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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

A Boy Teaches St. Augustine about the Trinity

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

From ancient times, man has wondered about the mystery of the inner life of God. The finger of man’s soul wants to reach God but does not know how. Like King David we pray:

“Lord, bow down your heavens and descend.”[1]

We ask God to descend to us with holy presence. St. Vincent Ferrer notes that, just as our finger cannot touch heaven naturally, so neither the finger of the soul can touch or comprehend the mystery of the Blessed Trinity naturally, but only supernaturally.[2]

God, in His goodness, promised to bend down to touch His children. Indeed, the blessedness of heaven has touched man in the Holy Incarnation of the Son of God. Coming as the promised Messiah and Redeemer, Jesus descended from heaven to earth, took on our human nature, and revealed Himself, preaching and declaring the love the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Because of Christ’s Incarnation, the mind of man has been opened, and man can touch God through the finger of his intellect.

“So, we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”[3]

God sanctifies His children by the contemplation of the things of heaven. The finger of man’s intellect reaches out to touch the mystery of the Trinity and God illumines the minds of His faithful by His Word.

One of the great theologians of the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo, was contemplating the triune mystery of God as he was writing a theological work entitled De Trinitate (“On the Trinity”). As he walked along the beach one sunny day, he was seeking refreshment and inspiration. In that moment, St. Augustine caught sight of a young freckle-faced boy.

As the frothy tide rushed out, the saint watched the child run to-and-fro between the vast sea and a tiny hole he had dug in the sand. The child had a furrowed brow. He was concentrated and determined on the mission before him. St. Augustine said to the boy,

“My son, what are you doing there?”

As the child lifted up the seashell he was using to transport the water, he pointed to the hole in the sand and replied excitedly:

“I’m trying to fit that great big ocean into this tiny hole.”

Refreshed by the innocence of this bright-eyed boy, a big smile came across the face of St. Augustine. He then followed the curly-haired child and knelt with him by the tiny hole, as he observed the boy pouring in a few drops of oceanwater. The saint wanted to break the news gently, so he turned the boy by the shoulders towards the expansive sea and said,

“My child, you could never fit this great, magnificent ocean into that tiny hole!”

Without flinching, the boy retorted,

“And you could never possibly understand the Holy Trinity.”

The boy then disappeared in the flash of an eye.

Was the child an angel? Was this child Christ? Some thinkers, over the centuries, have taken the boy’s words in a literal way and have decided that it is an exercise in futility to seek to understand the nature of the inner life of the Trinity. They ask,

“Why even try?”

But we must be mindful that mysteries are not understood all at once. Just as scientists are still discovering more about the depths of the sea year by year, so, as we open our minds to God, He reveals Himself to us gradually. Just as the boy could not fit the sea into that small hole, so our mind cannot contain the immensity of God.

When the child put the seawater put into the hole, it nourished the ground before it sank down deep, making room for more. So too, our mind is nourished by the love and knowledge of God that we seek to pour into our minds and hearts. But there is always room for more.

St. Augustine never completed De Trinitate. But in the beatific vision of God,[4] his understanding of the Blessed Trinity continues to deepen. All eternity is not enough to know of the love and goodness of our Triune God, but this line of St. Augustine gives us a lyrical conception of God:

“The Father is the lover. The Son is the one who is loved. And the Holy Spirit is the love they send forth from the Father and the Son.”

[1] Ps. 144:5 (143:5). [2] St. Vincent Ferrer, O.P., De sancta Trinitate: Sermo 2. [3] 1 John 4:16. [4] “Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man's immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory ‘the beatific vision’: ‘How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God, . . . to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of heaven with the righteous and God's friends.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1028).


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