I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a beautiful agrarian town along the Pacific Ocean, full of popular surf spots. Visiting home with my wife and daughters last week, we could not wait to see the beach. After treading over the sand-dunes, breathing the salt-sea air, and collecting sand dollars and seashells, I could not help myself. While my family watched all agog, I ran head-long into the waves, icy-cold from northern Alaskan currents. My wife asked me what inspired my unplanned plunge, and I responded with chattering teeth, “I’m just so grateful for the Pacific Ocean, and that I’m here.”
There is nothing quite like the grandeur of the ocean, the wondrous delight of collecting sea-shells, or the whimsical pleasure of playing in the sand (for some—I am not one of the many who detest sand-between-toes). Perhaps like nothing else, the ocean confronts us with an experience of natural mystery, a sense of something sublime and immense beyond ourselves. According to the National Ocean Service, more than 80% of the ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. And yet, this experience of natural mystery soon gives way to another mystery: our own selves, rational and self-conscious observers of this gorgeous world. The famous “Ode on Man” in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone puts it this way: “there is much that is strange, but nothing surpasses man in strangeness.” St. Augustine echoes this sentiment in Confessions: “…men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”
Our own selves are mysteries for at least three reasons, according to St. John Henry Newman’s sermon for Trinity Sunday, “The Mysteriousness of our Present Being.” First, we are bodies and souls. While “the body is made of matter,” we are also “conscious [that] we are alive, and are rational; each man has his own thoughts, feelings, and desires; each man is one to himself, and he knows himself to be one and indivisible.” We intuitively know that our “I” is not completely identical with our material bodies, although using it and “joined to it.” Second, our souls are not physical, and yet we know are somehow ‘located’ in or with our bodies: “the soul is not only one, and without parts, but moreover, as if by a great contradiction even in terms, it is in every part of the body. It is no where, yet every where.” And finally, even though the content of our dreams are not strictly real, the fact that we dream is real, and is a mystery. It would be hard “to convey to a person who had never dreamed what was meant by dreaming.” It is difficult to rationally describe the experience of dreaming, somewhere between waking and imagining, consciousness and unconsciousness. Even if none but a few in the world dreamed, their testimony to the rest of the world of dreamless sleepers would be true, even though “unintelligible” to the rest.
Newman argues that these mysteries of our own selves, made up of mind and matter, soul and body, point us to the mystery of God—a mystery that we embrace as a gift, the highest gift, just as this world and our own selves are given to us out of love by our Creator. Much like we marvel at the union of body and soul, we marvel at the mystery of the Triune God, One God, and three Divine Persons
These three human mysteries are not, at first, exclusively religious. Even the most naturalistic of minds must admit that human consciousness is not limited to physical phenomena, or even neurological functioning (see Fr. Robert Spitzer’s magiscenter.org, especially this account of Near Death Experiences in which human consciousness continues even during “brain death”). Human reasoning is beyond, although related to, our physical functioning—it is in the realm of spirit. And yet this realm of spirit is somehow here with us in the midst of our physical life, birth and death. Dreams present to us a hint of this realm of the spirit. Who would not admit that dreams often perplex us, influence our sense of reality, and cause us to wonder at a deeper meaning in our memories and everyday experience?
These are mysteries of human life, things that cannot be fully explained but are experienced as real. Newman reasons, “Now if we have mysteries even about ourselves, which we cannot even put into words accurately, much more may we suppose, even were we not told it, that there are mysteries in the nature of Almighty God; and so far from its being improbable that there should be mysteries, the declaration that there are, even adds some probability to the revelation which declares them.” In fact, how much moreso should there be mysteries in God that are even more difficult to explain, but are nonetheless experienced as real, since God is so much more beyond us?
We in fact are told, by the Apostolic Tradition, the mystery that God is three in one. This and other great realities require humility, but can be obscured by pride: “Mysteries in religion are measured by the proud according to their own comprehension, by the humble, according to the power of God; the humble glorify God for them, the proud exalt themselves against them.” A mystery is something given, not achieved or comprehended. And we should not be cavalier, rogue, or presumptuous about these things which “bear upon our eternal interests.” Newman warns it is “most hazardous, most unwise,” though common, to laugh and scoff at religious mysteries out of hand. Rather, we should feel joy and gratitude that the Apostles “have handed on to us those secrets concerning God,” and thank God for “his condescension in allowing us to hear them.” It is to our peril to keep “hearts cold enough to complain of their mysteriousness.”
So we must be open to receiving the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity in our hearts and minds, especially as we approach the Feast of the Blessed Trinity this Sunday—so wisely placed between the Mystery of Pentecost and the Mystery of Corpus Christi. Newman concludes his sermon echoing the long Athanasian creed, recited in full on Trinity Sunday in his own time: “In the Beatific Vision of God, should we through His grace be found worthy of it, we shall comprehend clearly what we now dutifully repeat and desire to know, how the Father Almighty is truly and by Himself God, the Eternal Son truly and by Himself God, and the Holy Ghost truly and by Himself God, and yet not three Gods but one God.”
God has revealed to you, through His Apostles, his Word, and His Church, that He is Three Persons, and yet One God. And, He would like to continue the conversation with you. Listen! Be confident that in receiving Christ in the Eucharist, who is God, we also therefore are in communion with the whole Blessed Trinity. We hope, by God’s grace, to arrive at the Beatific Vision of the Trinity not by our own rational comprehension, but by participating in the whole life of God that He gives to us. We will receive this Vision of God in heaven “face to face” not as a mere exercise in abstract knowing, but in the fullness of what we now know in part, by following His commandments, believing what the whole Church holds in good faith, and finding God in the heart of the Church, the Sacraments (in Greek, Mysterion!), with an open heart and mind.