Personare, or, “Why the Trinity is not like a circus clown car”

Life was predictably mundane at L.W. Baldwin Elementary School in Paragould, Arkansas, until that day in the 3rd grade when a large and mysterious box arrived in the library.  With great show, the librarian opened the package to reveal a gazillionth-scale, table-top model of an atom.  It was awesome.  The protons were red, the neutrons were blue, and the electrons—each in its distinct, planet-like orbit connected by a wire to the center—were green.  After the great unveiling, a science teacher explained to us the parts of the atom.  The talk was, as I recall, all about those distinct parts: the red, blue, and green orbs.  They, clearly, were what was important.

atom model

Well, here were are again on Trinity Sunday, that one Sunday of the year when the preacher is supposed to exposit the doctrine of the Trinity.  I’ve often wondered if this is a fast day on the Unitarians’ liturgical calendar.  (And then I wonder if the Unitarians even have a liturgical calendar.)  Preachers do their best to avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday.  Even for staunch Trinitarian Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity is difficult, if not downright problematic.  On the one hand, we count ourselves as monotheistic first cousins to our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, but on the other hand the three persons of our Trinity appear to leave us particularly vulnerable to the charge of polytheism.  To Jews and Muslims our Christian Trinity is something like a little circus clown car, in which we’ve tried to stuff three gods into too little space.

This problem arises because our conception of God, like our conception of the atom, focuses on the three parts, like distinct entities.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might as well be proton, neutron, and electron.

Why is that our focus?  Well, to understand that, we have to get a little philosophical, and I mean in the Aristotelian sense, not the pondering dandelions sense.  Stay with me.  It’ll be worth it.

Clown car

We call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the three “persons” of the Trinity.  And what is a person?  The early sixth century philosopher Boethius gave us the classic definition.  Boethius says that a person is an “individual substance of a rational nature.”  Given what we see on the news each day about the current political cycle, we might call into question the “rational” part, but otherwise I think this rings true for us.  A person, we think, is an individual substance, a thing, a me or you, individually packaged in flesh and bone.  I am a person, and so are you, and our distinctiveness and separateness from one another is clear and obvious, like a proton and an electron in that elementary school model of the atom.  Even when we think about our parents or our children, people with whom we have a close genetic and emotional connection, we know that we are separate substances from them.  A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  That’s our definition, and we’re sticking to it.

And that’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is so difficult.  If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons—heavenly versions of you and me—then regardless of whatever complicated theological speak we use to explain their unity, they still seem an awful lot like three separate gods.

But wait a minute…what if Boethius’ definition of person is wrong?  Actually, it is wrong, or, at least, it’s not the original meaning.  Richard Rohr points out[i] that long before Boethius decided that a person was an individual substance, the idea of “person” originated in Greek and Roman theatre, and specifically with regard to the masks—the personas—the actors wore to depict their characters.  Importantly, those masks weren’t merely or even primarily visual.  They were designed to amplify the actor’s voice like a megaphone.  The actor on the stage spoke through the mask in order to be in relationship with the audience.  Think about the word itself: Per-sonare.  It literally means, “to speak through.”

In other words, originally “person” did not refer an individual substance, separate and apart from all others.  A person—persona, per-sonare—originally understood is one who is spoken through, breathed through, moved through by another.  That’s what the ancient church fathers meant when they first referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons.  In the Trinity, that’s what the three persons are.  They are not three individuals stuffed into one clown car.  Rather, they are personares, speaking, breathing, moving through one another. They are the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Enlivener—or Father, Word, and Wisdom, as our Old Testament reading calls the Spirit today—who together are God.  The Father and the Son speak through the Spirit.  The Father and the Spirit breathe through the Son.  The Son and Spirit move through the Father.  The Trinity flows, each personare through the others.

Persona masks

“Whoa,” some of you are thinking, “Let’s stick with the concrete and predictable, like the good old solid atom with its protons and neutrons and electrons that make up all hard matter and that can be touched and modeled and understood.”

But wait: It turns out that Baldwin Elementary’s old table-top atomic model also no longer holds and actually hasn’t for a long time.  Physicists like David Wilkinson now begin conversation about the atom by saying that the atom is primarily characterized by “the flow of energy” within it.  What we think of as those crucial parts of the atom, it turns out, are at best nodes for the movement of energy.  The movement, the flow, is primary.  That’s where the action is.   Wilkinson says that even and especially in the quantum, atomic world, “relationality is part of the physicality of the world.”[ii]

I will be quick to say that this already gets me in over my head when it comes to quantum physics, so I won’t venture any farther.  Suffice to say, rather than science leaving theology behind, when it comes to quantum physics, there is ever greater affinity between its discoveries and what the ancient Christian mystics and sages intuited about God, the cosmos, and reality.  In the case of quantum physics, old models are in the process of being replaced by new ones.  In the case of theology, old models are being replaced by older ones, by the revelation that the ancient sages and mystics grasped (in a way that we have lost) that at the very heart of God and God’s world is divine energy, and the relationship between all things.  The ancients attempted to understand that energy with the concept of the Trinity.

