Part of the St. Patrick’s Day tradition is that St. Patrick used the shamrock to teach the 5th century Irish about the Trinity. It makes one curious as to just how he did that; for we in the 21st century struggle with the concept, as has everyone who ever encountered it since the dawn of Christianity. Could the shamrock help us now with the Trinity, and if so, how?
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that there is only one God and this one God is three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is a mystery. How can one be three? We cannot understand it, but we can think about it. We can draw some imperfect earthly analogies, but we must remember that they will always fall short. Humans can never fully comprehend the infinite God.
With this in mind, let’s begin with another Christian doctrine about God. The book of First John states that God is love (1 John 4:16). Love is not just what God does. Love is what God is. But, what is love? One way we can think about love is that it’s a relationship between two or more persons. So, if we could somehow look inside the one God who is love, would we find two or more persons who have a loving relationship between them? Well, we find the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John states that the Father loves the Son (John 5:20), that the Son loves the Father (John 14:31) and describes the loving relationship the Holy Spirit has with the Father and the Son (John 15:26). So yes, we do find three persons in loving relationship inside the Trinity, this mysterious God who is one in three persons and who also is love.
During the Medieval Era, theologians developed a diagram to depict the Trinity’s divine mystery of God being one and three, illustrating that The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God, while they each are not the other. It was shaped basically like this:
Now, if we combine this diagram with the principle that God is love, the concept might be represented as follows:
And we have a shamrock! Is this how St. Patrick used the shamrock? Probably not, but it can be useful for us. Care must be taken, however, that the shamrock not be used to say the Trinity has three different parts or three modes of expression, which are ideas the Christian church of the time of St. Patrick rejected. This diagram, incorporating the shamrock, should be used only to help us think about the Trinity and the mystery of the one God who is three and who is love.
However, St. Patrick’s association of the shamrock with the Trinity in the 5th century gives one pause, for now, in the 21st century, we know that relationships between others are found everywhere in the universe, demonstrated in such fields as biology, astronomy and chemistry. Think about eco-systems, solar systems and molecular structures. Quantum physicists even tell us they have found evidence of relational paradox at the heart of the universe. Could these relationships reflect the relational nature of their creator, and could all these relationships add profound meaning to our personal relationships with this God who is love? Instead of making me doubt, the concept of the Trinity helps me believe.