Holding everything in balance


The Trinity by the celebrated Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev

‘Will the boy holding the girl in the wrong way, please hold her in the right way’.  These words spoken to me in a dance school when I was sixteen remain as one of my great humiliations (self-inflicted of course). These were the days just before dancing became a non-contact sport.  From time to time, people ask me what would I have been if I hadn’t been a priest.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, I always say ‘a dancer’. Holding a person in the right way is an art to be learned and worked at as well as a gift to be celebrated. In contemporary dance, the holding of another dancer is a complex series of moves of athleticism and gracefulness, sometimes holding someone tight and sometimes holding them as a springboard for being free to do something they could not possibly do on their own.

Holding a person in the right way is a phrase that means a number of things, and can be used to describe good and healthy relationships. In the ups and downs of our relationships we do not always succeed at ‘holding everything in balance’ (Tom McGuinness, The Rower). We have just celebrated Trinity Sunday, and the tradition hands down to us two distinct ways of thinking about the Trinity and visualising it. A daring attempt to suggest what the internal life of the Trinity might look like is by the celebrated Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev. This picture holds two contradictory things in balance. The painting is a masterpiece of that stillness which we find in the icon tradition. Yet at the same time, we sense that there is movement there among the figures.  The early theologians of the Greek tradition recognised that there is a choreography for the internal life of the Trinity; there is a dance inscribed in that Trinitarian life. 

Sandro Botticelli, the TrinityThe other tradition takes as its starting point that the Trinity, as well as having an inner life, also has a life that reaches outside itself. This of course is something more familiar to our experience of the Incarnation. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into the world (John 3.16). But this truth at the centre of our belief is given an extraordinary visual form. The subject is called the Throne of Grace, words used in Hebrews 4.16, but it goes well beyond those words in its presentation of the life of the Trinity as you can see in this painting by the great artist Sandro Botticelli. In this painting, the Trinity is flanked by the two St Johns, the Baptist and the Son of Zebedee. But central to the drama of the picture is the holding. See how the Father holds the cross which holds the Son.  See how the Holy Spirit is held in balance between the Father and the Son; that holding is a dynamism which will set the Spirit free into the world.  The words of the fourth gospel express the death of Jesus in the words he handed over the Spirit (John 19:30). The Father is holding the Son in the right way, and in that holding, we see the Father identifying with the mission of the Son. In the way that relations seem to work in the Trinity, the Father, too is shaped by the Son’s death, in such a way that he fully embraces Jesus’ death for the world.

It is as though the Father is expressing something of what we do when we sing those lovely words of David Haas, We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts. It is that holding that shapes us, living now we remain with Jesus the Christ
Do I still want to be a dancer?  I do hope to hear the words , “Will the boy holding the death of the Lord deep in his heart come and join the Trinity in the dance?”

James Crampsey SJ