There is nothing more fulfilling than watching as a difficult concept clicks into place in the mind of a student. I can’t say that it happens that often (or at least it’s normally well hidden from me), but when you do witness such an incredible event, it makes all the struggles of teaching worthwhile.
Several weeks ago, I was preparing some younger students for First Communion when one of them asked me to explain the Trinity. He told me that he knew that the Trinity was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he didn’t understand what the Holy Spirit was. It was not a surprising question. In fact, even in my Master’s level Trinity class, my professor still acknowledges that the Holy Spirit is the most difficult Person of the Trinity to understand. And if Master’s students had to grapple with the concept, how could a seven-year old manage?
But I didn’t give up and ignore the child’s question, telling him that the Holy Spirit just couldn’t be understood. Sure, the Trinity will never be comprehended in its fullness, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand it at all.
Students generally don’t have any problem grasping something of the nature of the Father and Son. They understand those concepts. They know what it means to have a father, and they know what it means to be a son/daughter. It’s not much, but it at least gets them somewhere. And of course they find it easy to form a picture of the Father and the Son in their heads. Inevitably, the Father is a gray-bearded elderly man, while the Son is brown-haired, blue-eyed young man. But what about the Holy Spirit? If the children do attempt to imagine the third Person of the Holy Trinity, He often takes the form of a dove. Or fire. Or He just doesn’t have a form at all- because He’s a ghost.
This is what my students generally understand of the Holy Spirit. He is an amorphous energy that has some non-specific role in the world. He didn’t create the world like the Father. He didn’t die on a cross and rise from the dead like the Son. There’s a vague memory of a story about people’s heads on fire (yes, that’s how it’s been recounted to me more than once), but that’s the extent of it.
But they understood enough to take their assessments, so they never asked for any further explanation. They knew the basic dogma: three Persons in one God. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They didn’t ask to know more. Maybe they didn’t even know how to ask.
But several weeks ago, someone did. After mentioning the Trinity, one of the students asked me a very surprising question, “What is the Holy Spirit?” Who is He? What is His Role? What does He do? Is He a tongue of flame? A dove? A strong, driving wind? A ghost? Can He change form at will? If the Father is the Father of the Son and the Son is the Son of the Father, is there really room for the Holy Spirit? Where does He fall in this relationship?
With this last question, my student was onto something. Without ever having consciously discussed it with my students, this particular boy understood that he was asking a question of relation. He wanted to know how the Holy Spirit related to the Father and the Son, and whether this relationship would make the Holy Spirit more substantial to him.
For the next five minutes or so, I found myself explaining deep Trinitarian theology to a seven-year old. I began with what the child already comprehended: the Father and the Son are related. How are they related? By being Father and Son in relation to one another. Why are they related? Because they love each other. A father loves his son, and a son loves his father in return. If it happens among human fathers and sons, it most certainly must occur between the divine Father and Son. As St. John tells us, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8). And God is love because the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father. But this love is so strong that we can actually say that God is love. God doesn’t just love; He is love. Love is the very essence of His Being. It’s who He is. But the love between the Father and the Son is so strong that it doesn’t stay closed up between them. Their love is so strong that it bears fruit in a third, the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of love between them.
As I explained this to the boy, I could see the wheels turning in his head. He was beginning to grasp the existence of the third Person of the Trinity, but he wasn’t quite there yet.
“How can love be so strong that another Person is born?” And as he asked it, I saw the lights flash in his eyes. A moment of revelation. “It’s like a baby.” I asked him to clarify.
“Well,” he told me, “when a mom and dad love each other a lot, sometimes they have a baby. I guess the Father and the Son love each other so much that they have a Holy Spirit.” I laughed at the conclusion. It’s not quite the same, I told him, but it’s a good analogy. I asked him if he knew what an analogy was.
“Yeah, it’s when you compare two things that are different.” But why can you compare them if they’re different? I asked. “Because they’re the same too.” A paradox, but profoundly true. I decided to use his definition, and proceeded to explain that God isn’t a man or woman, but His Love is fruitful just like the love between a mother and father can be fruitful. But God’s love goes way beyond any human love. And then my student nodded as he exclaimed, “And that’s why we say that God is love!” In that moment, I couldn’t have been more proud.
I think I might have a future John Paul II Institute student on my hands.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!