A true story
‘If you want old ideas read new books, but if you want new ideas read old books’. With these words my spiritual director gave me – ‘Abandonment to Divine Providence’ by the Jesuit French mystic Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ, who died in 1751. The book is perhaps better known under the title- ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’ more usually used when the book is translated into English, because this title embodies its central idea. I was busy reading the book when I had a message from my old friend Fr Kenneth Campbell, a Franciscan Priest who was born on the Island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. He had spent years working in the Holy Land and had arranged a pilgrimage for Gaelic speaking Catholics. However the Israeli government had suddenly asked him to escort the Canadian Foreign Minister and show him around the Holy Places as he was a Catholic. Could I therefore act as a ‘stand in’ because he couldn’t get back in time to meet the pilgrims at Luton airport? If I could, then after the formalities, I could board the plane with them and have a free holiday in the place that I had always dreamt of visiting, but had never had the time or the money to do so. Reading my ‘new’ book on the ‘plane coupled with what happened next led to one of the most important spiritual insights that I have ever experienced.
On the first day I did the grand tour of all the major shrines in style with Fr Kenneth and the Canadian foreign minister. There are more Gaelic speakers in Canada then there are in Scotland and, as the foreign minister was one of them, he and Fr Kenneth spoke to each other in their common tongue knowing full well that the official car was bugged! When for my sake he reverted to English whenever we left the car, I was amazed to hear the evidence for the authenticity of the Holy Places. After the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in 70AD they built their own pagan shrines over them so as to obliterate their memory. However their action did exactly the opposite, guaranteeing their preservation until they were returned to Christianity when Constantine became the first Christian Emperor in 312 and the exact places where Christ had died, and from where he rose again were pinpointed exactly. It was therefore the church of Holy Sepulchre that impressed me most, because it had been built over both – not the architecture, but the whole atmosphere of the place that touched me more deeply than I would have imagined.
Fr. Kenneth, who had lived and worked in the Holy Land for most of his life, seemed to have a key to every place that you really should see, and even to places that you shouldn’t! On the night before we left, his famous key opened a door to me that seemed closed to everyone else, and opened to me an experience that has affected me deeply to this day. Although the doors to the Holy Sepulchre are closed every night, and cannot be opened until the next morning no matter what, I was allowed to remain inside for the whole night, with a room to myself in the Franciscan friary within. I never went into that room. I spent all the time before the midnight office at Calvary, and the time after, alone in the empty tomb.
There was a New Testament open at the place where Jesus was crucified. I read St John’s account of his death and resurrection several times over, beginning with the profound and mystical discourse at the Last Supper. What the other evangelists called the death and resurrection of Jesus was referred to as his glorification by St John. The moment of his death was the moment when Jesus was glorified by his Father with whom he was instantly reunited. The passage that told of the water pouring from the side of Jesus was underlined in red for this was the key moment in St John’s narrative. Once glorified, Jesus could immediately send the Holy Spirit, who he had promised to send at the Last Supper. The outpouring of this mystical life had long since been likened to an unprecedented effusion of living water, by both the Prophets in the Old Testament and by Jesus himself. However, in the so called ‘real time’ in which the apostles lived, they had to wait until after the Ascension for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on themselves in the ‘Upper Room’, on the first Pentecost day.
As I was reflecting on these events, in the Holy Sepulchre itself after the midnight office, I was so overcome by the realization that I was actually praying in the very place from which Jesus had risen from the dead that I began to wish I that could spend the rest of my life in that friary. This would enable me to return again and again, night after night, to what must be the holiest place on earth. Then suddenly, in a matter of moments, I had a spiritual experience that changed everything. I didn’t see anything, I didn’t hear anything, but the words of God spoke to me in a way that they had never spoken to me before or since. In one sense it was nothing spectacular, but in another sense it irrevocably changed my whole attitude to the Resurrection that I’d believed in since I was a child, but which had never really touched me in the way it touched me that night.
