Trinity Sunday: A Spiral-Shaped God


A Spiral-Shaped God © Jan L. Richardson

Some years ago, at a retreat center in Ontario, I led a retreat in which we explored some of the riches that come to us from Celtic Christian traditions. When I saw that our meeting room had a smooth linoleum floor, an idea stirred. After tracking down several rolls of masking tape, I returned to the gathering space and got to work. When I finished a couple hours later, the center of our space held a circle with a triple spiral inside, large enough to use for walking prayer and meditation.

The symbol of the triple spiral is particularly prevalent in Celtic lands, where, in Christian times, it came to signify the Trinity. Evoking the energy, interconnection, and mystery of the triune God, the triple spiral graces such works as the remarkable insular Gospel books of the early medieval period, including the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells.

On Trinity Sunday, we both celebrate God’s triune nature and also acknowledge the great mystery that it holds. Throughout the centuries, theologians have sought to define just how it is that God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit dwell together and with all of creation. Symbols of the Trinity abound, evidence of our desire to describe a being that comprises a community within itself. Attempts to convey the nature of the Trinity in images have occasionally produced some curious artwork, as in this image from a medieval Book of Hours that depicts three fellows sharing a single crown, and this image, added to a medieval English Psalter, that shows Abraham adoring a three-headed Trinity.

In their commentary on Trinity Sunday, the authors of Handbook of the Christian Year counsel us that rather than approaching this day with an emphasis on “the Trinity as an abstract concept, idea, or doctrine,” and seeking to explain or define it, it rather “seems more in keeping with the character of worship and of the Christian Year to treat Trinity Sunday as a day in which we praise and adore the infinitely complex and unfathomable mystery of God’s being to which we point when we speak of the Holy Trinity.” They go on to write,

Because our celebration of the Easter cycle is based upon the mighty acts of the triune God, and because we are entering upon the Sunday-to-Sunday half of the year when the emphasis is wholeheartedly upon each Sunday as the Lord’s Day, whose celebration is also based upon the mighty acts of the triune God, it is appropriate that we pause on this transitional Sunday to give ourselves over to the adoration and praise of the being—as distinct from the acts—of the triune God.

It is sometimes difficult, of course, to separate the doing of the Trinity from the being of the Trinity, for it is part of the nature of the Trinity to be in action, to work in relationship within itself and in cooperation with creation. This is one of the reasons that the Celtic symbol triple spiral speaks to my imagination: it evokes the God who both exists in a dynamic wholeness within itself yet also reaches out (or is it in?) to embrace us.

Historically, Celtic Christians offered no systematic theology by which they sought to define the nature and work of Trinity, but evidence of their experience of the triune God abounds. Beyond their artistic and symbolic depictions of the Trinity, they left a remarkable body of prayers and poetry that offer us an incarnate experience of the Trinity. In their poems and prayers, Celtic Christians moved from the abstract to the actual; for them, the triune deity was not a theological concept but rather was deeply embedded in daily life. In the Celtic imagination, God, Christ, and Spirit are intertwined with one another and with all of creation.

The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers, poems, and blessings that Alexander Carmichael gathered in the Scottish islands and highlands in the 19th century, offers a feast of examples of this rich relationship with the Trinity, as in this prayer for the baptism of a child:

The little drop of the Father
On thy little forehead, beloved one.

The little drop of the Son
On thy little forehead, beloved one.

The little drop of the Spirit
On thy little forehead, beloved one.

To aid thee from the fays,
To guard thee from the host;

To aid thee from the gnome,
To shield thee from the spectre;

To keep thee for the Three,
To shield thee, to surround thee;

To save thee for the Three,
To fill thee with the graces;

The little drop of the Three
To lave thee with the graces.

With an intent both poetic and practical, this baptismal prayer serves as a graceful commentary on, and response to, the gospel reading for Trinity Sunday. In Matthew 28.16-20, we read the words that are, according to Matthew, Jesus’ final words to his disciples. In this passage that we often call the Great Commission, Jesus tells them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus’ words here are about the closest thing we have to an articulation of the Trinity in the scriptures. Jesus never uses the term “Trinity,” and he offers nothing like a doctrine of its nature. His words here, however, perhaps provide doctrine enough: he lets us know that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in an inextricable relationship that propels us to be in relationship with the world, to live in service and to cultivate community. “And remember,” Jesus tells them at the last, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I am with you, he says: that being thing again, invariably bound together with the doing of the Trinity, an endless spiral of action and existence in which it dwells, and calls us to dwell as well.

In the Celtic triple spiral, there is a space where the three spirals connect. It is both a place of meeting and of sheer mystery. Its vast, vibrant emptiness reminds me that, in this life, we will never know all the names of God. Even as the Trinity evokes, it conceals. We will never exhaust the images we use to describe the One who holds us and sends us, who enfolds us and impels us in our eternal turning.

This week, as we travel toward Trinity Sunday, I’ll be holding that image of the triple spiral and the community in whose company I walked its path: inward, outward, journeying ever around the mystery at its center. Those walking companions remind me of how we are to be a living sign of the Trinity who dwells in eternal, intertwined relationship within itself and with all creation. As individuals and as communities, we are beckoned to times of spiraling inward, to attend to our own souls. We are propelled, in turn, into times of spiraling outward, to attend to the world beyond us. In all our turnings, the presence of God persists. With you always, Jesus said.

