The Blessed Trinity Explained to Thomas Butler

You said: “Write a treatise on the Blessed Trinity, and explain it just to me!”

You know very well that there are many realizations of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity which you have already arrived at, and which are more valuable than any I can present. Nevertheless, I accept your challenge. 1) Because I have obeyed you in so few things; 2) Because a relish for the mystery of personality — and the contemplation of the Blessed Trinity prompts precisely that — can never be in two persons quite the same, not even in two who were nourished in one womb, suckled at the same breasts. You see I overpower the original mystery by presenting another one. Mystery solves mystery! Do you like it? . . . Diamond cuts diamond!

If I am to go on, I must allow myself some privileges. The first is to omit that I care to omit; the second, to include what I care to include. I shall be a) repetitious, because the mystery is infinitely simple; b) original, because it is infinitely fecund. Our parents produced two boys, and there are resemblances between us which even a passing policeman can notice. But there are differences, and that is why I am explaining to you a subject to which you have given considerable thought of your own. Be humble enough to hear things repeated which you know very well. But also, be independent enough to honor my independence, my originality. Let us

Not interfere in the least with each other’s light,
No matter how murky the mist, how dismal the night,
Or whether the clouds conceal or reveal us right.

First, let me rid myself of an annoyance: the statement so often made that because the blessed Trinity is a mystery, therefore we can know nothing about it. Being, furthermore, the profoundest mystery in God, it is assumed by many preachers and teachers that it is the one phase of God we must dismiss without discussion. All this I deny. God would not have revealed the mystery to us if this were so. The awareness that there is a trinity of personalities in the Deity, all out flowing from a single all-perfect nature, was not dispensed to man to torture him with its intellectual indigestibility. (That last was a horrid phrase, but I meant it to be horrid.) The Blessed Trinity is not a puzzle. It is not a trick. It is an innocent, profound statement of how life exists in Him who is Life. A mystery is not a fact about which we can know nothing. It is a fact about which we can not know everything. But the deeper we plunge, the more we learn. The ultimate veil will be removed from our minds only in the Beatific Vision. But veil by veil we can go tearing and plunging in the direction of that sunlight which is dimly, but surely, seeping through. It is a thicket we are in, not a maze. Not by devious guesses and conjectures, but by a single straight line do we forge out of the forest, crashing down the branches, pushing the leaves out of our eyes. We will not find the open glare of day until we are no more of this world. But we will be nearer the edge of the woods when we finish than when we began. Do you care to follow? If so, stalk in my footsteps; but give me two free hands.


Now here is the second important thing I have to say. We have hidden experience within ourselves of the reality of the Blessed Trinity, for we are the images of God non tantum Unius sed Trini. In the intensest region of our souls — that area of us which is always unconsciously cooing around the essence of our Creator, receiving continuation from Him as mysteriously as it received existence — we are being perpetually warmed by the exquisite temperature of the eternal Substance, and continually illuminated by the light from three lovely I’s: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Granted that it is a borrowed light; do we not have what we borrow? Oh, I agree that it all happens down in the mysterious depths of us, that the vanishing point of us, at the verge of our non-existence, where we shriek our pitiful “Keep me, keep me!” to our creator, as we gaze into the yawning eternal void, anxious again to receive us, from which we came, and to which we can never return . . . not even by the route of Hell! But it is we, it is you, it is I, who are there in that strange basement, clinging to existence by the delicate hinge of God’s will. It is a cellar in us too deep from which to call our upper selves, a chasm too fathomless from which to send up skyrockets to our imaginative and discursive minds. For to be a creature is to be annihilated in an undone nothingness that crawls; it is to be buried in one’s own grave — alive! But this life receives, and becomes vibrant with, the sound of three voices encouraging us to go on existing. And the message from these three voices is this: I am Life, I am Truth, I am Love. We are set ablaze with a triple searchlight, streaming from eternity and making concentric circles at our core!

When one of our children in the Sisters’ School is told: There is one God in Three Divine Persons, he does about it only what a child should do. He says: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, beginning his prayer; and Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, ending it. And then he goes about his play. Prayer is the child’s little aside; play is his profession. He throws a tiny rosebud of adoration into eternity — not yet blossomed, but a real rosebud, not a false one — and forgets it. He does not know that the Beatific Vision of the Triune God is already in his mind, packed there in the form of Faith, as the flower is packed in the seed. The flower is not another reality from the seed; it is the seed fulfilled. So the child’s prayer. It is, in seed form, the adoration of vision which the Blessed bestow upon God in ecstasy everlasting.

Threeness and Oneness

The first simple step towards an appreciation of the Blessed Trinity is to become aware that threeness and oneness can somehow be reconciled. Of course, if one insists on the fact that threeness must have no association whatsoever with oneness, — if one forbids that it should, on the score, let us say, that such things do not happen in one’s social circle, in one’s pantry, on one’s dining-room table — naturally we encounter a mind completely closed to an appreciation of the mystery of God. And, as you know very well, an approach to a sublime thought can be effectually outlawed in sophisticated conversation by a yawn, by a “Why bother?” or by a sudden need to hurry and catch a train. I have had, times without number, to surrender the most innocent effort to lift a dinner conversation out of the realm of soup and strawberries and into the region of the immutable and eternal, in the face of such a witticism as: “Oh goody, goody! At last we’ve found someone who knows all about God!” . . . Heaven immediately clouded before our eyes, and we went back, after an appropriate pause, to a discussion of the unsociabilities of detail in the surrealist’s painting.

When St. Patrick picked up the shamrock, as the Irish say he did, and pointed to it as an illustration of the mystery of the Trinity, he chose a most wretched symbol, as we know. For the unity of the persons in the Blessed Trinity is not that of three leaves clinging to a stalk. Yet St. Patrick advanced, I declare, by however tiny a trillionth of an inch, nearer to the truth of God’s multipleness than one does who points to no symbol at all. For St. Patrick at least opened the minds of his disciples to the startling fact that threeness and oneness can somehow be reconciled in a single being. The reconciliation of these opposites in a poor little shamrock is about as pitiful an illustration of God’s paradox as I can imagine. But it is better than no illustration at all. And it creates a generosity of mind more salutary than the obstructionist attitude, which hangs on the portals of human intelligence a sign: Let no amazement enter here!

St. Patrick used the shamrock as a symbol of the diversity of identity in God. Let me use a better one. I shall take water.

There are three expressions of “self” in a single substance that is now ice, now water, now vapor. And even when the symbol breaks down — and it is part of the Catholic intelligence to know just how far a symbol does serve and how far it does not — for the substance of water has not the permanence, perfection, intelligence, freedom, infinite intensity of the substance of God; and the “selves” of water in solid, liquid and gaseous form are “states” rather than varied supposital expressions of an identical substance — nevertheless, there still remains a vestige of the mystery of God imbedded in water which will never be solved by physics or chemistry. If you have no Blessed Trinity to which to refer in adoration and praise the eternal expression of the mystery you have seen reflected in water, then water will become your God, and your God will very soon vanish like water. I can understand the pagan who worships the elements: fire, sun, water, who wants everything to be a deity, confuses a state with a self, and who creates a lovely lore of legend for everything which is mistaken to be divine, makes a mythology (the twilight of theology, just as superstition is the twilight of faith) and gives us gods, good and bad, for every phase of our experience and builds up from the unexplained antics of these deities a literature as rich as that of Homer or Omar. But I detest the coarseness of mind of the de-Christianized scientist who pounces upon innocent water as though it were unprecious enough to be a problem, and who blasphemously believes that when he has split the ultimate atom H2o, he will have exploded the Nicene Creed.

We must have mysteries in order to keep sane, even the sublime mystery of a single nature in the Blessed Trinity of God, and if you do not accept this truth in its divine pattern and under its divine guarantee, it will keep shrieking at you in the iceberg, torturing you in the torrent, stifling you in steam, and I am Water, always Water is all it will tell you. . . . and you won’t get much comfort from that; nor much explanation.

Thinker, Thought, and Thinking

The symbol of the shamrock will take the mystery of God only in the most glancing and trivial manner. The symbol of water involves a complexity and coarseness of idea from which the Eternal Innocence shudders. Let me therefore descend (or in this case, ascend) to a simple, abstract statement in which there is concept but no picture, idea with no sensible image. Sensible images get in the way of God when we try to apprehend Him in His spiritual, undimensioned Beauty. Let me say that God the Father is the Thinker in God, God the Son is His Thought; and God the Holy Spirit is the Thinking that proceeds from the Thought and the Thinker. Before we attempt to discover how unfathomably far away we are from the Divine Processions in this statement, let us first observe a few points in which it becomes perilously near to being the truth of Him.

A thinker craves a thought, and a thought craves to be thought by a thinker. Thinker and thought in severance leave the function of intelligence unfulfilled, whether in Divine or human form. If a thought could survey itself on the brink of existence, it would look about yearningly for the one requisite needed to lift it out of nothingness: a thinker to think it. A thought is in very truth the child of the thinker, bursting into being by a genuine act of generation, more generative indeed than a procreation of flesh and blood, more firmly rooted in the status of childhood than an infant is towards father and mother, because an infant achieves in birth the principle of division from, rather than of subsistence with, its parent. Not so thought as a scion of the spirit. For a thought and a thinker in the precise duration of the act of thinking are identified in substance. Each is the one thing in that brief ecstasy in which they commune. I am not I, and my thought something abroad in mid-air. And yet my thought achieves an otherness right within me, which, if I do not honor, precisions of statement about what is I and what is mine become impossible. For I do speak of my thought as somehow distinct from myself. I praise and admire my good thought, disown and belittle my bad one. Who is criticizing whom in this stand-off? Why am I so proud of my infant if it is only myself, why do I scold it if it is not other than I?

The explanation is simple. Our thoughts are other selves, but selves by way of accidental, not substantial nature. In thinking, my intellect submits itself to a form with which it is momentarily identified, and this explains the unity of thinker and thought. But the two made one have in themselves not merely a principle of opposition (which is delightful) but also a principle of abandonment (which is disastrous). All our intellectual children are ghosts of real babies. They do not geyser forth into an I-ness as real and permanent as the thinker who begets them. My thought is a would-be self, not a real one. I speak of it as though it were another, and there is a necessity in that “as though” from which I cannot escape. My thought would be really, truly, everlastingly, blazingly a new self within my nature—would be a second person authentically begot by me — if three requirements were fulfilled: 1) if I were thinking the same thing all the time; 2) if it were the perfect thing to think; 3) if the infinity of its perfection were derived from a survey of my own nature, wholly given yet wholly retained in the act.

But alas, in our vintage of being, such a perfection of performance is impossible. There is in man only one person and one nature. Little pretenders to the dignity of personality constantly arise within him in the form of thoughts: fakers that put on a good show at being somebodys while they last, like pumpkins blinking in a window at Halloween. But no thought I have is perfect or exhaustive of an all-perfect nature, and so it dies. And no love I have is rooted in a substantial wedding of thought and thinker, and so it dies. And I go on forever being, in the total assemblage of what I am, one nature and one person, defeated at every instant from being a Blessed Trinity.

When a thinker can leap at the thought of all truth, as God can, and all truth surrenders itself effortlessly to be thought of by the fortunate thinker, there proceeds from this alliance the function of thinking * in an act of infinite goodness, infinite delight. This Thinking will go on as long as there is no possibility of distraction, as long as Thinker and Thought are fixed in an ecstasy of mutual affection than which no greater can be conceived. The Thinking, obviously, will be as substantial and immutable as the Thought and the Thinker from whom it proceeds. Its boast is to be all goodness, and its name is Love. There must be two for love; though, speculatively, there need be only one for thought. Love cannot be called a child, because there is no principle of furtherance in it, only of repose and fulfillment. Love languishes in its own leisure. It is a terminal beyond which nothing can reach. It does you no good, simply stares at you in a sacred silliness and asks you “What more do you want, now that I have arrived?” In its temporal pattern it broods strangely in a contingent heart, unworthy to support it, asking of it that thing which it abhors: an explanation. As doled out for our experience, I call it The Oppressor:

The Opressor

Love makes one weak,
Is hard upon the heart,
Merciless on the meek
If once you let it start;
A pressure is, a pain,
A burning in the brain
From which one would not part;
And though of one’s own choosing
And none of one’s refusing,
Undoes one day and night,
Is neither wrong nor right,
Nor bloom, nor blight,
In sum:
A dull delirium
And wild delight.

In its eternal pattern, Love is a Comforter, not Oppressor. In the Blessed Trinity is called the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit. And we bless ourselves now with new reason:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost
In the Name of Life, Truth, and Love
In the Name of the Thinker, the Thought and the Term of Their Repose . . .

or, as you, Thomas Butler, put it in one of your most poignant poems: In the Name of God the Weaver, God the Wool, and God the Weave.


Let me now, with the impudence of the moth assailing the flame, attack the mystery of the Blessed Trinity from a new angle. Oh, the Flame will be sure to win, and I be burned, I shall plunge forth to absorption, not to victory, and the quiet light of the Eternal Candle will burn serenely after I have futilely tried to disentangle its beams. Even so, some spark of me may veer off as I disappear into the conflagration and may lend a momentary luster to your eye. If so, I shall have been well devoured. A moth is like a mind — and better to die in a dazzle than rot in a decay.

You may well complain that I have not as yet explained to you the difference between a nature and a person, and that there is no dealing with the Blessed Trinity until this has been done.

You know, of course, the impeccable scholastic definition of nature; namely that which acts, in an essence (that by which it is what it is), in a substance (the principle of permanence in the agent). You can change your wording for the one reality accordingly as you change the focus of your interest in it. . . . And then to Boethius we give a bow for his classic definition of person as: nature rationalis individual substantia. But these definitions are too tight for our purposes. Let me loosen them a little by a few illustrations and considerations that will be more alive and less in formula.

You yourself will do for experiment, and I shall consider two phases of you which can be known and treated, talked about and loved. There is first, your communicability — and that is you as a nature. There is second, your incommunicability, and that is you as a person.


Your qualities of body and soul, your stature, height, ability to think, breathe, pray, read, laugh, eat, cry — the things that make you human, sociable, a man, a priest, a dreamer, one of St. Ignatius’s disciples, and one of our mother’s children. These aspects of you (and countless others that are similar) touch your nature.

Your Incommunicability

There is your uniqueness, your aloneness, your mystery, your private experience of yourself as distinct from others — the phase of you to which you cater when you close your eyes, make a gesture of supplication, a gesture of defense; when you accuse yourself of sin, take responsibility for some good or evil work; when you sign your name, or indelible some revelation of yourself to the outside world with your peculiar flash of eyes or tone of voice, inimitable and unvicarious. . . . You have undergone those moments of human experience when you have been in the presence of a loved one and could not speak — when the very fullness of your self could not be crushed into words or even expirated in a sigh. You have said, and I recorded, “I am most unhappy when I am with those I love.” You did not need to explain this paradox. I understood it. The statement derived from that outlook of yourself upon yourself which we call personality.

Communicability and incommunicability are two terms that wills serve to set our thoughts gyrating around those mysteries of nature and person that are at one within us. Other terms will also help.

Our sameness with others is our nature.
Our difference from others is our person.
Our likeness to others is our nature.
Our unlikeness to others is our person.
Our dependence on others is our nature.
Our independence of others is our person.

The most dependent creature in all the world is a small child. For food, clothing, shelter, care, cleanliness, protection, it depends constantly on another’s charity. And yet it is marvelous to see what a cast of independence “nature” establishes in a child, even in infancy, to assure it of the ultimate function of an unruled selfhood. For outside of its human necessities, a child is the most independent little mopper that could possibly be. It does what it pleases, laughs and cries when it pleases, runs to whomsoever it pleases, puts on its little antics, smiles, entertains or annoys the company, just as it pleases, and will repose unpredictably on whosever’s lap suits it, whether it be friend or stranger. It is totally devoid of human respect, a little tyrant in the kingdom of tantrums and tendernesses.

When a child grows up, the balance swings entirely the other way, so marvelous are the adjustments of human nature in keeping its dual requirement of person and nature in poise. As a man, a child is now independent of its parents, nurses, teachers, and can feed, clothe and protect itself. But these larger liberties are bridled by an extreme curtailment of personal whim and of the private enjoyments of autonomy. A man is predictable, bound by conventions unknown to the nursery. He will usually go where he is coaxed, and you can be morally sure of what he will do in given situations. He does not go toddling around the parlor, putting his head in various laps, unburdening himself of ceremonies of friendship or disdain that are sometimes disconcerting to the point of being a fright.

Likeness and Unlikeness

Beauty is the likeness of unlike things. So you see, within the essential structure of every human being, because of his likeness-principle (his nature) and his unlikeness-principle (his person), there are justifications for unlimited contemplation, if we would only look innocently into the eyes of our friends, into the unemancipated aloneness of each puzzled human heart, forever needing companionship and sympathy, and forever wanting not to be annoyed by the bothersomeness of others.

Beauty consists in the unlikeness of like things! . . . What must be the unthinkable beauty of a triple, eternal unlikeness in an identical thing, O God! O Adorable Trinity!

On a trip back from Italy some years ago, I stood one night outside the ballroom window on the boat and watched a beautiful young boy and girl (in their late teens or early twenties) collaborating in a dance. Their differences before they became partners in the dance were as complete as though a chasm had made them. In size, quality of voice, gender, clothes, strength,— in every bodily and spiritual endowment, they were as divided as only boy and girl can be, in the strange pattern of male and female that sets the human race apart into that twoness that will, in Beauty’s name, emphasize the likeness of their differences.

She was dressed in a long, flowing, white robe, with a band of blue in her hair. He was dressed in faultless, black evening-clothes. She was a dressmaker’s dream. He was the tailor’s job. Her antics preparatory to the dance were light and fluttersome, bristling with a butterfly independence. He was quiet, strong, stolid, with no nervous pre-excitement in a single movement. The off-flash from her, in hair, in hands, in eyes, would seem to be telling us: I am complex and unconquerable. I am all diffused. In me there is no surrender. . . . The aura that poured from him would seem to be saying: I am my own quiet, assured strength. I am rounded, harmonized finished. For me there is nothing left to conquer.

The orchestra leader struck his baton against the podium. The boy walked languidly across the ballroom-floor and gathered a white parcel of fidgety loveliness in his arms. And the music began.

And then, for ten minutes of faultless co-ordination, encouraged by every shade of sound and note the instruments of the orchestra could supply, the extravagant differences of boy and girl melted into an identity of movement. Every gesture, twirl, advance, approach, glide, hesitation, revolution and recovery were performed, so it seemed, by two human wills fused into one. The separateness of their selves was whelmed in an identity of rhythm, showered and re-showered with melody for a breathless interval in which there was only oneness between them.

The music stopped. They separated again into black and white, walked to opposite corners of the room. He was once more a boy and she a girl, and they resumed the manners of strangers.

Your awe-struck brother closed the curtain of the ballroom window through which he had been eavesdropping, went over and leaned on the railing of the ship, and looked up blinkingly at the mystery of the stars each at its appointed post in the Heavens, each shinning with the same patient radiance, undifferentiated in kind, yet sundered by unfathomable spaces, millions of light-years apart!

Asceticism and Mysticism

These two phases of the spiritual life are founded on the requirements of nature and person. Asceticism is the law of restraint: it forms us into one nature with others. Mysticism is the law of abandon: it leaves us free in those stratospheres of the spirit that lie above the rules of perfection. But there can be no stratosphere until there has been an atmosphere, perfectly blended, upon which it can rest in its fragility, and from which it can draw up its airy independence. As regards our own Religious Order, there can be no mystical Jesuit (left free in the wild liberties of his contemplations, favoritisms and prayers) until there has been first an asceticized Jesuit (one who has obeyed the rules). The ascetical features of our training are those molds of conduct, discipline and restraint that give us the title to be called Jesuits at all (our nature), and which privilege we little deserve at any price. The mystical features of our life are those titles which permit us each to sign a separate name before the S.J. of which we are so proud, and which require the personal government of a living superior to counsel and direct us, rather than a cold formula of rules. For each of us remains unique within the fold, and we require personal attention a shepherd would give a lamb, rather that the offhand supervision he bestows upon a flock of sheep.

Asceticism establishes a salutary slavery within us (nature) in order to give us a trustworthy independence (personality). At the end of the Spiritual Exercises, that long drill in asceticism, St. Ignatius introduces the marvelous Contemplatio Ad Amorem, the Loyolan passport to liberty. St. Ignatius makes us ascetics in order to turn us into lovers, and don’t you forget that. He harnesses our nature with suitable restraints and bridles so as to give us the pace of those thoroughbreds of God, each steed with a different canter, clocked in a different time in the race to eternity.

We are in addition an apostolic Order, striving as much for the salvation of souls as we do for personal holiness, and there is no lovelier interchange of chariness and charity that this.

Transcendentalism and Immanentism

You have noticed that even among the professional mystics (which is not our vocation) there are those who emphasize the personal element and those who emphasize the element of nature in the attainment of their spiritual heights. The first group are the Transcendentalists. They stand off from God. God is too much for them. They grovel before they awefulness of His majesty. They approach God, as it were, by repelling Him, by making themselves nothing so that He may prevail. Their overture is a personal realization of the extreme differences between creature and Creator, between themselves and God. The rest is, as you can see, a surrender in which personality is almost extinguished, not because it was not sure of itself, but because it was shocked at its own nothingness in relation to the transcendant surety of God’s own Being. St. John of the Cross is a Transcendentalist.

The second group are the Immanentists. To them God is altogether too near. They are frightened at the fact that they cannot get away from Him. The nature of God in its omnipresence is emphasized rather that the person of God in his Lordship of the world. Instead of rushing toward nothingness in order to hide from the greatness of God, they succumb to the greatness of God in order to lose their own nothingness. St. Teresa of Avila is an Immanentist. She became so overflooded with Grace she floated to the ceiling.

The Transcendentalists concentrate on the Infinity of God.

The Immanentists concentrate of the Simplicity of God.

God is too much for the Transcendentalists (personalist) to take.

God is too easy for the Immanentists (naturalists) not to take.

St. John of the Cross, appalled by the person of himself, ends up talking about nothing but God.

St. Teresa of Avila, fascinated by the nature of God, ends up talking about nothing but herself.

St. John of the Cross is the man, the real man, because in man’s nature the transcendental element, the personal element, is stronger. St. Teresa of Avila is the typical woman. Man is the go-away person in the sexes, the surrendered one in all farewells, as he departs to sail the seas, discover new lands, fight a war. Woman is the stay-at-home. The stay-at-home element in us is nature. The go-away element is person.

When there is marriage, the stronger personality (man’s) prevails. Woman cancels her own name to write a man’s in place of it. Woman is the loved one, man the lover. When there is a child from such a union, I always look for the personality of the father to be reflected, and the nature of the mother. The little boy has his father’s walk and his father’s talk; but his nature and all his sensitive endowments are much more from his mother since he was housed in her for nine months and first fed at her breasts. This complement of the sexes in procreative love is charming, indeed sublime, and would to God it might restore sex to some of the dignity the word once possessed when love was a mystery that lent fragrance to a conservatory courtship, not a problem that added an odor to a laboratory experiment.

I might also mention that woman, knowing man’s personality is the stronger, is constantly annoying him by telling him what he should do. “Tie your tie! . . .Put a pillow behind your head! . . . Please be on time for supper! . . . You forgot this! You forgot that!” etc.

A man who teases a woman in this way is a scoundrel. A man who cannot bear to be teased in this way is a sissy.

Agreement and Disagreement

Nature is the principle of our agreement with others. Personality is the principle of our disagreement. One who agrees with you in everything is either your lover or your liar, incapable, one way or the other, of giving a tang to the relaxed intercourses of friendship. One who disagrees with you in everything is your foe, perhaps terribly truthful, but can never be your friend.

Communism and Dictatorship

The paradigms of nature and person could be profitably applied to politics by someone schooled in the latter science. I have no knowledge of politics, and, it may be censurably, not interest. Except that it cannot escape me that in a Communistic system the exaggerated claims of what is common in man’s nature obliterates the personalities of all; and in the Totalitarian scheme the exaggerated claims of what is singular in the personality of one despot obliterates the natures of all. Russia’s night is a bedlam where all the dogs bark. Germany’s night is a graveyard where a lone ass brays.

Charity and Chastity

These two moral virtues have deep metaphysical roots. I am convinced there can be no intelligent moral charity and chastity until there has first been intelligent intellectual charity and chastity. Charity is the warmth within us we share with others (nature). Chastity is the coldness within us (personality) that keeps us from dissipating into an over-processed thing. Chastity is not merely the safeguard of physical purity; it is the safeguard of spiritual independence. Charity is the tempering of spiritual pride. The world will never understand the Church’s high championship of virginity because the world will not understand the Church’s high championship of the rights of personality. In chastity our personality is most established. In charity our nature.

Our Lady was a Virgin-Mother. She has all the mystery, aloofness, independence, inviolateness of a maiden, and all the generosity, warmth and tenderness of a mother. Never in the world’s history have the mysteries of person and nature in woman shone so beautifully in one human face. No wonder every artist in Christendom has wanted to go to his canvas and paint our Madonna. She is the matchless mother-maid, virginal and maternal. Among our other women personality and nature are honored in distinct vocations, in separate careers. Nuns emphasize the singular beauty of women, each unwedded, unpossessed, attached to an eternal mystery, yet living in community so as to give balance to this distortion. Mothers emphasize the beauty of nature in woman, fruitful with child, heavy with milk in the breasts, her separate destiny engulfed in a stranger’s name yet emerging in her own little household, not as a subject, but as a queen.

A nice study of the exploits of woman in the territories of nature and person can be made by a study of the two parallel phases of her fourfold career. Woman is a daughter, a sister, a bride and a mother. She is complemented in these vocations by man in the role of the father, brother, husband and son. Father and brother set off the personal dignity of herself as a self; husband and son explore the depths of her surrender to others. A woman is most a person in being a daughter and a sister. She is most a woman in being a bride and a mother.

The Hardship of Personality

The hardship of being a person does not derive from the selfhood it bestows on us; this we would not and could not surrender, not even to God Himself. Our nature can be sacrificed to our Creator in the last detail. But our selfhood can be undone only by annihilation. The hardship of being myself is that my nature has not enough perfection in it to support me in unrestrained delight; and second, because it is a created person that I am, and though a permanent thing now, I can look back with fear and trembling to my non-existent past. An eternal personality, therefore, must be a beautiful thing to behold.

Christ is an eternal person. Since the Incarnation, He has two natures in which to function, the nature of God and the nature of man. Read through the New Testament again with this one point in mind. Watch how the Eternal Word speaks, now out of the sublimity of His Divine nature (“The Father and I are One.”); now out of the limitations of His human nature (“The Father is greater than I.”). If you do not closely observe this interchange of statement in the paradox of Revelation that arises out of the twofold nature of Our Lord: the one uncreated, the other created; the one begotten in the bosom of the Father, the other born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem; if you do not allow Him to speak, just as it pleases Him, either in time or in eternity then the whole drama of the God-Man in everything He does and says will be wasted on you. You will find one text of Holy Scripture seeming completely to outlaw another. . . . Yet in the two natures marvelously joined in hypostatic union an eternal and uncreated I is forever speaking. How I should love to look into the eyes of an eternal person! Imagine how I should feel if a knock were to come on my door tonight, and in response to my call “Who’s there?” the response should be: “I Am Whom Am!”

