One of the wonderful women I was blessed to know in graduate school saw the world through a Trinitarian lens. Every triad she came across was joyfully proclaimed to be “three for the Trinity”! I learned much about the Trinity during my grad school years, thanks to Karl Rahner and Miguel Diaz (just had to mention those in the same breath, my friends) and many other systematic theologians in between.
I came to understand the Trinity not as a three-leaf clover or a pipeline of holiness transferred from one Divine Person to the next (yes, I admit to holding to both of these images at various points during my religious upbringing). Instead, I came to understand the Trinity as a community of persons, a dynamic exchange of love that we are called to emulate in our own relationships, families, and churches.
But this was still a theoretical understanding of the Trinity, albeit nuanced and comfortably backed up by many theologians much wiser than I.
So it surprised me that motherhood would begin to teach me what the Trinity really meant.
I remember one night in particular, during the blurry weeks of my son’s early life. He was still sleeping next to our bed in his snug bassinet, angelic with his tiny features and the barely discernible rise and fall of his baby chest (which terrified me at least once a night when I was convinced he wasn’t breathing. Soon after he begin snoring like a lumberjack; be careful what you pray for).
I was thoroughly exhausted, having woken to nurse him at 11, and 1, and 2:30, and 4, or some awful combination thereof. A growth spurt or a restless night or simply a hungry boy – I really didn’t care. All I longed for was a three – or even four! – hour stretch of sacred sleep so I could stop the pounding in my head and feel like a Real Human Being again.
But he had roused once more, hungry and crying. I sighed, pushed my tired body up, and pulled him out of his bassinet into the warmth of our bed. He nursed eagerly for five minutes, then immediately fell asleep with the satisfied “drunk on milk” smile that my husband and I loved to joke about. But not at 4:30 in the morning.
I wanted him to rouse and eat so I could sleep, but darn it all, babies can sense your best-laid plans and delight in letting them go astray. A freight train could have barreled through our bedroom and that child would not have stirred. I sighed again, so tired and frustrated at the knowledge that he would be up again soon and hungry yet again.
But in the warm glow of the nightlight next to our bed, I gazed at this beautiful little creature in my arms and I realized what a gift this was. Not only his sheer presence in our lives, in our family, which had sometimes seemed a distant dream at best. But the fact that I was able, by the gift of myself, to sustain his very life.
Nursing hadn’t been easy. Our baby had arrived three weeks early, and complications landed him in the higher level nursery instead of sleeping next to me as we had planned. He was hooked up to all sorts of monitors and IVs, and I had to learn to nurse under the hawkish eyes of nurses who insisted that the baby needed a bottle of formula. We held our ground until we realized that they wouldn’t discharge him until he proved that he could eat (and my milk had yet to come in). So I sobbed irrationally, but then watched my husband delight in being able to feed the baby himself. Parenting Lesson #1: throw out your plans and theories and expectations.
Then three weeks after we brought him home and finally learned how to nurse well, two rounds of thrush (and one more to come) brought every possible medication and homeopathic treatment under the sun to ease the blistering pain. In the end it was only patience and my stubborn determination to wait it out that conquered evil thrush once and for all.
So it hadn’t been a walk in the park, but it had still been incredibly worthwhile. Parenting lesson #2: just because something is a challenge doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, I told myself every day. And to watch my son grow and awaken and plump up before my eyes was my proudest work to date.
So at that blurry night (or was it morning?) hour, I bathed in the glow of the nightlight and soaked up that sleeping baby in my arms, knowing full well (in that theoretical way) that these days would pass and I would miss them. I gently laid the baby back in his bassinet and snuggled back into my own warm bed, pulling the covers over my shoulders. Then my husband roused a bit, rolled over, and sneaked his arm around my waist, snuggling into the curve of my back.
That was when it hit me. This is exactly what it means to exist within the life of God.
This was Trinity. The giving, the receiving; the pouring out of self and the filling up when empty. This was the community of love, the dynamic diversity that mysteriously made up the very Self of God.
And for a brilliant second, I understood and basked in it and let it take my breath away. We gave and we took and we grew in love because of it.
Three for the Trinity, I heard echoing in my head. It was so real – the Really Real – that every theory or theology I had about the Trinity paled in comparison.
So much straw, Aquinas said.
Systematic theology, attachment parenting – the theories work out beautifully on paper, but the reality forces us to deal in shades of grey, ambiguities we never expected to encounter. And yet, the richness of the discovery – the really real deepening of love – made the disillusionment of the loss of certainty all the more powerful.
Trinity, I breathed. I smiled.
Thanks to the Incarnation, we can dare to exist, for moments, within the life of God.