“An Exchange of Uncreated and Created Gifts:
A Trinitarian Theology of Self-Gift and Some Spiritual Implications”
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer
The course on the Trinity has personally borne fruit for me in opening up some new perspectives and spiritual attitudes. Only time will tell their ultimate effect. Much of the fruit came in a cluster from one branch in particular. The Balthasarian Cardinal Marc Ouellet makes the theme of gift central to his theology in a very radical way. In attempting to explain and contextualize its salient features, I will describe what I have found so enriching about it and show how it has affected my approach to the Gospels, Mass, and our Lady, as well as opening up a reflection on community life and the vow of obedience, which I will treat most fully at the end. Dr Healy knew and studied under Fr Ouellet and told us in class that he never knew a priest whose preaching and spiritual direction was so explicitly Trinitarian in focus. Although this need not be the ideal of my own thinking in order to be the ideal of my living, yet it could still be helpful, so I interrupted him and asked how Ouellet did it. What about his approach was so overtly Trinitarian? How did he do it? The following includes what I grasped from Healy’s (necessarily) lengthy and intricate answer.
The life of the Trinity is the mutual self-giving of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the communion of love; and for Ouellet, this means it is a life of gift-giving. Since this is eternally the case, it is certainly proper to speak of it as happening all at once, once for all, in the total self-gift of the divine Persons. However, since we are beings in time, if we simply leave it at this, we could miss some of the richness of this self-giving. Personal relationships as we know them unfold in time, with a giving and receiving that occurs over and over again and in various and diverse ways. Various acts of giving and receiving love, new initiatives and creative expressions of love, unrequired and spontaneous gestures of tenderness, and skillful ingenuity in devising new gifts are all part of the lively dynamism of a rich personal relationship. And we want to attribute this richness to the Trinity since it constitutes a perfection. So with Ouellet, we will speak of gifts, in the plural, when describing eternal Trinitarian love in God himself. Yet in God’s case, we must recognize that it all occurs in pure actuality and simultaneously, once for all, in the eternal Now. So Ouellet speaks of “the eternal exchange of gifts between the divine Persons.” All this is before creation. Creation, ad extra, then, fits within this Trinitarian gift-giving ad intra. It is one of the many possibilities that could be realized in the free and creative gift-giving within the Trinity. (Also of utmost importance is this: in focusing on the distinctiveness of the divine Persons in what follows, we should also always keep in mind their unified work in common and unity of substance.) Creation is the Father’s gift to the Son. Healy notes, “the Father’s original purpose in creating the world…was to give the world as a gift to the Son within the eternal gift of the Son’s being-generated” (Eschatology of Balthasar, 118). And what of the Son’s gift to the Father? This will be the New Creation as it is redeemed, transformed, enriched, and returned to the Father through Christ’s saving work in the Spirit.
This personally reminded me of the Poem Romances by St John of the Cross. He reflects on Jn 1:1 in a Trinitarian fashion and imagines a dialogue between the Father and Son prior to creation. The Father says, “My Son I wish to give you a bride who will love you. Because of you, she will deserve to share our company” (9.3). Furthermore, the rest of creation, or “the world, was created as a palace for the bride” (9.4). In Son’s Incarnation and work of Redemption, then, “He [the Son] would take her tenderly in his arms and there give her his love; and when they were thus one, he would lift her to the Father, where God’s joy would be her joy. For as the Father and the Son—and he who proceeds from them—live in one another, so it would be with the bride; for taken wholly into God, she will live the life of God” (9.4). This expresses poetically what we have described and shows precedence in the Tradition for Ouellet’s reflections. The Cardinal’s thought echoes what we have found in John and develops it further:
He [man] realizes that the fulfillment of his destiny exceeds even the framework of human history saved by Christ; it occurs above all within the framework of a Trinitarian history whose specific note is the mutual glorification of the divine Persons. Man thus discovers his ultimate end in being given by the Father to the Son as a bride. At the same time, he realizes that the Son receives him with an infinite gratitude, in order to save him and return him to the Father as a holy spouse. Finally, in the Spirit of the Father (Jn 15:26) and of the Son, he learns that God’s fruitfulness becomes his, in the nuptial mystery of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church-Bride (Mystery and Sacrament of Love, 301).
