Brace Yourself: Natural Images for the Trinity

blue sky with white clouds, water overflowing in a great waterfall with some brush/greenery in the forefront (this is Niagra Falls)

Martin Luther once reflected, in his own down-to-earth way, about how to instruct new believers who already have faith in God as the Father, but who do not as yet believe in the whole Trinity. First, Luther said, encourage them to believe in a second person, the Son, as well as the Father. Then, having grasped the idea of more than one Divine person, said Luther, it will be much easier for them also to believe in yet another, the Spirit (!). That approach could work, I imagine, probably not for Unitarians, but perhaps for others.

Be that as it may, I have learned, over the years, that invoking images to help us engage God as the Trinity can be much more fruitful for such conversations than reflecting about numbers, whether about one, two, and three or three-in-one. True, not all images will work well. A case in point: the image of three interlocking circles, which was displayed prominently in the sanctuary of the church in which I grew up, during what was then called “The Trinity Season.”

It so happened that in those days a major American brewery, Ballantine Beer, had chosen that very image for its own marketing, with the slogan: “Purity, Body, and Flavor.” Still, beer or no beer, a three-circled geometrical image, for reasons that I don’t fully understand, has never really commended itself to me.

Then, of course, there’s ordinary human images for the Trinity. Consider, for example, the large oil painting by an unknown medieval artist long on display in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, a painting that I’ve contemplated, with mixed feelings, many times. That work depicts the traditional image of a great king, who is wearing a stately gold crown, colorful robes, and displaying a long white beard. That King – and it is a king, which the patriarchal Christianity of the Middle Ages took for granted – is depicted as sitting on a majestic throne and holding a large figure of the crucified Son before him, the Son with his head bowed in holy repose, his anguished body affixed to his cross. Up in the right-hand corner of that painting, all by itself, almost invisible, you can see a tiny figure of a white dove, which of course was intended to represent the Holy Spirit. For a whole range of good reasons, I believe, that medieval vision of the Trinity has always troubled me.

Should we, then, regard any attempt to present the Trinity visually to be a fool’s errand? I don’t think so. Before we find ourselves driven to abandon the quest to identify images for the Trinity altogether, I want to remind you that I, for one, have suggested, over the years, especially in my book Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (2008), that by drawing on images from nature we can grasp some of the deeper meanings of our encounters with the Trinity in a fresh way, even as we may well want to keep highlighting images from human life, like father and son or love between persons more generally.

So in Ritualizing Nature, I propose an image of the Niagara River, its awe-inspiring Falls and its majestic downstream gorges, to help us more fully to grasp the mystery of the Trinity. I still recommend that particular natural image to anyone who has eyes of faith and who wants to see still more.

Here I want to propose yet another natural image for the Trinity, which has lately dawned on me, for your consideration. See what you think about it. It came upon me this way: I turned my desk chair around. There, affixed to the shelves of a bookcase, I saw prints of three extraordinary paintings.

I put those prints in place, over the years, with no particular theological purpose consciously in mind. I had them in my collection and I wanted to display them. That was that.  I displayed them simply because each one spoke to me. In retrospect, now, I have concluded that a certain Trinitarian logic was unfolding in my mind’s eye in that process, however subliminally.

One advantage of contemplating these reproductions together in this way, I now realize, is that they are so obviously what they are, varied representations of the beauties and the wildness and the grandeur and, on occasion, the glorious peace of the natural world itself. Hence it should be clear that these images are not literally depicting God, surely not as that aforementioned medieval painting had been designed to do. Yet with the eyes of faith, I believe, taken together these images can be read, figuratively, as revealing testimonies to the Trinity.

oil painting of dark rocks and a grey sky with ocean waves crashing up against the rocks showing white foam
Weatherbeaten, by Wilsow Homer, 1894, oil on canvas – Portland Museum of Art – Portland, Maine

Contemplate first, then, the image of a large oil-painting, Weatherbeaten, by Winslow Homer (1894), which I happen to have seen on numerous occasions at the Portland Museum of Art. I read this painting as – whatever other meanings it might be speaking – inspired, although not intended, testimony to the mystery of the first person of the Trinity. God the Father is, in some respects, like that image.