Trinity dancing

For those ancients, the Trinity is nothing more or less than the recognition that God is neither a static unity nor three separate substances.  Rather, God is three personares, who flow through Godself dynamically.  It is the very nature of God to be in relationship, to speak and breathe and move through one personare and into another.

At least one ancient sage even included us in this relationship.  Theophilus of Antioch, who was the very first church father to use the term Trinity, wrote in A.D. 170 that “There are three types of the Trinity, of God, of his Word, and of his Wisdom.  And there is a fourth type, man, who needs light, so there may be God, Word, Wisdom, and man.”[iii]  What a tantalizing idea, that God would draw even us into the light, the love, the energy that is the Trinity, into the divine relationship.  Maybe then the personares of God will speak, will breathe, will move through us.  Then the Trinity would make all the difference.


[i] Lecture notes from the Urban-Suburban Clergy Conference with Richard Rohr, Pasadena, CA, April 4-7, 2016.

[ii] and Wilkinson, David, When I Pray What Does God Do?, 154



Prayer and holy places

When I was a child, I found myself at First United Methodist Church in Paragould, Arkansas, virtually every time the doors opened. And whenever my mother volunteered to help with some church activity, I’d sneak away to a little prayer room adjacent to the balcony staircase at the back of the narthex. The room had originally been meant for storage, but some family in the congregation once upon a time paid to have it adorned with carpet, a couple of chairs, and a prayer desk. For some reason, the first time I discovered the little prayer room it conveyed a sense of peace. I returned to it every chance I got. It is the first place I ever prayed, on my own, in the words of my six-year-old heart. It is the first place I considered holy, even before I could articulate a sense of what that word might mean.

Today, this very day, thirty-seven or so years later, I have visited three of the holiest places on God’s earth for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Early this morning, my fellow Christians and I were allowed to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Haram Al-Sharif. The name means “The Noble Sanctuary,” and after Mecca and Medina, it is the third holiest site in Islam. The Quran says that Mohammed traveled to Al-Aqsa on his night journey, and from there ascended to heaven. Of course, the site is sacred to Jews and Christians as well. Haram Al-Sharif is built on the Jewish Temple Mount, and the temple itself was built on the traditional site of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. The Dome of the Rock is centered on that very spot. Not only were we allowed to enter (thanks to the good relations of St. George’s College), but we were also allowed to descend into the grotto below the rock itself and see the literal bedrock on which the three Abrahamic religions are built.


The Dome of the Rock at Haram Al-Sharif

As heady as that experience was, scarcely an hour later I found myself leaning in prayer against the Western Wall, the last remaining portion of King Herod’s Temple Mount. The Western Wall is the only tangible connection between modern Jews and their temple forebearers, and as such it is the most sacred Jewish holy place.

Three hours after that, I walked, foot weary and emotionally exhausted, into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose precincts include the sites of both the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Attestation to the accuracy of the church’s location are very early, dating to the second century A.D.

All that is to say, in a day, in the city known for eons as the “center of the world,” I encountered the holiest sites and central places of prayer for the three religions that together make up the majority of the world’s population.

I’m still processing the experience, but this much I already know: Prayer is the key word. When we descended into the grotto at the Dome of the Rock, a lone woman was already there, devotedly kneeling and saying her morning prayers. (It’s little known in the Western world that the Dome of the Rock is specifically intended for use by women.)


The Western Wall

At the Western Wall, Jewish men and women of all types engaged in intense and sometimes sobbing prayer, moving their bodies back and forth and pressing on the wall as if in desire to become one with it.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I saw Christians of all stripes. At the Rock of Anointing, on which Jesus is said to have been prepared for burial, men and women remonstrated and kissed the stone. Around Golgotha, one could barely move for all the people praying in various postures. In ardent and sometimes anguished prayer, they brought with them their pains, sorrows, fears, and–yes–demons, and committed them all to the cross of Christ, in hopes that these men and women might rise from prayer as Jesus rose from the tomb, redeemed in new life.


