Homily for Sunday, May 27, 2018
Preached at Bethany Convent, Arlington, MA
In rock climbing circles, John Long is legend. Now 64, Long was one of the first to “free climb”—that is, to climb without ropes—famous rock faces such as the Paisano Overhang at Suicide Rock in California, the so-called Hangover at Tahquitz Rock, also in California, and the east face of Washington Column in Yosemite (also in California). In 1975—on Memorial Day weekend—he and two friends completed the first ever one-day ascent of El Capitan, the famous granite monolith in Yosemite.
Looking up from the bottom of El Capitan, and then looking out 2,500 feet up, Long writes:
You stumble into the forest and wend through the pines that finally open up, and there—before you, above you, around you—a sea of granite soars straight [up], stunning for its colors and sheer bulk; and terrible for the emptiness that sets in your gut as your eyes pan up its titanic corners and towers.
[…] We were over 2,500 feet up the wall now, into the really prime stuff. Here the exposure is so enormous and your perspective so distorted, that the horizontal world becomes incomprehensible. You’re a kind of granite astronaut, dangling in a kind of space / time warp. And if there is any place where you will understand why [people] climb mountains, it is here in these breezy dihedrals, high in the sky[…]
Long’s description of his climb of El Capitan reminds me of the Trinity, whom we celebrate today. The early church did not invent the Trinity. But, at the Council of Nicaea in 325—which also happened around Memorial Day weekend, in late May and early June—stumbling and wending their way through the “forest” of Scripture and what they had experienced of God, suddenly—before the early Church, above them, around them—the “pines” finally opened up and there it was: a “sea of granite soar[ing] straight [up],” as it were, stunning in its grandeur, taking their breath away as their eyes “pan[ned…] its[…] corners and towers.” There the early Church discovered that as Christians we believed in the Trinity: “in one God, the Father,” “in one Lord, Jesus Christ,” and “in the Holy Spirit.”
Over the centuries, the Church has explored the stunning colors and bulk, the sheer beauty and glorious majesty of the Trinity, climbing its face again and again, never tiring, reveling in the challenge, in its beauty. After exposure to it, our earthly perspective becomes “distorted” and the horizontal world “incomprehensible.” For example, Augustine, writing a century after the Council, said:
There is no subject where error is more dangerous, research more laborious, and discovery more fruitful than the oneness of the Trinity.
Or in the 11th century, 700 years after Nicaea, Anslem of Canterbury wrote:
I do not try to attain, Lord, your lofty heights, because my understanding is in no way equal to it.
And again in the 14th century, 1,000 years after Nicaea, Catherine of Siena wrote:
O Trinity, eternal Trinity! Fire, abyss of love […]
And in the 20th century contemporary author Anne Lamotte writes about the Trinity (while referring to another soaring California phenomenon):
I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.
Lamotte brings us to another side of the Trinity. Not only is the Trinity a “lofty height” and an “abyss,” but the Trinity is also someone to whom we can turn our lives over. Not only is the Trinity “stunning” and “titanic,” but the Trinity is tender and loving, intimate and near, approachable and desiring to be approached. The Trinity is “love beyond all telling” who—as immense and mighty as the Trinity may be—yearns for our companionship, desires our affections and attentions. Recall the famous Rublev icon of the Trinity, with the three persons seated at a table and upon which there is a chalice… The figures are painted so delicately, their heads inclined so demurely, their gazes so filled with… compassion? curiosity? mirth? a tinge of sadness? And there is an open space at the table, at the very front, where the Trinity might just be inviting us: “You must sit down, says, Love, and taste my meat.”
This Trinity, the intimate Trinity, knows every detail of our life and loves us, and invites us to focus, not just on the majesty and glory and sweeping views, but on the wonder of what is right in front of our nose, on what is dwelling even within us. To return to John Long, Long writes not only of the majesty of El Capitan, but also of the intimate details of the climb: the different textures and colors of the rock inches away; the exact size and shape of the nooks and ridges and where precisely his fingertips find a hold; just which muscles he uses to cling to the rock and how they burn; how once he made a mistake in his sequence and how—with his life on the line—now his left hand is crossed over his right when he needs his right over his left; how his sense time changed, with seconds stretching into years; how his heart filled with a rush of gratitude as he suddenly saw with great clarity the great gift and fragility of life; how, when he managed to extricate himself and finally reached the summit, he experienced sublime exhilaration at what he had just seen and experienced (and survived!).
The Trinity is familiar with and has climbed each and every one of our “faces.” The Trinity knows every nook and cranny of our hearts; it knows just where to place fingers and toes in order to draw near. The Trinity knows us even more intimately then John Long knows a rock face, and the Trinity wants us to turn our lives over, to “climb,” as it were, with God and to share in all the Trinity’s love, companionship, creativity and joy.
Of all who wrote of the Trinity, perhaps none did so as beautifully as did St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite who died at the age of 26 at the turn of the last century. Elizabeth wrote:
I go to him as a baby goes to his mother so that he can fill me and invade all and take me in his arms.
And she prayed:
Make my soul […] your cherished dwelling place, your home of rest. Let me never leave you there alone, but keep me there all absorbed in you, in living faith, adoring you.
I hope that we on this Trinity Sunday may hear the Trinity’s invitation, not only to marvel at its heights and to wonder at its beauty, but also to turn our lives over to it, to make the Trinity our cherished dwelling place, to go the Trinity as a baby to its mother so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit can fill us and invade us and take us into his arms.