The ancient Church famously told a story about Saint Augustine, that he was once walking along the seashore trying to understand clearly how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could be one God in three persons. As he walked, he saw a small child running back and forth between the sea and a hole he had dug in the sand, carrying water from one to the other in a shell. Augustine asked the child, “what are you doing?” The child responded, “I am trying to pour the entire ocean into this hole in the sand.” Augustine, laughing, told the child, “there is no way on earth that you could ever accomplish such a gargantuan and absurd task.” The child, all of a sudden becoming serious, said to the wise bishop, “neither, O Augustine, will you succeed in fitting the boundless Trinity into your frail mind,” and with that, disappeared.
This short tale shares some similarity with the words of Christ in today’s Gospel, as He says to the Apostles, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.” The Lord is, in this moment of the Gospels, in the middle of unveiling his mind and heart to the Apostles. This night of the Last Supper, he teaches them more clearly than ever about the closeness he shares with the Father, about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and of his desire to bring the disciples into the glory of heaven, given to him by the Father before anything was. He has already given them more than they could ever have understood, particularly before experiencing the Risen Christ of Easter, but now he reminds them that there is “much more” of the mystery that remains beyond their comprehension, which they “cannot bear.”
While both Augustine’s story and the Lord’s words might seem like simple encouragements to intellectual humility before the mystery of God, perhaps this Sunday, we can find in then a joyful message as well. When Christ tells the Apostles that there is much more left to understand, he also gives a promise, that the Holy Spirit will, without fail, come to “guide [them] to all truth.” Thus, the Apostles’ current lack of understanding is not just a barrier, but a promise of where they are to go. Likewise, Augustine might not fit the mystery of the boundless and infinite God into his mind, but he knew that if he remained faithful, he would nonetheless see the Trinity face to face in heaven. The child’s intellectual rebuke was almost a way of saying to Augustine the thinker, “you will not arrive at perfect knowledge in this way, but by love, you will know the true God.”
All of this remains true for us today. The Trinity is just as much a mystery for the Church today as for the ancient Church. We know what we cannot say and what we must say about the Trinity—that there is only one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all co-equal in eternity, power, honor, knowledge, sharing one nature, one will, and one love—but none of that necessary doctrinal clarity perfectly unveils the mystery. There is still “much more” for us to know, though we “cannot bear it now.” But rather than become discouraged at the impossibility of understanding God clearly here and now, we can take that same mystery as a hopeful promise of a time when, guided by the Holy Spirit, we will know by sight, and knowing “all truth” through the power of heaven’s love, we will not only be satisfied, but perfectly happy forever.