This is the last sermon in a worship series on Christine Valters Paintner’s book entitled “The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred”.

How often do you think in patterns of three? You hear expressions like “3’s company” or on the flip side “3’s a crowd” or “bad news or death always comes in 3’s.”  How often do you find yourself saying the “3rd time’s a charm”? After failing twice there is always the cynical hope that this incantation will bring “charm” or offer good luck to the 3rd try. 

The use of the number 3 is also abundant in the Bible. It is considered a significant number within the Jewish and Christian faith, symbolic of divine wholeness, completeness, and fulfillment.  Here are a few places where 3 shows up in Scripture:  3 visitors appeared to Abraham. Jonah was inside the belly of a fish 3 days & nights. When the Magi visited baby Jesus, they presented 3 gifts – gold, frankincense & myrrh. Jesus responded to Satan’s 3 temptations in the wilderness with 3 scriptural references. Jesus took 3 disciples – Peter, James & John up the mountain where he was transfigured. Jesus’ public ministry lasted 3 years until he prayed 3 times in the Garden of Gethsemene, “Take this cup from me, but not my will, but thine be done”. There were 3 hours of darkness that covered the land when Jesus was crucified. Jesus lay in the tomb for 3 days.  Peter denied Jesus 3 times, and 3 times Jesus asked “Do you love me?” 

There are two places in scripture that repeat the word HOLY 3X, and it continues in our communion liturgy: “Holy, holy, holy, God of power and might…heaven and earth are full of your glory.” And it shows up in our hymnody: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.  Repeating a word 3 consecutive times was an important value in the Hebrew language. The repetition made it stand out as important. In both Isaiah and Revelation, the word holy is proclaimed 3 times to emphasize God’s holiness and to convey the completeness of it. 

The number three is also sacred in speaking of the Trinity as the triune nature of God. Look at the Call to Worship again – God has been made known to us in scripture and through Christian tradition as (sing) God in three persons – Blessed Trinity. God has been known to our ancestors and to us today as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. God has been made known to us as Creator, Savior, and Sustainer. God has been made known to us as Life-Giver, Word, and Wisdom. Sophia (the Greek word for Wisdom) is one of the ingredients that went into Christian thinking about the 3rd member of the Trinity, and so Proverbs 8 is often included in the lectionary on Trinity Sunday.

Today we finish our summer worship series based on the book by Christine Valters Paintner entitled “The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred”.  Her last chapter is called “The Practice of Three Essential Things”.  She writes: “Three is a sacred number in the Celtic tradition and often the saints were said to have expressed their own desires or commitments in terms of the number three.”  

This was also true of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers around the 3rd century. Someone asked Abba Anthony: 

“What must one do in order to please God?” Anthony replied, “ Pay attention: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to holy scriptures;  in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it.

As he was dying, Abba Benjamin said to his sons,

“If you observe the following you can be saved, “Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things.”

Christine writes about a Celtic Irish Saint for each chapter. This chapter features 6th century Saint Ita, whose name means thirst. She had a dream in which she was given 3 precious stones. Later, it was revealed to her that throughout her life she would receive many dreams and visions, and that the 3 stones represented the gifts of the Trinity coming to her. 

“Always in your sleep and in your vigils – the angels of God and holy visions will come to you, for you are a temple of God, in body and soul.” 

St. Brendan once asked St. Ita, “What are the three things that are most pleasing and displeasing to God. She replied

What pleases God is true faith in God with a pure heart; a simple life with a grateful spirit; and generosity inspired by charity.” What is most displeasing is: “a mouth that hates people; a heart harboring resentments; and confidence in wealth.”

Naming the ‘3 essential things’ one must do in life were different for the early saints, and yet it was the naming of three essential things that was a common theme. But why 3? We don’t necessarily know except a list of 3 is easier to remember than 5 or 7 or 12. It keeps it simple. It also breaks away from duality and either/or thinking. And the number 3 was considered significant and sacred.  Esther de Waal, scholar in the Benedictine and Celtic traditions wrote:

the Celtic people had a passion for significant numbers. Most beloved of all was the triad, an arrangement of three statements that summed up a thing or person or quality or mood, or simply linked otherwise incompatible things.” 

Christine Valters Paintner in chapter 12, The Three Essential Things:

“None of the monks say the same three things. Does this mean that one is right and the others are wrong? Or does it open us up to the possibility that the ground can shift beneath us during our lives and what feels essential during one season becomes less important in another.”

With a variety of responses to the question about the three essential things, it indicates that there isn’t one true answer, but an invitation to consider what is essential in this season of life right now – knowing that essential things can change over the seasons of our lifetime.  The desert Fathers and Mothers and the Celtic Saints do not offer a systematic 10-step program for living a life in God. Each one speaks from their own experience, offering the wisdom earned from years of practice. It’s so easy to get distracted and overwhelmed and feel powerless or bored. We might say especially today given the state of our world, but apparently that was also true in the 3rd century, the 6th century, and the 12th century. I think the point has always been to have a rule in life that helps ground us in this life and in our life with God. 

You don’t have to be a monk or a nun living in community to follow a rule. Throughout this book The Soul’s Slow Ripening, Christine has offered many different practices to try on and practice to see what resonates in your life right now. Throughout this summer we’ve covered 9 of them. All the sermons are on our website if you want to refer back to any of them. Or you could go with one of these:

For the prophet Micah, it was:
      “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.”
For Paul in I Cor. 13 it was trusting that
        Hope, faith and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.
Jesus summed it up in the two greatest commandments:
         to Love God, Love neighbor, Love self.
John Wesley had Three simple rules:
         Do no harm, Do good, stay in love with God.

What are the essential “three things” that you want to live into as a practice in this season of your life? The book is called “The Soul’s Slow Ripening”. What is ripening in your soul these days that needs tending? What is the commitment you want to make going forward?

Dreaming of Stones—by Christine Valters Paintner
In the world before waking – I meet a winged one,
feathered, untethered, who presses in my palm three precious stones,
like St. Ita in her dream,
but similarities end there,  her with saintliness and certainty,
me asking questions in the dark.
All I know is – I am not crafted from patience of rock  or gravity of earth, nor flow of river,
I am not otter with her hours devoted to play.
I am none of these. At least not yet.
The stones will still be singing centuries from now,
made smooth by all kinds of weather.
If I strike them together, they spark and kindle.
Do I store them as treasures  to secretly admire on storm-soaked days?
Or wear them as an amulet around my neck?
When the angel returns to me in the harsh truth of last morning,
will she ask  what have I endured,
what have I treasured, and what have I sparked?
Will she ask what have I hidden away and what have I made visible?