Reflecting on Trinity Sunday with St. Augustine

St. Augustine opens his De Trinitate with a forward in which he recounts his efforts to complete this work which was suddenly interrupted by the theft of his incomplete manuscript. At first, Augustine refused to resume his efforts as an act of protest. But after much encouragement from Aurelius, the Bishop of Carthage, he agreed to complete the work on the condition that it contain a preface expressing his concern that the previously stolen work might, due to its incompleteness, not be understood.

Indeed, Augustine’s concerns seem justified, as even today the completed text of is often cited with a false sense of authority, though such citations betray an incomplete understanding of the text. Generally, such accounts tend to note that Augustine provides a synthesis of the early “economic” theologians and the later Nicene, “mystical” theologians. Although this is certainly true, Augustine is primarily interested in presenting a model for the proper shape and discipline of the Christian life – that is, to present a disposition that will help  move a person toward God, toward salvation itself. It is surprising that this emphasis has often been muted in discussions of Trinitarian doctrine, but this may be the result of commandeering Augustine as a tool for apologetics.

Nevertheless, this treatise does not seek to prove or defend the existence of the Triune God, but invites us to join its author in contemplating the mystery of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For Augustine, the act of contemplating the Triune God is neither a ‘dry’ exercise nor a theological weapon, but a conversion of the heart: “…[a] renewal and discovery of self in God and God in self.” Sadly, this beautiful connection was separated from doctrinal examination in western Christian spirituality, making the Trinity appear, in Edmond Hill’s words, “a curious kind of intellectual luxury for theological highbrows.” For Augustine, however, the practice of the Christian faith does not permit contemplation of the Trinity to be seen as a boring footnote to our love for Jesus. As we reflect on the meaning of Trinity Sunday, we must, like Augustine, see that nothing less than a change of heart is at stake – that is, simply put, our salvation.

Augustine begins Book IX with a statement of intent, encouraging readers to maintain the correct posture of faith, which is produced by contemplating the Triune God. He suggests that the contemplation of the Holy Trinity, if undertaken in a particular fashion, moves one toward holiness. It is a process by which faith grows, producing greater understanding, which again strengthens faith, until one is given “certitude of knowledge…after this life.”  Such a process gradually causes one to forget “what lies behind” and “to stretch out to what lies ahead intently.” Here, the reader is confronted with Augustine’s concern for salvation, as the contemplation of the Trinity begins by turning the eyes of faith inward, attempting to find marks of the divine within the innermost self.

He then proceeds to discuss the way in which God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be seen in humankind. Augustine posits that the imago Dei is most accessible by examining the triad that is formed by the act of loving something. The three points of the triad are seen in (1) the act of one who is loving something, (2) the love itself, and (3) the object that is loved. These are, in a sense, mirroring the process of contemplation, in which also exists a triad: (1) the mind that desires to know something, (2) the activity of knowing, and (3) the object that is known. These two triads are then linked in the contemplative mind, which is knowing and loving itself. This must also, if humans are really are made in God’s image, reveal something of the God’s own movement in the Triune Godhead. The link between the triads in the Godhead and the triads of knowing/loving is that “whoever does not know love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Augustine’s discussion of the mind, knowledge, and how things may be known is further refined by his distinction between using (uti) and enjoying (frui) a thing. That is, to love a thing means to enjoy it for its own sake, rather than to use it in order to enjoy something else. The latter is not actually loving the thing itself, but using the thing on the way to enjoying something else. So much of our love of God sadly falls into this latter category. We may  assess ourselves by considering how we tend to pray. What is the central focus of our prayers? Is it God? Ourselves?

 This Trinity Sunday, we do well to remember the words of Christ to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). It is not our natural inclination to make a choice like Mary, to sit in rapt attention at the feet of Jesus. Instead, we have Christian work that must be done, and such work may be good and helpful, but more often than not, we take the adoration and contemplation of God as Triune to be (at most) irrelevant to ‘real life’ or ‘real ministry’.

Yet the Lord Himself is urging us to choose the “better part,” which is found by quieting the noise in our soul, and to contemplate and adore God. Only then can our hearts be reshaped and prepared for the secondary (and necessary) call to bear witness to the God we have come to know.

We can now see how, for Augustine, the contemplation of the Holy Trinity results in the change of a person’s heart. He posits that it is by the “eye of the mind” that one beholds the form of eternal truth, which is the form or standard by which all things are known. Such a “true knowledge of things” can be described as a word that is uttered in the innermost part of one’s being, which then manifests itself in the thoughts, acts, and speech of a person. However, the word that is uttered at the core of one’s soul is either directed toward the love of the “…creature or the creator, that is of changeable nature or unchangeable truth.” As was pointed out before, created beings of all kinds may be used for the sake of directing the human person to God, not for the own sake; the only thing to be enjoyed for its own sake is God.

After his brief allusion to the role of enjoyment and usefulness, Augustine then shows that the thing which one enjoys for its own sake, either creature or creator, will affect the ‘word’ that rests at the core of one’s being. If one loves, and enjoys, “spiritual things” then one’s will is going to rest in the “act itself of knowing,” and by this process the eternal word and the word that resides in one’s innermost self are joined. The mind that is actively knowing and loving itself will have “its word…joined to it with love.” In this, Augustine shows the process and goal of the Christian faith is to be ‘converted’, but not in the way we might think. By contemplating the Holy Trinity, as we do this Sunday, we are binding together the eternal truth and the word that dwells in the innermost part of a person. Indeed, how could drawing near to God mean anything less than a change of heart? To put it very crassly, one might as well ask if it is possible to stand in the brightness of the summer sun without getting a tan. The alternative to both, however, is to remain in the shadows. As we move on from Trinity Sunday, I encourage you to ignore the voices that insist it is a boring, stodgy doctrine – necessary for our beliefs, but not that relevant. Instead, let us join St. Augustine by drawing near to the light of the Triune Godhead. Who knows the bright light we encounter this summer might just change more than our tan.

About David Browning

The Rev. David Browning is an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Currently he resides in the Washington metro area, with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Browning, while he pursues a PhD in Historical and Systematic Theology at the Catholic University of America. Prior to matriculating at Catholic University, he received a BA in Religion from Baylor University and an MDiv with a certificate in Anglican Studies from Southern Methodist University.


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