I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
I think that’s a very wonderful piece of poetry; should I call it religious poetry? Maybe I shouldn’t, since Thomas had a somewhat ambivalent attitude to organised religion, for all that he spent his life in its employ as a parish priest, and a faithful one. But he was a man of great faith. As a poet his mind and heart were always ranging more widely, to touch on the hard lives of his people, on the shortness of our time, on the gap between the hopes we have and the prayers we make, and the little we understand or achieve. So it’s a poem of faith, certainly, a faith that struggles on, that persists, that is held on to, however hard the paths we walk.
Why read this poem on Trinity Sunday? Partly because I’ve just found it and like it, but also because poetry is a way in to what this day’s about. We celebrate what a Christian doctrine: that God’s reveals himself to us as Father, creator, as Son, redeemer, and as Holy Spirit, God inbreathed, the inspirer of faith. But don’t imagine that that’s the whole truth, the last word about God. Poetry reminds that doctrines like “Trinity” are just us trying to express what is utterly beyond us.
Trinity’s not the end but the start of the journey; faith is a dynamic thing, a process of constant discovery. God isn’t a thing to be defined and measured, but a constant dancing presence somewhere just outside the perimeter of our understanding, and yet somehow within us as well.
The doctrine of the Trinity arises from our awareness that the one God we worship makes himself known to us in different and distinct ways; and those who first devised the creeds we say were led to speak about different persons. Not different and separate people: but Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct and different persons who together are one God. They’re not three gods, but one; for Father, Son and Holy Spirit cohere together, and are part of each other.
One image of the Trinity is of a triangle, lines linking the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. In the one we had as a lectern fall in one of my previous churches, the three sides of the triangle bore the legend “non est” - so the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and so on. At the heart of the triangle was a circle, labelled “Deus” (God), and lines connected that circle to each point of the triangle, these lines bearing the legend “est” - so the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God.
That’s a nice try, but it doesn’t say enough. Another symbol of Trinity I’ve seen shows the triangle as before but with a circle intersecting the sides, a circle carrying arrow symbols to denote movement. So the lines are static, separating the three persons, making clear that the Father is not the Son, and so on, but at the same time the circle demonstrates the three persons in constant fluid motion, belonging to each other, in a constant interplay of love, so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not fixed at the three corners, but also moving between, among, within each other.
Does all of this make sense? I hope it doesn’t, really. We may take the shamrock leaf as a symbol of Trinity - three leaflets making one leaf; or ice and liquid water and steam, different and yet all water. But no symbol really says enough. Trinity, God three in one and one in three, remains a mystery, however we try to explain or visualise it.
Which, for me, is where that poem comes in, among others I could list. One reason I enjoy poetry so much is that it’s an inexact science, in which what the poet writes is understood and interpreted in different ways by different people. That’s not to say that some get it right and others get it wrong, but that the act of reading or listening to a poem is itself part of the creative process that brings the poem to life. The pearl beyond price in the parable of Jesus and the poem by RS Thomas is a mystery; we may not fully understand what we’ve found, but we know we have to have it, at whatever cost.
Looking again at the image of a circle within a triangle, we see that trinity isn’t a static thing but something dynamic: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in relationship with each other that is all movement. And we should be reminded that doctrine is not important for its own sake; it isn’t the list of things we believe that matters, but the relationship we have - our relationship with God, and that relationship reflected and expressed in our care for one another, and our creative, useful and loving reaching out to the world. Jesus tells us that, like him we can call God our Father and pray to him in those words. And he offers us the Holy Spirit, the active presence of divine love to spark our fellowship, inspire our love, and enable our response, our praise and our prayer.
Trinity isn’t God sorted, defined, neatly boxed and labelled, but God the mystery of love inviting us in, saying “be part of this.” And isn’t that the pearl the poet finds? - a love that is personal to each of us, a love that creates all, conquers all, enlivens all, a love for all the world.