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Sunday 26 May 2024 Trinity Sunday

In search of beauty

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

By Catherine Lomas

Anglican priest in the Diocese of Gloucester and full-time iconographer at Catherine Mary Icons

Context: Eucharist involving a large and varied congregation in a country market town

Aim: to expand our visual imagination when considering the Trinity

Today is the day when, with diverse church communities, preachers walk the narrow path of finding something meaningful to say about God as Trinity, whilst avoiding tripping over the many heresies whose explanations have sought to aid our understanding over the centuries. We seek words to illuminate what it means to believe in one God as three persons. Trinity Sunday - when we attempt the impossible – expanding human words to fit the Divine. Yet, what if we set aside our assumption that words are the best way?


Imagine that I had asked you to bring an image that represents God as Trinity. What pictures could we expect to share together? We might see shamrock leaves; perhaps a photo representing family relationships. The more scientifically minded may have an image of water as ice, liquid and steam. I shall not explain why these each fall short (and into heresy). However, what if we take an image with greater spiritual credentials, one that has received the Church’s approval over centuries? Images with all three Divine persons are rare. Even Michelangelo reduced the Creator to a Father-like figure, notwithstanding the creative presence of Christ and Spirit being affirmed by Scripture. So, I am certain that a number of you would have come with the fifteenth-century Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity icon.


The difficulty with this icon is that it does not portray the Trinity unequivocally. Also entitled The Hospitality of Abraham, it shows the visitation of three men to Abraham and Sarah recounted in Genesis 18. Yes, this passage has been described theologically to prefigure the Trinity, such that Rublev’s figures have been assigned to Father (left), Christ (centre) and Spirit (right). They are arranged in an eternal circle, a mutual gaze establishing an image of unity and harmony. Yet they are not depicting the Trinity as such. What makes Rublev’s icon speak of the Trinity is not visual accuracy in showing the Divine persons, for none of us can know how the Father and Spirit appear. Similarly, I’ve never been convinced by images relying on the description in Isaiah 6, such that I could truly understand what it means to be visited by a seraph. Even in visual forms, we have to rely on metaphors. With his use of colour, geometry and symbolism, Rublev skilfully invites us beyond Scriptural words into the presence of the Divine. His is a profound image, reliant upon humanity’s innate search for harmony and beauty.


So why not look for other beauty-filled images that evoke a similar response? An Ansel Adams landscape, perhaps, or an icon of a different kind on the cover of Vogue. Humanity has tried continually to define beauty, from the classical statuary of ancient Greece to specifying the ‘ideal’ width between the eyes. It is in vain, just as are our attempts to describe the Trinity. We say, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, reminding us that our experience of beauty is genuinely our own and influenced by time and culture; the adage ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ really does have power and truth. Consequently, what we know about beauty is that words always fall short in the face of our own, genuine encounter. Let me suggest, therefore, that our understanding of the Divine in all its complexity is aided if we search for God with that same openness and receptivity with which we might regard beauty. Consider the words of US theologian, Jonathan Edwards: ‘All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God... is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty.’*

So, dare you go out into God’s world and look for images of the Trinity in creation? Find the eternal beauty of the Creator in the faces of those around you? Sit and watch the interactions of people to uncover harmony or mutual understanding? God as Trinity invites us to seek God in all things, in all people, in all time. In my experience, when we truly encounter the Divine (as with profound beauty), we no longer need words to explain or understand. We just know. And we gaze in wonder, fully present to ourselves and to God. ‘Here am I.’

*quoted in Art for God’s Sake by Philip Graham Ryken (p. 54)

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