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St. Ignatius Loyola: The Music of the Trinity

     The Trinity has never been easy to explain in plain speech. From the first gestures toward Trinitarian theology in the early Church, this Christian doctrine has been mysterious and figural. Already in the first century, the Trinity was expressed ritually in baptism -- indeed, I think that’s probably where the doctrine emerged -- but performing a ritual and explaining a concept are entirely different tasks.
     Nevertheless, the great theologians of the first four centuries each tried out different analogies, metaphors, and images to aid understanding. Some of these attempts did not catch on and have been forgotten. Others have stood the test of time, such that they ceased to be regarded as figural. In addition to Father-Son-Spirit, the other famous Trinitarian expressions drew from examples either natural or scriptural -- or preferably both. At their best, they can express the mysteries of distinction-in-unity and dynamic unchangeability. The imagery of firelight (radiance, refulgence, sun-light-warmth) and water (fountain-stream) were popular, as were the concepts of procession or emanation (which captures the essence of both light and water imagery).
     On today’s feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, let us recall the Trinitarian figure that enraptured him, recorded in the Reminiscences (section 28). Ignatius was pondering his own practice of praying to the three persons of the Trinity separately and wondering whether this was proper, until one day...   ...
"while praying the office of Our Lady on the steps of [a] monastery, his understanding began to be raised up, in that he was seeing the Most Holy Trinity in the form of three musical keys (en figura de tres teclas), and this with so many tears and so many sobs that he could not control himself. And on walking that morning in a procession which was leaving from there, at no point could he restrain his tears until the mealtime, nor after the meal could he stop talking, only about the Most Holy Trinity (trans. Munitiz and Endean, modified."   .. 
     For Ignatius, the Trinity was captured best in the figure of a musical triad, the most common type of chord in Western music. But what was so arresting about this image? Why did it work better than others he had learned? Some reflection on 16th-century sacred music can help us to approach answers to those questions.
     In 1522, when Ignatius had this insight, sacred music was primarily sung a cappella or played on an organ with just intonation. The use of equal temperament in keyboard tuning was not popularized until Bach’s well-tempered Klavier much later, and so Ignatius would have heard musical intervals at their naturally occurring wavelengths. When we combine the practice of just intonation with the fact that most sacred choral singing was done by men, we get a much clearer sense of Ignatius’s musical experience. In short, Ignatius was used to hearing overtones.
     The resonances of human vocal cords produce waves besides the fundamental pitch being sung. A well-trained singer can produce higher-frequency upper partials or harmonics, which sound like quiet, ethereal whistles or flutes that alight above the fundamental pitches. These overtones are difficult or impossible for us to hear when the fundamentals are produced by women’s voices, since they are beyond the upper range of our auditory spectrum. But men’s voices, especially when singing justly intoned fifths or triads, can and should produce overtones as often they sing. (In American usage, overtones are thus often associated with men’s glee clubs or barbershop groups.)
     I recall many times in my life as a choral singer when a few of us would practice intonation by trying to produce overtones. Resonant spaces, such as stairwells and stone cathedrals, afford ample opportunities for experimenting with the overtone sequence. I would say that I had not experienced the full beauty of choral music -- and the mysteriousness of audible waves -- until the first time I stood rapt by the faint sounds that floated above a perfectly tuned triad of men’s voices. High flute-like tones were undeniably audible, although none of us were (intentionally) singing them. I knew that the overtones were resonating back to me off the high walls, but it seemed also as if they were immediately present or even inside of my head. Overtones sound as if they happen in the midst of the group; they are often felt more than they are heard.
     The musical triad, then, is a fitting figure for the Trinity. It embodies distinction-in-unity and dynamic unchangeability. What is more, a triad is a trinity that emanates more being. In the second and third centuries, the light from light figure -- enshrined in the fourth-century creeds -- captured the concept of undiminished giving, how a flame could give rise to another flame without itself being diminished. But the musical triad might capture that concept even more aptly: it is the triad’s very self-relationality which generates the overtone sequence. In other words, a musical trinity is a creator, or a begetter.
     St. Ignatius of Loyola was a mystic and could justifiably be said to have been hearing things that others did not. In the case of the tres teclas, though, he was hearing things that were really there for every well-attuned ear. He heard the Trinity as a justly intoned musical triad, a relationship which through its harmony emanated other notes in a procession of audible light.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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The image of Ignatius Loyola weeping for hours over a new spiritual awareness assaults my impression of the man as a hard-edge militant ideologue ["a soldier of Christ"]. I didn't realize that he was so delicate, sensitive and emotional. On second thought, maybe that is why he is a saint.It seems to me that if the nature of the triune God is reflected in holy "teclas," it is more aptly expressed at 528hz, the vibrating frequency of all life, and indeed, the ubiquitous frequency in all of the vibrating universe.[My son, who is a budding theoretical physicist, explained to me that the number "528" is a perfect multiple of the number "3". How's that for some spiritual synergy?]


