This series in story form sums up this great romance, this great adventure. It details all that the author has written on prayer and mystical contemplation, how to search for and find what is the greatest possible human achievement. It is replete with his most recent research and latest inspirational insights.
A Chance Meeting
At last, Saturday 5th September had come around, and I was sitting in the tiny departure lounge, waiting for the hostess to take us aboard the island ‘plane. I could see its small but impressive silver frame in the all-too-rare Glasgow sunshine. The air hostess appeared like a genie out of a bottle. I did not see her come in, but there she was in the middle of the room. I wanted to pick up my bags and run like mad to get a good seat, but it would not do for me to rush, would not do for me to make an exhibition of myself. I knew these islanders and would not mind betting they knew exactly who I was, where I was going, and why. After all, I would be practically the only Protestant on a Catholic island and I would be staying in the house of the local parish priest. No, it would not do to make a fool of myself. I did not want to let the side down. The pilot followed us in, pleasantly smiling at everyone and making comments about the glorious weather. He went into the cockpit, left the door open, and casually began fiddling with the controls. The plane spat and hissed with annoyance, as if demanding more respect, a more serious preamble.
Flying directly to Barra
The plane stopped grumbling. The captain was in control now. He released the brakes and she taxied obediently to the end of the runway. As the lights changed to signal the all clear, we moved off at speed. The small plane was rattling all over. She was overdoing it, trying to show off a bit too much but we were not fooled. The telltale rattles gave her away. Even respectable middle age had passed her by. Why on earth could she not be her age? Then everything changed. We were airborne. All was calm and peaceful as we glided gently into the sky. Glasgow slouched below, gradually disappearing as the captain pointed the proud and willing nose of the plane towards the Isles. My mind drifted back to the various events that led up to my journey to the Outer Hebrides. It all started in January. I suddenly became aware of the direction my life was taking. To be more honest, I began to realize that it had no direction at all.
Enough to turn anyone to drink
Something terrible happened in my life, turning it upside down. My dear wife Jennifer died in childbirth and I turned to drink to drown my sorrows. She was a Presbyterian and it was to her minister that I turned for help. He was a deeply spiritual man, a member of the Iona Community who had the famous George MacLeod for his spiritual director in his youth. I lost my job, lost my home and was on the verge of losing my senses. He told me that I needed to get away to have some time for bereavement, to come to terms with what happened to me and turn to the God I had all but forgotten to give me the spiritual support of which I was in great need. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and so he found a place for me on a retreat at Juniper Green, a Catholic retreat centre. Deep down I knew I was not an alcoholic, so with his help I managed to stop drinking before I arrived. I was a bit apprehensive about going to a Roman Catholic retreat centre because I was raised an Anglican – or should I say an Episcopalian, as I was born and brought up in New York. I met my wife at Harvard and we married and settled down in Edinburgh after we graduated.
Introducing James Robertson
It is all rather embarrassing for someone like me to admit that I had become spiritually bankrupt, but I’m afraid it is the truth. I knew that the root of the problem was that despite my religious upbringing I simply stopped praying seriously whilst studying for my doctorate. I all but lost the habit. Even before my wife died I stopped the personal prayer that was always part of my life when I was growing up and while taking my first degree at Notre Dame. As my wife was a Presbyterian we alternated between her Kirk and the Anglican Church where I used to worship. In our last years at university pressure of work had put the practice of our religion on the back burner, but once Jennifer became pregnant we both realized that we wanted to bring up our child as a practising Christian, so we started to practise ourselves to lay the foundations for the future. However, I have to admit that at least in my case I was only going through the motions; my religious practice was not characterized by the deep personal prayer that once meant so much to me and which I knew I needed now to help me turn to the God who I felt could alone help me in my need. By the Saturday night I knew that the retreat had been a flop, at least as far as I was concerned, so I was feeling a little depressed when I went into the lounge after supper. There was only one other person in the room, a quiet, unassuming young woman whom I noticed before but never spoke to. She introduced herself as Sheila Watson.
Introducing Sheila Watson
When she asked me how I found the course, I tried to be as non-committal as possible to find out how she felt about it first. I was quite taken aback when she said that the weekend had been a wonderful break for her, but unfortunately she received nothing of any real value from the various talks. She explained that she was an ordinary housewife with six children and was taking advantage of her mother’s prolonged stay with the family to have a few days off. The family had come to realize and accept that occasionally mum must have a break. Her reactions to the course were exactly the same as mine, except that I felt she was able to verbalize her misgivings far better than I could. In fact, I had the distinct impression that she knew exactly what she was talking about when it came to prayer. There was a profound sense of compassion too that simply radiated from her. It was as if she was entering into me when I began to speak. She listened with an attention I had never experienced before. It was as if I really mattered to her, as if she really cared. No, there was no ‘as if’ about it: She did care. She was not just playing the role of the sympathetic listener; she was not just simulating the virtue of Christian love; this was the real thing, and I had never really met it before. It was not what she said, it was what she was. All I know was that her obvious care and concern touched something deep down within me, and I found myself telling her all about myself. She listened in rapt attention to all I had to say. I suppose it was more a desire to put me at ease rather than any need to share with me that led her to tell me something about herself, her marriage, her husband, her children and how she had come to realize that even in a good marriage, life without prayer was meaningless to her. It was the only thing for her that made sense of everything.
Introducing the Hermit – Peter Calvay
I could not help wondering how she first started, when she first realized how important prayer was, what books she read and who helped her. She admitted that the greatest help she ever received was from her spiritual director, a man of extraordinary inner depth and perception whom she felt quite certain was a living saint. To hear someone of her spiritual calibre talking of someone else to whom she owed everything as a saint, simply intrigued me. Before I could ask her, as if anticipating my desire, she said that she thought I would find him a great help. But I said I could never see him on a regular basis as I hardly ever visited London.
“Oh, I don’t see him regularly. In fact I’ve never seen him at all!” For one awful moment I thought I had been talking to an eccentric and that she was about to tell me that the Archangel Gabriel, or one of the saints, was her spiritual director, but she quickly added. “My only contact with him is by post. You see, he is a hermit. If you wish I will write to him for you and ask him to help.”
And that is how James found himself on the plane to Barra, soon to meet the hermit, Peter Calvay. It was for James the beginning of a spiritual journey that would last for the rest of his life and from which we too can learn how to pray from first beginnings to the heights of Mystical Contemplation