Strangeness and Intimacy

Personality is the principle of strangeness in us: that in us which makes us blush to come too close to another either physically or in conversation or in confidence. It is the part of us which is marvelously disciplined in the Sacrament of Penance when we must undergo the humiliation of owning up to our sins; and the part of us which is marvelously refreshed in Holy Communion in the lovely secrecies of the heart’s own citadel. And yet there is in us an urge to intimacy which is constantly defeating our snootiness and our pride. It arises mostly when our strangeness becomes too strange, when we begin to feel uncomfortable and awkward, when left in a lonely room, particularly if there is a mirror present. Solitary confinement marooned on a desert island. . . there are degrees beyond which such things cannot be borne, and we are shrieking through a wilderness, wanting the clasp of another’s hand, thirsting for the sound of another’s voice.

So Far, So Good

I trust, dear Thomas Butler, there have been in the considerations I have presented to you so far, some intellectual irritant that will at least give you pause when anyone attempts to tell you again that there is no difference in concept between a nature of a person, and that we are talking a contradiction when we speak of one God in three Divine Persons; or that we are embracing an absurdity when we innocently submit our minds to the uplift of Faith which, demands such an intellectual assent to the truth of the All-Eternal.

When you say “What” you inquire for nature. When you say “Who” you inquire for person. We are constantly using these pronouns interrogatively, and there must be planted in the depths of our clouded minds some inference as to the difference of their meaning.

There is only one What in God.

There are three Whos.

Fatherhood and Childhood

And yet, after all my excursions in the field of theological illustration, apt and inept, I prefer to return to the simple statement of the Blessed Trinity’s truth as it was given to us in the Sign of the Cross when we were children.

In God, a Being who is all-perfect, immutable, eternal, absolute and worthy of the last prostration of the mind in adoration, there is a person who corresponds in a consummate and ideal way to every notion we have of Fatherhood. He is Our Father. His prerogatives are power, providence, justice, underived dominion over all that is. He is a God of Mercy too, and forgiveness, as behooves a good father. He was generated by no one, proceeds from no one, is the First Person of the Blessed Trinity, and can be dealt with in His own right, and can be called You in unique personal intercourse, not directly affecting His Divine associates. He is not less a father than the fathers we know. He is more a father. He feeds the sparrows, clothes the lilies of the fields, arranges the sunsets, regulates the crescendos of the storms. From Him all paternity is derived in Heaven and on earth. He is the Creator and Conserver of all things.

There is also in the nature of the same, identical God a person who corresponds to everything we can apprehend in the notion of sonship, of childhood, only intensified to an infinite degree. He is begotten of the Father in eternity. He is the exemplar according to which all things visible and invisible were made. He is the Word of God, vibrant with a self all His own. Everything the Father possesses in the essential perfections of the Godhead, the Son possesses too, for the nature presented to Him in His eternal birth is not a halved infinity, it is the full infinity of the Parent who gives Him birth. He is begotten in eternity, looks backward to no past, forward to no future. If you went up to Him and asked, as a child might, “When is your birthday?” He would answer “Now!” He appropriates the work of redemption of the Human Race, came to earth, became man, suffered and died for us, is Our Savior. His name in our midst is Jesus, a name picked by an angel, or at least announced by an angel when it had chosen in the Councils of heaven. His temporal generation occurred in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is also another self in God, no less real than the Father and the Son, proceeding from them in an eternal spiration of otherness which it is wonderful to think about. He is identical with them in power, majesty and perfection of nature, but different from them when He uses the pronoun of the first person singular. He is called the Holy Spirit. He is the mutual love of the Father and the Son, deriving from the Divine reality so that He may commune with them in an own-ness which is truly His, but for which they are responsible, and He grateful and delighted. He corresponds to all we can conceive in the way of sacredness and holiness, blowing, as it were, like a breath from God’s own Being. He appropriates the works of sanctification, organization and comfort towards the created world, broods over it with infinite compassion. Because of some strange prerogative, not fathomed by our minds, it is demanded that we call Him also The Spirit of Truth. Wherever the image of God is implanted in the likeness of the Son, there He rushes to find a temple, and insists on dwelling. He is represented to us in symbol by two beautiful rebuses:

First, a fluttering white dove, suggesting gentleness, peace repose; second, a flaming tongue of fire, representing Love’s raging devouring power.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen

A Tie-up Explained

And yet, despite all the distinctions between person and nature which I have been at such pains to point out to you, there is a tie-up between the Persons of God and the Nature of God which it requires a master-hand to express with the proper exactitude. I give you, as such a master-hand, Saint Athanasius, Doctor of the Universal Church, that skilled spokesman of the Divine challenge, ruthless in reconciling what would seem to be opposed in the Blessed Trinity, ruthless in keeping distinct what would seem to have been identified. His expose’ you will find under the heading Symbolum Athanasium, ** in Prime of your Breviary, in the most beautiful blend of dogma, poetry and prayer I have ever read. The echoes of the phrases are always with me: . . .

