“The first time I was accused of heresy.”
A Sermon for the Feast of Trinity Sunday
June 16, 2019
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
When I was in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, I served as the President of Catholic Campus Ministry. Not bad for someone who had only been Roman Catholic for a few years! I had spent most of my life as a Southern Missionary Baptist and had only been exposed to the Roman Catholic Church a few years previously, when I was selected to attend the Governor’s School, West, at Salem College, in old Salem. I fell in love with the Catholic Liturgy, though, and in my final year in high school made my profession of faith and was Confirmed.
Although the beauty of the Eucharist—I had never experienced this kind of liturgy previously, and honestly had no idea that anything like this even existed—was the thing which first lured me in, it was my discovery of theology which most captivated me and engaged me. Although I came from an intellectually inquisitive family, the church in which I was raised was decidedly anti-intellectual (they were also unabashedly anti-Sacramental, but that is another story). For instance, one of the great heroes was a preacher who had been illiterate until he received the “call to be a minister of the Gospel.” His wife taught him to read and write. There was a real fear of “too much education,” and the very concept of seminary would have been anathema. This preacher, it was believed, received his knowledge from God, and not from humans. As a result, the idea was that his preaching was not contaminated by human thinking and reasoning. It was “dabitur vobis” theology in its purest form. (As an aside, I was closely related to both the preacher and to his wife).
I recall being shocked, at the age of 17 to have been introduced, for the first time, to the dogma of the Trinity. It is entirely possible that I may have heard the word. But I actually doubt that I would have known what it meant. I say that because I recall being stunned! The Church in which I was raised primarily talked about Jesus, or more commonly, “The Lord.” There were occasional references to God (as in “God the Father,”) and even rarer ones to the Holy Ghost. The great irony was that the Baptists of my childhood were afraid that people might accidentally mistake them for Pentecostals, or “Holy Rollers.” And so, there was always more than a bit of apprehension if anyone started sharing too much about the role of the Holy Ghost in their lives. The one thing which would NEVER have ben tolerated was glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.” I suspect that the taking up of serpents might have been more acceptable than that.
The only time that I ever recall hearing a reference to what I later learned was the Trinity was at baptism, “We baptize this our brother in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Had I asked about the use of the Trinitarian formula, though, I suspect that people would have looked at me like I had two heads. Actually, that was not an uncommon experience for me. They never quite knew what to make of me. Even so, there were so many who loved me and accepted me—even though I confused them regularly.
Leaving aside the Baptist experience, though, and getting back to ASU, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte had an amazing retreat program for college students. It was called “Encounters with Christ.” I do not know where the program originated. I suspect that it ultimately had a connection to Cursillo, and may well have come from some larger diocese.
Encounters with Christ served two amazing purposes. Perhaps the most important was that it gave interested Roman Catholic students the opportunity to bond. Aa a time in which Roman Catholics were still a small minority in North Carolina–and still experienced hostility and persecution–it gave us a chance to be in a loving, supportive, and affirming environment. In those times together, we really became a family. We did not have to be ashamed of our faith or to be defensive. No one was going to attack us or make fun of us when we were together. There was also an interesting cultural and socio-economic dynamic. Most of the students were either from “the North,” or else their families were. And so, it was a gathering of “Yankees.” I, of course, was fascinated, because I learned from them what it had been like to grow up and to live in places where “we” were in the majority.
We were all in college, and I suspect that I was the only farm boy in the group. Most of them came from families which, on Beech Mountain, would have been considered “well to do.” And so their life-experience was quite different from what I had known. As I came to know a number of the families, I was introduced to wonderful things like “gravy,” “kielbasi,” and tiramisu.
The other amazing thing which this retreat did, though, was to provide opportunities for leadership and for evangelization. It was intentionally designed around a group of themes which had real-life application for college students. On a given weekend, there might be ten presentations. Half were given by the Campus Ministers from the various colleges in the Diocese (in those days there were two Roman Catholic Colleges: Belmont Abbey and Sacred Heart College—all others were either state schools or affiliated with some Protestant denomination).
The other half of the presentations were given by college students. For many of them, this was the first time that they had ever publicly spoken about their faith. Almost all of them shared openly about their own personal experience of God. It was not uncommon for them to share about how they had not really been interested in faith in their childhood and adolescence. But in college, that had all changed. Perhaps it came from having others ask probing questions about their faith. In other cases, they had just been lonely and had started going to Mass again. A few brave souls started attending Campus Ministry (there was always a free meal-often home cooked by parishioners). And before they knew it, they were more active than they had ever expected to be. I have often wondered what happened with those friends? It would be quite interesting to learn how their lives have turned out.