How do you experience the God who exists as a community and invites us to intertwined lives? How does this God become incarnate in the rhythm of your days?

Blessings on your spiral-shaped path.

[To use this image, please visit this page at janrichardsonimages.com. Your use of janrichardsonimages.com helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

16 Responses to “Trinity Sunday: A Spiral-Shaped God”

  1. Glenn Borreson Says:

    Thanks for the fresh “take” on the Trinity, at least for me, in the Lutheran tradition. And for the lovely Celtic poem on baptism – where the sense (as I read it) of carefully measuring out and dropping the water is quite the contrast to the using of an abundance of water in our recent practice.

  2. Sue Ellis Says:

    I enjoyed your image and the reflection of that intersecting point of the spirals – I had a 3D image in mind when I read your words – it seems that when that intersection happens one of those “thin moments” as the Iona community describes can take place – & we can sense the mystery and enter into into it a little more.

  3. Paula Maeder Connor Says:

    I always look for Jan’s creative and image-ic words for celebrations. Her inner eye and heart offer me company in my struggle with usual head work, research in academic/one sided brain. I am moved to leave the traditional and soul search my own connection with the texts.
    This time of great economic struggle among parishioners offers us the opportunity to encourage a spiral in life. Only this week, too, several horrid connections with life relationships from betrayal to dual life behaviors have surfaced among parishioners. How God enfolds us even in and through these (perhaps mental illness) realities in three persons offers comfort, mystery, and perhaps solace.
    Thanks/

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks so much, Paula. I wish you many blessings as you minister to your congregation, especially amidst the horridness that has been surfacing in some of their lives. May you all know the presence–and comfort, mystery, and solace–of God enfolding you. Peace and thank you again.

  4. Fr. Bill Feus Says:

    I’ve downloaded your image and will be referencing it in my sermon on Trinity Sunday. I also really like what you’ve shared regarding the infinite mystery that is God. I’m one who really embraces the Augustinian model of faith seeking understanding (fits in well with my being an Anglican, too.) And I’ve tried with children, young adults and adults to “explain” the Trinity through analogy: the Trinity is like water, existing as gas, liquid and solid; the Trinity is like a person, a child, a spouse, and a parent. But each of these analogies breaks down at some point: for example, water is not simultaneously gas, liquid, and solid. Yet even as my analogies break down, and I struggle to explain sufficiently the Trinity, I still believe. In that regard I’m comfortable with mystery; and I’m very comfortable with a God who remains both elusive (intellectually) and present (experientially and spiritually and, indeed, intellectually.)

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Many kind thanks, Fr. Bill, both for the gift of your words and for your support of janrichardsonimages.com. That Trinity is a slippery thing, isn’t it? Both reassuring in its presence and somehow comforting in its mystery. I appreciate the way that you describe its presence and elusiveness. Many blessings as you prepare to preach.

  5. Tri Ratno Wahono Says:

    I am Indonesian. May I learn more about the symbol? It is great to understand trinity in my own context. may be you could to show how made link between text’s and context, specialy in image.

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Tri. It’s interesting how the triple spiral is found in so many cultures. Although it’s particularly associated with Ireland and the British Isles, it’s also found in many other places, including Scandinavia, and some form of the spiral shape appears in religions and cultures around the world, both East and West. Intriguing how, in single or triple (or some other) form, it often symbolizes our journey through life, but it takes in particular meaning depending on the religion/culture. With the Celtic emphasis on the Trinity, it was natural that the triple spiral (which existed there from pre-Christian times) would come to be a symbol of the Trinity. At any rate, it’s a symbol that captures my imagination…sounds like it does for you, too. Thank you again for stopping by and for your words! I wish you many blessings.

  6. Ann Hinz Says:

    Hi Jan…I love your image and reflections. I have been walking the celtic labyrinth at the Grunewald Guild and resonate with your reflections….the holy mystery drawing us inward into the presence of God and outward to our neighbor….blessings, Ann

    • Jan Richardson Says:

      Hi, Ann—It’s great to hear from you, thanks so much! I love the labyrinth at the Guild. Blessings upon your walking! I hope our spiraling paths will cross while I’m out there next month. Peace to you…

  7. Jim Philipson Says:

    I have been seeking to live into the spiraling, this God as community. I think it is the wisdom of the Orthodx tradition which sees us drawn into this experience of the love within God. But the Trinitarian Communty is God’s not ours, we are visitors at a table of relationships which include our neighbors, strangers, our enemies and creation itself. It draws us into the mystery of the other. The ethic of this way of love stands against all that divides us, against fear, pride and jealousy; against community based on tribal or national or even species self interst. Wash through me (us) Holy Trinity.

  8. Cynthia J. Fazzini Says:

    Dear Jan, every week I am dazzled by your ability to combine both your art and your words to celebrate The Word of God. Your gift of this website is a blessing to all of us.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    The spiral is “my” symbol. When the spiral comes up – I pay attention…it has grown to mean a great deal to me on many levels and for many reasons.

    This new understanding of this most sacred personal symbol adds to the collection of my thoughts. Thank you.

    Thank you for the art.

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