Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Visionary Women and the Law of Three" by Mary Claire Caron

I recently attended the Center for Action and Contemplation’s spring conference titled Trinity: The Soul of Creation. Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, gave several very compelling talks on the application of the Law of Three - the principle upon which all of creation operates.

Rather than a binary system where there are only two lines of action (black and white, good and evil, etc.), all of creation operates in the Law of Three. Bourgeault speaks of three lines of action: affirming, denying, and reconciling. These are not permanent identities. They are morally neutral. All three forces are indispensible. These three forces could also be called pushing, resisting, neutralizing or one, two, three, or active, passive, reconciling, but again all are necessary morally neutral forces from which a totally new fourth arises. The identities reveal themselves situationally. The forces are assigned according to the roles that they are actually playing, not according to preformed judgements or expectations. The second force (denying, passive, resisting) is never an obstacle to be overcome but is always a legitimate and essential component of the new manifestation. The third force (reconciling, neutralizing) emerges when it is spotted. It is always present in every situation but is often hidden. The fourth force (new arising) is a new phenomenon, a new world, a new outcome, a new possibility. It is a whole new category of “thingness.”

The Law of Three is “pure dynamism” according to Cynthia Bourgeault. New manifestations arise out of old ones along a very specific path of interaction. Having identified an example of the Law of Three working in my own life, I would like to try to apply the Law of Three to some of the twenty women presented in Praying with Visionary Women. In some instances I will have to make a leap and assume what is not directly stated. In others, the Law of Three is clear to me. In many of the cases, the denying force appears to be a man, but men also appear to be the affirming force in several instances.

The Law of Three was clearly at work in St. Brigit of Kildare’s life. St. Brigit was ordained a bishop by Bishop Mel. In this instance, he was the affirming or pushing force. The denying or resisting force appeared when his assistant complained that a bishop’s rank was being bestowed upon a woman. This could have resulted in an impasse, but the reconciling or neutralizing force appeared in the form of the fiery flame which ascended from Brigit’s head; she was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that the bishop and his assistant were also filled with the Holy Spirit as the objection was overcome and Brigit functioned as a valid bishop in the church. The new arising? A woman was ordained a bishop and the Irish people have given “episcopal recognition to Brigit’s successor” (Meehan 13).

Margaret of Scotland herself seemed to be the reconciling force in her story. With the weakened faith community (pushing force) and a complacent clergy and hierarchy (resisting force), Margaret herself was the agent for change (reconciling or neutralizing force). She called for synods and councils, a transformation of the church. The “liturgical and spiritual renewal that revitalized the Christian faith of the people” was the new arising. “Clearly Margaret was a change agent who took responsibility for the transformation of the Church” (Meehan 23).

There are many examples of the Law of Three in Hildegard of Bingen’s life, but perhaps the most obvious stemmed from her visions. The affirming force in this instance is the mystical visions themselves. The fact that Hildegard fell ill following her visions is the denying force. She was incapable of action. Hildegard saw a close connectedness between the spiritual and the physical. In a letter to Bernard of Clairvaux she said, “For a time when I was silent about these things, I was confined to my bed with serious illness, so intense that I was unable to sit up” (Fox, Hildegard, 272). Once she wrote her visions down, Hildegard recovered from her illness, so the act of writing could be called the reconciling force. The new arising would become Scivias, her book recounting her visions for all to see. (As an aside, the Ogala Sioux Black Elk also fell ill after a powerful vision. The medicine man told him, “You do not get the power of your vision until you perform it on earth for the people to see” (Richards, Centering, xxii ) Black Elk then created dances for his tribe to express the mysteries and gifts of his vision.)

Like Brigit of Kildare, the reconciling force in Clare of Assisi’s life seemed to come in the form of divine intervention. Clare desired to live a life of poverty dedicated to Christ. This would be the affirming force in her entire life. The denying force at this time was women’s dependence on men for their identity and status. Clare sneaked out of her house and was received by Francis into the life she wished to live. When her male relatives tried to force her to return home, she clung to the altar and could not be moved. The reconciling force seemed to come from on high. The new arising would be a new congregation for women and the first rule for religious life written by a woman, one with a “common sense approach” to living as a religious sister.