I do not claim that the words came directly from God; they most certainly came from my subconscious, but I’m sure God gave them a bit of a push. The words were these: ‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. See, here is the place where they laid him. He is risen now. He is not here. He has gone before you into Galilee.’ I changed instantly. I no longer wanted to live in that friary for the rest of my life. The empty tomb suddenly lost its importance, but not its significance. The meaning of the Resurrection struck me as never before, it was as if someone had said “ephphatha” and my eyes had been opened to a truth that I had known with my head, but which had never fully penetrated my heart. Although my spiritual understanding hadn’t substantially changed, it had been totally transformed in a way that I find difficult to put into words. It was as if I’d spent years looking at the Resurrection from the outside, as framed in a stained-glass window, then suddenly seen it again, this time from the inside with the sun shining through it.
The Resurrection, or what St John had called the glorification, meant that Jesus had been swept up out of the world of space and time in which he’d lived before, not to leave us alone, but to be closer to us than ever before, and as he promised ‘even to the end of time.’ Before the Resurrection Jesus was limited by the physical body into which he had freely chosen to enter. His choice meant that he could only be in one place at a time, so meeting him would have been as difficult as meeting any major celebrity in our time. But that’s all changed now, because the same otherworldly power that raised him out of this world on the first Easter day enabled him to re-enter it on every day. So now he can enter into us, as he promised, so that he can make his home in us and we can make our home in him. In the words of St Augustine this means that – ‘He can be closer to us than we are to ourselves’. All this could be possible not in some distant pipe dream, but here and now. That’s why de Caussade said that ‘The present moment contains far more than we have the capacity to receive for it is full of infinite treasures’. And that’s why he called it ‘the sacrament of the present moment,’ because it is the only moment where time touches eternity.
The existential philosopher Martin Buber tells the story of the carpenter from Lubin in Poland who had a dream in which he saw a vast treasure reserved for him alone. After years travelling the world to find it, he returned home at the end of his life to find that the treasure had been there all the time beneath the hearth, where he had warmed himself before the fire each evening. Like him we can spend a lifetime searching elsewhere for what is here where we are now, wherever that might be – in this present moment. The love, for which we were created and which Christ came to impart, can only be received here and now in the present moment, and at no other place than where we are now. Now is the moment to harness all the time and all the effort that could be wasted searching elsewhere to abandon ourselves without reserve to the One, who first promised, and then sent, the love that can makes all things new, beginning with ourselves.
The outpourings of the love of God that flowed from the side of Jesus, did not just happen in the past, two thousand years ago, it is happening continually, but we can only receive and experience it here and now in the present moment. We can receive it now, because the baptism that once symbolised our personal reception of the Holy Spirit, is not just an event that once took place in the past, any more than the events that happened on the first Pentecost. They both symbolised that the very personal and infinite love of God, is at this moment and at every moment being transmitted to us.
What happened at his resurrection was that the Jesus, who was once limited by the space and time world in which he had chosen to enter, was limited no more. Now his glorified human being continually radiates like the Sun that the early Christians used to symbolize his ever loving presence. He radiates, not so much with light, but with love but unlike the Sun that only shone in the day, his love radiates both day and night, for there was no time when his love could not be received by those who believed in him. That’s why the first Christians would rise at midnight when, it was believed, that Jesus rose from the dead, to meditate on his Resurrection, on what it meant for them then, and what it would mean for them in the forthcoming day.
What the risen Christ and his love had meant for them, the love of his Father had meant to Jesus throughout his life on earth. That’s why every moment of every day was the moment when he was opening himself to receive God’s love in his relentless daily prayer, and in the way in which he served those for whom his Father had sent him. There was no moment therefore in which he was not open to receive the love of his Father. It was therefore in imitation of him, that the first Christians, did likewise. This enabled them to ensure that every moment of their day would be a moment to receive his love. Then this love would enable them to be drawn up into his continual and abiding presence, so that in with and through him they would give glory to their Father in heaven, as he did. What they would then receive from God in return would enable them to experience something of that glory for themselves, and then show something of that glory to the world, as it infiltrated and shone through everything that they said and did, as pure unadulterated goodness.