Cloud, Snow, River: H2O and the Holy Trinity
Yesterday was Trinity Sunday in the Catholic Church, a time to reflect upon the unfathomable Mystery of the Holy Trinity. And by “unfathomable”, I mean totally confusing. I can tell you that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are not three separate gods, but, rather, three different Persons of the same (only) God – but that doesn’t mean I can understand it. As a former atheist, then deist, who chose Christianity in 2002, I am actually grateful for the endless confusion that is this Mystery of the Holy Trinity. It was rather easy when I believed in God without the triune majesty aspect – it was like, God is one and I’m done. But, trying to understand God as three Divine Persons is, well… impossible for my little human brain. And that’s a very good thing. For, as St. Augustine says, “Why wonder that you do not understand? For if you understand, then it is not God.”
Over the last 2000 years, there have been countless explanations and teachings about the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, all of which are worthy of contemplation, though, in the end, poor shadows and incomplete. But, I wanted to share one here. It uses a simple comparison to a very common substance on earth: H2O, or water. H2O takes on three different and distinct forms: vapor, water, and ice. A glacier is not a river, a cloud is not a puddle, and steam is not an ice cube, yet all are the same compound of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. God the Father is not God the Son is not God the Holy Spirit, yet all three are the same divine substance – all are equal Persons of the one true, living God.
So, let’s just go with that and see where it takes us…
With this analogy of H2O and the Holy Trinity, I’ve often wondered which form of water might be like which Divine Person and why. My wondering led me to this thought: vapor is like the Father, ice is like the Son, and liquid water is like the Holy Spirit.
No one “… has seen the Father…” God the Father is, to me, the most mysterious of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity. He is our Source, our Creator. He is over our heads, above us in being, like the clouds in the sky that send the nourishing rains. Therefore, water vapor is like God the Father, difficult to contain, always rising upward, if you will, toward the heavens.
The rain that comes down to us from the heavens is like the Holy Spirit, sent to renew the face of the earth. Water seeks containment, as does the Holy Spirit. Our bodies are mostly made up of water and Saint Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. The power of the Holy Spirit is given to us through the waters of baptism and it pools within us to give us true life – just as we need water to live. And yet, if water remains still it becomes stagnant, for it is its purest when it flows. So, too, the Holy Spirit seeks to flow through us, to work through us to erode obstacles and wash away sins. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit our cups run over and we share the abundance with others. Another thing about this analogy: rain always makes us look up toward the heavens, to the source – and the Holy Spirit in us causes us to cry out, “Abba! Father!”
The Second Divine Person of the Holy Trinity really doesn’t need an earthly comparison. Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, the Word of God made Flesh. He is made Flesh so that we may come closer to God, so that we may see God and hear God and touch God… and, through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, eat God. For this analogy of H2O, to better understand the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, I liken ice to the Son of God. Of the three forms of H2O, only ice has solid definition. Ice has definite shape and form, as does our Lord, Jesus. Ice can be held between our fingertips. We can smash and break ice. So humble and fragile was Jesus while He was with us on earth. And now, in the Eucharist, we can hold Him in our hands and we can crush Him with our teeth. (Mystery of Mysteries!) We can know that God is with us, substantially, given the right conditions, in the Divine Person of God the Son. Once He came to earth in the “ice age,” so to speak – and He will come again, as will another ice age. Meanwhile, when we receive Him in the Most Blessed Sacrament, Jesus is substantially within us for a short while… for about as long as it takes for an ice cube to melt.
This is an interesting way to try to understand the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, but by no means is it the only or best way. God, by being God, is always, necessarily, beyond our ultimate comprehension. Truly, there is nothing else like God. All analogies that we humans make to try to better understand God are limited because they are human. But, because our souls will always long for God, even while we are limited, there is inexhaustible blessing in faith seeking understanding.
© 2014 Christina Chase
All Rights Reserved
 St. Augustine, Sermons 117, 5
 John 6:46
 Psalm 104
 1 Corinthians 6:19
 Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6
Christina Chase View All
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.
This analogy denies the distinction of the God-head. The problem with this analogy is that no one molecule of H2O can actually exist as solid, liquid, and gas at the same time. As a result the water molecule must change forms. A single molecule cannot simultaneously exist in three different states. This analogy actually teaches the heresy of modalism and was rejected by early Church Fathers…
Thank you for reflecting with me, I truly appreciate your response. There are many problems with this analogy, and you have highlighted the most important, and perhaps most dangerous, one. Nowhere in my reflection did I refer to the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity as “aspects”, “manifestations”, “modes”, or “forms” of God. That would indeed be heresy. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, are distinct (divine) Persons.
As I had hoped would have been clear in the tone of this reflection, I am simply “going with” the H2O analogy in order to think about the distinctness of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity – and the sameness of divine substance. (I believe “substance” is orthodox Christianity, as in consubstantial, but please let me know if you disagree.) As I wrote in the reflection, all analogies are incomplete. But, I don’t believe that this analogy is completely worthless as long as we focus on distinction of Persons in the Trinity, which I tried to do.
However, in continually referring to the forms of water in this reflection, I can see how people may think that I am a modalist. And, so, I greatly thank you for your comment! I defer always to orthodoxy, and the Teachings of the Catholic Church (see https://divineincarnate.com/disclaimer/ )
Since I first wrote this reflection (which was several years before the post itself) it has come to my attention that the analogy of H2O in regards to the Holy Trinity has been sorely misused. I don’t want to do that. And I am truly sorry if I have led any into confusion. It is my hope that your criticism and my response will help to clear up the matter. But, in order to be sure, I plan on rewriting this reflection with a different approach, exploring and emphasizing the part that is most intriguing to me – that of Christ in the Eucharist. I will do my very best to distance myself from any kind of modalistic thinking or terminology. If you have advice, please share!
In conclusion, as stated in the reflection, there is no way to understand the Holy Trinity. Even the term Persons can be confusing, because some think of it in human terms, like human persons. The three distinct Persons of the Holy Trinity are divine – and so beyond human understanding. But… that doesn’t mean that we are wrong in contemplating and pondering this Mystery. As you have rightly reminded me, however, we must be careful that we don’t lead others astray with our well-intended words.
If you have any authentic Catholic resources that you would like to share with me and my readers on this subject, I hope that you will do so.
Thank you again.