The eternal self-giving of Father and Son eternally bears fruit in the Spirit. In the Economy, then, the Resurrected Christ is so taken into the divine life that even his humanity now shares in the sourcing of the Holy Spirit as he breathes it into the Church. The Church hence shares in the fruitfulness of the Spirit, especially in her Sacraments and mission to the world.
Dr Healy explained that the way Ouellet’s reflections on the Gospels were so Trinitarian was by placing the various mysteries and events of Christ’s life within this context. Fr Ouellet would speak of a given event in terms of the Father’s gift to the Son in the Spirit and the Son’s gift to the Father in the Spirit. This gift of the world between Father and Son, moreover, is lifted up into the Trinitarian exchange integrally and from within. As a result, we too are a part of and cooperate with this self-giving exchange of gifts, especially as we do so in the power of the Father and Son’s fruitfulness—in the power of the Spirit. The Trinitarian dimension extends to the Christological, which extends to the ecclesial as we are taken up into it. One of the benefits of this approach is how the organic unity of these mysteries effortlessly comes to the fore.
Practically, in my meditation on the Gospel, I sometimes try to approach things like Healy described Ouellet would. The Transfiguration seems to be a good example. A brief summary of a possible way of doing it goes something like this, I think. The three disciples, on the Mount with Jesus, are the nascent Church, the Father’s gift to the Son. They have been with Jesus for a few years, have learned from him, and have followed him. Moreover Jesus has really received them as a gift from the Father and so enjoys their company, after all they make up his intimate circle. Then suddenly Jesus is transfigured before them, the cloud of the Spirit sets the spiritual atmosphere of fellowship with Jesus; and the Father’s voice speaks, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Through listening, through discipleship, and through Jesus’ transformative work in the Spirit, Jesus’ transfigured human nature will extend out to the Church and all of humanity so that all of creation will be transfigured, enriched, and returned by Jesus to the Father. Moreover, Jesus gives to the Father this transfigured world from within, not as some external or neutral gift. For, it is the community of disciples’ active involvement in “listening to” and living Jesus’ message, and their sharing in Jesus’ life and humanity as a fulfilment of their own humanity, that is offered to the Father in the power of the Spirit given to them and working from within them. This is Jesus’ gift of the New Creation to the Father, redeemed and transformed; and in the event of the Transfiguration we already have a foretaste of it. So we see how Trinitarian gift-giving is at play here. In end, to whatever extent this works (or does not work) as an exposition of the text, these basic dimensions are helpful in prayerfully reflecting on the events of the Gospel and dwelling with the inner meaning of these mysteries. I am not sure if this is how Ouellet would do things, but this is a way I have tried to incorporate his insights into my meditation. (I will attempt more of this kind of exegesis with events of Mary’s life.)
All this becomes more dramatic in the Eucharistic celebration. In the Eucharist, the Father’s gift of creation, symbolized in the bread and wine, is taken up by the incarnate Son and given to the Father. Hence our own gift of self, as we offer up various works and sacrifices of daily life as well as our whole being, is taken up into the Son’s own gift to the Father. Ouellet says in a very rich passage,
The eternal exchange of gifts between the divine Persons is prolonged in the salvific economy (which involves mankind, creation, and the Church) through the event of Christ’s Incarnation that culminates in the paschal mystery. The celebration of the Eucharist is the real symbol (sacrament) of this trinitarian exchange of uncreated and created gifts. In each Eucharist, the Father gives a gift to the incarnate Son and the Son to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit; this gift-giving involves the Church and the world from within” (Mystery and Sacrament of Love, 206).
The eternal Trinitarian exchange of gifts now has within it, thanks to creation, a Trinitarian exchange of created gifts. And in Christ and in the Spirit, our efforts and gift of self are taken up into the Son’s gift to the Father. Incorporated into his Body and enlivened by his Spirit, we are part of the Son’s gift to the Father. We are a realization of one of the possible ways that the Son’s free and creative gift-giving to the Father is realized. And so in the Eucharistic celebration especially, we enter into this Trinitarian exchange of uncreated and created gifts. All this resonates with Eucharistic Prayer III, where the priest speaks of Jesus offering us to the Father: “May He make of us an eternal offering to You.” Ouellet’s thought enlarges on this.
