It was almost twenty years ago that I was offered my first free holiday. It came like a bolt from the blue. All I had to do was to meet up with a group of pilgrims from the Outer Hebrides, bundle them on to a plane at Luton airport, and deliver them in one piece to Fr Kenneth, a Franciscan priest in Tel Aviv. It all sounded too good to be true, but it was true, and it turned out to be one of the most important spiritual experiences of my life.It had all happened so quickly that I hadn’t time to think about it, and when I did I’m ashamed to admit I thought of it as a free holiday rather than as a pilgrimage.
Of course I’d visit the holy places and consider it a privilege, but my pilgrimages in Italy had stretched my credulity to breaking point. I’d become hard bitten and sceptical, only hard facts and incontestable evidence would impress me. I had no intention of wasting my time visiting dubious places where Jesus was supposed to have said this or done that, when I could be sunning myself by the Mediterranean. But I was in for something of a surprise. Oh yes, there were plenty of contentious places and pious legends by the bucketful, but there were more hard facts than I had imagined, more than enough to keep me happy and off the beaches, to return home as white as I had come.
On the first day I did the grand tour of all the major shrines in style as Fr Kenneth had been asked to act as guide to 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 70 AD 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. When he proclaimed the empire Christian in 313, the exact spot where Christ died and rose again was pinpointed exactly. It was the Holy Sepulchre that impressed me most – not the architecture but the 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 it alone in the empty tomb. I was so overcome that I began to wish I could spend the rest of my life in that friary so that I could return again and again, night after night, to what must be the holiest place on earth — the place where Christ had lain and from which he rose from the dead.
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 don’t claim that the words came directly from God or anything like that; 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; I didn’t even want to return to the tomb where Christ had once lain in the past. The empty tomb suddenly lost its importance, though not its significance.
The meaning of the Resurrection struck me acutely 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 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 which He had freely chosen to enter into. 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 personality 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’.
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 when time touches eternity.
Sacred times and sacred places are only man-made reminders of the One who is present at every time and in every place to men and women of faith who choose to receive him. Old fools live in the past; young fools live in the future. I know one fool who’s lived in both, but thanks to Fr. Kenneth’s famous key, he’s trying to live a little more fully in the present moment.