The Word Among Us

November 2007 Issue

A Trinitarian Spirituality

A new book by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa invites us to immerse ourselves in the "bottomless sea" of the Trinity.

By: Mary Healy

One of my favorite things to do is to walk along the seashore and think about God. Watching the waves relentlessly crash against the shore and gently recede, gazing out over the immense expanse of water and imagining what lies under the deep—this is almost a prayer in itself.

Who is the God who created such vast and majestic beauty? As St. Augustine said, seeking to comprehend him is like trying to pour the ocean into a little hole in the sand with a shell. It is easy to see why Father Raniero Cantalamessa takes the ocean as a recurring image for the Trinity in his new book, "Contemplating the Trinity: The Path to the Abundant Christian Life."

It would be natural to assume that a book of reflections on this subject is full of abstract, weighty doctrine, remote from ordinary experience. But not this book! Cantalamessa’s whole goal is to "move this mystery out of theology books and into our lives," so that the Trinity becomes a living, vital reality in the daily experience of ordinary Christians.

His aim reflects a new trend in Catholic thinking since the Second Vatican Council. Many theologians have recognized a need to bring the Trinity back to the center of attention in Christian thought and life. Cantalamessa, too, sees the need for "a breath of fresh air, a new perspective on Christian life that is more clearly trinitarian." He is convinced that a deeper contemplation and experience of the mystery of the Trinity is the key to personal spiritual growth—and to the renewal of the church.

Bottomless Sea. Fr. Cantala-messa (whose name means "Sing the Mass" in Italian) is a Capuchin friar who since 1980 has had the privilege of serving as preacher to the papal household. The book originated as a series of meditations that he gave in the presence of Pope John Paul II, just as the pope was launching the new millennium with a clarion call to the church to "put out into the deep!" The deep into which we are invited, as Cantalamessa explains, is the Trinity itself. The Trinity is the "bottomless sea without shores" in which Jesus continually invites us to immerse ourselves.

What does it mean to immerse ourselves in the Trinity? It means not only contemplating but participating in the communion of love among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It means knowing that the Father loves us with the love with which he loves his Son, and that we can love him in return with the same love—that is, in the Holy Spirit.

As Cantalamessa says, "We cannot wrap our arms around the ocean, but we can enter into it. We cannot encompass the mystery of the Trinity with our minds, but we can enter into it!" The same truth is beautifully expressed in the Catechism: "God has revealed his innermost secret. God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange" (221).

Cantalamessa begins his reflections in a very concrete way, by meditating on some of the most famous representations of the Trinity in Christian art. From the East, there is the magnificent icon by Andrei Rublëv, symbolically depicting the Trinity in the three angels who appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). From the West, there is the traditional image of God the Father gazing down at his Son on the cross, with the Holy Spirit as a dove hovering between. The book provides full-color reproductions of these and other masterpieces so the reader can follow along without having to imagine what they look like.

The Key to Overcoming Every Problem. It is often assumed, as Cantalamessa points out, that the doctrine of the Trinity has very little relevance to the problems in the world. But on the contrary, it is "the one thing that is relevant!"

For instance, the world, the church, and even individual souls are wracked by division. But as we gaze on the mystery of the Trinity, we see how the three Persons are constantly engaged in glorifying one another. The Father glorifies the Son; the Son glorifies the Father; the Spirit glorifies the Son (John 16:14; 17:4). Each rejoices in the honor of the others and devotes himself to making the others known. How the atmosphere would change if we began to live by this principle in our relationships with one another!

Each chapter in turn shows how the Trinity has a direct bearing on the challenges we encounter in the church and the world. Our usual recourse is to very human solutions. But gazing on the mystery of the Trinity, Cantalamessa explains, is the most powerful way to overcome "the hateful divisions in the world," "the great unhappiness in the word," "the hateful hypocrisy of the world" and "the allure of false beauty." The Trinity also shows us the way of prayer and the true path toward unity.

Enter into the Joy! The chapter on "Contemplating the Trinity to Overcome the Great Unhappiness of the World" is especially moving. Cantalamessa explains how recent theology, especially since the tragedy of the Holocaust, has focused on God’s solidarity with human beings in their suffering. The cross is the ultimate revelation of the sacrificial self-emptying that takes place within the Trinity itself. Yet this emphasis, important as it is, is incomplete unless it is balanced by the ancient understanding of "trinitarian joy." Even in the midst of his sorrow, Jesus had in the depths of his soul the joy that comes from a sacrifice done out of love.

"God is happy!" proclaims Cantalamessa. "Happiness is part of the very mystery of his being. Being the highest good, he is also the highest and infinite happiness."

Readers will find in Cantalamessa’s reflections a stirring motivation to enter more deeply into this divine mystery which is "‘our resting place,’ ‘the flood of delight’ in whom our thirst will one day be quenched."

Mary Healy is a leader of Mother of God Community in Gaithersburg, Maryland.