Some years ago, in England, I was asked to give in-service training to teachers in several Catholics schools. I used to begin by asking a question: “The doctrine of the Trinity stands at the heart of our Christian Faith – but if the Pope were to announce that a fourth person in the Trinity had been discovered, would it change your way of life as a Christian?” Most admitted that they could not see how it would – the rest refused to answer the question on the grounds that it would never happen. I have asked that same question at other times and in other places and the answer is nearly always the same – and this places us in a very strange position. We are part of a Tradition, which says that that the doctrine of the Trinity is so central to our Faith that it would be better to die than to live without it – witness the martyrs of Oltranto, whom the Pope recently canonised: more than 800 people, who chose death rather than become Muslims, for to do so would mean that they would deny the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet, if we are asked whether our life would change if the doctrine were changed – we cannot see how!
The problem lies not with the doctrine, but the way in which we have been taught it. We have been taught it as a fact, a truth, which stands alone, in-itself, but doctrine is always an agenda; it is a truth which has consequences – consequences, which profoundly affect the way we live. What, then, are the consequences of the doctrine of the Trinity? How can we understand it so as to see that it is also an agenda for the Christian way of life?
If we look at this doctrine from without – that is the formulation – we see only the teaching that are three persons in one God, but if we look at it also from within, we see the life of the Trinity and we see that our God is “Family” – three persons, equal in dignity, but one God, bound together by bonds of deep, abiding love and respect. Moreover, Vatican 2 tell us, in Dei Verbum 2, that this Triune God, who is Family, is calling and inviting us to join with him in his love and care for the world – and it is in this vision that the meaning and agenda of the doctrine lies.
Christ, our Lord, came among us both to reveal God and to show us how to become one with God (Jn.14:23). He was born into a family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – three making one and this Holy Family is not coincidental to Christ’s coming, but stands at the heart of his mission – for it shows not only who God is, namely Family, but also teaches that if we choose to accept God’s invitation to become one with him, then we have to become family with each other. “Whatsoever you do to the least of your brethren, that you do unto me.”(Mt. 25:40) It is this way of life that distinguishes those who believe in the Trinity.
If our God had been revealed as “Lawgiver”, then we would have been called upon to serve him by obeying his laws. Should our God have been defined as “Commander in Chief”, we would have been called upon to serve him by fighting for his honour and glory. But, the fact that our God has been revealed to us Christians as “Family” means that we are called upon to serve him by drawing the whole human race into becoming “family”.
The Trinity, moreover, shows us how to be family. The Father is distinct from the Son and both are distinct from the Holy Spirit – and this shows us what true family love is – it aims at making each family member unique, by giving to each that which he or she needs in order to become more themselves. One member does not dictate to the others about what and how they should be, but each, if true love is present, rejoices in the distinctness and difference of the others. An insight into this love can be seen in the answer that the mother of a large family once gave to the question: “Which of your children do you love the most?” She answered: “the one who is in need”.
It is this familial love, which marks out the way in which we Christians are called to live out our lives. There is a fellow Mill Hill priest in Pakistan, who runs a clinic for drug addicts and while most of the staff of the clinic are Christians, nearly all those who come to be treated are Muslims – of the radical Taliban variety. The Taliban have rejected Western medicine and so when they are in pain, they turn to opium and often become addicted. He told me that he is not allowed to have a crucifix showing or to talk about Christianity – but the patients know. They, thus, preach the Gospel by action and not words – because that is what we Christians do and we do it because our God is Family and to follow him means we must take the path of treating all people as brothers and sisters and so we try to give them what they need to live, for as St Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is in mankind being fully alive.”
This is what prompted the missionaries, when they first came to East Malaysia, to found schools and hospitals and to open them to anyone who needed them. This is what we Christians do, we Christians, we try to treat all humanity as family – and why? Because our God is Trinity, he is family – and we profess this doctrine that we hold dear by living in this way.
Last week, we were visited in Kuching by the new Papal Nuncio to Malaysia and a large dinner was held in his honour. The commentator made a remark about the Papal Nuncio being the only “orang puteh”, i.e. causasian, in the room; at which one or two of the seminarians whispered to each other, “He’s wrong, Fr. Terry’s here”. To which, I am told, one of the younger priests whispered, “Ft Terry’s not a white man – he is an Iban!”
Well, the students come back today and we begin classes again tomorrow – and my pleasant later rising time thus comes to an end. It will be a 5am rise for the next three months. However, it will be nice to see them again,
We have been celebrating Dayak Harvest Festival for the last two days, which is one of the great family gatherings here in Sarawak. I asked two people from UK, who were on a visit to Sarawak, whether they would like to visit the kampongs with me. They said they would, so I went to two of the villages where I worked about 30 years ago – and was astonished at the wonderful warm welcome I received. I am sure that the fact that the beer was flowing freely helped, but I was very touched by their affection.
I was listening to the BBC a few days ago, and they had a contest between comedians as to whom could tell the funniest jokes. They were all very good, but this one made me laugh: “Does a born-again Christian have two belly buttons?”