When the Bishop slipped and broke his nose, he cancelled his pilgrimage to Lourdes and decided to grace our school with his presence for ‘speech day’ instead. It was customary to put on some sort of entertainment when he was presiding over the proceedings, but nothing had been prepared, so it was decided, to produce a Shakespearean anthology at the last minute.
It would comprise two comic scenes sandwiched between three serious ones. There were no budding actors in my class so we all drew lots to decide who would play the part of Henry the fifth, – and the lot fell on me. Day after day I practised extravagant gestures in front of my mothers’ full-length mirror, as I recited his famous speech before the final assault on Harfleur – “Once more into the breach dear friends once more…” At the dress rehearsal I got far more laughs than the grave digger from Hamlet and the porter from Macbeth put together. I put it down to the dramatic tension that I had been able to generate. Had they never seen great Shakespearean acting before?
Time was short, so the English master said nothing until a matter of moments before I stepped on stage. Then he took me by the arm and said. “Now listen here, Torkington, forget about that pathetic little performance last night. If you act like that today, Reverend Mother will take you back to the convent school and make you head girl! You’re supposed to be a warrior king not a fairy queen! This isn’t a stage it’s a battlefield. They’re not fifth formers, they’re your men who are tired and exhausted. They’ve been storming the town all day, and they’ve got nowhere. They’ve seen their friends falling at their side, they’ve heard the cries of the wounded, the screeching of the horses and they’re all but defeated. Get out there, rouse them up, and rally them for one more attack before it’s too late.”
Then, with those words he pushed me onto the stage with one hand and pulled back the curtains with the other. To this day I don’t know what happened, I just remember saying, “Once more into the breach dear friends, once more….” but I can’t remember what happened next until that thunderous applause at the end that I’ll never forget. Even my worst enemies thought it was a fairly reputable performance. The Headmaster thought I was drunk and the Bishop wanted to sign me up for the Diocese. “Put him in a pulpit”, he said, “and he’ll collect enough money for me to build me a new Cathedral that will dwarf that wigwam they’ve just built in Liverpool.” Everyone seemed to think that it was a great performance. But they’d got it all wrong. It wasn’t a performance at all. I wasn’t acting – it was for real.
Somehow the English Master had managed to inspire me with the spirit of the man who trounced the French at Agincourt. I was famous for fifteen minutes, not because I was a good actor, but because for fifteen minutes I became a living re-incarnation of the greatest warrior King in English history.
I’ve always seen that ‘performance’ as a key moment in my life, because it gave me the most important spiritual insight that I’d never had ‘til then. It enabled me to see that you can only really become like someone else, act and behave as they do, by being inspired by the same spirit that inspired them. If you try to copy another, as I had tried to copy Henry V then you’ll certainly end up caricaturing them, and people will laugh and call you a ham. But if you try to copy Jesus Christ in that way they’ll probably call you a sanctimonious hypocrite, and they’ll probably be right.
There’s only one way to copy him, and that’s not by trying to copy his outward behaviour, but by copying the way in which he opened himself to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, who conceived him in the first place, and then continued to inspire everything that he said and did while he was on earth, and filled him to overflowing when he returned to heaven. That’s why, after the Ascension he could send that same Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost day, so that he could enter into us too, and we could enter into him, as he promised at the Last Supper.
He further promised that, if we remained in him and he remained in us then all things would be possible, even the impossible (Luke 1:37 Matthew 19:26 Mark 10:37). Most of all he would be able to continue living and loving in the world that he had come to serve through us. That’s how, as he promised, he would be able to remain with us to the end of time, enabling all but the spiritually blind, to see what can alone transform them.
When we celebrate the liturgy, the great feast days of the church, and the individual sacraments, we are not celebrating something that once happened in the past, but something that is happening now, today and at every moment of the day. The Holy Spirit, who was sent on the first Pentecost day, is continually being sent on every day, as he was then, is now, and ever will be. The day we were baptised then, did not just signify the moment when Gods’ love was poured out, onto and into us, when we were children, but the love that is continually being poured out, onto and into us, on every day.
The other sacraments continually release this same supernatural love to help fortify and strengthen us each day and every moment of each day with the love that St Paul said surpasses our understanding. That’s why Pierre de Caussade, the great Jesuit mystic, introduced us to another sacrament, which he called the sacrament of the present moment. The past has gone, the present is to come, so it is only in this present moment that we can continually give ourselves to God through Jesus to receive the love that he received on his return to his Father.
The present moment is the only moment where time can touch eternity, the only time when the eternal life and love that is generated there can enter into our lives. If we have regrets for how we have behaved in the past then, be sure that the past can only be redeemed in this present moment. If we have fears for the future these fears can only be cast out now, in this present moment, by the perfect love that St John insists, can alone casts out fear. (1 John 4 17-:19). That’s why St Padre Pio said, and said continually, all you need to do is to –‘pray trust and don’t worry’.
Old fools live in the past, young fools live in the future, fools for Christ live in the present for this is the only place where time touches eternity, and the love that is generated there can enter into us.
Many years ago I was transformed into the greatest warrior king in English history, but only for fifteen minutes. But now I am trying to be transformed into another king, the greatest king in human history, and transformed permanently, with all who believe in him. The challenge is not to change the world, with war, violence, and mindless prejudice, but with love, peace, and Christ-like compassion. This is a message that people really want to hear, so long as it is embodied in the lives of those who deliver it. It’s time for transformation then, by the same ‘Spirit’ who transformed Jesus into Christ the King, and the time for this transformation is here and now, through prayer, in the sacrament of the present moment.