This has helped me appreciate more the powerful work of Christ in general but especially in the Mass. My effort at giving myself to the Father, as poor as it may be, is not a matter of indifference to Jesus. Quite the contrary. To put it a little boldly, Jesus has as much at stake in our self-offering to the Father as we do, for it is a part of his own self-gift to the Father. He does not just look on as a disinterested observer but in love is intensely involved in making of us a complete, pleasing, and beautiful self-gift to the Father. He is wholly involved in taking our efforts, our free and creative acts, and our attempts at “doing something beautiful for the Lord” (St Teresa of Calcutta) and making them fruitful in the Spirit unto the glory of the Father. To put it differently, this is part of Christ’s Priesthood. Christ the Priest wishes to make of us a holy, acceptable, and pleasing offering to the Father. In short, when we offer the Eucharist, we ourselves are also being offered by Christ. And this extends into our daily life. When through distraction or weariness, we are not always conscious of God and of doing everything for him, it is okay. For, Christ is still at work in achieving his firm purpose for us of making of us a beautiful gift to the Father. It is part of handing everything over to God and is a new level of trust: I do not always need to be conscious of, nor have an attentive role in, God’s work. For, we really are being offered up by Another. Pondering these aspects of the Mass and the Trinitarian dimensions of life in general has helped (I think) increase in me the surety of faith and hope, placing me more firmly on the solid rock of God.
My retreat this year fell in the midst of this course on the Trinity and we can discern its effects on me in some words I prayed during those days, something like, “Lord Jesus, form and fashion me into the gift you want to make of me to the Father—a return-gift in thanksgiving—‘that the Father may be glorified in the Son’ (Jn 14:13). With you, Jesus, standing behind me, offering me, enfolding me, and taking me up into the divine life of your own self-gift to the Father, I find my solidity and peace. With the pledge of your Spirit’s fruitfulness, surpassing all expectation and thought (cf Eph 3:20), I find my satisfaction and joy.”
Whether or not it has borne fruit, I cannot judge, but one effect of the course has been to think more about this question, What difference does it make for the spiritual life that God is Triune? And I think some new vistas have been opened for me. An answer I have come to, as a personal reflection on all this, goes something like this. God is on one side and we, as creatures, are on the other side. In God’s gracious favor we are made capable of approaching Him, of meeting Him, of becoming united with Him. The two sides come into contact. This is a marvelous thing! However, a lived awareness of the Trinity, while acknowledging this wonderful truth, adds to it the sense that we are enfolded and enwrapped in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity (while maintaining the creaturely distinction). It is not that we just approach God from one side. But rather the two hands of the Father reach out and grasp us (Irenaeus). For, God has stepped over fully and completely onto our side in the Incarnate Son. And Jesus draws us up with himself through the Spirit, in his return to the Father. In the Paschal Mystery the two hands, Son and Spirit, have reached out beyond us to gather us in, enclose us, and draw us by grace to the Father, leaving no aspect of our life untouched by their saving influence. The Son and Spirit stand behind us in support and enrichment of our self-offering to the Father, for we are taken up into their very own offering of created and uncreated gifts. The incarnate Son offers us to the Father in the Spirit. In all our free efforts, works, and acts of love, in all our attempts “to do something beautiful for the Lord,” we are drawn, embraced, enlivened, supported, and buoyed up by Son and Spirit in our return to the Father. We are enfolded on all sides by Triune love. Thanks to the course, I have been trying to abide more in the confidence of faith of these dimensions of a lived awareness of the Trinity.
Building on Ouellet, we can put the matter in this way. In Jesus offering us to the Father in the Spirit, our belonging to God reaches a new, all-surpassing level; for, God gives us to God in God. St John of the Cross has said “the soul gives to God, God himself in God; and this is a true and complete gift of the soul to God”; more simply put: We give God to God in God (Living Flame 3.78). Here, I suppose, my claim is that the ‘inverse’ of John’s words is just as true: God gives us to God in God; and this is our true and complete self-gift to God. For everything we (and Ouellet) have said in no way undermines the need for our efforts, creative initiatives, and free cooperation; but it is to say that all this is preceded and undergirded by the Trinity’s saving work, grace, and presence. It is worth noting that Ouellet, Balthasar, and St John Paul II each comment on John’s words above and apply them to all the baptized; this concerns all of us as the foundation of God’s saving work imparted to us in grace (cf Ouellet, 304 and Waldstein’s intro to Theology of the Body, 33). God gives us to God in God. The Son gives us to the Father in the Spirit. There are grounds here, in faith and hope, for the confidence (parrhesia) of the child of God and for praise and thanks to the Blessed Trinity.
