The moment Peter arrived on Barra for their meeting, James immediately reminded him of the question that was left hanging in the air the previous day. “Why do I come to a spiritual dead end in my meditation when the sublime truths of the faith seem to leave me flat, and what can I do about it?”
Peter paused briefly then began to speak.
“To start with, the truths of the Faith are too big, too enormous, almost too incredible for us to take in effectively. Some years ago, I listened to an astronomer talking on the radio about the more distant stars in the heavens. He said that some were over ten billion light-years away. To be quite honest, he could have said a million miles away for all the practical difference it would have made to me. The distances he was talking about, the statistics he was quoting, were so vast, so tremendous, that I could not take them in. It is exactly the same with the truths of the Faith. Take the central truth, that God is love and that he loves us personally and individually. It is just too much for anyone to take in. I can say it, I can repeat the words, but alone I cannot penetrate or comprehend their meaning. It is the same with our emotions. They can only respond to a stimulus of a certain degree of intensity.
The Perfect Silence of Bliss
“With goodwill and genuine effort all round, this state of mental paralysis gradually begins to lift. The slow, prayerful meditation on the Gospel texts suddenly begins to bear fruit. The spiritual understanding starts to stir, the emotions are touched and begin to react. What began as rather dry academic knowledge about God changes and begins to strike you with an ever-deepening impact. Knowledge begins to turn into love, as the love that God has for us begins to register with effect. Nobody can remain the same when they come to realize that another loves them. We respond automatically, the emotions are released and we begin to express our love and thanks in return. This is the beginning of real prayer which will grow with depth and intensity as the truth of God’s love is brought home time and time again in so many different ways through slowly brooding over the Scriptures.
“As the impact of the Gospel message explodes with maximum effect, the believer finds that even the most extravagant words do not sufficiently voice the depth of feeling that is experienced welling up from within. In the end, the words of thanks, praise, adoration and even the language of love give way to silence, a silence that says more than the most potent man-made means of expression. The slow, meditative penetration of the texts now opens out and envelops the whole being as the believer is ever more deeply absorbed into a silent contemplative gaze upon God. The most powerful and poignant expressions of the new relationship with God seem to be emptied of their meaning in the face of the reality. Words join together those who are separate from one another, but in perfect union there is a perfect silence of bliss.”
James interrupted Peter, remarking that it seemed to him that the love of God follows the same pattern as human love. Peter agreed and continued intently.
“This is why the Scriptures continually use the symbol of human love as the best possible analogy with which to describe how the love between man and God begins and grows to perfection. In the beginning of human love, words are usually fairly hard to come by. There is an initial embarrassment coping with a first-time love affair. There is usually a certain strain, even an artificiality in the way in which we first express ourselves. In subsequent meetings the conversation tends to revolve around getting to know each other in more detail, finding out about one another’s background, discovering common likes and dislikes. The spark of love that was there from the beginning is fanned into a flame, and words of explanation give way to the language of love. The closer love draws the two into one, the less there is a need for words. It is enough to be together, to be alone, to be at one with each other in a profound pregnant silence.”
The penny begins to drop
James reflecting, began to speak slowly as if it had taken all this time for the penny to drop.
“The blueprint for prayer that you have been explaining to me at our meetings, Peter and the meditation that should accompany it, is merely a suggested help to enable a beginner to build up a relationship in love with God?”
Peter answered, “That’s right!” and continued his final teaching.
“So the moment you begin to realize and experience God’s love reaching out to you in prayer is the moment when you can put my outline in the wastepaper basket. I am exaggerating a bit. We are of course human beings. One day we find praying easy, the next we don’t. One day it’s Tabor and the next it’s Calvary. So don’t throw the outline away the day you find prayer easy or easier, because there will be other days when you will be back to square one again and you will be only too glad to return to the schema to keep you on the straight and narrow. I am only trying to emphasize the principle that the blueprint is a means and should be dropped temporarily or permanently as it leads to the reality. The time will come when you start at the beginning with the letter P, to remind you of the presence of God only to find that the reality of God’s love is so close and present to you that all you will want is to spend the rest of the prayer period in an all-absorbing awareness of this great mystery.”
