The Divine Circle Dance

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Readings for Trinity Sunday

This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on Trinity Sunday June 16, 2019. 

I speak in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California is hosting the Pathways Youth Pilgrimage, which focuses on equipping young people to be agents of truth, peace, and reconciliation. On their first year they made pilgrimage to North Carolina where they visited our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; the second year they made pilgrimage to South Africa; and this year they are making pilgrimage to a beautiful and magical place called “Humboldt county.” They are currently staying at HSU and I will be co-leading their worship throughout the week with Paul Gossard. They are worshipping this morning at St. Alban’s in Arcata and they will be joining us for Compline this Tuesday night at 7 PM here in the nave. There will be about 50 participants (mostly young people), so please join us this Tuesday at 7 PM in welcoming these young members of our diocese. Throughout the week, they will be exploring matters of social and ecological justice while visiting historical indigenous sites and meeting with tribal leaders of the Karuk, the Hoopa, the Wiyot, and the Yurok tribes.

As I have been preparing for this week of Pathways, I have been reflecting on an experience I had in November of 2016, 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, which are always crucial and profound experiences for me. But it was the experience of participating in a dance.

The leaders of my former parish in San Rafael CA were deeply moved when they heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry refer to the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests at Standing Rock ND as the “Selma of our time.” When clergy were invited to pray and stand in solidarity with the water protectors, my church sent me and one of my lay leaders to North Dakota. Although I was apprehensive, I was convinced that the Holy Spirt was calling us to be there. I was planning to stay in the comfort of the nearby hotel, but my lay leader (who was a woman about twice my age) was determined to camp on the Indian Reservation. So we camped at the Oceti Sakowin camp; and I’m glad we did because the night before hundreds of us clergy walked and prayed in solidarity with the water protectors, I stood by the sacred fire and listened to the “rumbling thunder sound” of the drums. Nicholas Black Elk, who was a Lakota medicine man and Christian, 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; and I am often pretty reluctant to dance in public. Other people there also felt this pulse and began to vulnerably reach out their hands to one another as we formed a dance circle that revolved around the fire. I remember watching the smoke rise to the bright Dakota stars while my body moved naturally to what felt like the heartbeat of the earth and 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, as a privileged white straight 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…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 (the white people) 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, on Holy 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 clover, which St. Patrick used to explain the Trinity to the Celts back in the fifth century. All of these metaphors are limited and unfortunately often lead to heretical understandings of the Trinity, but I trust the creativity and the playfulness behind them. I wonder metaphors you have found helpful for understanding and explaining the Trinity…

Perhaps the most ancient metaphor for the Trinity is the one that I felt I embodied with others at Standing Rock ND around the sacred fire. 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, a circle dance, which they called the perichoresis: peri means “around” and choresis means “dance” (where we get the word “choreography”). These ancient theologians refused to put the Triune God in a box. Instead, they saw God dancing in a circle.

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. Many other faith traditions describe God as a loving God. We as Christians 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 can say authoritatively that is God present here among us right now. Wherever love is, God himself is there. 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.

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Part of why I think I felt like I was truly living into my call as a priest in that 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 and analogies are helpful and fun, but the Trinity as a theological and philosophical concept quickly becomes what theologians refer to as “gobbledygook.” The Holy Trinity is not so much a concept that we can explain but an experience in which we can participate.

We participate in the perichoresis whenever we gather here in love, in prayer, in reverence and thanksgiving. 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 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 Christian 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 us and move us to dance with the Triune God?

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[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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