What Difference Does the Trinity Make in Christian Prayer?

As Christians we believe in one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doctrine and worship of God in three persons distinguishes Christianity from all other religions as well as every sort of philosophical mysticism. Yet, most of us Christians would be hard-pressed to say something meaningful about the difference it makes to the practice of prayer that the one God is a trinity of persons.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, a twentieth-century theologian, can help tremendously here. Balthasar, whose theological work as a whole was imbued with a contemplative spirit, devoted two books to the subject of Christian prayer: the longer Prayer (1955)[1] and the shorter Christian Meditation (1984).[2] The outstanding merit of these two works lies precisely in Balthasar’s effort to situate the nature and practice of Christian prayer in more explicit and vital connection with the mystery of the Trinity.

In these two books, Balthasar not only examined the distinctive features of Christian prayer, but also explored the more wide-reaching question as to whether the Trinity makes any difference to the human race in its yearning and searching for God. Balthasar tackled the latter issue by inquiring, in the first place, “whether God has spoken to the human race.”[3]

If God has not spoken to the human race, it is understandable that human beings would take the initiative in forging pathways to God “from below.” Prompted by a natural religious desire, human beings would inevitably devise techniques of meditation by which to ascend to the divine. Not only that, but lacking an awareness of being addressed by God, human beings would be justified in inventing forms of meditation in accordance with a notion of God as the Absolute Silence or as the Wordless Void, that to which we are related as the primordial source from which we come and as the goal of our deepest aspirations, but which cannot relate to us in a personal manner.

Indeed if God has not spoken to the human race, there is good reason to conclude that to be divine is to be detached from interpersonal (dialogical) communication. What this would mean for anyone who strives to arrive at union with the divine is that one can expect a de-personalizing absorption into the impersonal Absolute, or something along the lines of an extinguishing of one’s personal existence rather like the blowing out of a flame. If, on the other hand, God has spoken to the human race, which is the claim of the biblical religions, then both our access to God (via prayer and meditation) and our doctrine of God will be different.

In that case, meditation involves something more than attending to the aspirations and “lights” of our nature. It entails listening to the word of God that comes to us as a “grace,” as a “new” gift to be distinguished from the “first” gift of our creaturely nature. Indeed the word of God that is the focal point of Christian meditation is a gracious word, a word God speaks in freedom. As such, it eludes our manipulation and control and therefore cannot be mastered by any meditative technique. It is a free word addressed to our personal freedom. God’s word calls for an answer; it expects a response.

Hence it is a word that, in issuing from God, establishes creatures in a dialogical relationship with God. This is of decisive importance and should never cease to astound us: the God of the Bible turns toward creatures and expresses himself as an “I” who says “you.” To be sure, since creatures as such are incommensurate with the Creator, God “descends” from the depths of the eternal and absolute to admit creatures into the sphere of his wisdom and love. It is God’s self-surrender to the creature that makes possible and engenders the creature’s answering self-surrender. It is God who discloses and gives himself to us, and in doing so, enables us to give ourselves reciprocally.

Certainly, to acknowledge the primacy of God’s role in meditation is not to regard as simply counterfeit the aspiration of the creature to (somehow) attain to God. God’s primacy in prayer does not render spurious or pointless the longing that propels the human heart to seek after him. There is a God-given purpose to such longing; it is meant to be purified and transformed in the knowledge that (as Balthasar put it) “God alone, in his free and graciously condescending love, can still this yearning. The creature’s yearning cannot be a will to power that would seize possession of God but rather a will to surrender, to let oneself be seized by him.” This yearning is in keeping with God, then, insofar as it takes shape (first) as receptivity to God’s “movement of condescension” and (secondly) as the ensuing determination to imitate God’s handing over of himself in love.[4]

Now if the God of biblical history initiates a dialogical relationship with creatures and by this manner of communication authentically reveals himself, what does this indicate about God’s inmost being? If God shows himself capable of turning toward human beings as an “I” who says “you,” and thereby expresses the integrity of his eternally perfect and absolute nature (for we realize it is God who acts thus), what in God is the basis for this, the ground of this? Does this not intimate that interpersonal communication is proper to being God? The Christian answer to these questions is elaborated in the doctrine of the Trinity. Balthasar for his part, aiming to shed light on the Trinity as the inner-divine foundation of Christian prayer, developed an understanding of the Christian God as an infinite and eternal exchange of love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

