James Robertson has spent the morning with Peter, the hermit. It began to rain after lunch so they sat around the kitchen table with a third cup of tea. James started the ball rolling by asking Peter what he meant by saying that most of us are in practice, Stoics. But let Peter speak for himself.
Thanks to the Renaissance and the classical education that it introduced into schools, the philosophy of Graeco-Roman stoicism was taught side by side with the Catechism and Christian moral teaching. The problem is that many find this confusing. When teenagers are just beginning to find their own identity, they prefer to believe they can change themselves rather than ask someone else to do it for them. They are natural Stoics and grow up as Stoics even though they may not know what the word means.
Sheer muscle-power and dogged endurance is not enough
Nine out of ten Christians are in practice, Pelagians. They think they can change themselves and direct the course of their spiritual growth by dint of sheer muscle-power and dogged endurance. But they cannot. The trouble is we have been brought up as Stoics with a completely one-sided view of heroism. It has saturated most of what we read, written by authors who have themselves been deeply influenced by their classical education, even if they never learned Latin or Greek.
In storybooks, adventure novels, in every variety of fiction and even in true-life stories, the hero and heroine are always presented in the same way. They are the lonely intrepid pioneers, explorers or adventurers who dream dreams and have visions. By taking themselves by the scruff of the neck, they squeeze out every reserve of energy they possess to make their dreams come true and transform their visions into reality.
They inevitably tend to be rather remote figures, loners, aloof, independent, self-contained. They are the archetypal self-made men and women. They are not born great, and they do not have greatness thrust upon them. They achieve it by themselves, by setting their wills in iron, straitjacketing their bodies with self-discipline, refusing to look right or left or anywhere that will distract them from their single-minded purpose. This may work in paperbacks and it may sometimes work in real life. But it will never work in the spiritual life. There is no such thing as a do-it-yourself spirituality. But no matter what you say or how many times you say it, we have all been tarred with the same brush. We all think that we can do it ourselves and change ourselves into the persons whom we wish to become, at least in our dreams. It is strange how even unpleasant truths about ourselves are amusing when they have a sharp edge and are delivered unwittingly and without malice. I think the element of surprise is important to have the desired effect. It is rather like suddenly being confronted by your own face caught in an affected pose in a shop window, or an unexpected and insolent mirror that refuses to lie and brazenly presents you to yourself exactly as you are. If such a sight fails to amuse, then you are blind and more than half dead. I couldn’t help but smile.
“You are smiling.” said Peter, slightly surprised at my reaction.
The spiritual gymnastics of my first fervour
I hastened to reassure Peter, telling him that I was really laughing at myself. What he was saying suddenly triggered something in my memory. Peter laughed readily when I explained to him the spiritual gymnastics of my ‘first fervour’ as I assiduously tried to make myself into the saint of my dreams. He told me how he did exactly the same when he was at school. He wrote to a Carmelite to ask if he could purchase a hair shirt. The friar wrote back to explain that he would be delighted to accede to his commendable request, but, according to ancient monastic tradition, hair shirts were always woven from the full head of hair of the wearer, hence the tonsure, so would he please forward his scalp by return of post.
We both laughed at the Carmelite’s sense of humor. Peter plainly enjoyed a joke and was not ashamed to laugh loudest of all at his own.
“But do you see what I mean?” Peter interjected as our laughter died down. He was in earnest again. “We all think we can do it ourselves – people still do.”
“But what else could we have done at the time?” I said, as if the intervening years had taught us both quite clearly what we ought to have done. The intervening years might well have been a school of wisdom for Peter, but I had still not learned my lessons. I was only beginning to see my mistakes, so I asked after a brief pause what else I could do. Peter replied that the only thing we can do is to swallow our pride and accept the truth that we cannot do anything by ourselves. He said that it seemed to him that the Gospel says loud and clear, time and time again, “I know you cannot, but I can, if you will only let me.”
What the Gospel says loud and clear
I told Peter that this all sounded a bit too close to Quietism for comfort. It almost gave the impression that all we have to do is to sit around all day like spiritual layabouts waiting for God to do everything.
