A Celtic View of the Trinity

The circle is a foundational aspect of the cosmic blueprint of reality. It is the foundation of all that is created. The circular nature of the cosmos is what makes the planets orbit around their stars. It is what makes the stars orbit around their galaxies. It is what makes the galaxies orbit around whatever they orbit around. Everything orbits around God in the end.

Circles are the shape of stable motion. When something is constantly moving, it does so most often in a circular pattern, or is working its way towards a simple circular pattern. The doctrine of the Trinity assumes this circular movement in God as well. The Trinity is a constant dance between three persons. Because this circle dance is stable and eternal, it is best imagined as a circle. The Mother dances with the Son who dances with the Spirit who dances with the Mother. So, the circle represents God twice. Once as the circle dance (what the early church called perichoresis) and again because the circle has no beginning and no end and is therefore eternal. These two circular qualities will be where we start our discussion of the threeness of God – being without beginning or end and stable eternal movement.

As we discuss God in terms of the metaphor of a circle, I want you to keep in mind that famous line attributed to a plethora of different mystics, “God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Read it a couple of times so you don’t forget because it’s important. To say that the center of a circle is everywhere and the circumference of a circle is nowhere is utter nonsense if you try to understand it in terms of spatial geometry.

In the circle above the center point is a location without dimension and the circumference is a two dimensional circle made of a one dimensional line that reaches around to its own beginning. If this image is of God, then God seems rather limited. To understand this in its symbolic sense, we first need to realise that God is the center point and the circumference – the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. The center of the circle is the beginning and the circumference is its end.  

God is infinite in the sense that she exists without limits of any kind. The outer circumference of the circle is a limit. It defines the boundaries of the circle. If this circle is God, and God has no limits, then the circumference is nowhere to be found. If you take away the circumference then all that is left for God is the center point. Since God is without limits of any kind, that point cannot only refer to itself alone but must also refer to every other possible point. Otherwise God would be limited to that single point. Rather, the center of the circle of God is constantly expanding outwards with no outer limit to stop it. And so to say that, “God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” is really an attempt to demonstrate the nature of infinity.

In the same way that the circle can only represent God when it is turned in on itself and shown to be a paradox, the doctrine of the Trinity expresses its truth through a paradoxical statement. God is simultaneously one being without division of any kind and three distinct persons.

Columbanus wrote a sermon about the threeness of God and the way human beings should try to understand it which you can read HERE. Firstly he says not to try and understand it. God is ineffable and cannot be comprehended by any mind, whether human or angelic. However, he does say that we can know God is three and one simultaneously and uses scripture to make his case.

He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 which says “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” alongside Matthew 28:19 which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” God is both one and three and therefore we must understand there to be paradox at the heart of Divinity. For Columbanus, embracing this paradox and its unknowability is the beginning of our salvation. He describes the essential doctrine of the ineffable Trinity in the following manner,

“Let each man then who wishes to be saved believe first in God the first and last, one and three, one in substance, three in character; one in power, three in person; one in nature, three in name; one in Godhead, Who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, one God, wholly invisible, inconceivable, unspeakable, Whose property it is ever to exist.’’

After driving home the unknowability of God, Columbanus goes on to say that if we wish to know about God then we need to first review God’s creation. He says that God is everywhere present and invisible, that she fills heaven and earth and every creature, and that though she is utterly vast she is everywhere close at hand.

This paradox of God being unreachable and distant while also being the substance of all nature and filling both heaven and earth is another logical impossibility. Not only is God both three and one but God is both infinitely distant and unimaginably close. The paradoxes of the divine nature, as we are able to comprehend it, shroud the truth in darkness. God is both everything and nothing, ineffable and intimately knowable, unknown in her fullness and fully revealed in her Son. Columbanus goes on to say,

“Therefore let no man venture to seek out the unsearchable things of God, the nature, mode and cause of His existence. These are unspeakable, undiscoverable, unsearchable; only believe in simplicity and yet with firmness, that God is and shall be even as He has been, since God is immutable. Who then is God? He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God. Seek no farther concerning God; for those who wish to know the great deep must first review the natural world.”

When speaking of the nature of God, one must admit their ignorance at every turn. God, as we understand her, is completely beyond anything which we are capable of grasping fully. We can understand certain things which seem to be true by observing the creation and reading the scriptures, but complete knowledge of God is impossible.

In order that we may speak of the Trinity of God, we will look at what shadows of truth we can discern in the two books of scripture – the bible and the cosmos. The oldest of the two books, and the one which can not be anything other than what it is, is the book of creation. So we will begin our search for the Trinity by observing the creation which comes out of it and which bears its image by virtue of being created in accordance with the cosmic blueprint. Paul teaches us that we can learn about the nature of God by observing the created universe when he said,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

Eriugena names three qualities of the universe which suggest to us three qualities of the creator. He reviews the natural world so that he might better understand the One who created it. For Eriugena, the three aspects of nature which tell us about God are: essence, wisdom, and life. Referring to the Origin of everything, he said,

“For, as we said, from the essence of things that are it is understood to be; from the marvellous order of things that it is wise; from their motion that it is found to be life. Therefore the Cause and creative Nature of all things is, and is wise, and lives. And from this those who search out the truth have handed down that in its essence is understood the Father, in its wisdom the Son, in its life the Holy Spirit.”