Likewise, Catherine of Sienna. She, too, desired to dedicate her life to Christ. Again, this would be the affirming force. The denying force came from both mother and father. They insisted that Catherine marry and tried all sorts of coercion to change her mind. The reconciling force appeared as a white dove above her head as she was praying. This was witnessed by her father who then became convinced that Catherine’s calling was genuine. He supported her in almsgiving and allowed her to give from the family resources (new arising).

As with so many of our “visionary” women, Teresa of Avila also had a life changing vision. The affirming force in her life was the desire for intimacy with God that she felt she could or should find in religious life. However, she was distracted by the lax lifestyle of religious life at the time, the denying force. Again, a vision was the reconciling force: “…After I beheld the extraordinary beauty of the Lord, I didn’t see anyone who in comparison with Him seemed to attract me or occupy my thoughts” (Meehan 76). Teresa went on to reform the Carmelite Order; she led a renewal of religious life which was the “new arising” and wrote so extensively and powerfully that she has been declared a Doctor of the Church.

Jumping forward 250 years, we find Elizabeth Lange, a “colored” woman, and her dream of educating children of free people of color. Her desire to educate these children was the affirming force. The denying force was the prevailing attitude of the time that it was useless to educate colored children. The reconciling force came in the guise of Fr. James Joubert who received support from the archbishop for the project. As a result, a new religious community was established, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, dedicated to the Christian education of colored children. This despite the fact that many people (good Catholics) objected to seeing colored women as religious sisters.

Not too long after Lange, Frances Cabrini also felt a calling to be a missionary sister. With the help of her bishop, Frances founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She and her companions were persuaded by Pope Leo XIII and her bishop to travel to New York to work with Italian immigrants. This appears to be the affirming force in Frances’ life. The denying force came when once they had arrived, Archbishop Corrigan, the one who promised the sisters a house, had made no provisions for them and wanted to send them back to Italy. The Jesuits came to the sisters rescue n a sense by agreeing to sell them a large estate. This was the reconciling force, and the new arising was the founding of schools, orphanages, and a hospital to serve the Italian immigrant population. Again, this was in the face of prejudice, this time to Italian immigrants.

The life of Dorothy Day is a good example of the law of three at work. The affirming force was her zeal for social justice and human rights and dignity which she saw exemplified in the communist movement. The denying force was her conversion to Catholicism and, therefore, the basic philosophical differences with Communism. However, she wondered why Catholic leaders didn’t step to the forefront in working for those same causes for which she was so passionate. Her meeting and joining with Peter Maurin who taught her the social teachings of the Catholic faith was the reconciling force. Together they brought forward the Catholic Worker Movement. Day became a ”prophetic voice for justice and equality in the catholic worker movement, a supporter of nonviolence, and a voice for the ban on nuclear weapons” (Meehan 172).

Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century speaks of the Trinity in very much the same way that Cynthia Bourgeault speaks today. Julian saw the Trinity as relational: “Maker, Keeper, Lover who envelops us” (Meehan 48). We are within the Trinity, completely surrounded by love. As taught by Bourgeault, the Trinity is a self-emptying relationship of total love, a love that has to express itself in the form of creation, the new arising. Therefore, all of creation exists within the Trinity and the Trinity exists in all of creation. All is holy.

Each of the women mentioned in this paper moved in the flow of the Trinity, the Law of Three manifest in their lives. Each of them felt called to step out of the ordinary expectations of their day. They all faced obstacles, many of the obstacles placed in their way by the institutions, mores, and prejudices of the time. In each of these cases, a reconciling force became evident, a force that may have initially have lain hidden but which led to a new arising of some sort. These women often worked in partnership with men to challenge the status quo, goad the complacent into action, counter prejudice, revitalize and renew tired institutions, and/or give birth to entirely new ways of responding to the forces of the Trinity manifesting itself in their lives.


Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three. Boston: Shambhala, 2013.

Fox, Matthew. Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works. Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1987.

Meehan, Bridget Mary. Praying with Visionary Women. Franklin: Sheed & Ward, 1999.

Richards, Mary Caroline. Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

*Mary Claire Caron submitted this paper for a Global Ministries Course on Visionary Women in the Christian Tradition.

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