The Father’s way of being God is a pure initiatory self-communication. Yet this perfect and unlimited self-communication is not one-way, but the eternal generating source of a divine dialogue. For what the Father generates by his self-communication is precisely the equally boundless answer that is the divine Son. Indeed, the eternal dialogue between the Father and the Son is inconceivably perfect such that this changeless exchange yields the Holy Spirit of divine fellowship. The Holy Spirit in God attests to the fact that the personal otherness of the Son vis-à-vis the Father is not annulled or extinguished but maintained and transcended in a perfect communion of love. For on the one hand, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son—the Spirit who sustains personal uniqueness and distinction, “the one who is between them.” And on the other hand, the Holy Spirit is “a Someone of his own”: the singular fruit of mutual love, the one in whom the communion of two is complete.[5]

Since it is entirely good and positive that personal otherness exists in God, we find here valid grounds for venturing an explanation as to how God can (in freedom) address the human person as a beloved “you,” and why the human person need not forfeit his “I” in answering with the total surrender of self. If what constitutes God’s inmost being is the inner-trinitarian conversation, God has no inherent need to converse with us. Nor does God’s tri-personal way of being divine render necessary, as a condition of union with him, the extinguishing or the dissolving of our personal being.

On the contrary, the word of everlasting love that God speaks to us out of an abyssal freedom proceeds from the inner nature of God himself, ultimately from the self-expressing Father. We can receive and respond to God’s word because God the Father, in addressing us, at the same time offers us his grace. This grace renders us connatural with God by virtue of a co-naissance: a being born of God the Father through, with, and in God the Son. Or, what amounts to the same, this grace imparts a participation in the personal existence of the Only-begotten. Hence Christian prayer is always rooted in the “I” of the Son, who unites us with himself through his Incarnation so that we can take part in his dialogue with the Father. The Son by taking on “flesh” for us translates into human terms the very divine Word that he is.

Of ourselves, then, we do not have to devise a proper response to God’s loving address, since the prototype of our response is made visible and audible in the whole existence of the incarnate Word. The Holy Spirit, in turn, enables us to understand and appropriate the Word of God in Christ. By the Spirit we put on the mind of Christ and emit the heartfelt cry “Abba, Father!” Indeed, the Spirit is given to “bridge” the interpersonal communication between God and his adopted children, since the Spirit is the bond of unity (between the paternal address and the filial answer) in God himself.

Insofar as we are aware of the stupendous mystery that undergirds our life of prayer, we can more readily let ourselves be drawn ever nearer to the Father of grace, assured that union with the God of Jesus Christ is not attained at the cost of our dignity as persons. In fact, called to be “sons in the Son,” we are “raised to a dignity beyond compare” (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, §22).

As Christians, therefore, we ought to be wary of every form of meditation that directs us to leave our personal existence behind in an effort to arrive at union with the wordless abyss, the void in which all distinction is effaced. For after all, as Balthasar remarked

The Father is not an empty void, not a nirvana, but . . . the Son’s origin, lovingly affirming him. In the Father there is nothing beyond this eternal Yes to the Son, nothing he keeps to himself and does not share with the Son . . . As for the Son, his is the fathomless bliss of being begotten, loved and affirmed [in his personal distinction].[6]

Seen from the vantage point of the revelation of the Holy Trinity, meditation of whatever brand which proposes a one-way movement from the world towards the Absolute culminating in the “swallowing up” or “blowing out” of every “I” is misconceived—however admirable the motive and noble the aim. 

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).

[2] Balthasar, Christian Meditation, trans. Sister Mary Teresilde Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989).

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Balthasar, “The Unknown Lying Beyond the Word,” in Explorations in Theology, Vol. III: Creator Spirit, trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) 107.

[6] Balthasar, “The Exalted Lord’s Care for the World,” in You Crown the Year with Your Goodness, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 124.

Featured Image: Dome of the Church of Val-de-Grâce, Paris, Region of Île-de-France, France taken by Zairon; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Margaret Turek

Margaret M. Turek is Professor of Theology and Chair of Dogmatic Theology at St. Patrick's Seminary and University, received her doctorate in sacred theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Her other publications include Towards a Theology of God the Father.

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