I had no objections to meeting him again as I would be doing that very day. However, I could no longer see the point or the desirability of spending two hours a day talking to him about topics of importance to me which would be outside the range of his experience, and hence his understanding. I began to think up excuses to present to him as a pretext to reduce our future meetings to two. This would give me at least two full days to visit friends on the islands of Eriskay and South Uist. I was pleased for Peter’s sake that the weather had called a temporary truce to the fierce assault it inflicted upon us the previous day. It would be no fun coming by boat from his island hermitage. The mist had not dispersed but had retreated to the nearest high ground where it was gently but nonetheless effectively beheading every hill that dared to rise above a hundred feet. It was not raining so we decided to stay outside, seated under a rather dilapidated gazebo.
The moral morass in which we all find ourselves
I cannot remember how the conversation started, but I had made up my mind that Peter would not be able to help me in any appreciable way, so I decided to keep my distance. I wanted to avoid appearing rude, or embarrassing him, so I hid my feelings behind a smokescreen of vague generalizations about the spiritual poverty of the contemporary world. Feigning bewilderment, I asked him what he thought the recipe is for escaping from the moral morass in which we all find ourselves.
“Love”, Peter answered.
Simulating sincerity, and thinking that one good cliché deserves another, I agreed and said that may be possible, if only we could love one another consistently.
“Oh, I’m not talking about our love,” he replied, with a sudden directness that took me by surprise. “I am talking about God’s love or, if you like, the spiritual energy and power for good that continually surges out of the Creator as it has done from the beginning.”
When I retorted that in my darkest moments after I lost my wife and child I no longer believed in God, never mind his so-called love, I asked him what he would say to someone who believes in nothing.
“When a person is as totally depressed as you were, it is not the time for philosophizing; it is the time for giving human support and compassion while encouraging a person to seek appropriate medical attention. But you are no longer in that pit, are you? If you were, you would not be here, so I suppose I can give you a philosophical answer if you want one.”
I did want an answer because I was still having moments when I thought that there is no God, that there never was one, and that there is just nothing, nothing out there at all, and there never was. Then Peter began to speak.
Something cannot come from nothing
If there was ever a time when there was simply nothing – no thing – whatsoever, then we could not possibly be here now, nor could everybody else, nor the world around us. In short, something cannot come from nothing. Let me explain.
I was only nine years old when I learned my first lesson in philosophy, thanks to the conjurer at my friend’s birthday party. I was chosen to examine the inside of his top hat to prove that there was nothing in it. Then he draped everything in sight with silk handkerchiefs, flags and bouquets of flowers. When I told my father what I had seen, he said the conjurer could not possibly have taken something out of nothing. If there was nothing in the hat then nothing could have come out of it. There was either something hidden inside it that I had not seen, or something hidden up the man’s sleeve. My father was not a spoilsport; he was just trying to teach me something that I have never forgotten: Something cannot come from nothing. The Big Bang, or whatever else brought the universe into being, cannot have been preceded by nothing. It must have been preceded by something.
The most powerful form of energy for good
However, no matter how sophisticated it might be, something could not produce the highest form of energy for good on earth, which is love. Whatever was responsible for creation, therefore, must be Someone. Only a person can produce love. No thing – or nothing, cannot generate the greatest power on earth for good in the world, namely love. That is why the Gospel states quite clearly that God, in whom and by whom all things were created, is love. That is what he was, that is what he is, and that is what he does. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say that God is not so much love, but loving, continually bursting with creative life and energy. Love is but the word that is used to describe the most potent form of power and energy on earth, which can alone change people permanently for the better. Nothing else can.
There was a brief moment of silence before Peter continued. I have a cousin called John, who was a bit of a profligate. Peter was not smiling. He pursed his lips together, slightly nodding his head, as if the memory of the incident he was about to relate still brought painful memories into his mind. We had all given up on him, when things dramatically changed. It was almost as if he had a conversion experience, been struck by an angel of light – or something heavy! Then, after a few weeks he arrived home with a tiny Korean nurse called Nina, whom he met at a party. She was nothing to look at, quite plain in fact, but he was hopelessly in love with her and they had already decided to get married. He was a changed man. At the time, I was convinced that he was already an alcoholic. I thought his case was hopeless. One thing I am sure of to this day is that he could never change his lifestyle on his own. Not only did he stop drinking and gambling, he also stopped smoking. He had to pay off his debts and then start saving for a mortgage. Rows, arguments and quarrels could not change him, neither could warnings or threats. Reason, appealing to his better nature, pleading for consideration for his mother, were all a waste of time. In the end only one thing burst through – love, the love of this four-foot-eight, seven-and-a-half-stone Korean nurse, Nina. It is twenty-four years since all this happened; next year will be their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
The insight that changed the hermit’s life
Peter paused, aimlessly staring into space for a moment, then said that he hoped he was not boring me with his reminiscences. I replied, genuinely reassuring him. He had spoken colourfully and with a fluency that made him easy to listen to. I was pleasantly surprised. He was a natural raconteur, although oblivious of his ability to captivate his listener. Peter continued his story, describing how this incident had a deep and lasting effect on him.
I was fascinated by the tremendous power of love in action. No power on earth could have done anything for my cousin. It helped me to realize that if I could somehow place myself in the way of God’s love, put myself under the influence of his creative power then, like John, I too might be radically and permanently changed for the better. When I began to read the New Testament in earnest, I saw that this is what it is saying time and time again. I was staggered to realize that I never noticed it before. I missed the wood for the trees. I missed the whole point of the Gospel. Everything suddenly began to make sense; the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place once I discovered the central piece. The story of Jesus is a unique and world-shaking example of what happens to a person who dares to expose himself totally to God’s love. It is the story of how he was gradually possessed, and the effect this had on his life and on the lives of others.
Nothing can resist the power of uncreated love
Once love of this force and magnitude invaded the life of Jesus, it enabled him not only to listen to people and care for them, but also to enter into them, heal and cure them, restore them to wholeness and even raise them from the dead. There is nothing that can resist the power of uncreated love, not even death. Peter leaned forward on the edge of his seat, his shoulders slightly hunched, his right elbows resting on the arm of the easy chair.
The more I tried to steep myself in the Scriptures, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, in the most ancient and hallowed traditions of Christian spirituality, the more clearly I came to see that the message was always the same. The burning question was not firstly How do we love God, but how do we welcome God’s love into our lives? How do we best position ourselves to be the recipients of that love? Once we get this right, everything else falls into place, as it did for John.
Jesus is not primarily a Philosopher but a Mystic
The trouble is we have presented Jesus as a sort of moral philosopher, like Socrates who has primarily come to present us with the virtues with which we should adorn ourselves. This is the mistaken belief that if we can present them to people in a convincing enough way, they will not be able to resist doing all in their power to attain them. But Jesus was firstly a Mystic. He did not come for this, nor did he primarily come to detail the way we ought to love our neighbor; he came to give us the power to do it. Without the power to do it, we can read the Bible till we are blue in the face, describing the words as beautiful and uplifting. But no moral teaching, however well-reasoned, however lofty, however sublime, will ever permanently change a person for the better. But love can. God’s love certainly will if it is only given a chance.
Peter had made his point. He closed his mouth tightly, leaned back, joined his huge hands, palms facing the floor, and unceremoniously cracked all his fingers together. “I think it’s time for lunch.” he said, so we made our way into the Presbytery.