The Toothbrush and The Telescope
Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it's a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future,
Faith and hope and charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three.
That's a magic number. Bob Dorough, Schoolhouse Rock
The Trinity. The ancient, mystic, magic trinity, dwells within the heart of the universe. Like a three-legged stool. So much more stable than a four-legged stool. We had a four-legged stool from Wieboldt’s we got with our six books of Green Stamps. It was always at the kitchen counter, and it was always wobbly! Three legs would have solved it. Anglicans have a three-legged stool: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Because three is a magic number.
It is perplexing to the rest of the world, most especially our monotheistic neighbors like Judaism and Islam, that we Christians understand our one God to have three personas, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and yet is one God. Yet, Hindus have a trinity out of their 330 million gods and goddesses: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). And yet, most Hindus believe in one god, Brahman.
Exploring the known universe, we speak of matter, dark matter and dark energy. That’s funny. The “known” universe. We speak so confidently of the known universe, just as our various and sundry world religions speak so confidently of our God and gods and goddesses. As if we know the universe. As if we know God.
It may be better to say we are known by God. Or, we are known by the universe. And that it is all of one piece. Joni Mitchell, in her anthem to Woodstock summed it up about as well as can be done:
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year-old carbon
We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught up in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden
We are all made of the same stardust, billion year-old carbon, just as we all breathe the same air. Which, as Richard Rohr and a group of Biblical scholars, suggests, is the origin of the Judeo-Christian God’s “proper” name, Yahweh – meant to approximate the sound of breathing. Therefore, the unity that holds us all together, the breath, the spirit, the wind of Life that animates us and gives us life is One, just as our material selves are made from one single element: billions of years-old carbon, if Joni would allow me to amend her fundamental insight into the mysterious glories and oneness of Life itself. When it comes to Life as we know it, we are all one. Every time we breathe in and out we say God’s name. We are one in our breathing.
Which oddly enough is what is meant by the ancient formulation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hopelessly male centric unless one chooses to think of the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the godhead. There is no proving this anymore than we can prove that there is only one universe. That early expositor of what it means to be known by God, who wrote a letter we call First John, tried to simplify it: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…we love because God first loved. Then along came popular songs, the Top Ten followed by the Top Forty, and movies, and music videos, and all notions of divine love were reduced to adolescent romance, so far from the Divine Charity St Paul invokes: faith, hope, and charity, abide these three, but the greatest of these is charity. The King James got this just right. Charity is love for others. Charity is doing helpful and useful things for others. It means knowing others. It means living in community – a community where some shred of a sense of “the common good” remains. At its best, the Christian Trinity represents a Community of Charity dedicated to the Common Good. It’s a kind of representation of what “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” might really look like: a Holy Family if you will.
The Toothbrush and the Telescope. Evelyn Underhill in her tiny book The School of Charity recalls a metaphor from the American naturalist, ornithologist, marine biologist, entomologist, explorer, and author, William Beebe (1877-1962). When trying to get in touch with our “spiritual equipment,” we need not be thinking of our own needs and shortcomings, but rather to look up and out at the vastness of the One Reality, an ever-becoming universe which is the very source, as Joni Mitchell observed, of every atom and cell of our life. In his book, Nonsuch, Beebe, “whose patient study of living things seems to have brought him so near the source of life, says, ‘As a panacea for a host of human ills, worries and fears, I should like to advocate a law, that every toothbrush should have a small telescope in its handle, and the two used equally.’”
Underhill continues, “As far as the life of religion is concerned, if we always used the telescope before we used the toothbrush – looked first at the sky of stars, the great ranges of the beauty and majesty of God, and only then at our own small souls and their condition, needs, and sins – the essential work of the toothbrush would be much better done; and without that self-conscious conviction of its overwhelming importance, and the special peculiarities and requirements of our own set of teeth, which the angels must surely find amusing! ‘Where I left myself I found God; where I found myself, I lost God,’ says Meister Eckhart. Our eyes are not in focus for God’s Reality, until they are out of focus for our own petty concerns.” (School of Charity, p.9)
She later says, “We have been shown the sky of stars, enchanting and overwhelming us; and now we realize we are living the star-life too!” (Ibid p.77) Which takes us back, I suppose to the mystery of three, and Joni Mitchell who as she grasps the oneness of our life and the life of the universe imagines that were we all to grasp the mysterious glories of Life we might see jet-plane bombers turn into butterflies above the Nation. We are all Nicodemus in John chapter 3, who after Jesus talks of the wind blowing us where it wills, not vice versa; Nicodemus who exclaims, “How can these things be?” How indeed.
Yet, long before Nicodemus, way back in the year 742 BCE, a young man named Isaiah stands before the throne of Yahweh; Yahweh, who just the hem of his robe fills the Temple as Seraphs hide their eyes and feet while flying with the remaining two wings, singings what is perhaps the most ancient piece of song in recorded history, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Woe is me, declares Isaiah, for “I am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips!” A seraph flies over with a live coal, touches it to Isaiah’s mouth and suddenly his lips are clean, his guilt and sin is blotted out, and when the Lord asks, “Who shall I send?” to the people of unclean lips, Isaiah, quite unexpectedly blurts out, “Here am I; send me!” God does not send the qualified. God qualifies those who are sent.
We are all Nicodemus. We are all Isaiah. We are all living among people of unclean lips and the One who set all of this in motion, seen and unseen, calls to us, loves us first, so that we may abide in God’s love, that we can become those people who bring words of hope, faith and charity to all those who are mired in the needs, worries and shortcomings of our puny, little individual and corporate lives, and become those who help us all return to some sense of the Common Good.
Bob Dorough, concluded his Schoolhouse Rock reflections on the mystery of the number 3:
A man and a woman had a little baby.
Yes, they did.
They had three in the family.
That's a magic number.
We are called to look deep into the 13 billion years ago and counting mysteries of the universe; to allow ourselves to be energized and blown upon by the Spirit that come from we know not where and sends us we know not where; to ponder the humility of God to be born as one of us, to dwell among us, to suffer as one of us; and realize just how far we are from being humble. There are three in the Holy Family. And that, sings Bob Dorough, is a magic number.