The Tomb of Jesus

As I prayed at the Holy Sepulchre, the distance of time and geography between the little prayer room at First United Methodist Church in Paragould and the holy city of Jerusalem seemed to vanish. The reality that God has been with me, behind and before a lifetime of prayer, no matter where I have been when I prayed, became palpable.  The further truth became transparent that wherever women and men render their hearts vulnerable to God in prayer, that place is holy. And through the sacramental grace such holy places communicate, we become holy.

I am convinced that God offers us specific and profound thin places like Haram Al-Sharif, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre–or a little prayer room off the balcony stairwell of a small town church–in order that we ourselves may become thin places, that we may become sharers and receivers of God’s grace, even and especially across religious divides.


The sun shone brightly in Jerusalem today, and through the great oculus of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre bright rays poured on those who’d come seeking the Son of God. “He is not here,” the light seemed to say, hearkening to the words of the angel on Easter, “He has risen!” Jesus resides not in the holy tomb, but is incarnate in the hearts of all God’s holy children, most especially when our hearts commune–whether in yearning, sorrow, or joy–with God in prayer.



Pentecost, one week early

On Pentecost Sunday, Christ Church Cathedral and many other congregations across the world will surreptitiously plant readers across the nave, who will stand during the Acts 2 lesson and begin reading loudly in a variety of languages. The intention behind this exercise is twofold. First, it jars congregants into a heightened awareness that something extraordinary happens on Pentecost, namely, the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Second, it attempts to contrive what actually occurred upon the Spirit’s arrival among the followers of Jesus on the first Christian Pentecost. Luke tells us in Acts 2, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Some (i.e.-me) love this addition to the Pentecost liturgy. Those who do not point out that the cacophony of noise created during the Acts reading is actually the opposite of what the Pentecost hearers experienced in the first century. They remind us that Acts 2 goes on to say that the international crowd gathered around Jesus’ followers wondered, “How is it that each of us hears in our own language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

In other words, though the disciples speak in several tongues, the real miracle is that all those gathered hear in their own native language. They are given ears to hear words of grace that they can understand and thus receive.


Archbishop Suheil Dawani celebrating Holy Eucharist

This morning I worshiped at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral here in Jerusalem, where my friend Hosam Naoum is the dean. The congregation was a latter day iteration of the international crowd gathered on the first Christian Pentecost. I personally met people from Palestine, Israel, England, Canada, Germany, Australia, and the United States, and I know other nationalities were present.

In his sermon, Hosam prepared us for next week’s arrival of the Holy Spirit by rehearsing what John’s Gospel has taught us during this Easter season about the nature of the Church. Primarily, the Church intends to be that place and people where and among whom, when gathered, the presence of God becomes palpable. And that presence is manifest as love.

Though Hosam did not say so, the implication is, of course, that if the presence of God manifest as love is not present, then regardless of the building’s edifice, the flashing sign out front, the number of people gathered, or the claims of the preacher, it is not the Church.

Early in this morning’s worship service at St. George’s Cathedral, the congregation began to recite the Gloria in excelsis. As soon as the words began, it was Pentecost! Arabic, German, English, and other languages rang out “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!”


With the Very Rev. Hosam Naoum and his beautiful family

For a split second, it was a cacophony, but then the noise was transfigured into the song of angels, understood by every ear, proclaiming that God was present and that God is love. There was no need for contrivance. The Holy Spirit arrived in this conflicted land a week early, and we became the gathered Church.

I was amazed and perplexed, blessed beyond measure, my ears filled with words of grace.

Encountering Galilee

Feast of the Ascension

Thursday, May 5

The day began in Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth. Though never mentioned in scripture, Sepphoris was Herod Antipas’ first Galilean capital. At its height, it was a cosmopolitan center with intersecting paved roads, grand houses, and five thousand residents. As with other cities, Jesus assiduously avoided Sepphoris.  Even so, from the top of the Governor’s house in Sepphoris, one can see most of Galilee, with a bird’s-eye view of the land Jesus traversed during his year+ of ministry.


The “Galilean Mona Lisa”” on the floor of a house in Sepphoris

Understanding now much better the geography and first century demography of Galilee, the careful intention behind Jesus’ movements from one place to another is abundantly clear. For instance, Jesus likely selected Capernaum as his primary base of operations because it was strategically positioned between Sepphoris and Bethsaida, the capitals of the Herod brothers, Antipas and Philip. No itinerant wanderer was Jesus.


Looking across Galilee from Sepphoris

Also from the roof of the Governor’s house, one can look north toward Lebanon and east toward Syria. While we were there, an air raid siren unnervingly erupted, reminding us of the Middle East’s instability and the human tragedy that continues to unfold in Syria. I later learned that the siren was commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in turn reminds one of the necessity that Israel be vigilant of its own security, even as it should do so with justice toward and reciprocal security for its Palestinian neighbors. Nothing in this land is simple or easy.