All we have said about Trinitarian gift-giving will be filled out with brighter colors and sharper vividness if we see how it plays out in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life. Moreover, a Marian approach unfolds further the Trinitarian and Christological dimensions into our lives since she is the concrete Real Symbol of the Church. In her, the organic unity of the mysteries of faith and the spiritual life are so clear that nothing else needs to be said. We note too that Mary’s fiat is especially relevant to us as monks since our vow of obedience is a particular, ecclesial participation in her fiat. We will now see how the Trinitarian exchange of uncreated and created gifts reaches a new culmination in Mary, especially as seen in some mysteries of the Rosary.
Mary is “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). In this fullness of grace is also a fullness of the saving work and presence of the Blessed Trinity. So when we first meet her, early in her life, it is in the Trinitarian epiphany of the Annunciation, the first explicit manifestation of the Trinity in salvation history. She conceives, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of the Most High (1:26-38). In her fiat, we see that God’s grace and human freedom are not opposed but that the fullness of grace coincides with the fullness of human freedom. Being wholly enwrapped, enfolded, drawn and enlivened by the embrace of the Trinity’s saving work precedes and undergirds her free and unqualified “Yes!” Moreover as her life unfolds, we see that being full of grace does not make everything easy for her but that she will still have to face many difficulties, challenges, and sufferings. Her pilgrimage of faith and fiat will continue through all the hills and valleys of joy, light, sorrow, and glory.
In the Annunciation begins the Incarnation and the Father’s gift of his Son to the world through the Spirit. Mary receives this gift and says “yes” on behalf of all humanity. Even now, our fiat always shares in her fiat and is supported by it. Mary again represents all of humanity in presenting the incarnate Son to the Father in the Temple at the Presentation, giving the Son as a gift to the Father in the Spirit (Lk 2:22-38; the Spirit also explicitly appears as a persona dramatis, along with Father and Son, both here and in 1:26-38). In offering her Son, Mary is also completely offering herself as Simeon’s foreboding words make clear, as the Cross appears on the horizon (2:34-35). Both partners of the Covenant are fully involved in these two events of Mary’s life: God gives man the most precious gift (cf Annunciation); and man, in turn, presents and gives God the most precious gift (cf Presentation).
We have noted the exchange of gifts between God and humanity. And what about the Trinitarian exchange of uncreated and created gifts? God gives Mary to God in God, in both directions. The Father gives Mary to the Son in the Spirit and, in due time, the Son gives Mary to the Father in the Spirit. We will consider each.
The Father, in creating her, prepares Mary for his Son, from the first moment of her conception. The immaculate one is so imbued with the Spirit that the Father is able to make of her a masterpiece of his Creation, and this, so he can give Mary to his Son as a most beautiful gift. Maybe we can speak a little imprecisely here to show how well the Father succeeds at this. It is a little like when an artist is overwhelmed by the exceeding magnificence of the work of his hands. Like when my mother saw her homemade greeting cards on display in a shop: “They were so beautiful, I didn’t realize they were my own!” Clearly to apply this directly to God would be a clumsy anthropomorphism. However, we simply wish to bring out how much God delights in his creatures, especially since he did not create a race of automatons but rather free persons who themselves are also creative (as co-creators with the Creator). So the angel can, after calling her “full of grace,” still tell Mary, “You have found favor with God!” (Lk 1:30). Rilke imagines Gabriel stunned and stopped in his tracks, overwhelmed by her surpassing beauty, as he first enters into her room, on his mission from God. The gift the Father gives his Son is unspeakable, and all of humanity too is meant to be a part of that gift (Mary after all represents the human side of the covenant).
In due time, then, the Son, in return, gives Mary to the Father in the Spirit, but now transfigured in full glory in the Assumption and Coronation. Now she is fully transformed and bears the rich treasures of the Son’s work of salvation, the fruit especially of his glorious Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. The Son returns Mary to the Father but now further transformed, laden with gifts, dazzling in splendor, and singing ever more sweetly Magnificat in the depths of her soul. Here it actually might be more appropriate to attribute to the Father surprise over this transfigured masterpiece as she is now fully taken up into the Son’s created and (eternal) uncreated gifts to the Father. God gives Mary to God in God. The Son gives Mary to the Father in the Spirit. And we too are meant to be a part of this gift (for Mary is the Real Symbol of the Church).