James interrupted Peter reverently, asking if he was now talking about the heights of contemplative prayer.
Peter replied emphatically, obviously surprised, “Good heavens, no! We have only been talking about the beginning of prayer. Strictly speaking, contemplation begins not when we want, but when God wants. There will be time enough to talk about all that when the occasion arises.
“Would you believe it – it’s twelve o’clock!” Peter jumped to his feet.
Trying to sound as decisive as possible so that Peter would be unable to refuse, James said, “Now look, Peter, you simply must stay for lunch.”
Peter’s answer came as a surprise to James. “Oh dear, didn’t I say? Well, what I mean to say is, I have already invited myself on the way in. I met Mrs MacNeil and I asked if she would mind putting a couple of extra potatoes in the pot. I’m sorry, I did mean to mention it. You see, I thought if I could stay for a meal I would be able to come to the plane to see you off.”
Peter picked up his old sports bag, which he left by the side of the table and started to move towards the door. James wanted to use every moment left to ask Peter more about true mystical contemplation to which he had just referred.
“Oh dear, you will think me rude.” Peter remarked. “I thought I would just have time for my weekly bath.”
James burst out laughing as the memory of their first meeting flashed back into his mind.
Myths and legends from the past
It was about a quarter to two by the time Peter and James arrived at the tiny air terminal. They had to wait over half an hour, during which time Peter entertained James with interesting stories about the history of Barra, going back to before the Viking occupation. He told James how Christianity had first come to the island and how it flourished down the ages with the help of Irish missionaries when everybody else seemed to have forgotten about the inhabitants. He knew much about the folklore of the island too, and James was in stitches as Peter told of the story of HMS Politician.
The story has already passed into legend and been immortalized in the film Whisky Galore, based on the book by Compton Mackenzie. The unhappy ship was grounded off the island of Eriskay during the Second World War with a cargo of whisky bound for the New World. Every seaworthy vessel for miles converged on the area. The islanders insisted that their enthusiasm to salvage the cargo was a genuine, if not heroic, attempt to refloat the grounded ship. The skepticism of the authorities was changed to incredulity when they were told that every bottle had to be sacrificed to the sea in a gallant but vain attempt to save the vessel.
Eventually questions were asked about the deeper colour and more distinctive taste of the domestic water supply. Questions were asked about the sudden wave of agricultural activity that induced otherwise work-shy crofters to plow unproductive land in the middle of summer! Peter had just started to tell the story of an islander who hid his quota of whisky in the garage attached to the police station, when there was a tremendous roar. The island plane had arrived, and thundered overhead as it passed above the car, before making its final turn over the Atlantic in preparation for touchdown.
Peter and James climbed out of the car to watch the landing and had to duck almost to the ground as the plane passed no more than twenty feet over their heads before landing on the beach. They shook hands and James thanked Peter profusely before going their separate ways.
A last Salute
At about five hundred feet, the little plane banked up, her left wing pointing to the sky. For a few unforgettable moments James had a clear view of Calvay from the plane window.
“I could see a small, squat little cottage staring out to sea through two tiny windows set deep into the thick walls, proudly refusing to take any notice of the noisy modern machine that roared overhead. To the right of its half-open door I saw Peter standing motionless, clearly definable against the bright, newly whitewashed walls. His right arm, stick in hand, was raised in a last salute. Suddenly the plane straightened and I saw him no more.
“Although I knew then that one day I would return, I had no idea how soon that day would be. Nor did I have any idea of the strange circumstances that would lead me to live for a time in Peter’s little cottage, where I would discover for myself something of the spiritual journey that had led him to embrace the life of a hermit in his island solitude.”
Watch this space!
David Torkington will be reading this series on Radio Maria England in the winter of 2020. The program will be broadcast by DAB radio in the north of England or worldwide via the internet, or on this site