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Minister’s Letter

Helen Julian CSF

Helen Julian CSF

Dear friends,

It’s a traditional rite of passage for curates to find themselves on the preaching rota for Trinity Sunday – one of the days on which no one wants to preach. The deadline for this letter falls just before that Sunday, and so I find myself wrestling with one of the most difficult theological concepts of all, one which has engaged theologians for centuries. What hope do I have? How can I find a middle way between bamboozling the congregation with Greek philosophical terms, and highlights from the Athanasian Creed, or simply throwing up my hands and saying ‘it’s all entirely incomprehensible. Amen’.

I’ve never found the traditional shamrock image very helpful. Gregory of Nyssa was a little more creative, and suggested a spring, fount, and stream of water – all flowing from one another while sharing the same substance; or a rainbow, in which we see the various colours of the sunbeam, which is yet only one beam. Augustine looked inside, and saw threefold structures within the person – one person, who had mind, knowledge and love; or memory, understanding and will. They’re helpful to an extent, but there’s always an ‘and yet ….’ which goes beyond any image we can create.

Perhaps what can be more productive is to look at ‘three-ness’ in itself? ‘Two’ leads often to sharp distinctions, either/or, black and white, good and evil, English and Scottish; slipping too easily into a call to make choices, to take sides, and hence into opposition, and even conflict.

Three is more fluid, with more movement, and a range of possible ways of relating each element to the others. It’s there in our Principles, shaped around three threes – the three conditions of life – poverty, chastity, obedience; the three ways of service – prayer, study, work; and the three notes of the Order – humility, love, joy.

In living the life I suspect we all discover that we can’t just major on one condition, way or note; nor of any ‘three’ on its own, however attractive that might be. Our life is made up of them all, they are entangled with one another, and they have to be kept in relationship to one another to be fruitful. Focussing just on prayer, or just on work, may seem the key to it all, and certainly more possible than keeping them all in play, but life becomes unbalanced and under-nourished. We have to learn to live with the frustration of never being able to think ‘OK, I’ve got it, I’ve made it’. So there is a dance of constantly correcting our course as we realise which dimension has begun to be neglected.

This is the particular way ‘three-ness’ is worked out in our lives as Franciscans; I suspect most people could identify their own ‘trinities’ – family, work, church is an obvious one – around which they circle and which they feel are never quite in balance.

A quote from Gabriel Marcel has kept appearing for me this year. ‘Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived’. I think this can usefully be applied to the Trinity, as a call to live the Trinitarian mystery rather than seek to pin it down and entirely understand it. But it might also apply more widely. Which areas of conflict or difficulty, whether they are political, church, or personal, might benefit from this attitude? Where might it be life giving to move from either/or, one side or the other, to an awareness of the three (or more) dimensions of the situation, of the mystery to be lived, and hence to a commitment to hold them all in some kind of constantly moving balance?

Peace and all good,

Helen Julian CSF