No Escaping the Threes

Reminiscing over the days when I would spend hours at a time leisurely listening to Brother Francis teach and asking him questions, I thought of the countless times we played the numbers game. Brother loved to make all studies as light and enjoyable as possible. Someone would throw out a number and the players would have to give an example of that number’s use; but it had to be something to do with the Faith: i.e., scripture, tradition, or perennial philosophy.  Take the number 153.  That would appear to be a challenge, until we think about the Rosary.  The complete Rosary has 153 Hail Marys.  There’s another 153.  It’s found in holy scripture. When the Risen Jesus appeared to His Apostles on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after they had fished all night and caught nothing, He called to them and told them to cast their net again to the right side of the boat and they would find fish.  Realizing that it was the Lord, they did so, and their net filled instantly with “great fishes,” more than the net was made to carry.  Hauling the net to shore they were amazed over the miracle and that the net had not broken.  Saint Peter remembered that the last time Jesus had performed this same miracle, just before He called them to their ministry, the net did indeed break.

Not so this time.  Saint John even gives us the number of fish caught: 153. (John 21:11) Why do you think the Holy Ghost inspired him to record the number?  Saint Augustine offered an explanation, but I never understood it.  It had something to do with the Law (10 Commandments) + the perfection of the Gifts of the Spirit (7) = 17 X failing in little things (9, the Law minus one) = 153.   I like to think that the “great fishes,” as compared to the “good” and the “bad” fish of Our Lord’s parable, are the children of Mary who are especially and truly devoted to her Rosary, which beads and thread are the rope and the knots that capture each of the fish of the 153 Hail Marys.  Just a poor sinner’s opinion who would be happy to offer just one undistracted Rosary.

Let’s take an easier number: three.  We used to begin with the Blessed Trinity. All of our other created threes will be related to, or reflect, their Source, the Three Persons in One God.  Shall we try to present the major triplets that we can find in a hierarchical fashion?  That’s a good way to proceed, but in playing the game we weren’t always overly critical about that.  If we begin with the intelligent creation, angels and men, we find many threenesses, one of which both angels and men share in our imageness to God.  I deliberately did not say “likeness” because, as at least one doctor of the Church points out (he being Saint Bonaventure) the “likeness” to God is the work of sanctifying grace, which is a participation in the divine life; “imageness,” on the other hand, comes from the non-supernatural, intellectual nature, which gives men the spiritual powers of cognition and volition.

Angels have two immanent vital activities: they know and they love.  That’s a two; so where’s the three?  OK. Well, what is involved in the intellectual act? You have to have a knower, something or someone known, and the act itself of knowing.   In the act of volition, or willing, or desire, you have to have a lover, someone loved, and the act itself of loving.  Do you see how this reflects the immanent life of the Trinitarian God?  As Father Feeney explained in The Trinity Explained to Thomas Butler in God there is the Knower (the Father), the Known (the Son, the Word or Wisdom of God), and the Knowing (the Holy Ghost).  The same with God’s inner act of Love:  We must have a Lover, the Beloved, and the Loving.  Let’s not forget, too, that there are three hierarchies among the nine choirs of angels.

Man shares this activity in the intellectual and volitional life of his soul.  There is the person of the knower, something or someone known, and the act itself of knowing.  There is the person of the lover, the person loved, and the act of loving.

I don’t want to make this column a treatise in epistemology, so let’s move down the ladder to the non-rational material creation.  Here we do not speak of “images” of God, but rather of “vestiges.” Footprints, as compared to actual images.  Now this is where it is hard to keep the hierarchy.

Not only man, but all material things that have life are marked by a vestige of God in that their immanent activity, which is ordered by their souls (yes, plants and animals have material souls, not spiritual), is identified by three material powers.  All material things that live have the power sine defectu to grow, assimilate food, and reproduce their kind.  Life is defined as immanent action; material immanent action is a trinity of activity.  Therein lies another trinity: the three kinds of souls, rational (spiritual, ergo immortal), sensitive (animal, and material), and vegetative (non-sensitive, material).

