Understanding the Trinity is impossible; it is part of the mystery of God. However, we do have bits and pieces of understanding revealed to us through history. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The whole history of salvation is identical with the history of the way and the means by which the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals himself to men…” (n. 234).
Thus we see the Trinity revealed to us gradually: In the Old Testament, we see the working of Father, the creator of all things; in the New Testament, we see the coming of the Son, and; now in the time of the church, we see the work of the Holy Spirit. Three distinct persons but one God. As the catechism adds, there are three points to remember (nos. 253-255):
The Trinity is one and consubstantial. There is one God, not three gods. Each person — Father, Son and Spirit — is completely God; it isn’t divinity shared in three ways.
- The Trinity is one and consubstantial. There is one God, not three gods. Each person — Father, Son and Spirit — is completely God; it isn’t divinity shared in three ways.
- The three persons are distinct and complete.
- The three persons are “relative to one another.” What distinguishes the persons of the Trinity is how they relate: The Father is not the Son, who is not the Spirit. Rather the Father is Father because of his relationship with the Son, and the Son exists distinct in his relationship with the Father. Likewise with the Spirit.
It’s glorious and infinitely confusing. So, over the years, saints, theologians and teachers have sought to visually explain the Trinity through various symbols.
Math and military
Most simply, we can image the Trinity with a triangle, a geometric shape with three equal angles (equilateral triangle).
A little more advanced is the branch of mathematics called “knot theory,” which gives us a shape called the Borromean circles. These look like three interlaced circles, but are in fact a knot that cannot be untied without the destruction of the circles themselves. This is why the circles seem without beginning or end. The same inseparable nature is also found in the “trefoil knot.”
The Shield of the Trinity, Scutum Fidei in Latin, is likewise triangular. It developed around the 11th century and was popular in the time of knights and heraldry. This “Arms of God” was placed on a shield or banner, and consists of three circles linked by six lines. Each circle represents a person of the Trinity and the six connecting lines between them are labeled “est” (Latin for “is”) or “non est” (for “is not”). The shield serves to explain part of the sixth century Athanasian Creed. Its basics are that the Father, Son and Spirit are all equally and totally God, but each person has a distinct role: such as, “The Father is God, but the Father is not the Son.”
Far easier to visualize are flowers linked to the Trinity. We all know of St. Patrick and his three-leaved shamrock. Along the same lines we find the trefoil and the trillium (state flower of Wisconsin). There is also the Trinity flower, better known as the “Johnny jump-up” or wild pansy. A pansy (hearts ease) is also Trinity-related because of the three lower petals of the flower which give it a face-like quality. Pansies have three colors — yellow, white and purple — and these are often linked to the three persons: yellow for the Father, white for the Spirit and purple for the Son.
Another flower is the fleur-de-lis (French: flower of kings), which resembles an iris. While the fleur-de-lis, emblem of French kings, is often used today as a symbol for Mary, its three petals also symbolize Father, Son and Spirit. This was the battle emblem of St. Joan of Arc.
Two final Trinity flowers are the spiderwort and the aloe — often used to treat burns — which grow new shoots in threes.
Triangles and fish
Besides the triangle for the Trinity, there are other triangular shapes — called triquetra. Celtic imagery holds many of these — though not all Celtic knots symbolize the Trinity — and can be found in the “Book of Kells,” which dates to the ninth century.
A triquetra is often formed from three vesicae piscis, a mandala-shaped oval that forms at the intersection of two identical circles. A vesica piscis is also a mathematical formula because the ratio of its width to its height is the square root of three.
But the vesica piscis is also tied to the Trinity by a play on words. Triquetra symbols for the Trinity sometimes appear as three identical animals forming a triangle — such as three deer, or (here is the play on words) three fish. Vesica piscis is Latin and means “vessel of fish.” Fish, of course, are tied to the Lord and his miracles. Also, fish were a eucharistic symbol in the early church.
Another food item tied to the Trinity is the pretzel.
Many of us know pretzels are credited to sixth century monks to reward children for learning prayers. The braids of the pretzel symbolize arms folded in prayer. However, the braids of the pretzel also form three holes — and these are said to remind us of the Trinity.
That makes a pretzel one more good thing that comes in threes.
Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicculture.org; ewtn.com; Fleurdelis.com; “The Trinity and God the Creator”; catholictradition.org; ushistory.org; “Flowers and Human Symbols of the Trinity”; and en.wikipedia.org.