The Most Holy Trinity
The episode recounted in today’s passage from Genesis — the hospitality of Abraham — is the subject of Saint Andrew Roublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. What the reading delivered in words the icon delivers in form and line and color. The tradition speaks not of “painting” an icon, but of “writing” one. The icon invites, in its own way, to a kind of lectio divina.
Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio
Seeing the icon, one begins to read it: lectio. Its message enters not through the ears but through the eyes. By searching out the icon, by looking at it again and again with perseverance and openness, one discovers its secrets: meditatio. Then one begins to pray before the icon, reflecting the image itself back to God as the expression of the heart’s desire, contrition, adoration, and thanksgiving: oratio. When the icon becomes something interior, when the soul receives a gentle impression of the image that draws it to adoration, one can begin to speak of contemplatio.
People pulled in many directions at once or solicited by multiple desires find it difficult to enter into the mode of expression proper to the icon. Contemplation of the icon requires visual fasting: a willingness to forego the satisfaction of a thousand glances in order to gaze in singleheartedness upon “the one thing necessary” (Lk 10:42). This is what is meant perhaps by the traditional monastic practice of “custody of the eyes.” By it one learns to keep one’s eyes for one thing only: the “glory of God shining on the face of Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). A wise old monk once commented that the interior focus of a community could be discerned in its outward practice of custody of the eyes. By this he meant that one who truly seeks God has eyes for God alone and is willing to fast visually in preparation for seeing what lies hidden, “even within the veil” (Heb 6:19).
Certain cultural prejudices make it hard for us to adjust to icons. Insofar as we are children of this age we are shallow. We prefer what holds a more immediate appeal to the senses. A worldly sensibility looks for something more naturalistic, something more romantic or sentimental. Dom Gregory Collins of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland says that, “Living the kind of spiritual life demanded to . . . contemplate the icon, means re-educating one’s sense of sight. It entails purification from superficial seeing, a move away from a mode of perception that stops short of the hidden depth of things or which remains captivated only by their surface glitter.”
Dom Gregory suggests too that there is an analogy between plainchant and the icon. The icon is to the eyes what plainchant is to the ears. In a monastery one expects to find — what shall I call it? — the ear purified and refined through a kind of fasting so as to hear the “still, small voice” that Elijah recognized on Horeb. “And when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with a mantle, and coming forth stood in the entering in of the cave” (3 K 19:13). The austerity of the traditional chant of the Church — its poverty, its chastity, its uncompromising obedience to the Word — makes it increasingly foreign to our culture and, paradoxically, increasingly attractive to young people challenged by the radicality of life for God alone.
Yearning for Something More
All of this sounds very demanding: custody of the eyes, fasting with one’s ears, foregoing immediate gratification even in good things, but there is in these things an indescribable sweetness for those who risk them. The itching need for variety and the hankering after what holds a more immediate appeal to the eyes and to the ears points to an underlying resistance to the “narrow gate” (Mt 7:13) chosen by our fathers and mothers in the monastic life. Lay people look to the monastic community for an example of prophetic separation from the world and its ways of seeing and hearing. They come to the monastery to find something other than what is offered in the parish. They come because deep inside there is a stirring, a yearning for something more.
To receive the message of the icon requires the same interior dispositions as the practice of lectio divina. Look at Abraham. “The Lord appeared to Abraham in the vale of Mambre as he was sitting in the door of his tent, in the very heat of the day” (Gen 18:1). Abraham is waiting, doing nothing, at precisely the time of day when, as the Italian proverb says, “only Englishmen and dogs go abroad in the streets.” There hangs a certain heavy stillness in the air. It is the hour of repose. For all of that, Abraham is watchful, ready. The door of his tent is open. This is the very image of monastic prayer: a watchful repose, a restful vigilance, a purposeful doing nothing.
The Arrival of Grace
The three visitors appear suddenly. Abraham does not see or hear them approach. The text says, “And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to him three men standing near him” (Gen 18:2). Was Abraham dozing? Quite possibly. One can doze with a watchful heart. What strikes me is that he did not hear the three men arriving. When God visits the soul he does so in stillness. The arrivals of grace are always silent. God is the expected guest whose arrival surprises us nonetheless.
The Word Has Come to Me
Saint Bernard describes this. “I admit that the Word has come to me,” he says, “and has come many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or of his going. And where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now.”
Observe what Abraham does next. The translation of the American lectionary is nowhere near as rich theologically and mystically as the Latin text of the typical edition. The lectionary gave: “When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said . . .” (Gen 18:2). The typical edition of the lectionary, on the other hand, gives: “And as soon as he saw them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground” (Gen 18:2). Adoravit. The use of that one word changes everything.
Look closely at the text. “As soon as he saw them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent” (Gen 18:2). Abraham is already an old man. The day burns at its hottest. He may have dozed off. For all of that, he becomes suddenly spry and quick. He runs to meet them. He goes out of his tent. The arrival of God unleashes the potential of the slumbering soul. The arrival of God is immediately energizing. God arrives first and, by grace, quickens the soul to “go out to meet him” (cf. Mt 25:6). This is the ecstatic movement of prayer: out of oneself and into God.
The Grace of Adoration
The use of the verb “to adore” rather than the more prosaic “to bow” casts the whole passage in a certain light. The Latin text gives, “et adoravit in terram” as the end of the sentence. It is followed by a period, the punctuation of silence. Adoration is Abraham’s response. He is, in a very real sense, cast by God into adoration, face to the ground. Adoration, before being something we offer God, is a grace that God, by his coming, infuses in us. This is why we do well to beg for the grace of adoration. It is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, something for which we should be ready to sacrifice all else.
The Sacrifice of Time
One can easily trace in the first two verses of today’s passage from Genesis the pattern of all prayer. From the human side there must be a watchful repose, a restful vigilance, a purposeful doing nothing. Concretely this obliges us to invest time in prayer, not just the time required, but also time over and above what is required.
God honours the sacrifice of our time. He takes pleasure in the grain of incense, a mere moment cast without regret on the live coal that is the ceaseless adoration of the Heart of Christ before the Father. Seeing us waiting on him, God moves us to “lift up our eyes” so as to meet his gaze. “And when he had lifted up his eyes, there appeared to Abraham three men standing near him” (Gen 18:2). The nearness of God. The mystery of a God who comes close. “In that day you shall know me, that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:20).
Strangers from Heaven
“And as soon as he saw them he ran to meet them from the door of his tent, and adored down to the ground” (Gen 18:2). It is this “down to the ground” adoration that makes possible all that follows in the narrative. The Three become the guests of Abraham. Abraham washes the feet of angels. Strangers from heaven sit at table under the tree. To crusty old Sarah a wonderful promise is made, and to Abraham the Lord says, “Is there anything hard to God?” (Gen 18:14).
The Tree, the House, the Table, and the Chalice
All of this is in the icon of the Trinity. We see the three mysterious figures, the tree, the house, and the table with its chalice. In the three Angels we see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit holding divine counsel, planning the salvation of the world. In the tree we see the wood of the Cross. In the house we see the tabernacle of the Word made flesh pitched among us (cf. Jn 1:14). In the table we see the altar, and in the chalice the Blood of the immolated Lamb. Saint Andrew Roublev’s icon is at once Trinitarian and Eucharistic. It is the image of the Eucharist, the sacrament of Trinitarian hospitality.
The reality of that holy icon is given us today in the Most Holy Eucharist. Here are the Three. Here is the tree, the house, the table, and the chalice. Rise quickly and, bowing to the ground, adore. It is the hour of God’s wonderful promise.