440 The Spirit herself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God
Day 440: Sunday, May 30th, 2021
The Spirit herself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are daughters and sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!”
The Spirit herself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God
Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity: a reflection by Jim Fredericks
This is a teaching about God: three Persons, in perfect Oneness. But the Holy Trinity is also a teaching about each and every one of us.
This is because every single human being has been created in the image and likeness of the three Persons and their perfect Oneness.
Therefore, as is almost always the case, it is best to begin our thinking about God by turning to our concrete experience of ourselves.
Some time ago, in one of my homilies, I think I mentioned something a Buddhist friend once taught me as we walked by a mango tree in Hawai’i. My friend and I were walking together rather high up on the lush slopes of the pali on the windward side of Oahu. The tree was very old and fine and had grown very large. Every year, I assure you, this tree would bear an enormous crop of mangos. It was very beautiful. I loved it.
As we stood before this magnificent tree, my Buddhist friend said,
“the mind is like a mango tree full of howling monkeys.”
This was not Buddhist wisdom invented on the spot for my benefit. It’s a saying attributed to the Buddha in one of the oldest of the sutras (scripture). There’s a good reason why this teaching has been around a long time: it’s true.
I think of monkeys howling inside my head whenever I come to a realization that I am still at war with myself. For example, every once in a while, I have to ask myself some painful questions.
How could I have said that? (David Carlson asks himself this question every day...)
What was I thinking when I did that?
Who am I that I would even consider doing such a thing? What’s up with me?
Sometimes, I just don’t recognize myself. I seem to be a stranger to myself.
Perhaps you are familiar with such questions.
Shame, I think, happens when we drop our guard, and the world gets a glimpse of our mango tree of howling monkeys. The world looks at us as says: you’re a mess.
Guilt, on the other hand, is different. Guilt arises when we can no longer pretend to ourselves that there are no monkeys in the mango tree of our mind. Shame is public. Guilt is private.
Shame and guilt often lead us to lie about ourselves. To escape our discomfort, we tell ourselves that we are really an alpha-male monkey in our tree of our mind who has complete control over all the other monkeys. Don’t believe this. It’s a lie and it causes much mischief.
But, in truth, we tell ourselves this lie in order to survive.
I think the Buddha was right about the monkeys in our mango tree. But I want to build on his insight as I reflect on the Holy Trinity.
Thomas Merton was a convert to Catholicism who became a contemplative monk (a Trappist). He wrote important books on spiritual life. Merton once remarked that the human soul is like a great oak tree.
I like this image. Like mango trees, oak trees are very beautiful.
But I like Merton’s image of the human soul even more because he went on to say, “oak trees are really rooted in the sky.” Like the great oaks reaching up into the sky that grace our Valley here in Sonoma, our souls find their strength and stability by reaching up beyond themselves into the Mystery of God.
And also like the great oaks that grace our Valley, the mango tree of our mind is really rooted in the sky.
This brings me to the Holy Trinity.
Christianity teaches that God is not a rugged individual. God is a perfect Oneness of persons. The God of Christian faith is not that alpha-male monkey who dominates all the other monkeys and can brow-beat them to stop their howling. God is not a lonely monarch, made all the more lonely because of his power over others.
God is more like a choir of voices, blended together to make
unimaginably sonorous harmony.
I like jazz. Have you ever heard Bill Evans (piano), Miles Davis (trumpet) and John Coltrane (sax) make music together? Sometimes I think that these three people are making the music. Other times, I think it is the music that is making the three people.
Theologians, by the way, have been asking a similar question about the Trinity for the last seventeen centuries. But I want to take this in a more practical direction.
Don’t be too afraid about all the monkeys in your head. Don’t be overwhelmed by shame and guilt. We all have howling monkeys between our ears. Above all else, don’t make the mistake of pretending to be the alpha-male in charge of the whole tree.
Every human being is a person who is made up of many parts – memories, needs, desires, thoughts – that will never congeal into an autonomous individual under the dominance of some alpha-male monkey in the mango tree of our mind.
We have not been created in the image and likeness of an alpha-male.
We have not been created in the image and likeness of a lonely individual.
We have been created in the image and likeness of the God who is three persons opening up to one another.
This is just another way of saying that God is love.
I am just now turning seventy. I look at books in my library and see notes I scribbled in the margins when I was much younger. I smile when I read what I wrote. I read children’s books to my grand nieces and nephews that were read to me as a child. Here as well, I am charmed to see the person I was as a child. From time to time, however, I find myself asking those difficult questions mentioned earlier:
How could I have said that?
What was I thinking when I did that?
Who am I that I would even consider doing such a thing?
What’s up with me? Sometimes, I just don’t recognize myself.
Despite my pretense, I am not a lonely monarch or an alpha-male, in complete charge of myself and my surroundings. I am constantly discovering parts of myself that I didn’t know existed and parts of myself I wish didn’t exist.
Most of all, I am still trying to understand the fact that the mango tree of my mind – the great oak tree that is my soul – is really rooted in the sky.
The howling of the monkeys is slowly being transformed into the beautiful, sonorous harmony that is the Mystery of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Reflection by Jim Fredericks
May Taize prayer, from the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame.
from Vicki Castiglioni-Bornstein