This is a wonderful post, and a great insight by St. Ignatius.Another factor that undoubtedly ties in with the overtones is that many worship spaces from that era had acoustics that were optimized for a capella voices - they were very live and resonant. In today's electronically amplified and carpeted spaces, this is not experienced as much.

One mystic, Sister Miriam Blackwell, M.S.B.T., STD, spoke to several of us in a letter - part of which is the the following:"The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the essential fundamental mystery of faith. All other mysteries are taprooted in the Trinity. That is every mystery of our faith has its source in the life of the Triune God.""Although these mysteries are not contrary to human reason, we could never know them through our human reason alone. They have to be revealed to us. God has been gracious in revealing these mysteries, most especially the three ways that God fully expresses his divine life: Father Creator (maker of all and of male and female in his image); God the Son, Redeemer of all who showed the immense charity of God toward us - t he Son who becomes one of us in Jesus, lives, dies and rises for our salvation - and then promises to send the Holy Spirit upon us when he returns to the Father's side.""One has only to read the Gospel of John to find the intimate relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

July 31, 2012In 1522, when Ignatius had this insight, sacred music was primarily sung a cappella or played on an organ with just intonation. Lets fast forward to the 21st century, about a half a millennium later. Contemporary philosophical reasoning, scientific biblical scholarship, the other relevant sciences and history compel us to rethink the nature of the Supreme Being, the Origin of our contingent being, our Maker. The idea of the Trinity has run its course. We live in a scientific worldview age not the age of mythology, not Theophilus (of Antioch), not Tertullian, not the First Council of Niceae. But these realities do show the evolution of knowledge. This issue among others is why I think Catholicism among the other axial age religions is evolving into a postaxial age faith.

A very evocative reflection, indeed. I sometimes suggest that one of the greatest Trinitarian theologians in the Christian tradition is Johann Sebastian Bach. One could devote a course in theology to his Cantatas or his B-Minor Mass.As for the "idea of the Trinity having run its course," theologians as diverse as Rahner, von Balthasar, and Pannenberg would suggest that contemporary philosophy and science may be offering us new approaches to discerning "vestigia Trinitatis" in the created order.But, of course, the only access we have to the Mystery of God's Triune life is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus is not the unique Son of the Father, then there are no grounds for affirming that God is Triune. As John Courtney Murray maintained 50 years ago, the key question remains: "what say you of homousios?"

Fascinating. Thanks. I confess to having gotten lost in your technical language, but the general sense comes through. I may read it again.A simple chord is a good figure in itself.I suppose one question - which implies a stumbling block for non-believers - is, why is the number three so important at all? Why not four persons, or a few thousand?

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the essential fundamental mystery of faith. All other mysteries are taprooted in the Trinity. That is every mystery of our faith has its source in the life of the Triune God.The fundamental mystery of our faith is the Crucifixion and makes Christianity unique. As Paul wrote: 1 Corinthians 2:2 "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."This is why the following statement is necessary."But, of course, the only access we have to the Mystery of Gods Triune life is through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

7-31-12I am a laywoman with a long time interest in these issues. I have been reading and writing about them for several years. So when I say The idea of the Trinity has run its course, I take some of my thinking from Thomas Sheehans Revolution in the Church, The New York Review of Books June 14, 1984 Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem by Hans Kng, translated by Edward Quinn (online).For example, Many of the conclusions of the liberal consensus conflict sharply with traditional Catholic doctrine. Today, for example, one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching.

