Experiencing the Trinity at Standing Rock

Back in November, I had an experience that made me think, “This is exactly where I am called to be and what I am called to do right now as a priest.” It was not celebrating Eucharist or hearing confession or even serving the poor. It was the experience of participating in a dance. The night before Carol Ann and I and hundreds of other clergy stood in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock ND, I stood by the sacred fire and listened to the “rumbling thunder sound” of the drums being played at the Oceti Sakowin camp. Nicholas Black Elk, who was a Lakota medicine man and Christian mystic, said, “The voice of the drum is an offering to the Spirit of the World. Its sound arouses the mind and makes [us] feel the mystery and power of things.” I remember feeling the mystery and power of things while hearing those drums pulse through my body, compelling me to move and to dance. In Black Elk’s words, “my legs seemed to be full of ants.”[1] Other people there also felt this pulse and began to organically and vulnerably reach out their hands to one another as we formed a dance circle that revolved around the fire. I specifically remember watching the smoke rise to the bright Dakota stars while my body moved naturally (and yet sometimes clumsily) to what felt like the heartbeat of the earth, or even the heartbeat of God.

I felt like I was fulfilling my call as a priest in that circle dance almost more than anywhere else. I initially thought that maybe it was a somewhat patronizing and condescending sentiment in which I felt that I, a privileged white male priest, was representing the church’s affirmation of Native American rights and indigenous spirituality, but I’ve come to realize it was something deeper than that. I felt deeply connected and even related to the Lakota Sioux through the bodily sharing of this earthy heartbeat. There is indeed something very powerful about being part of a prayerful and playful circle dance.

I reflected on this circle dance when I later read the words of Nicholas Black Elk who spoke about the spiritual significance of circles for Native Americans. He said, “You have noticed everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round […] The sky is round […] the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a [human] is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. Our tepees were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.”[2] Black Elk then lamented the fact that the Wasichus (us) had placed most of the Lakota in square boxes, much to the detriment of their spiritual growth and thriving.

I share this experience with you today, Trinity Sunday, because it is the mystery of the Trinity that invites us to let go of our tendencies to put God in our little boxes. In our tradition, it is the mystery of the Trinity that invites to dance and play and allow ourselves to be moved by the mighty drumbeat of God’s pulsating heart. The mystery of the Trinity invites us all to be poets and mystics as we reach for colorful metaphors that can help deepen and expand our understanding of the infinite God. I am sure you have heard many metaphors for the Trinity. Some of my favorites are water, which is one substance that can manifest in three forms: solid, liquid or gas. Or there is the metaphor of the egg, which contains the egg yolk, the egg white and the egg shell and yet is all one egg. Then there is of course the three-leafed shamrock, which St. Patrick used to explain the Trinity to the Celts back in the fifth century. All of these metaphors are limited, but I trust the creativity and the playfulness behind them. What are some other metaphors that you’ve used to understand and explain the Trinity?

What is the metaphor for the Trinity that I have mentioned in my last two sermons? It is the same metaphor that I felt I embodied with others at Standing Rock around the sacred fire: the metaphor of the perichoresis: the circle dance. In the fourth century, a group of theologians called the Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil of Ceasarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and a woman named Macrina the Younger) described the Trinity using the image of a dance. They refused to put the Triune God in a box. Instead, they put God in a circle.

And this is significant because with this circle image, we do not necessarily emphasize or hierarchize one person of the Trinity over another. Rather the circle image emphasizes the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. And that might be the most important message of this greatest of mysteries: that God is Relationship. God is the love that flows between persons or even between entities in the great cosmic dance of all that exists. Atomic scientists and astrophysicists are discovering this power of relationship in subatomic particles and in stars, in quasars and in quarks. The atom is “most simply understood as the orbiting structure of three particles—proton, electron and neutron—in constant interplay with one another” (Rohr, 70), three particles in a kind of perichoresis, a kind of circle dance. And do you know where atomic scientists say that the power of the atomic bomb is found in the atom? Do you think it is found in the proton? The electron? The neutron? The power is not in any one of them alone but rather in “the interaction between them,” the relationship.[3] That is the source of nuclear power, which can change everything. It is no mere coincidence that Robert Oppenheimer named the final stage and site of the detonation of the atom bomb Trinity.[4]

God is the relationship that flows eternally like an endless waterwheel between absolute self-giving and receiving. Other faith traditions describe God as loving. We do too but the mystery of the Trinity pushes us a step further to identify God as Love itself. God is the love that exists within community. That’s why we talk about God being present here among us right now. Where there is love, there is God. And Christ’s promised presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is given to us so that we might train ourselves to see the presence of God, to feel the perichoretic pulse, in all loving relationships.