And so we have here a natural understanding of the Trinity from the first book of creation. These three dance in harmony with one another outside of time and space and without beginning or end. Because the three persons of the Trinity are really all one and the same, they may at times be interchangeable. Essence, wisdom, and life are all qualities of the One God who is the source and Origin of everything that is and is not and so wisdom can also be ascribed to the Spirit and life to the Son.

While the scriptures speak of the threeness of God in many places, the opening verses of the Gospel of John are the foundation of Trinitarian theology. The Apostle John is traditionally represented by the eagle and Eriugena wrote a homily on the prologue to John’s Gospel called The Voice of the Eagle. In it he describes how the Apostle John was able to receive the revelation of the Trinity by which he wrote his gospel.

The flight of the spiritual eagle is one that takes us up above the earth and all that happens here. In the case of John, he flew so high that he was deified, which is a fancy way of saying that he was transformed into God. Much like Jesus’ mother Mary, who had the Son created within her, John was able to partake in the divine nature and write words which no mortal on earth could know. It was John’s angelic nature which was able to soar through the darkness of the cloud of unknowing to the blinding light of the Son. 

John opened his gospel with a very clever line that immediately drew in both his Jewish and his Gentile audiences. By saying “In the beginning…” John points directly back to the opening line of Genesis. By saying “…was the Word” he immediately drew in his classical Greek audience. The word we translate as “Word” is complicated and can’t be properly translated into English. The Greek word logos can be translated as: word, speech, statement, discourse, computation, account, or reason.

Philosophers at the time John was writing his gospel (Pagan, Jewish, and Christian) used it to mean both word and reason. It is the reason for everything, what you might call the blueprint for everything. The word logos is the root of our modern word logic. The logos is the divine order of everything, the pattern by which all exist. It is a language which transcends our languages of letters and numbers. It is the base code of reality and it is more real than reality. 

By equating Christ with the Logos John has given a world of theological depth to the ancient story from Genesis. In Genesis God speaks the cosmos into existence and we are now to associate this speaking with Jesus the Son of God and with the philosophical underpinnings of Greek thought. All of this happens superimposed on the ancient Hebrew story. Now we see God creating the universe through the cosmic blueprint and all of it is done by the power of God’s speech. The first sentence of the Gospel of John forces three ideologies together at once: the Hebrew, the newly emerging Christian, and the Greek.

This blending of traditions was a new interpretation of the Genesis account and it fits remarkably well. We now see the Mother as the one who speaks creation into being and Christ as the Word which is spoken. The Mother is the source of the Logos and the Logos is the wisdom behind all the patterns in our reality. It is the reason for everything, the wisdom with which God creates. Through it all things came into being and nothing has come into being which has not participated in the Logos. There is an eternal relationship between the Mother and the Son which has always been and will always be. The love between them gives life to their relationship and this love is the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit goes by many names and it blows where it pleases, you hear its sound but do not know where it comes from or where it is going. Because the Spirit is movement and life, it is slippery to try and define. In the ancient understanding, wind, breath, and spirit are all the same thing and they are all the Spirit of God. As wind, it fills all the little spaces between things. It moves from one person to another and its movement is the life of all. You cannot see it yet it is strong enough to topple a mighty oak. Without it nothing lives and if you cease to breathe you are no more. The breath of God is produced when the Mother speaks. Eriugena places the Spirit back into the Genesis account as well when he says,

“The Father speaks, the Word is born, and all things are made…Whoever speaks emits breath in the word that he utters; so too God the Father, at one and the same time, gives birth to his Son and, by the birth of the Son, produces the Spirit.”

There is no Word without Breath. The breath is what allows the word to be spoken. It takes what was only an idea, gives it life, and sends it out into the world. In like manner, the Logos is an idea in the mind of God until such time as it is given life by the power of the Spirit. And so the Trinity can be understood as a mind, a thought, and the breath which speaks it. To bring everything back to our first definition of the Trinity, these represent the three natural qualities: essence, wisdom, and life. The Mother is the eternal mind, undivided, and whole in its essence. The Son is the wisdom, reason, and word of that mind, which was born before time and is therefore co-eternal with the mind. The Spirit is the breath, the life force, the animating motion which vivifies and enlivens the eternal reasons in the mind of God. It proceeds from the Mother through the Son before time and is also co-eternal. Thus the mind of God is essence, the thoughts are wisdom, and the breath is life. 

This triple understanding of the divine must be held in dynamic tension with the truth that God is one. While we can speak of God in these terms, we must also remember that silence is the best description of the One who is beyond all. So hold this tension firmly in your heart dear sisters and brothers, because it is the foundation of the faith and the beginning of salvation. The only truth which we can rightly claim of God is a paradox and it cannot be any other way. If we wish to speak of what is beyond words using words, we must accept that paradox will be the inevitable result. This acceptance will lead the wise into humility and the meek shall inherit the earth.

Have you experienced the paradox of God?

Can you see the triple expression of essence, wisdom, and life in the world around you?

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