The Holy Spirit too has been active in Mary in this gift-giving of Father and Son. We have already noted his presence from the moment of her Immaculate Conception as the Father prepares this gift for his Son. Now we observe how the Spirit’s presence and work in Mary’s life seems to grow and increase over time in her increasing transformation in Christ. Writers as diverse as Sergei Bulgakov and St Maximilian Kolbe tend to think that when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary at the Annunciation, he remained, from this moment onward, always overshadowing her in this new way, with the same force of presence that drew from her humanity and made the Word become flesh in her womb. And even a writer as restrained and careful as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange is entirely comfortable with speaking of Mary as increasing in grace throughout her life, which seems to me to entail also an increasing presence of the Holy Spirit. So, in addition to the Annunciation, Pentecost too would be another key moment of increase, as the Spirit descends upon Mary and the nascent Church. We can intuit too, the Spirit’s deepening presence in her through the decisive event of her suffering at the foot of the Cross and in her becoming Mother in the order of Redemption (Jn 19:26-27; and the same is seen now gloriously in Rev 12:1-2). All her Spirit-filled journey through joy, light, sorrow and glory add to the rich treasures the Son is endowing her with to finally give her to the Father in an all-surpassing beauty and splendor.
What we have seen in the Economy is also true from all eternity: the Holy Spirit, as the bond of love between Father and Son, is intimately involved in their gift-giving, in both directions—Father to Son and Son to Father. What is unique to him, it seems, is that he has a hand in both the Father’s gifts to the Son and the Son’s gifts to the Father. I once saw a married friend of mine, pick a flower and hand it to his child to go and give to his wife. Surely this little child at times also played the role as go-between in the other direction as well, in the wife giving gifts to her husband. The child acted as a link between them. As the bond of love, the Spirit’s unique role is like this. He has a hand in both directions of gift-giving.
The giving of the flower can also illustrate a different, more central point we have made. But this time, the little child will be us and my friend will be Christ (in turn, this will awkwardly make his wife, God the Father, but analogies always limp). The Son involves us in his own gift to the Father, inspiring in us, through his Spirit, our own free giving of gifts to the Father in our sacrifices and good deeds. The Son prepares, directs, and elevates the pleasing offerings which are our good works (cf Eph 2:10). So here goes the revised flower image (with a little poetic license). My friend picks a lovely red rose and hands it to his child, gesturing slightly towards his beloved with a little nod and pulse of air breathed forth. The little child sees what is intended and gladly joins in with this creative gift-giving, making the gift his own, and moreover picking a little daisy along the way. He lovingly gives the new floral ‘arrangement’ to the man’s wife, happy to be a part of something larger than himself. And, as I saw with my own eyes, she expresses her delight in receiving the gift. But from whom did she receive it? She of course received it from both of them. And her delight over both of them was genuine. My friend and his wife’s love is deeper, richer, and more profound, yet the little child’s love is raised up and given new significance with my friend ‘standing behind’ him and his gift-giving. In the same way, Christ ‘stands behind’ our gift-giving and self-offering to the Father. And from whom does the Father receive these gifts? From both Christ and us, for we are “in Christ.” Hence, while truly being our own, the only Begotten Son’s ‘standing behind’ our self-giving imparts to it an infinite dignity and worth as we are taken up into the Trinitarian exchange of created and uncreated gifts.
To summarize: what we have already seen fulfilled in Mary is a foreshadowing of the whole Church in glory. The unfolding organic unity of the Trinitarian, the Christological, and the Ecclesial-Marian, unfolding into our very lives is to be taken up and returned in the reverse direction, exitus-reditus. We go from Mary to Jesus to the Holy Trinity as “links of a single chain” (Kolbe). If we are to fulfill our lofty call to this, we need a grace-filled and all-encompassing Trinitarian form of life as we have in the Statutes. And as our Rule prescribes through the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Salve’s and Ave’s together, and in other ways, we need as an integral help, our Blessed Mother. Even the incarnate Son, in the midst of the Spirit, was offered in the Temple to the Father through her caring hands (Lk 2:22-38). We can never fully unpack all the implications of ‘one of the Trinity’ becoming man in the Lord Jesus, suffering and dying for us, rising again, returning to the Father in glory and giving us a share in all this through the outpouring of the Spirit. Yet hopefully pondering such things in faith, hope, and charity will bear fruit in helping us enter into and actualize our place in the created and uncreated gifts of the Blessed Trinity.
