Towards Christmas of the year 1902, a few of the Swami Vivekananda's disciples gathered at Khandagiri near Cuttack to keep the festival. It was evening, and we sat on the grass, round a lighted log, while on one side of us rose the hills, with their caves and carven rocks, and all around us whispered the sleeping forest.
We were to keep Christmas Eve, in the old-time fashion of the order of Ramakrishna. One of the monks held a long crook, and we had with us a copy of the Gospel of St. Luke, wherewith to read and picture the coming of the angels, and the singing of the world's first Gloria.
We lost ourselves in the story, however, and the reading could not be stopped at Christmas Eve, but must needs drift on from point to point. The Great Life as a whole was passed in review; then the Death; and finally the Resurrection. We turned to the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel, and read incident after incident.
But the tale sounded as never before, in our ears. Instead of a legal document, dated and attested, whose credibility must stand or fall by the clearness and coherence of its various parts, it read now like the gasping, stammering witness of one who had striven to put on record the impalpable and the intangible.
The narrative of the Resurrection was no longer, for us, an account of an event, to be accepted or rejected. It had taken its place for evermore as a spiritual perception, which one who experienced it had striven, not always successfully, to put into words. The whole chapter sounded fragmentary, cumulative, like some longing attempt to convince, not the reader only, but even, to some extent, the writer himself.
For had we not had our own glimmerings of a like back-coming to put beside it? One remembered and understood suddenly, the clear and deliberate statement of our Master himself - "Several times in my life I have seen returning spirits; and once - in the week after the death of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - the form was luminous."
We were face to face, not merely with the longing of the disciples to see once more the master who had gone from them, but with the far deeper yearning of the Incarnation, to return again, to comfort and bless the disciples He had left.
"Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?" - How many moments of such exaltation had we ourselves not known, in the first weeks after the passing of the Master, when we would fain have believed that his actual presence had been with us!
"He was known unto them in the breaking of bread' - Even so. Only a touch here, a word there, a moment of sweetness, or a flash of inner clearness and knowledge, any of these had been sufficient, at various times in those early weeks, to bring back the throbbing awareness of the beloved presence, with the mingling of doubt and assurance in its poignant longing.
We passed over, that night at Khandagiri, those features of the Resurrection that would seem to have been added later by minds that believed in the hard and fast, black and white, character of the story. It was the older record, shining through this palimpsest, on which our thoughts were fastened, that simple old record, full of the pathos of sudden sights and vanishings, with its gatherings of the Eleven, whispering amongst themselves "The Lord is risen indeed!" with its tale, at the last, of a parting in the midst of a benediction.
It was not of any re-appearances of the body at all, as it seemed to us reading, that this older story had told, but of sudden and unforeseen meetings of the will, returns of thought and love, brief upliftings of prayer, from One who in the Vedic phrase, had been 'resumed into His shining Self,' and moved now on subtler and more penetrative planes of action than we, entangled amidst the senses, could conceive.
Nor were they so objective that all alike might be equally conscious of these fleeting gleams, half-seen, half-heard. The grosser perception they passed by altogether. Even to the finest, they were matters to be questioned, to be discussed eagerly, to be pieced together in sequence, and cherished tenderly in the heart. Amongst the closest and most authoritative of the apostles, there might well be some who doubted altogether. And yet, in the midst of the caves and forests of Khandagiri that night, we who followed the Christian story of the Resurrection, could not but feel that behind it, and through it, glistened a thread of fact; that we were tracing out the actual footsteps left by a human soul somewhere, somewhen, as it trod the glimmering pathway of this fugitive experience. So we believed, so we felt, because, in all its elusiveness, a like revelation, at a like time, had made itself evident to us also.
May God grant that this living presence of our Master, of which death itself had not had power to rob us, become never, to us his disciples, as a thing to be remembered, but remain with us always in its actuality, even unto the end!