Part of why I think I felt like I was truly living into my call as a priest in the circle dance at Standing Rock is because I felt I was embodying with others the perichoresis, I was part of the dance. And that is the point of the Trinity. It is not so much a concept that we can explain. Metaphors are helpful and fun, but the Trinity as a theological and philosophical concept quickly becomes gobbledygook whenever we try to explain it and put God in a box with our limited language that can only capture the foam on the surface of life. The Trinity is not so much a concept that we can explain but an experience in which we can participate.

Cistercian author Carl McColman writes, “As members of the mystical body, Christians actually partake in the divine nature of the Trinity. We do not merely watch the dance, we dance the dance. We join hands with Christ and the Spirit flows through us and between us and our feet move always in the loving embrace of the Father. In that we are members of the mystical body of Christ, we see the joyful love of the Father through the eyes of the Son. And with every breath, we breathe the Holy Spirit.”[5]

We participate in the perichoresis whenever we gather here in love, in prayer, in reverence and thanksgiving for the sacraments. We are invited to feel the Trinitarian flow and the perichoretic pulse, which is more powerful than anything in the universe because it is the Source of the everything in the universe. It is the Source of “the Big Bang” or the “Let there be Light” moment that brought all creation into existence. It is the Source of the exploding power within atoms. That is why author Annie Dillard says, “On the whole, I do not find Christians […] sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT…. we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For… God may draw us out to where we can never return.”[6] That is the perichoretic pulse. Will we let it beat within you and move us to dance with the Triune God? To dance as a part of the Triune God? To dance as the Triune God? This might sound heretical, but this is deeply orthodox. We are invited to experience, participate in and eventually become the Trinity.

But how? I want to briefly offer one practice and then invite you all to ask three questions altogether, questions you may have about the Trinity or about what I have just said.

The practice is an ancient one that goes back to probably the fourth century, around the time of the Cappadocian Fathers. It is the practice of making the sign of the cross, which we often do throughout our worship. We begin at the head, saying “In the Name of the Father.” And although we begin at the head, our first move is to get out of our heads and into our bodies, where we can experience the perichoretic pulse more powerfully. We go down to our belly, our solar plexus and that is where we say, “and the Son,” the embodied one. And last Sunday, I explained that we cross ourselves when we receive the asperges in order to remind ourselves that we are Christ’s. And what I meant by that is that we are Christ’s own, we belong to Christ. But the other meaning of what I said is equally true: We are Christs, in the plural. We are anointed ones. That’s etymologically the meaning of “Christian.” We are all “little Christs.” We are called to embody the Source of love.  And then we move to our left shoulder and sweep across our chest saying “and the Holy Spirit.” And I then often like to end at the heart, thus integrating the trinity of the mind, the body and the heart. By doing this, we our blessing ourselves and implanting in our muscle memory the connection between the vertical and the horizontal, our vertical relationship with God is connected to our horizontal relationship with others. It is by being part of the circle that we become part of God and it is by being part of God that we become part of the circle. So let’s try: “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”[7]

[1] John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition (Bison Books: Lincoln NE, 2014), 151.

[2] Black Elk Speaks, 121.

[3] Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington PA: Whitaker House, 2016), 72.

[4] Rohr, 70.

[5] Lay Cistercian and teacher Carl McColman, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality (Newburyport MA: Hampton Roads, 2010), 165-166. Cited by Rohr and Morrell, 64.

[6] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 52-53.

[7] Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance, 105-106,199-201.

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About deforestlondon

Episcopal priest
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