Further Application to Community Life and the Vow of Obedience
Although our reflections have already involved communal relations in our self-gift to God, we will look at it again more explicitly, as we try to be a gift to our brothers in community. There is probably more truth than Tolstoy realized to the simple prayer in his short story “The Three Hermits.” The three hermits pray to the Trinity, “Ye are Three; we are three: have mercy on us!” Vatican II emphasized a similar point (!) more theologically: “The highest exemplar and source of this mystery [of the unity of the Church] is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (UR 2). We dwell in a communion of persons as a reflection of the communion of the Three divine Persons (cf “Ye are Three; we are three…”). It has been helpful for me to see that this means that our relationships in community are also supported and enriched by the Triune God. Community has value in itself even apart from what we can accomplish together. It is the relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that will abide when all else in history fades away on the Last Day; and our relationships with our brothers will also abide within this Trinitarian communion. These relationships have value regardless of how imperfect they may be. Pope Francis helped me see something in this regard. He says, “We encounter problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect” (Amoris Laetitia, 92). I had thought before of the problems that can come from thinking other people ought to be perfect but what was new for me here was seeing that problems can also come from thinking relationships ought to be perfect. It is clear that we are not yet perfect like Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and so I guess we should not expect our relationships to be either. The good news in this is that the fact that our relationships are not perfect does not undermine their value, goodness, and worth in the Kingdom. We try to work to improve them but there is room for mercy and the confident hope of Triune Communion bringing to perfection the imperfect communion of our human relationships. The eschatological already/not yet applies here also. Even now our relationships foreshadow the perfect loving communion we hope for among our fellow men. And even now, they mirror the love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our vow of obedience is also clearly involved in our gift of self to God as described above and should be seen in light of these mysteries of faith. We have seen that God gives us to God in God; our reflections here can help show what this looks like in a monk’s life. For in obedience, God’s purposes for us enter into the concrete. Theologically, ultimately our obedience is modelled after that of Jesus and indeed participates in it. Here the organic unity of the Christological, the Trinitarian, and ecclesial becomes clear especially as the last applies to our community, “a Carthusian church” (Statutes, 3.6). I will reflect on two elements of this and apply them to ourselves. First, Jesus’ obedience is situated in the context of the Father’s love. Second, it receives support and guidance from the inspiration of the Spirit.
First, Jesus’ obedience and the love of the Father. The Father sends the Son into the world within the mystery of love. The external mission of the Son is in fact but an extension of the Son’s eternal procession within the life of the Trinity. From all eternity, the Son is begotten in love and, in time, he is sent into the world in love. And this, out of the Father’s love for the world—“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16)—but also in the Father’s love for the Son, in that the created world is the Father’s gift to the Son and the redeemed and re-created world will be the Son’s gift to the Father—“Yours they were, and you gave them to me”, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them”, “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Jn 17:6, 10, 1). The Father sends and commands the Son in love and the Son obeys the Father in love.
Our vow of obedience, I think, should likewise be seen in this light, both as regards the superior and the subject. For “it is the Prior’s task to mirror the love of our heavenly Father” (Statutes 1.6) and what he asks of his monks arises out of this love of a father. In turn, we could likewise say it is the obedient monk’s task to mirror the love of the Son, for “the monks, for their part, should love and reverence their Prior in Christ, showing to him at all times deference and humble obedience” (23.10). The Statutes also explicitly refer to the context of love in saying, “Let him who is appointed to some office obey the command with simplicity, realizing that by resisting he would offend, not only against obedience, but also sometimes against charity towards the Prior” (23.18). And treating Profession, the Statutes note the reason for it all, “in order to be able to strive more directly towards perfect love” (10.1). In the son’s love for his father, the prior, he expresses his love also for his heavenly Father and this involves obedience. It is just as the divine Son has said, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me,” (Jn 14:21) and “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10).
