The Benedictine ashram in South India, where I spent many long retreats over a period of twenty years, is usually called Shantivanam, “forest of peace,” but it is also the Ashram of the Trinity, and the first founder, Father Jules Monchanin, gave it the Sanskrit name of Saccidananda, a compound word which means Being, Consciousness and Bliss. The word is found in Hindu writings dating back to the third century A.D. The idea of using this term to express the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit came from a Hindu Brahmin born in 1861. He became a Christian as a young man and was baptized with the name Theophilus, friend of God, which he translated into his native language as Brahmabandhab. He added the name Upadhyay, which means teacher.
Brahmabandhab Upadhyay studied Catholic theology according to St. Thomas Aquinas, but he wanted to translate Thomistic ideas in a way that Hindu intellectuals could understand and appreciate. Of course Brahmabandhab Upadhyay got into trouble with both Church authorities and conservative Hindus, but he kept his faith in Christ. He wrote a poem in Sanskrit, “Vande Saccidananda — Praise to Being-Consciousness-Bliss”; the words of the poem were phrases chosen from the Vedas and the Upanishads which Brahmabandhab applied to the attributes of God in Thomistic theology. After Brahmabandhab Upadhyay died in 1907, a Jesuit set the poem to music, and this is the opening hymn of evening prayer at our Ashram of the Trinity.
The mystery of God the Trinity is best expressed in poetic terms; poetry is the chief language of the Bible and the prayer of the Church. The truth of this mystery comes forth when we sing and when we make the sign of the cross. We can meditate on it in icons, like the icon written by Saint Andrej Rublev. Above all, we can see the mystery in all forms of love and in our life as a community. Aquinas taught that the Persons of the Triune God are not three individuals; they are subsistent relations, that is, their total reality is in their giving of being and love to each other. Saint Ambrose wrote a hymn that has the phrase “In Patre totus Filius et totus in Verbo Pater — in the Father is the total reality of the Son, and the total reality of the Father is in the Word.” The Spirit is totally the love that makes the Three Persons absolutely one.
Our faith teaches us that we can be partakers of the divine nature; we can share the life of God and know the being of God in us. Father Monchanin said that the Esse or existence of God is a Co-esse, always a being-with, and by God’s grace we too can share in God’s Co-esse. We can also empty our individuality by love for others, especially the poor. Mother Teresa emptied herself completely into the destitute and dying on the streets of Calcutta and in many other places; she saw Christ in them and through them saw Christ in herself. In our Eucharistic union with the Son through the Holy Spirit, may we also discover our true subsistence in relationship with the Three whose Esse is Co-esse, absolutely and eternally One.