Some years ago I was asked to give a tour of The Basilica to a group of lawyers, physicians, reporters and university professors from the Middle East. Most of them were Muslim with the exception of one or two Christians. They had been invited by the State Department to experience our country first-hand. My task was to show them the building and while doing that answer any questions they might have about Christianity. Given the many images and symbols around our building it was rather easy to offer a quick introduction to our catholic faith.
Toward the end of the tour a journalist from Yemen asked me how we could consider ourselves monotheists or believers in one God as we seemingly worshipped three Gods. As fate or better yet, Divine Providence would have it we were standing by the chapel of St. Anthony. Carved in the wall leading to this chapel is a representation of a snake and a clover, the symbolic representation of St. Patrick. The snake refers to the belief that Patrick chased all snakes out of Ireland. The clover was used by Patrick to explain the mystery of the Trinity. Pointing out that a three lobed clover leaf has indeed three lobes but constitutes one leaf he explained that the Holy Trinity is one God but three persons.
I pointed out the carving of the clover in the wall and told the story of St. Patrick. I told them that we have a threefold experience of the one God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. I spoke of our God we call Father who created all that is. I spoke of our God we know as Son who redeemed us from our sinfulness and death. And I spoke of our God as Spirit who inspires us to live according to the Gospel.
Hesitatingly admitting that on some level this made sense, the journalist then told me of a picture she saw of the Christian God in the form of three men. How was she to deduce that this actually was an image of one God? I asked her if the three men looked alike.” Indeed they did”, she said, “they looked exactly alike”. There, of course is a reason for that as the three are actually the one and the same.
Nevertheless, the representation of God as three men, more than likely old and long bearded white men does not necessarily enhance the understanding of the Trinity. In the end, God only became human in Jesus Christ. Depicting the other two persons of the Holy Trinity in human terms may be too much of an anthropomorphic approach to the Trinity. This actually may impede the understanding of our God by Christians and non-Christians alike.
The mystery of our Tri-une God is in essence the mystery of an intimate relationship. In the same way as two humans who love one another are one in their love but separate individuals so the persons of the Trinity are one in their relationship but distinct in their personhood.
As our visitors left The Basilica they thanked me profusely for giving them a better understanding of Christianity. The Yemini journalist said nothing, but just smiled. To this day I am not sure what she ended up thinking about our faith. Of course, thinking is probably the wrong verb as it really is all about believing. After all, as the little boy by the sea told St. Augustine, it is no more difficult to move all the water of the ocean using a seashell than it is to comprehend the Holy Trinity.