For most of my parochial ministry, I struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. For those of you who aren’t religious but remember Don McLean’s song, “American Pie,” it’s the phrase embedded in the lyric line, “The three men I admire most, the father, son and the Holy Ghost…”
The traditional words of the Trinity are simply not adequate to express my understanding of the divine. While I know them by heart, I can say them by rote, and sometimes, they offer a poetic sense of the familiar. God has to be more than in the words of an old friend, “two men and a bird.”
According to legend, St. Augustine learned from a little boy that trying to comprehend the Trinity is like trying to fill a hole in the sand with water. It’s pointless. So every year, when Trinity Sunday rolled around, I’d spend hours figuring out how, in a meaningful way, to talk about something that I never really understood and not even sure I believed in the traditional, doctrinal formula. However, through the lense of dementia, I am acquiring a new appreciation for the mystical number three.
I have Primary Progressive Aphasia – that is, the loss of language. It’s getting harder for me to speak and write, especially in the evening, in busy environments, in conversation with more than one person, and when I’m feeling pressured. Contrary to my extroverted nature, I now can spend entire days without talking, and I’m becoming increasingly reliant on Emily to speak on my behalf, and on others to keep up the conversation.
Just this morning, I had a very difficult time asking for assistance at Home Depot. I couldn’t remember the word for the product I needed; I couldn’t think of appropriately descriptive words; I was stuttering and using my hands to try and explain myself; and I could see the salesman’s patience wearing out. Eventually, I had to say, “Please forgive me. I have problems with language. I’m having a hard time telling you what I need.” He smiled, slowed down, reassured me, and helped me find what I wanted, carefully placing the items in my basket and instructing me that they could always be returned. I was grateful but somewhat humiliated.
On the other hand, once I figure out what I want to communicate and – with the help of Google's dictionary, thesaurus, and spell-check – write it down, I can deliver my message with relative ease and confidence. As Emily likes to say, one day I can preach a kick-ass sermon, and the next day I can’t put two sentences together. However, it does take a long time (and it feels like eternity) to get the words out of my head and into the world.
A child psychologist explained to me, making language is a three-step process to which we don’t usually give much thought. First, we have to decide what we want to communicate; second, we must recall how to say or write it; and third, we have to do it. Most of us take the art and action of language for granted. But when you’re struggling to think, speak and write, it is exhausting. By the time I get to the third step, I often want to give up, or the conversation has moved on. Sometimes, sitting around a dinner table, I feel like I’m in that E.F. Hutton commercial where everybody leans in to hear what brilliant wisdom I have to say, and then they patiently wait for me to get a mundane sentence out of my mouth.
I’m coming to realize that, with the exception of involuntary actions like breathing, nearly everything we do in life is a three-step dance: we have to decide what to do, how to do it, and then do it. For most adults, this comes so naturally that we deceive ourselves into believing that we can do several things at once, like drive, listen to the radio, admire the view, talk on the phone, and follow directions. I used to do all of that while eating a sandwich and driving over the speed limit in rush hour traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. However, brain scientists will tell you there really is no such thing as multitasking. We just do a lot of stuff really fast.
People living with dementia can only do one thing at a time, and that becomes increasingly difficult as we desperately try to recall and execute the steps of the dance with as much grace as possible. These days, I often begin to speak a thought and then give up and say, “Never mind.” Or I start a project, like cooking, organizing, ordering, or fixing something, get confused and frustrated, and just walk away. They tell me that at the end-stage of this disease, I probably won’t be able to walk, speak or even swallow. I don’t like to think about that.
So here’s a piece of advice: When you’re dealing with someone who has dementia, especially someone who struggles with aphasia and executive function (that is, planning, organizing, and executing), consider it an exercise in patience. Allow us the time to speak and act; help us if we’re clearly struggling; recognize that we might have to outline what we’re going to say and do before we say and do it; and realize that we might not make it through all three steps of the dance.
Now, back to the Trinity. I still can’t explain it, but since this past week we celebrated Trinity Sunday, I want to share with you words that I hope I will never forget – words that I heard one day when God first interrupted my life. A voice said, “I was Jesus on earth, but I’m still God, and I’m here with you now.”
As I think back on my conversation at McDonald’s, I realize that like St. Augustine, I reached the limits of my understanding of the Holy Trinity’s mystery. I did come to believe that it was God’s voice of love I heard. The voice was love; it came to love, and it teaches us how to love.
John Lennon once said, “All you need is love, love, love.” At the royal wedding, Bishop Michael Curry preached that the power of love can and does change the world. As I grow older, The Voice I heard on 42nd Street has become for me a Trinity of Love: love unbegotten, love incarnate, and love among us now.
The Trinity of Love is my way of understanding the mystery we call God, and I don’t need to comprehend or explain its meaning any further. I just need to return that love to God and my neighbor with all my heart, and soul and might. And, I have to remember to love myself, especially when I get tangled up in the increasingly complicated three-step dance of making language and managing the trinity of life with dementia. Make of it what you will – good things do come in threes.