Let’s proceed downscale to considered creation under the aspect of matter alone.  In what way does matter showcase the footprint of the Trinitarian Creator?  Well, every material thing has three dimensions: length, breadth, and thickness.  Matter cannot be anything but three-dimensional.

What is the most common material substance on this earth?  Water, right!  How does water manifest a threeness?  It can exist in three states: liquid, solid, or vaporous.  So can many other elements exist in any of these three states under the variant conditions of temperature and pressure.

Let’s proceed further down the scale, to things that merely in-exist with material things, but have no existence on their own.  I speak of accidents.  Two of the nine accidents identified by Aristotle have an intriguing relation to the Trinity: time and space  Take time.  Not being a substance, time has no essence of its own, for it is merely a relation between mutable material things, a measure of things that change in terms of before and after.  Nevertheless, it is divided into three measures: past, present, and future.  The Infinite and immutable God has no past nor future in His Trinitarian Life, for He is the Eternal Now.  Men can measure their yesterdays and tomorrows, but they cannot grasp the “now,” even though that is the duration in which they live and act. Amazing, isn’t it?  Time is one of the things that so captivated the mind of Saint Augustine that he devotes part of his Confessions to considering its ungraspable mystery.    The intellect’s grasp of the “now,” when it will hold it and know it, must wait until eternity when those who are saved enter into the eternal now by way of the Beatific Vision of God.  Space is a more difficult concept to speak about.  In relation to the Trinity, it brings us back to the three dimensions of extended material objects.  In order for a thing to have length, breadth, and width, it has to be located in a place.  Space, in its highest philosophical sense, is the place in which the quantity, or how much, of a thing can be extended.  If material objects were not extended into space they would be imperceptible to the organs of sense.  In the Blessed Eucharist Our Lord’s real Body is physically present, but it is not extended into space.  The accident of quantity of the bread and wine, which are extended into space, remain the same after consecration, but the substance of bread and wine in which the quantity (and other accidents) would normally in-exist, has been changed (transubstantiated) into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Person of Jesus Christ.  We perceive the extension and quality of the accidents of bread and wine, but we cannot perceive the Substance of the Body of Christ, which exists without accidents.

Holy scripture is filled with trinities.  It would take many more pages to even make a dent on all of them.  Some of the more prominent are:

  1. Noe had three sons: Sem, Cham, and Japheth.
  2. Isaias heard the seraphim cry out three times in praise of the Trinity: “Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God of hosts.”
  3. The Wise Men (tradition has them as three) brought three gifts.
  4. The Holy Family was a trinity: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
  5. Jesus was three days lost to Mary and Joseph in the temple.
  6. Jesus received three temptations in the desert.
  7. Jesus returned three times in His agony to find His three Apostles, Peter, James, and John, sleeping.
  8. This was the third time these three Apostles were singled out for a special witness.  The other two were the Transfiguration and the raising of the daughter of Jairus to life.
  9. Peter denied Our Lord three times, and after His resurrection, Jesus would ask him three times: “Simon do you love me?” and three times did He say to him  “feed my sheep.”
  10. This is one that I just read about:  Jesus wept three times in His mortal life: 1) at the death of Lazarus, 2) when He wept over Jerusalem, and 3) in His agony in the garden.
  11. There are three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity.
  12. There are three ages of dietary change for man: 1) only fruit in the Garden of Eden; 2) fruit, honey, and bread and vegetables from tilling the soil after the Fall and the expulsion from paradise; and 3) fruit, honey, vegetables, and meats and milk from ruminants after the Flood.

The list could go on and on.

I cannot even begin to list all the threes that occur in the study of philosophy, such as the Trivium of grammar (with its three degrees of modification: positive, comparative, and superlative, or the three genders of masculine, feminine, and neuter), logic (and its three types of truth: logical, ontological, and moral), and rhetoric.

For a fascinating little book about the number three, see our bookstore here for Those Intriguing Threes, by E.J. Kalinowski.