Alan E Lewis, Bernard of Clairvaux, Between Cross & Resurrection, Chrysostom, Darrell W. Johnson, Experiencing the Trinity, Father, Holy Spirit, Inapprehensible, Inexpressible, Language, Mysteries and Secrets, Prayer, Relationship at the Centre of the Universe, Restoration, Son, Speechless, Spiritual Friendship, Trinity, Triune God, Triune Nature of God, Unspeakable, Wanting to be heard, What Language Shall I Borrow?, Wordless Prayer
There is a verse in the ancient hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, that goes, “What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend.”
What language indeed; for though the hymn was attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), it was likely first penned in Latin by the French speaking Bernard; the English translation of 1752 came from the earlier German copy, and has been since translated into many other languages.
What language shall I borrow? So much of the spiritual life is speechless. This is a bit of what I was getting at in Wanting to be Heard – as the Apostle Paul says, “it is God’s own Spirit who helps us pray with groans too deep for words;” when in want for words, Paul bursts with gratitude, “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift;” and Peter will marvel that those who have never seen Christ, nevertheless love Him and are “filled with inexpressible and glorious joy.”
The grasping for a language has been the task of the spiritual journey; spiritual sojourners before us demonstrate what it means to translate things eternal into speech transitory. Chrysostom wrote (349-407):
We call Him the inexpressible, the unthinkable God, the invisible, the inapprehensible; who quells the power of human speech and transcends the grasp of mortal thought.
“Karl Barth has written of ‘The Speech of God as the Mystery of God‘; and there is certainly as much mystery, as much incomprehension, as much hopeful but doomed groping for words to describe the incomprehensible when we say that God is the ‘Word,’ or that ‘the Word was God’, or that ‘God says…’ God is a God who communicates through speech, and the Bible begins with God acting through speech.” (Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross & Resurrection).
Speech and Speechlessness
That we are speechless does not mean God is. He is, as Eberhard Jungel puts it, “taken seriously as one who speaks in self-revelation… God encounters, addresses, questions us as human persons in “word,” inviting us to listen with faithfulness and thoughtfulness, that we might think thoughts “after” God which accord with God’s own self-disclosed actuality, thus “interpreting and “annihilating” our old ways of thinking bout deity.” The bible makes it possible, says Lewis, for our own words, thoughts, and concepts to be “renewed and liberated for the task of thinking humanly about God on God’s own terms, that is, as the God identified with the crucified Jesus.”
Though this is the great spiritual adventure – to be liberated for the task of thinking of God on His own terms – it is not merely a cognitive exercise for brainiacs. If the spiritual journey depends on our intellectual acuity, then who is capable? No; from the most simple to the most brilliant, it is God who communicates Himself into our world as we open ourselves to Him. This, too, speaks to the mystery of God who is able to reveal Himself and make Himself understood. Jesus would say to the scriptural experts of His day:
From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth praise.
Mysteries and Secrets
I started this blog journey a year ago with Mysteries and Secrets, and I continue to be exhilarated to explore the enigmas of God. Recently one of my sons challenged me to “explain the Trinity… simply.” And so I happily got on with exploring a subject in which I delight. I quickly found that the more I sought to explain the Trinity simply, the more deeply I delved into the creation of a language to describe the nature of God as Three in One. In other words, the mystery of the Triune God is of a nature that Christians have had to create language just to get nearer to the approximation.
“For many,” Darrell W. Johnson writes in Experiencing the Trinity, “the doctrine of the Trinity is nothing but a hopeless puzzle, the pieces of which simply do not fit. Three is not one and one is not three, no matter how you figure it.” Nevertheless, Johnson points us to the relational reality of this Trinity:
‘At the centre of the universe is a relationship.’ That is the most fundamental truth I know. At the centre of the universe is a community. Is out of that relationship that you and I were created and redeemed. And it is for that relationship that you and I were created and redeemed! And it turns out there is a three-fold-ness to that relationship. It turns out that the community is a Trinity. The centre of reality is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is not that the vocabulary of Trinity had to be invented as the only way to understand God. Alan Lewis suggest that our ability to understand God’s as uniquely communal, depends on our understanding of what it means to be a person:
The Trinitarian concept of God as communal being depends upon a particular understanding of what it means to be a person, that is, not as an insular, independent individual, but one who fulfills identity in and through relations with another, and finds distinctiveness and individuality not in seclusion and self-sufficiency but in mutual giving and receiving of interdependent fellowship and reciprocating sacrifice.” Thus in this Triune God, do we actively “reclaim the relational view of the person from the ravages of modern individualism.
The Triune nature of God is Good News!
This talk about the Trinity ought not be reduced to theological babble-speak, because as Johnson says, the very nature of God is good news:
Here is the good news: The living God is not a solitary God. The living God is not a lonely God. The living God is the Trinitarian God. From eternity the living God has existed in community as Community; in fellowship as Fellowship; in relationship as Relationship. From all eternity the living God has existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From all eternity the living God has been able to speak of himself as “we,” “us,” and “our.”
And here is the incredibly good, good news. We human beings were brought into being to participate with God in that us-ness… [We] were brought into being by the Trinity – to participate in the inner life of the Trinity!
This is salvation; this is reconciliation; this is the entry point into the process of redemption. In the Triune God, Christ is the agent through whom His Father becomes Our Abba by way of His Spirit coming to live in us as God’s giving gift. In Jesus we are restored in relationship with God, and thus we begin the great adventure – to be liberated for the task of thinking of God on His own terms.
What to do with such a Story: God-as-Trinity?
If your head is swimming, or you’ve just checked out, Alan Lewis concludes his profound discussion of the story of the Triune God’s relationship to us, by suggesting there nothing left to do but pray:
How can one hear such a story, which constitutes the collapse of human language, without the wordless prayer with sighs for hope beyond all hope? How can one think of such a story, which transcends the limits of human reasoning, without the thought-less prayer which gropes for a conception of the inconceivable, the unthinkable? How can one live such a story, which implies exhaustion of the human spirit, without the helpless prayer which begs for resources of life, energy, and vision beyond one’s own supplying?
To pray is to confess not the abundance but exhaustion of one’s verbal, intellectual, and spiritual resources. It is surrender to the one who prays for us when we have no prayers left and can only do so only when we acknowledge our own bankruptcy of spirit. The One who truly prays is the Spirit of the Father, whose unutterable cries, by their very nature, begin when we have ceased to speak; and the Spirit also of the Son, whose high-priestly intercessions depend upon our abject willingness to approach the Father not in our own proud name but exclusively in his. Prayer then… is the last breath of our self-relinquishment…
What language SHALL i borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?
Thus I confess, I cannot explain the Trinity simply, for I grope for words and languages and prayers to describe the incomprehensible. And yet, there is nothing more than to simply say “at the centre of the Universe is a relationship,” and He is Triune, and He invites us into community & friendship with Himself.
Gregory of Nyssa said (circa 4th Century):
We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend as the only thing worthy of honour and desire.
Here is a beautiful rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.