Sunday, June 7th, 2020

Trinity, Captivity, and Love of Neighbor: a Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Catholics should always marvel at the manifold workings of the Holy Ghost. On 17 December—the first day of the Greater Ferias of Advent—in the year 1198, Innocent III issued the letter which founded the Order of Trinitarians. At the time, a sort of constant state of warfare existed between Christendom in southern Europe and Muslim North Africa. During their frequent raids, Mohammedan pirates carried away captured Christians. Human trafficking—rightfully decried in our day—was a daily fact of life for maritime cities of the Mediterranean. Thus, the drama of liberty and slavery was played out upon the waves.

It is in the context of this dire state of affairs that the Holy Ghost raised up St John of Matha and St Felix Valois. Their order undertook the works of mercy—though especially the ransoming of captives. To be sure, the history of the Trinitarians is subject to the rhythms of flourishing, declining, and reforming, like so many of the Church’s religious families. The seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were not kind to any of the great orders, and it is no different with the Trinitarians. And yet even today, though much reduced from their former glory, Trinitarian friars continue their works of mercy.

All that is the barest outline. Nevertheless, the charism of the Ordo Sanctissimæ Trinitatis et Captivorum sheds light on today’s feast. Catholics know that, in Jesus Christ, God has revealed something of his innermost life. The most fundamental of these revealed truths is that of the Most Holy Trinity: that the one true God is a trinity of Persons, each equal in majesty and divinity, though never conflated or confused in their identity.

That in God there is a movement of charity and relationality is a mystery too luminous for us to comprehend; and yet nothing of the mystery contradicts or destroys human reason. But that these subsistent relations are in God tells us something of why we ought to love our neighbor. The personhood of man and woman is what we hear of in Genesis when God said: ‘Let us make man in our own image.’[1] If, then, our personhood is derived from God himself, how can we fail to treat other persons—or our own person—with the charity that is their due? If God himself, to put it like this, is a movement of charity between persons, how could it not be otherwise among man? Man is not God; but man is God’s creature, set within the great order of Divine Providence—therefore man must, after the manner proper to himself, resemble God.

For this reason, the body of Catholic moral and social teaching derives, ultimately, from the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. We say this without prejudice to the natural law, which is simply the way man participates in God’s eternal law. By way of repetition, we can rightly say that in God there are relations that are bound together and move on account of love; man’s relationship with himself and others, then, must also be a movement of love. To do otherwise is to invite nothing but contradiction and breakdown and, in truth, captivity. 

The first Trinitarians understood this. Their motto is instructive for us—Gloria Tibi Trinitas et Captivis Libertas. ‘Glory to you, O Trinity, and to captives liberty!’ All Muslims regard the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity as blasphemy; we do well to see, therefore, the distinctly apologetic nature of the Order of Trinitarians. It would certainly be appropriate to ask whether or not Islamic thought was able to support a robust doctrine of charity, given what it both denies and affirms about the nature of God. Nor is it by accident that the Islamic societies of the twelfth century (or any century, for that matter) did not produce an organization analogous to the Order of Trinitarians. 

But the matter goes beyond making an assertion about true monotheism. The glory which Catholics render to the Most Holy Trinity is logically connected to the liberty which is brought about by a graced human life. Catholic doctrines and life free every man, woman, and child who embraces them. The liberty from bodily slavery which the Trinitarians pursued for their neighbors is simply a mirror of the interior liberty which Christ came to bring. [2]

To conclude, a number of things should be clear to the Catholic heart. First, God is not an idea; he is a trinity of Persons. We speak of the goal of the spiritual life as being one of union with God. Well, one cannot have union with an idea, only with persons. Second, therefore, man relates to his neighbor in a relationship of love. The doctrine of the Trinity gives the lie to the political philosophies of Locke and Rousseau, wherein man is by nature the competitor and infringer. This is not a purely theoretical point: for in the mind of contemporary man Locke and Rousseau hold sway.  

The last point to be made is about Baptism. The Catholic soul has been marked forever—charged, one might say—with the Most Holy Trinity’s friendship. No force that man or angels may devise can nullify this union. It either increases or atrophies, but it does not disappear. Which is why St Paul asks, only too rightly—

Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or persecution? Or the sword? (As it is written: For thy sake, we are put to death all the day long. We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.) But in all these things we overcome, because of him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God.[3]

Thus the liberty afforded to those baptized into the life of the triune God.



[1] Genesis 1, 26.

[2] John 8, 31.

[3] Romans 8, 35-39.

{Art Credit: Detail, Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685), The Mass of Saint John of Matha, 1666.}

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