First century Nazareth house

From Sepphoris we returned to Nazareth and had access to the excavated ruins of a first century house and sliding stone tomb within the precincts of the Sisters of Nazareth. First century Nazareth most likely consisted of as few as 150 and no more than 300 residents, of whom 80% were children. The village (which had been recently settled by tansplanted Jews from Judea) would have had, at most, a dozen houses. The consequent overwhelming probability is that Jesus once stood-if not actually resided-in the house we visited. And the sliding stone tomb (called since Byzantine times “the Tomb of the Just Man” and believed by the Sisters to be Joseph’s tomb) is incredible to see. Such tombs were only in use from approximately 50 B.C to A.D. 50, which means this tomb almost certainly contained the remains of someone in Jesus’ kinship group.


“The Tomb of the Just Man”

I found myself wanting to stay in the ruins far beyond the time allotted to us. It was almost unfathomable to be standing in the footprint of space in which Jesus once stood.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the El Babour Spice Mill, which we’d first visited yesterday. The owner, a Palestinian Christian named Tony Kanaza, had made us a meal in his shop: barley, spiced meat, nuts, and homemade yogurt. There are twenty-three in our group, and he’d cooked enough for all of us, with food to spare. Tony’s material hospitality was surpassed only by the joy and generous spirit with which he offered it. He told us that those who break bread together cannot hate, and that he understands his work as an act of peace. I was almost overcome by emotion as I considered this man, who is in many ways marginalized in his own country, but who refuses to relinquish either joy or hope for all who live in this holy land. Without doubt, Tony’s spirit is an incarnation of the Christ.


With Tony Kanaza at El Babour Spice Mill

As we returned to our hotel, the call to evening prayer rang out over Nazareth from the White Mosque. I offered a prayer of my own, for peace among God’s people.

It has been a most remarkable day, and I am thankful.

Tradition vs. Traditionalism, May Fete style

With much anticipation, St. Unction’s Episcopal Church called a new priest. At his first Sunday Eucharist, when it was time for the Prayers of the People, half the congregation stood up and the other half knelt. The half who were standing started yelling at those who were kneeling to stand up, and the ones who were kneeling yelled even more loudly at the ones who were standing to drop to their knees.  Then the standing parishioners began singing, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus,” while the kneeling parishioners drowned them out with a chorus of “Let us break bread together on our knees.”  The new rector was flabbergasted.  He didn’t know what to do. After church, his senior warden suggested he consult the ninety-eight-year-old patriarch of the parish for advice. As the rector drove to the older man’s home, he hoped the patriarch would be able to tell him what the parish’s actual cherished tradition was.  When the rector arrived, the older man invited him in and served coffee, while the rector asked, “Is it St. Unction tradition to stand during the Prayers of the People?”

The older man answered, “No, that is not the tradition.”

Ah!  The rector was finally getting somewhere.  He pursued, “Then the tradition must be to kneel during the prayers.”  The old man answered, “No, that is not the tradition either.”  The exasperated rector then lamented, “But the congregation yells all the time, fighting over whether they should kneel or stand…”

The old man interrupted, exclaiming, “That is the tradition!”[i]

Kneeling vs. Standing

Kneeling vs. Standing: An Episcopal Church battle royale

Theologian Jaroslav Pelikan wisely said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, and I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives Tradition such a bad name.”[ii]

The distinction is subtle but crucial.  Did you catch it?  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”  Well, of all days at Christ Church Cathedral, May Fete is a day about our own tradition, so we’d better be clear about with which of these two we’re concerned: tradition or traditionalism.

First, traditionalism.  What is it?  It is what I usually call “dead custom,” those things we do simply because we’ve always done them.  Their primary purpose is to grant us the illusion that the world around us is static and unchanging, against the grain of the rest of our experience which demonstrates to us so clearly that the world is always in rapid flux.  The pace of change in our world gives us—as it has always given people—existential whiplash.  It discomfits and worries us, and we seek the comfort of traditionalism like the warm blanket we could always trust for comfort when we were children.  In its benign form, traditionalism often takes shape as gentle nostalgia.  But in its corrosive form it clings to past things with a myopic grip, saying to the changing world outside, “No, no, no!”  In the church, traditionalism closes the circle of grace to outsiders for fear that they might change us.  Traditionalism turns the church into merely a museum, or perhaps a mausoleum.  That’s why Jaroslav Pelikan calls traditionalism “the dead faith of the living.”