“Not at all,” Peter replied. “You go and tell a farmer that he is a layabout when he has been spending weeks breaking up the ground, digging in the fertilizer and plowing it over and over to prepare the soil for the seed. He would probably give you a black eye! If he gets a good harvest he can be sure of two things. First, that it had nothing to do with him, and second, that it had everything to do with him. In other words, the tiny seed is self-contained. It nurtures within itself the inner dynamism that will produce the fine crop of oats, the field of barley, the full ear of corn. But without the labour, the toil, the spadework of the farmer, there would be no harvest at all.
“Now,” said Peter, preparing to press the analogy home to avoid any misunderstanding. “God’s love will automatically grow and develop in us like the seed. It will ultimately extend to every part of our being until it completely possesses us. And this will happen infallibly, if we will only prepare the ground, remove any obstacles required of us to facilitate the full growth of that love.”
When I asked what is required and how we facilitate the growth of that love within us, Peter answered without hesitation.
The sublime fusion of love that leads to Contemplation
The answer to that is simple. It is by learning to pray. It is only in prayer that we come into contact with the love of God and begin to experience it entering into our lives. Nobody can experience being loved and remain the same. However in all forms of love, the love of another can only be fully received in the act of returning their love in kind. In returning God’s love, our love for him is generated and deepened. The desire to seek his love in the first place rises from the very depth of our being. As God has created us in his own image and likeness, which is infinite loving, it is from here that our desire to love and be loved by infinite loving arises. It is for this reason that this love can only ultimately be satisfied by God himself.
However, what has traditionally been called original sin has ensured that our sin and selfishness has prevented our love being united with God’s love, as originally intended, to lead us back to where his love first conceived us. Thanks to Jesus Christ all is not lost this desire can finally be fulfilled. For it is he who, since the first Pentecost day continually pours out into our spirit his spirit, his loving into our loving, so that a new and supernatural fusion of loving is born, as the two become one. This takes place as we continually try to raise our hearts and minds to God. It is, as this very action is taking place, that we make it possible for his Holy Spirit to penetrate and permeate our spirit, his loving with our loving, making possible what is totally impossible without it.
Then something sensational happens
This new supernatural fusion of loving raises us up, enabling us to be taken up into Christ’s mystical body and then into his own personal loving of God his Father. Gradually, as we will see, as we are gradually purified of all that prevents our perfect union with him and with his sublime mystical loving of God, something sensational happens. Our mystical contemplation of God, in with and through Christ who is the way the truth and the life, enables us to experience the fruits of contemplation to share with others in our life as Christ did in his life. These fruits of contemplation are the infused virtues that no one can attain by their own endeavour alone but only be their endeavour suffused and surcharged with the same love that raised Jesus on the first Easter Day.
Only the experience of being loved can change us
“But what about me?” I asked. There was a hardly detectable note of self-pity, of being ‘hard done by’ about my question. It was the first time my question had been directly personal. “I have known for the past twenty years that God loves me, but I have not changed. I am just the same old me,” I said with a touch of bitterness. Peter replied. “There is all the difference in the world between knowing that you are loved and experiencing being loved. Knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge will never change anyone decisively and permanently, but the experience of being loved will, if the experience is deep enough and lasting enough.”
Peter was on his feet. I was not aware that he had stood up.
“Please excuse me, James. I simply must go,” he said apologetically.
I looked at him incredulously, almost gaped with a vacant, bewildered stare. Then his words suddenly registered. They came so unexpectedly, cut across my whole line of thought. I was taken completely by surprise. Things were getting interesting. I was just beginning to talk about me!
“But of course,” I stammered. I looked at my watch: It was almost four o’clock. I asked, him if he would like another cup of tea in a vain attempt to detain him.
“No thanks, James,’” Peter said decisively. “I am afraid I must go.”
“You will come again tomorrow?” I asked insistently.
“Of course,” he replied, slightly surprised at the note of anxiety in my voice. He was unaware that the matter had ever been in doubt. The following day I was to discover the way forward.