What’s in a Title?
Trinity Sunday. Fr Lawrence Lew explains the link between titles and relationships.
Someone recently wrote to me and opined that it “seems perverse” in “this day and age” to refer to people by their titles. However, titles are important and even necessary because they distinguish persons, one from another, and they place us in relation to another; titles establish a certain proper relationship between persons, and they often serve to indicate a mutual exchange of goods established by this relationship. Hence, for me to call Charles Lew (my father) “papa” names the relationship of intimacy and even of affective and biological and material dependency that exists between us, but this relationship is distinguished and would be different if I were to call him “Mr Lew” or “Dr Lew”. Titles, therefore, matter because they distinguish persons, and most significantly, establish relationships. The best of titles name a relationship of service and of mutual love.
However, the perversion of a title occurs when a relationship is misused or abused or neglected; when titles become a source of power used to sinfully dominate another. Hence, some people respond to the title ‘father’ negatively, seeing it as expressive of patriarchal oppression. Tragically, in these days, the title ‘officer’ given to a policeman may not immediately speak of the office “to serve and to protect” which he has undertaken. However, the perversity doesn’t arise from the title itself, nor even the necessity of using them. Rather, perversity arises, as always, from the perversion of the good and the true, from a sinful dereliction of one’s calling. The use of titles, indeed, can remind the person of the responsibilities and duties to which they have been called. Therefore, it is not the good use of titles that ought to be rejected in our day and age but sin. Sin and the sinful abuse of titles that pervert the good relationships that they indicate are to be rejected, and that which is broken in these relationships needs to be healed, restored, redeemed.
Only God can redeem us from sin, and through grace, God heals the relationships wounded and broken by sin. Hence “God sent his Son into the world… so that through him the world might be saved.” Jesus thus reveals the Holy Trinity to us Christians, so that we may know God more intimately, not as an abstract Deity, but personally, distinguished through the subsistent relations in God the Blessed Trinity. Jesus thus calls us into a personal relationship with the one God who is distinguished relationally by these titles: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from both by Love. As St Thomas Aquinas holds: “in the divine nature three Persons subsist: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God, distinguished from one another by relations only.” These titles, therefore, are necessary and important, distinguishing the persons of the Blessed Trinity, and they establish a salutary and healing relationship with us and in us.
It is through the Son, the incarnate Word, that God the Father communicates divine truth to us so that we might know him. For it is through the Son, through the grace of Jesus Christ, that we share in the divine Sonship. Thus we, mere human creatures, can partake in the goods of the Son: we can know God, and come to contemplate Truth itself, being remade by the grace and sacraments of Christ to become children of the loving Father who will, at last, see God face to face. It is through the Holy Spirit, the Love that proceeds from the Father and the Son, that God elevates our human nature with divine charity. For it is through the Holy Spirit that our wills are healed so that they act and desire well, with the love for God and compassion for neighbour that Christ exemplified and taught us. The Son and the Spirit, therefore, lead us to know and love God, but not abstractly nor distantly as the deity or the paternity but precisely as Father, as a personal “God of tenderness and compassion” who has adopted us as his own beloved children, and who makes us brothers and sisters to one another. Through the Son and the Holy Spirit, therefore, we know and love God as our true Father, the One who knows us intimately because he made us, and who loves us unfailingly. Thus we enjoy the beauty and goodness of being alive, of being related to Love himself. The grace flowing from this relationship, its truth, heals and transforms all those other human relationships which we name through various titles.
The revelation of God as Triune, therefore, is not a mathematical conundrum, nor a logical puzzle, but it is a mystery even as the relationship of love between two human beings can be ‘mysterious’. In speaking of God, we are attempting to speak of the depth of infinite love and the eternity of being that exceeds our limited human capacities but which, precisely because of this unfathomable richness, elicits in us wonder, and praise, and holy desire, and prayer. So, St Catherine of Siena prayed: “You, O eternal Trinity, are a deep Sea, into which the deeper I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek; the soul cannot be satiated in Your abyss, for she continually hungers after You, the eternal Trinity… Clothe me, clothe me with You, O! Eternal Truth!”
Photography by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a mural in the church of the Most Holy Redeemer in Detroit, MI.