Fides autem catholica haec est:
ut unum Deum in Trinitate, et Trinitatem in unitate veneremur. . . .
Neque confundentes personas, neque substantiam separantes . . .
Alia est enim persona Patris, alia Filii, alia Spiritus Sancti . . .
Sed Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti una est divinitas, aequalis gloria, coeternal majestas.
Qualis Pater, talis Filius, talis Spiritus Sanctus.
Increatus Pater, increatus Filius, increatus Spiritus Sanctus.
Immensus Pater, immensus Filius, immensus Spiritus Sanctus.
Aeternus Pater, aeternus Filius, aeternus Spiritus Sanctus.
Et tamen non tres aeterni, sed unus aeternus. . .

And so on he goes, in forty-one stanzas of such frightening, solemn, confident, incessant exactitude that you would almost know from the very rhythm of the piece that it was stimulated by a beatific beat that always keeps time with it in eternity, whenever and wherever it is spoken on earth.

** There is a dispute as to the precise author of the Anthanasian Creed. But we may give our Saint the same credit at least that Homer would receive for the Iliad, or according to some, Shakespeare for Hamlet.

Good Night

It is now well beyond midnight. I have worked hard all day trying to finish these thoughts which can never be finished. I have tried hard to explain the unexplainable. The defect is not in God; it is the clumsy comprehension of my defective intelligence.

I have wandered a great deal, repeated the same things over and over again until you have perhaps grown tired of hearing them. Well, one little elusive beam from the Eternal Truth would be worth it, if you can find such in this outline. But I fear you will not find it. Everything slipped through my fingers. But at least I could hold up my fingers tonight and show you that they were poised for the clasping of some beauty beyond this world if God could only be apprehended by any of our human devices of capture.

God is a very blinding light. The experience of gyrating around Him in thought, of sensing Him to be near, yet never finding Him, is a dizzy adventure. And yet the experience is not all dizziness. There is an unexplained delight, an allurement, that draws me back again and again to the same search. God has the human mind trapped. There are only two things worth thinking about: Heaven and Hell. Heaven is hard enough, but a man must go on thinking. Hell is both hard and horrible. One of the hall-marks of the unhallowed in Hell is that they gave up. I shall not give up. Tomorrow I shall give a conference on the Blessed Trinity to the very poor old men at the home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. You intellectuals are not the easiest people to explain things to.

There are also fruits to be derived even from a fruitless quest. I seem to be a little more aware than ever, at the end of this long day, of the uniqueness of myself, precisely because I have been pondering the uniqueness of myself, precisely because I have been pondering the uniqueness of the selves of God.

Most of me I can never share with you. So do not expect it. If you love the Blessed Trinity, as I know you do, think and pray for yourself, and forget this “explanation.”

I am on the fifth floor of one of our community houses in New York City. I am the last of the wakeful, gone past a midnight which is advancing into morning. Window by window I have seen the lights go out in the apartment houses that surround us here. I continue to tap very lightly on my typewriter, for others below me are asleep. At least I imagine they are. But what’s Hecuba to me or I to Hecuba?

Sometimes, one takes refuge from the relentlessness of a frightening thought by turning to rhyme. It is the foolish way of the poet. He writes for his own relief much more than he does for the delectation of others. I shall make an ending, therefore, with a little verse, which I shall not attempt to explain, and which you do not need to bother to understand, Let us give the little verse a name. I shall call it:

Resignation at Midnight

Sleep has already come to other eyes,
Dreams are not driftwood tangled in their thickets;

Nobody else is left without allies
To count the clock-ticks and applaud the crickets.

But self is self, assignment without appeal,
However restlessly one plays the part.

Out of another’s slumber my soul would steal
Home to its ache in this accustomed heart.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was
in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end… Amen!

* This word is inaccurate if taken to mean that the Holy Spirit proceeds from an act of knowledge of God. The Holy Spirit is rather the term of act of mutual, eternal Love existing between The Father and The Son. I use it here only because it is expressive of the resultant repose in the Thinker-Thought alliance on which Love thrives; also because it indicates an intimacy of procession from Thinker and Thought. Father Hopkins refers to the Blessed Three as “The Utterer, The Uttered and The Uttering.” But he would have trouble with his symbol, just as I have with mine. Such sayings as: “I am thinking of you on your birthday. I am remembering you in my prayers” are expressions of love, are they not? They certainly do not mean “I find you extremely interesting again on your anniversary!” Love has no language of its own, and has to borrow. Its best expression is sometimes abject silence, not the silence of having nothing to say, but of having too much , and of having no medium in which to speak. Thought can be uttered, and is a word. The Son is The Word of God. Love is neither a word nor has a word, and must return to the articulate territories of thought if it is to say anything. And then it always says it strangely, and better by symbol than by language.