We encounter here a powerful portrayal of a colossal ocean wave that is about to crash down on to a dark, jagged rocky Maine shore, under a foreboding grey sky. Here Homer seems to be attempting to give expression to the raw, indeed to the amoral, forces of nature, often surging beyond anything that we humans can imagine, even as we contemplate those very forces with awe or with fright or with both. This is nature in itself – wild and tempestuous, sublime and overwhelming – far removed from the peaceful or even the wrenching moments of any human society. For me, this chaotic, oceanic image points us to the mysterious power of “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” as the apostolic creed announces.

an old sailing boat being tossed at sea with dark stormy clouds, light sky in the distance, the people in the boat are holding on for dear life
Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633

Second, imagine yourself standing before the large Rembrandt oil painting, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), which I also contemplated a number of times – before it was stolen in from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. With my own sigh of hope for this great work’s eventual return, I here want to say that I have long regarded it as inspired testimony to the mystery of the second person of the Trinity. God the Son is in some respects like the image of Jesus we can contemplate in that painting.

In this overpowering work, you can encounter the same kind of natural chaos that so transfixed Homer along the Maine coast. But here you can also be claimed by a gripping narrative that seems to emerge before your very eyes, even as you stand there with fright before that chaotic scene.

A vulnerable ensemble of fragile humans, the disciples and their teacher, Jesus, is being tossed about perilously in a small fishing boat, on bright but turgid and chaotic waves – doomed to death, they all appeared to have been. But then – and this biblical denouement isn’t even suggested by Rembrandt’s painting, although he surely assumed that all in his time knew the story – the very Creator-God whose powers are made manifest by those primeval waves takes hold of the narrative of that fraught experience in a remarkable way.

When you contemplate that striking painting, you have to complete the epic story yourself. Rembrandt leaves it to us to imagine how the Creator God, now in the person of the Savior, Christ the Lord, rescues the disciples, even as the storms of chaos are threatening to drown them all.

Which means, according to the biblical narrative, which Rembrandt is depicting in part: Christ is the Lord of all things. He is the One who has arrived in the midst of our earthly chaos in order to usher in an overwhelmingly new and magnificently diverse world of cosmic harmony and peace. Generations of the faithful, after the apostolic era, would then fittingly come to know this Lord, who “stilled the waters,” as the second person of the Trinity.

silhouette of a three sailed sail boat with a grey cloudy sky, the bottom of the sky and reflection in the still ocean water is deep orange and yellow, this is a painting by Winslow Homer
Sunset Fires, Winslow Homer, 1880

Finally, contemplate with me the image of another painting by Homer, with perhaps – especially in our day, when forest fires have been rampaging everywhere – the ominous-sounding title, Sunset Fires (1880). I take this work to be inspired testimony to the mystery of the Creator Spirit, who, according to Genesis 1, hovers over a vast world-coming-into-being and who, according to Acts 2, comes down, as with flames, upon a distraught company of disciples who were still grieving the loss of their beloved teacher. God the Spirit is in some respects like the peace and the power that we can encounter in Sunset Fires.

I have never seen this painting in person, but I quickly took hold of a reprint the first time I could. For me, this is an unusual, even strange, Homer painting. It shows a 19th century schooner, depicted in black, with full charcoaled sails, quietly, we may imagine, coursing through what appears to be a richly reddened, tranquil bay at sunset. Think of it as being propelled forward by the wind or the Spirit (pneuma, spiritus) of God. The observer can see dark forms on its deck, presumably passengers huddled there, as they are being carried peacefully forward by that schooner, and also see, nearer to the placid shore, three dark human figures in a black canoe, moving peacefully in the same direction, closer to the shoreline.

All is well with mortal human life and with tempestuous nature everywhere – that seems to be the primary message of this translucently subdued painting by Homer. I read it, more particularly, as a witness to the cosmic peace that the Spirit – recall the tongues of fire of the Book of Acts, as well as the creative hovering of the Spirit over the primeval waters in the Book of Genesis – will one day bring to the whole creation, a day of peace when all the dark forces of chaos will be transfigured in eternal light; and the lamb will lie down with the lion and all things will glow in God.

And I thank God for disclosing to me what I now take to be these three illuminating natural images of the Trinity, consummate visual witnesses, I believe, to the glorious and unfathomable mysteries of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.