But is that what May Fete is about?  Not by a long shot!  May Fete is not traditionalism; it is tradition, and Jaroslav Pelikan says that tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Tradition is the remembrance and reenactment of the strength, and courage, and faith of those saints who have gone before us, so that we can be informed and inspired by them to meet our own challenges.  Tradition is reading today’s very Gospel text and asking, “How were our ancestors faithful to this charge?  And how can we remember and emulate them?”

Today Jesus says to us in John’s Gospel, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Christ Church Cathedral old photo (1936)

The present Christ Church Cathedral was built in 1893, the year of the Great Panic and subsequent economic depression.

So what was in the backdrop of these words in the 1890s, when the people of Christ Episcopal Church decided to launch a spring festival, to celebrate youth, fecundity, joy, and faith?  Why did the parishioners of this place decide that May Fete was the way to demonstrate that they were neither troubled nor afraid, that they, indeed, loved their God and desired nothing more than to keep God’s good word?

In 1892, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of American made the first revision of its Book of Common Prayer since the original American Prayer Book was issued in 1789.  We are, of course, experiencing the liturgy from that Prayer Book this very morning.  By itself, as many here will recall from 1979, a Prayer Book revision can be a traumatic experience for Episcopalians.  All indications are that Christ Church weathered the 1892 Prayer Book without missing a beat, but scarcely had the new Prayer Book been introduced than an event far from Houston affected local life immensely.

In the immediate prior years, Argentinian national bonds had been all the rage for American investors, but in 1890 Argentina’s wheat crop failed, and an ominous run on American banks followed.  Three years later, in 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad failed, and much more extensive bank runs resulted.  Hundreds of banks collapsed, the stock market tanked, and European investors pulled their gold from the U.S. system.  Though it is little remembered today, in 1893 the United States entered a severe economic depression that lasted four years.[iii]  In the wake of our own Great Recession of 2008-2009, and with the price of oil languishing at $45 per barrel, try to imagine ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes, but with our present anxiety magnified exponentially, as credit froze, businesses failed, and the good people of Houston were impotent to do anything about it.


February 6, 1893 New York Times, headlining the financial crisis

Let me add this: The population of Houston in 1890 was twenty-seven thousand.  Around that same time, Easter services at Christ Church attracted over fifteen hundred communicants.  Consider that proportion: Christ Episcopal Church was easily the Lakewood of the day!  In the couple of years before the depression of 1893, the church fathers at Christ Church planned for the future.  They built a new parish house and began construction on the cloister to connect the parish house with the church.  But when the contractor began to attach the cloister and the church, the east wall of the church collapsed, rendering the entire church structurally unsound.  With no other choices, the vestry rebuilt the whole thing, finished in that inauspicious year of 1893, which is the beautiful and sacred space in which we now worship.

As soon as the depression hit, it became obvious that the timing couldn’t have been worse.  Even after pledging sacrificially, which they did, parishioners were unable raise the building funds from among themselves, and Bishop Kinsolving made it known that he was opposed to debt.  Ultimately, Christ Church was left with no choice.  They were forced to take out a loan of $20,000 in gold coin—that’s more than half a million in today’s dollars—at a rate of 8%, with the balloon at the end of five years.  Daily operating finances became so tight that beloved sexton Friday Carr saw his pay cut from $40 per month to $30.[iv]

Aunt Fairy photo(2)

My Great Aunt Fairy and Great Uncle John Hunter Thompson on the way to May Fete, c. 1910.  (My grandfather wouldn’t be born until 1913.)

Days were dark, and there was no sign of the dawn.  How would the people of Christ Church respond?  Would they cower in fear?  Would their tongues forget to utter words of God’s love and grace and instead speak through their anxiety?  Well, at some point along the way, in those very years of depression, someone (almost certainly from the Ladies Parish Guild) suggested that the best response, the faithful response, the response that reminded both Christ Church and the Houston community of which Christ Church was the very social center that the God of resurrection still made God’s home with them in the midst of the city, was to have a party, a grand festival.  In the face of despair, Christ Church would celebrate.   And so it was that Friday Carr erected the Maypole for the first time, the parish children danced and played, and the adults anticipated the bright future even though it was beyond their immediate horizon.   For us, today, what could be more inspiring?

These days we tell ourselves all the time that God is in the midst of the city.  And today we enact the tradition, the living faith of our ancestors, that has proclaimed this truth to Houston for one hundred twenty years.  As today we worship and play as they did, let not our hearts be troubled.  Allow us instead to love the Lord and keep God’s word as faithfully as they did, celebrating joy, spring, and the gift of resurrection.


[i] Adapted from a joke found at

[ii] Quoted in Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, pg. xviii.


[iv] Johnson, Marguerite.  A Happy Worldly Abode: Christ Church Cathedral 1839-1964, 122-127.