Maybe all this sounds too idyllic. So let us now consider how it still holds true when things get messy and obedience is difficult. In this, of course, the Cross comes to mind. Yet the Cross is both an expression of the Son’s love and ultimately it is also an expression of the Father’s love. The Son is not alone in bearing the Cross but his Father remains with him (Jn 16:32). I would say as the common work of the Trinity, the Father supports the Son in this difficult task. Someone once told me that what he fears most are the future sufferings he may have to bear in the service of God. This is worth considering further (for, this is also why the vow of obedience can be a frightening thing). What brings some consolation—and it can be expressed in other ways too—is something Aquinas notes about Christ’s Passion: that it is the Father who “inspired Christ with the will to suffer for us” (ST III, q 47, a 3, ad 1). This is a striking way to express the Father’s supporting role of Jesus in his Passion. And we can derive an important spiritual implication for us. It means the Father can give us too not only the strength but even the desire to suffer when it is necessary. There is clearly no reason to fear something that, when the time comes, we can actually come to want and desire because inspired by a higher love. Probably everyone has had experiences, however small, where this has been proved true (e.g., obediently getting up after walk day for the third 12-lesson feast in a row of a Saint I have particularly come to love). We do not desire suffering in itself but for the sake of the good that can come from it and for our share in the work of Redemption and the salvation of souls (cf Statutes 34.4). In this way, the whole Trinity can inspire in us the desire to face a given suffering (cf ST III, q 48, a 5). I have considered here the extreme situation of obedience stretched to the heroic love of the Cross; for, the same principles hold for the more moderate permutations.
To put it differently, we can be confident God will provide the grace we need to meet whatever challenges he calls us to face. Divine grace goes before us and the Trinity enfolds us so that our Christian life is undergirded and supported by the Triune life. We depend on this divine support and also on the human support of our superiors, in their “docility to the Spirit” (23.19), and as they “mirror the love of our heavenly Father.” The obedience of the Son to the Father shows what is also true of the monk and his superior: such obedience is not degrading, not a test, not tyrannical, not inimical to one’s true freedom, but is actually part of the relationship of love.
Second, our obedience also finds support and guidance from the Spirit. Here too the Trinitarian and Christological easily translates into our own lives. Balthasar explains the role of the Spirit in Christ’s life as having a subjective and objective dimension. The Spirit inspires Jesus, the Anointed One from within, subjectively, but he also directs him from above, objectively. The latter is seen most strikingly in the Spirit “driving” Jesus out into the desert after his Baptism (Mk 1:12). This function of the Spirit (even when less drastic) seems to be at play throughout Jesus’ life and comes again to the fore forcefully in Christ’s Passion and Death. But it is already present from the beginning. Balthasar directs us to “the Baptism scene, where the Spirit’s visible descent upon Jesus is portrayed both as an entering into him (eis auton: Mk 1:10) and as a hovering over him (ep’ aouton: Mt 3:16; Lk 3:22; and most clearly in Jn 1:32: ‘and it remained on him’). Initially this in-and-over is a baffling riddle, but it prompts us to deeper reflection” (Theo-logic III, 51). The suggestion here is that even for Jesus, in his true humanity, the Spirit plays an objective role in directing him—he hovers over him—, as well as bringing about a subjective appropriation and joyful correspondence to the Father’s will—he dwells in him. The same is true for us. This is clear especially as Balthasar describes the Spirit’s objective role over Christ and over us as a kind of Rule. “We can say that the Holy Spirit always lives in the Church as the objective as well as subjective Spirit: [objectively] as institution, or rule, or disciplina, and [subjectively] as inspiration and loving obedience to the Father in this spirit of adoption” (Spirit and Institution, 239).
This is very helpful in relating the Trinitarian and Christological to our vow of obedience. Our Rule and the commands of Superiors express the objective dimension of the Spirit’s work in our life. The same Spirit, however, is also at work subjectively within us, bringing us into conformity with the Rule, with the commands of Superiors and with the obedient Christ. And he does so from the depths of our being so it is authentic, from the heart, and an expression of love. “It is the Spirit who gives life,” as the Statutes say (35.1). This helps explain, how the monk, even when it initially does not suit him, can carry out and practice obedience peacefully, joyfully, harmoniously, and sweetly (suaviter). These are strong signs of the Spirit’s work in a monk’s life, that he lives out the Rule gracefully and the Superiors’ commands smoothly, in sync, and without missing a beat; for then the objective and subjective work of the Spirit have come together and love reigns as the highest law. And this ‘law’ even governs God, so to speak, in the free Triune self-giving of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.