In my Junior year in college, I was on the team which planned the retreat. As a result, I was part of the “test audience .” The students who were going to be speaking at the retreat had to first present their talk to us. Afterwards, we gave them constructive feedback to help them refine and improve their talk. It also meant that they were not speaking for the first time to the large group. They had already had the opportunity to share once. And so, it made them less anxious. I realize now that it also gave the Campus Ministers a “heads up” about what they were going to hear at the retreat. I do not think that there was “censorship” but do occasionally remember the Campus Ministers making helpful suggestions.
I was deeply touched by one of the young speakers. He was a Senior at Belmont Abbey College and was a theology major. He shared with us his ultimate desire to become a Benedictine monk and a priest. Not only did he speak eloquently about the way in which he had experienced God in the Eucharist and in the Divine Office (which he was able to attend with the monks at Belmont), he also spoke of the ways that he had grown in love and knowledge of God through his study of theology. This was all new to me and excited me and frightened me at the same time. It was, perhaps, the planting of that first seed which ultimately led to my own decision, a few years later, to “seek God” in the monastery.
My hope was that this neophyte and I could become friends. And so, I wrote him a letter telling how much I had been touched by his presentation and asking him for prayer as I discerned my own sense of calling and vocation. To my disappointment, he wrote back a very curt and dismissive response. In it he accused me of heresy! He said that my comments about God, in the letter, had been condemned by at least one of the Ecumenical Councils (or perhaps more). Sadly, I no longer recall which heresy it was? Modalism? Subordinationism? I lacked the “theological sophistication” to even understand what he was saying. I was really hurt. But, I was also curious and wanted to know more. Was this a reason for going to seminary? Who knows. But, I have never forgotten the hurt that went along with receiving that letter.
Those who have studied theology are often leery of saying too much about the Trinity. We recognize how easy it is in “unscripted comments” to make casual remarks which we later realize to have been “heretical.” Later in life, I have come to think that may not be such a bad thing, after all. An Adrian Domincan Sister once told me “Every good sermon contains a little heresy.” That may well be true. And since most of us are not going to be professional theologians, I don’t even think that is something we should even spend any time worrying about. St. Anselm said that “theology is faith seeking understanding.” As I wrestle trying to make sense of my faith, I have to use the language and categories which I have. As I struggle to articulate my feeble understanding of the indescribable and incomprehensible, I will no doubt do so in a limited and flawed and paltry way. But, if the alternative is to say nothing, and by so doing fail to give witness to the love and empowerment which I have experienced by being connected to the Triune God, I will speak from the heart and allow others to “clean up the mess” which follows.
God really does have a funny sense of humor! The second Sunday following my ordination as a priest, I returned to Boone, to my home parish of Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country, for a Mass of Thanksgiving. It was Trinity Sunday. I was the preacher. The Pastor was a Jesuit!
Thankfully, in seminary, I had been forced to read an amazing article by the German theologian Karl Rahner. The very mystifying and confusing title was something like “On the ontology of the Symbol.” It turned out to be one of the most helpful and thought-provoking theological works I ever read! As best I recall, Rahner said something like “for any reality to be real, present, and effective, if has to reach out beyond itself in love.” He then went on to say that this was as true of God as of anyone or anything else. If God had remained “self-contained,” God would not have been real, present or effective. From all eternity, God is love. That generative powerful love reached out-and thus was the eternal Son begotten before time and before creation. The Son, in turn, loved the Father-totally, absolutely and without limitation. The reciprocal and life-giving love between the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit. For the first time, the Trinity became not just a dogma for me, but an invitation to enter into, to be transformed by, and to become a small conduit of God’s love. This is what I shared at that Mass. The Jesuit approved—no one said anything about heresy! Talk about feeling relieved afterwards.
The Church seems very wise, to me, to conclude the Easter Season with one last Sunday in which we celebrate the Holy and undivided Trinity. Next Sunday we will return to “ordinary time,” and will change again to the color Green. But as we begin to follow the Apostles, fresh from Pentecost, headed out into the streets to carry the good news to the ends of the earth, we will do so knowing that they do so in the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
In the final commission in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus made this clear to them: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 16-20).
For those of us in the liturgical traditions, it is second nature to begin every prayer with the Trinitarian words “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We end many prayers the same way “We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.” And for those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we so often pray the doxology: “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” That daily invocation of the Trinity can not help but have an effect in our lives. But may this prayer be transformed to enable us in every context in which we find ourselves to become truly real, present and effective.
With all our hearts, with all our minds, with all that we have and are may we truly pray, “Glory to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–from this time forward, now, and always, to the end of the ages. Amen.”
Final note: Since I am not preaching in a parish today, I had the freedom to focus on the day, rather than on the Scriptures. A heresy? Perhaps. But this is where God led me.