While it is true that the word "trinity" was coined by Tertullian in the late second century he did so to give come coherence to the oft repeated triad of Father, Son, and Spirit so often found in scripture and already embedded in the ancient liturgy of the church. What makes christianity unique is its trinitarian faith so beautifully expressed by that profound gesture: the Sign of the Cross.

It seems that women's voices, in which the overtones are too high for the human ear (assuming I have read the essay correctly), are a better analogue to the mystery of the Trinity than are men's voices. I am not saying this to denigrate the observations of Ignatius, but because I personally have been experimenting with feminine imagery for God. The biblical necessity for assigning masculinity to the first two persons of the Trinity overbalances the masculine in the imagery, and while earlier times would not have recognized this, our consciousness of the equality of women (not so much by the hierarchy of the RC Church) and of the active role of the female in reproduction, impels me to think of both the Holy Spirit and the Trinity as a single Essence as feminine.

Michael Peppard's essay edits the passage from Ignatius' Reminiscences in a way that leaves out an important point that add further support to his theory about overtones created by the "three musical keys." Ignatius was not concerned about praying to the three persons of the Trinity separately. Rather, he was concerned about his practice adding a fourth prayer to the Trinity as such. He wondered whether the practice of praying four prayers instead of three was somehow not theologically proper. The experience of overtones may have reassured him. That mysterious fourth sound expresses the unity of the three distinct sounds. It is not a "fourth person of the Trinity," but a musical symbol of what Ignatius calls "the Trinity as such."

One's faith can be shaken by the need to recite, within the Mass, the 4th-century formulations C. G. Jung has been reported (I don't know if correctly) to have said something like Even if it is true, I cannot accept the way it is stated), and Karl Rahner attempted some modern (though reliably orthodox), credal statements (unfortunately too subtle for communal recitation) in his Grundkurs des Glaubens. Marie Rottschaefer's opinion that the era of trinitarian speculation is over may be justified by our relatively recent realization about the limits of our understanding and even more of our language an insight that may have been anticipated in Aquinas's famous moment of depression. One way of dealing with this is the subject of Michael Peppard's article. Another: to practice, vis-a-vis the meaning of those ancient formulations, the inner silence of awe .Re Jesus' awareness (while still among us) of what He was: a common (vaguely monophysitic) misconception among believing people is that he was a human body with the consciousness of the Eternal Word inside. As a true human, he had a human brain with its limitations - I think with something like an occasional prophetic or mystical flicker of awareness of what was and is absolutely beyond the capacity of any brain to grasp.

According to Aquinas, God has added to our nature what Aquinas called "obediential potencies". As I understand it, the theory means that God creates and adds potencies/abilities in us which expand our ontological limits, so to speak, so that we become able to live lives that we could not live otherwise and do things we could not accomplish as unbaptized merely human spiritual beings. Intriguing notion. I don't know if there is any Scriptural support for it, though it certainly makes the early martyrs more understandable to me. Maybe a theologian could tell us.

Ann: I don't think that for Aquinas an "obediential potency" was added to human nature, but rather that human nature was in obediential potency to be elevated to supernatural life. It was a way of speaking of a sort of vertical finality, a way of explaining the dynamism of the natural world toward higher syntheses, as distinct from the horizontal finality of natures towards their natural goals. It results in the mystery of a humanity with a natural desire for a supernatural goal, that is, the beatifying vision of God. The potency, conscious as desire, is natural, but its fulfilment is supernatural.Svato Schutzner: It is hardly a "relatively recent realization" that there are limits to our understanding and even more to our language. It's in the Scriptures, in the Fathers, in the medieval theologians and philosophers, and in the mystics. All of them were quite aware of these limitations, one of the reasons it was called docta ignorantia.

JAK --Thanks for the explanation. Makes sense of the terminology too. Is this right -- God creates for each individual the actualization of the potentials the person needs to "win". If so, it looks like the supernatural realization of the natural by grace, and it makes it clearer that only with God's help can we "win the race".I read this week that St. Paul was in Athens when the Olympic games were on. He doesn't mention them, but he talks a lot about running races, fighting the good fight, and winning the prize. The young athletes continue to be an inspiration. They certainly seem to go beyond the bounds of human potential. By the way, i read that Gabby said she prays and recites Scripture to herself when she gets nervous. She also said "I want to be an inspiration to people. When things go badly they should never give up". Great kid :-)

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