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.
The Holy Land
I packed the book in my hand luggage and set off for London Airport to lead a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land for my friend Fr Kenneth Campbell OFM, a Franciscan Priest who was born on the Island of Eriskay. He had spent years working in the Holy Land and had arranged a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Gaelic speaking Catholics, but the Israeli government had suddenly asked him to escort the Canadian Foreign Minister and show him around the Holy Places. Could I therefore act as a ‘stand in’ because he couldn’t get back in time to meet the pilgrims at London 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.
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.
Alone in the ‘Empty Tomb’
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’.
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 that it touched me that night.
He is Not Here.
I don’t 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. Gradually this led me to an ever deepening understanding of the events that took place on the first Pentecost day.
A Spiritual Tsunami
The Apostles waited until after the Ascension for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the ‘Upper Room’, on the first Pentecost day. They all saw and heard the signs, but more important still, they all experienced the love of Jesus – this time not standing close to them, but actually entering into them through the Holy Spirit. The word apostle means one who is sent, and they were immediately sent, propelled by that same Holy Spirit who possessed them to share the good new with others. For, as promised, this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was for all, for it was sent by Christ, no longer just the King of the Jews, but the King of all creation and of all men and women to the end of time. On that day the Kingdom of God finally came. The Holy Spirit burst out, onto and into the world, like an unstoppable supernatural sea of love. Like a spiritual Tsunami he would sweep out over and into all things, drawing all who would not resist back through Christ into the Ocean of God’s infinite loving. Now at last God’s plan was being implemented, only man’s obduracy could prevent it.
When Jesus was glorified it did not mean that his human nature had been abandoned, far from it, for it means that it has been brought to perfection. In other words, in receiving the love of God through the Holy Spirit, the Apostles were not just receiving the fatherly and motherly love that reached out to them through Jesus, but the brotherly and sisterly love of Jesus too, the love that he showed for others on earth, but as it has now been brought to perfection in heaven. If Jesus was caring and compassionate for others before his resurrection, then he is even more so, now that these human qualities have been perfected by the divine. Whilst on earth he was limited in what he could do for others by his physical body, this is no longer the case. Now, he has a ‘spiritual body’, but a body nevertheless. This enables his presence and the love that radiates from that presence to penetrate all who would receive it, at any time, at any place, past present and to come.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment
That’s what I had learnt from reading ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’ on the ‘plane home. Thanks to Jean Pierre de Caussade I could see where the only real journey that matters begins, thanks to the continual outpouring of God’s love that was unleashed on the first Pentecost. It begins from where we are now, by continually turning to receive this love in all that we say and do each day, here and now in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ .