, more so than we commonly imagine. Let God give you a taste for better and higher things.

This song says, “I’m trying to make heaven my home!”