Her brown eyes were not gazing into mine. She was taking in the four of us at the table. Greeting us with a smile of recognition. Chatting with us briefly like the group of regulars that we were.
We had spoken to each other dozens of times. At least, she had taken my order at more happy hours than I like to admit. But on this night, I saw her eyes. Well, actually, I just couldn’t stop looking at them. Framed at each corner by tiny laugh lines, her eyes hinted at an earthy warmth and a worldly sincerity.
I was sneaking discreet glances at her while she was talking to my friends. When her brown eyes looked into mine and she asked, “What will you have,” my throat froze for an awkward moment.
What I was thinking was something like, “I just want you to sit down. You can repeat the specials or read the phone book or recite the Gettysburg Address. I just want to look into your eyes.” I managed to say, “Ugh, I’ll take the nachos and a beer.”
That night I had no idea that this person had been a countercultural figure in high school, had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia, and had walked away from a successful career teaching high school students to search for something more in life. I had just glimpsed a compelling mystery in a set of brown eyes.
Some time later, this woman and I would agree to get married. And now those eyes show me many, many more things. They show me the road that my wife Joy and I have traveled together. Who she has become. Who I have become. Who we have become. And it is the “we” that I find most extraordinary and most revealing on a weekend that the Church ponders its central mystery: the Trinity.
Joy’s eyes have seen much of what I have seen over more than three decades. And more to the point of understanding the Trinity, our eyes have loved the same people and places. They weep at the absence of those who no longer walk among us. Tears of laughter and anger and relief have filled our eyes as we faced together life’s incongruities and cruelties and unforeseen breaks.
We have shared travel and study. Career struggles and financial hardships. The birth and growth of children. We have celebrated our children’s graduations, held our breath through our daughter’s heart surgery, and have taken one agonizing day at a time during our oldest son’s deployment to a war zone.
Film and television frequently portray love as two becoming one. And while there is some truth in this depiction of love, it remains incomplete. For starters, love does mean losing yourself for the sake of a greater whole but it also involves finding and taking hold of yourself more intentionally. And crucially, love at its deepest levels always involves a third.
Joy and I love each other, certainly. But our love matured not merely by getting to know each other better and by differentiating ourselves with grace. Our love grew in our shared love for someone or something else.
We share a love for hymns and for simple, well-prepared meals. For travel to new places and for walking and talking in the woods. This common appreciation deepens our relationship. But the love grows exponentially with a third who can love in response.
Since we’re parents, you might expect me to draw on experiences with our children. And I could certainly do that. Instead, I’ll drawn on our experience with our dog Gracie. We rescued her from a local shelter when she was ten weeks old. She has been our constant companion—at work and at home—for the past year.
The depth of my affection for Gracie has surprised me. Joy says the same. Recently I watched Gracie lay her head on Joy’s lap and Joy gently stroke her head and back. I saw their love for one another. And I also experienced delight in their love for each other. I loved them in their mutual affection. Two became three.
As you might imagine, the dynamic of the third deepens even further when that third can take the kind of role I just described in the story about Joy and Gracie. Now that our three children are adults, Joy and I are hearing their perception and their versions of the family story. And the “we” is stretching and expanding as a result. Let me tell you, growth is not always comfortable.
Each of us tells the story of us. Who each of us is occurs in those intersecting stories. The truth of “we” emerges from the lips of multiple narrators. That’s what it means to live in community. Sometimes our stories conflict. Sometimes they amplify or complete each other. If some group of individuals tells the same story with no variations and no contradictions, we should suspect coercion, collusion, and mendacity.
The Bible tells us that God is love. The Church teaches us that God is Triune. One in three and three in one. In other words, the Holy One is a community. Three persons perpetually and eternally loving each other.
That same Bible says that God created humans in the divine image. We are what and who we are in community. The human community has many stories and many narrators. We will only be truly human when we have the courage to hear and honor all these stories. Especially the ones that stretch us the most.
Check out my blog Looking for God in Messy Places