The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is esoteric enough and the arguments that led to its formulation are far enough in the past that it is easy to forget that the doctrine of the Trinity came about to explain and help Christians understand their experience of God. The doctrine is descriptive of our experience before it is prescriptive for our belief.
The recent writings of Arch. Sophrony and his disciple, Arch. Zacharias, offer a case in point. Sophrony, for most of his life a monk on Mt. Athos, saw what was happening in the interior lives of certain monks and sought to understand it. Eventually he and Zacharias began to write about what they witnessed. But before we explore what they said we must review the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, with its dynamic reality in mind.
We might say that the Father exists permanently or eternally. We might say the Word and the Spirit also exist permanently. But it would be inaccurate to say that the Father exists “essentially” as Father, etc. Rather it is the Father, Word, and Spirit together that exist “essentially.” (That is, the divine essence — a technical theological term from at least the 3rd century — exists in God’s unity.) The three persons of the Trinity “co-inhere” as an expression of this essential unity. One Person cannot exist without the others for they exist in the dynamic flow into and out of each other that we call Love.
When God created humans something very similar was created into us. There is something that all humans have in common and that each one of us express individually. But at the same time, we are not fully human by ourselves. An essential part of our humanity is this something that we share together.
Theologians typically call this human nature. Just as all three persons of the Trinity share a singular essence, so all humans share a singular nature. I suppose we could call this thing that humans share “human essence,” but that term would easily mislead us. Father, Word, and Spirit flow into and out of each other continually, eternally, expansively, and necessarily. Their existence as Father, Word, and Spirit is impossible without that dynamic, just as it would be impossible to speak of the divine essence separate from the manifestation of that essence as Father, Word, and Spirit. Because God is eternal and everywhere present, this dynamic of one essence and three persons is the thing that makes God God.
But humans aren’t infinite in time and space as God is. We humans are finite; even though we necessarily share a human nature, the boundaries of our finitude mean that we experience it differently than God does. We are not automatically aware of our nature; rather, we are aware of our boundaries: our body is enclosed by skin. That which is outside our skin is not body. Our memories only go back so far, and we are very much aware that one day we will die and be separated from those we love. So while there are fundamental similarities in human relationships and the Divine Relationship, the fact that we are finite necessarily means there are fundamental differences. So it is that we call this thing that all humans share our “nature” rather than “essence.”
It’s hard to talk about the Holy Trinity without also talking about Christology — for it is through Christ that we first experienced the triune-ness of God. Jesus Christ is unique because he is both Divine and human, Creator and created, infinite and finite. He is the Word, the Son of God, one person of the Trinity. But he also took on flesh by being born of Mary and is thus human, the Son of Man, and shares in our human nature. Because he is infinite God he has the ability to share in our nature fully (that is, in a way we cannot share in our human nature because we are finite). Sophrony’s insight mentioned above fits into the discussion right at this juncture.
Because we participate in the human nature, a benefit of the incarnation is that since Jesus Christ became human and shared in our nature, we can learn to share in the Divine Nature through our participation in Christ who participates in the human nature and the Divine Essence. Sophrony’s insight (not unique to him, but he explored the insight in a way that no one else has) is that through Christ and in the Life-giving Spirit, as we begin to share in the Divine Nature we also increasingly and more fully share in the Human Nature that we cannot do without participation in the divine life. To be saved is not only to draw into union with God, it is to become more fully human by transcending our finitude and more fully experiencing our human nature.
As I become one with God, I become one with you.
As I become one with God, I become one with Father Sophrony and the Apostle Paul.
As I become one with God, I become one with Osama bin Laden and Bashar al-Assad and Pol Pot.
And this is the heart of our salvation.
Fr Sophrony developed the language and ideas of “entering into our heart” and “the expansion of the heart” in order to explain this. Our Heart is our true being. It is distinct from our will, intellect, and emotions. (These are what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.”) The will, intellect, and emotions are noisy and always drawing attention to themselves. They always want more and more and are never satisfied. All three are easily seduced and entrapped and then they do a good job of convincing us that this is the way things ought to be. Just as together, Paul calls these “the flesh,” so when they get excited and out of control, the fathers call them “the passions.”
“The Heart,” on the other hand, exists beyond these things in the deep interior of our being. Because in our sinful state we not only live on, but thrive on our passions, the heart atrophies and shrinks into tiny silence. The heart typically becomes such a small and utterly silent thing that when we want to start paying attention to it (and through to God), the heart within us can become nearly impossible to find. Only through the enlivening energy of the Holy Spirit and conquering power of Christ over our passions is it ever possible to vivify the heart. Only through the discipline of spiritual silence made possible in the Sabbath Rest of Christ that the author to the Hebrews promises, can we ever hope to enter into that gentle, quiet space of our heart.
And please note that this is an exactly opposite way of conceiving our being as in popular culture. In pop culture, to follow our heart is to follow the whims of our passions. The irresistible tug of desire is thought to be fulfillment. The feeding of our passions is thought to be the expression of our true self rather than the expression of our enslaved desires being pulled this way and that by “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and pride of life” in James’ words.
Through spiritual discipline we can begin to descend deeper and deeper into our heart. Because of our salvation and the process of union with Christ and new life in the Spirit, as we descend deeper and deeper into our true heart, we take the true God into our true heart and begin the process of actually uniting with Him. As we learn to dwell in our true heart, the living God begins to soften, enliven, and stretch our heart, the infinite God begins to stretch our heart, as if it were a balloon expanding with the winds of the Spirit of Life.
And as our true heart begins to slowly and incrementally expand we begin to participate in our human nature in a way that was never possible when we were defined merely be the limits of our flesh and bone. We are now in Christ and Christ is in us, and because of the infinite possibilities of this mystery, we are now in human nature and human nature — the full extent of human nature — is in us. And the miracle of true human unity begins to occur.
At first it seems contradictory — a sort of paradox that even as we ascend to heaven and to God, we descend into our very selves. The Apostle Paul says that we need to die to ourselves to become alive to Christ. Isn’t Sophrony contradicting the Apostle? No. For when we die to ourselves, we die to passions (will, intellect, emotions), that perfectly created triumvirate of will/intellect/emotion that has become, through their noisy and insistent strivings, our evil overlords who distort our view of reality and drag us away from God and life, and convince us that it is fun and wonderful and fulfilling and proper in the process. Descending into the heart is painful and brutal. It is a difficult and bloody battle as the passions, starved of their fuel, begin to atrophy while the true heart begins to soften and grow and becomes quietly attentive to God who is now both within and above.
To a degree we can ascend to Christ in our new spiritual life without attending to our heart; and to a degree we can descend into the true heart without striving on our heavenly journey, but Fr Sophrony believes that ultimately to do one we must also do the other. We are not shells from which we escape to flee to heaven, as the ancient Gnostics taught, neither are we secular beings who find fulfillment within as the ancient Stoics taught: We are spiritual and physical and it is necessary that both play their proper role in our salvation. As we ascend to Christ we can descend into our true heart. As we descend into our true heart we can ascend to heaven. The deeper into ourselves we go, the more we expand and become, for the first time, truly aware of other humans and even all creation. And as we see more and more of ourselves, of other human beings, and of all creation, the more we see God with unveiled faces.