Last week we left James Robertson in the small island ‘plane on his way to meet the hermit Peter Calvay in the Outer Hebrides. The meeting would change his life irrevocably for the better. But let the story continue and speak for itself.
All of a sudden the ‘plane rolled smoothly onto her side. Simultaneously we heard the voice of the captain. “We are now just passing over Oban. If you look through the windows on the right of the plane you can see Loch Linnhe, and at the head of the loch you will just be able to make out Fort William. Look slightly to the right and you will see Ben Nevis with a wreath of clouds around its belly. The mountains that you can see all along the horizon are the Grampians. Our present altitude is 12,000 feet, and we are now passing over the island of Mull.” I was on the right-hand side of the plane and the panoramic view I had of the Grampians was superb. Although I had made this trip several times before, it was the first time I could see anything apart from bank after bank of dirty woollen clouds.
A bird’s eye view of Iona
“If you look down to the left you will be able to see quite clearly the island of Iona, just off the extreme southwest coast of Mull.”
I didn’t care what they thought of me – I wasn’t going to miss this. I might never have another opportunity like this in my life. I stood up, smiled profusely, and rudely leaned immediately in front of my fellow passenger on the other side of the gangway. I could see he was not particularly pleased by my ill-mannered intrusion into his airspace, but I couldn’t have cared less. I wanted to see Iona. I did too, very clearly indeed. I could see small groups of people milling around the church and outhouses. My unwilling bedfellow was beginning his counter-attack by unleashing vile gravelly coughs into the side of my face. I knew the sound was artificially manufactured to give the impression of battalions of pernicious germs and viruses on the rampage. I did not want a direct confrontation so I effected a tactical withdrawal behind a battery of simulated smiles and resumed my seat.
I wanted to see the Hermit in person
My mind wandered back to the first letter I received from Peter. Sheila wrote as she promised, giving me his address. After I received Sheila’s letter, I began to realize something quite clearly. I had no desire to enter into a lifelong correspondence with a faceless spiritual director, however helpful he might turn out to be. For one thing, I hated writing letters of any sort, never mind long personal ones about my spiritual life. I knew this from the beginning, although I said nothing to Sheila at the time. I knew quite clearly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go to Barra to meet Peter face to face. I decided to write to him immediately. I explained what happened to me and how I almost committed suicide and how I became all but an alcoholic after the death of my wife. I said I fully realized his predicament, and of course it would be quite ridiculous and make life impossible for him if everybody wanted to consult him personally. However, I went on to stress the terrible hole I was in and how without help I might yet end my life, as there still seemed nothing to live for. I do remember I felt a bit of a fraud when I was sealing the letter, for I knew I had overcome the worst thanks to the help I received, and truth to tell, I had long since given up all thought of putting an end to my life.
The Hermit replies
I had to wait almost six weeks before Peter’s letter arrived. I dashed up to my room, closed the door like an excited, secretive schoolboy and settled down to read it undisturbed.
I must say, I was somewhat embarrassed by the complete confidence that you placed in me in your letter. I do hope Sheila has not been giving you the wrong impression. To be quite frank with you, I am only an ordinary bloke, and I just don’t feel I have anything to offer someone like yourself. I feel that quite apart from any other considerations, it would be a waste of time and money to trek all the way out here just to see me. I will attempt to answer your long letter in more detail in a few days as I’m a bit snowed under with work at the moment and I would need more time to think about the many issues you raised in it. Once again, my apologies for the delay.
I had already canonized him in my mind
I scanned through the letter very quickly the first time, interested in only one thing: did he say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to my proposed visit? As soon as I discovered the answer was ‘No’, I put the letter down. I was deeply disappointed. I had been pinning everything on going to Barra to meet him. The second time, I read through the letter more carefully. It said nothing to diminish my expectations of him; if anything, it increased them. Somehow the style of the letter and the tone seemed to confirm my hopes. It was a very ordinary, matter-of-fact letter. No religious epigrams, no pious literary exclamations, not even a religious catchphrase with which to end his letter. Just the non-committal, ‘Best wishes, Peter’. Funnily enough, all this impressed me rather than put me off. It had a genuine ring about it. Yes, I liked its tone. I think I had already canonized him in my mind anyway, not just because of Sheila’s introduction or the tone of the letter, but because I desperately needed a guru – or anyone for that matter who could help me before I gave up the struggle for spiritual survival. There was one ray of hope, and I jumped at it. He said it would be a waste of time and money to trek out there just to see him. But what if I was going out anyway? What if I had actually booked my holiday in Barra before his letter arrived? I knew it was a lie, but I was prepared to do anything to go and see him. But what if he was a clairvoyant? What if he could actually read my mind? He would know I was telling a lie. I could not help but laugh at my own simplicity. I still had the rather facile idea that if I ever met a saint, he would be outwardly just an ‘ordinary bloke’, but when nobody else was around, he would be having ecstasies and bilocating all over the place. Anyway, I had a plan, even though it did entail an unashamed lie. I had already arranged to have my holidays in the first three weeks of September, so I rang up the travel agent and asked them to book me a flight to Barra. I thought I could attend to the other details later. I then sat down and immediately wrote to Peter.
An act of despicable meanness
I thanked him for his letter and said how sorry I was to hear that he had been so busy. I explained how I actually arranged to have my holidays in Barra and I had stayed there before I had met Sheila, and that I had arranged to stay with Miss MacLean at Ardveenish. Then came the masterstroke, or so I thought at the time. I went on to say that I would be going to Mass on Sunday so I would be seeing him anyway. I never said that I was not a Roman Catholic – I could do that later. I gleefully rushed out and posted the letter, pleased with the way I had handled things. Then, as usual, it happened. Later in the evening when my emotions had settled down, I realized the enormity of what I had done. Not only had I told a deliberate lie but I all but blackmailed him into seeing me, leaving him hardly any option. I felt a complete rotter. Why, oh why do I always act so impulsively, only to regret it later? I was guilty of an act of despicable meanness, just to get what I wanted. Peter’s reply came on Wednesday morning, two weeks later. I went to my room to read it alone. I had a feeling of fearful anticipation in my stomach, and although I was completely alone, my face turned quite scarlet as I opened the letter and began to read.
The hermit replies again
Thank you very much for your letter. I didn’t know you’d been to Barra before. I mentioned you to Father Callum and he said that he would be away on the week that you were coming so you could stay in the presbytery and his housekeeper would be delighted to look after you. When I saw him this Sunday, he said he’d been over to Miss MacLean at Ardveenish to square things with her, but it appeared you’d not actually written to her as yet. Well, James, what can I say? You seem to have checkmated me. I can only say that I look forward to meeting you. If anything I can say or do will be of any value to you, I will be pleased to help, but I have a fairly tight schedule to keep, so I hope you’ll forgive me if we restrict our meetings to two hours a day between two and four in the afternoon. I won’t bother to bring up the points you made in your initial letter, as we will be able to discuss them at greater length in September.
I did not know what to do, what to think, or how to react. One part of me wanted to shout out triumphantly, “I’ve done it, I’ve done it!” Yet another part of me wanted to squirm with the shame of how I did it, and at the thought of the sly way I trapped him; … checkmated me … was the way he put it. Then there was the realization that he knew I deliberately lied to get my own way; how did he put it? “It appears you have not actually written to Miss MacLean as yet.”
He might be a hermit, but that did not make him a fool. Of course he knew. He did not need to be a seer to see through me!
Next week I begin to discuss our meetings and tell of the way Peter was able to guide me through self-knowledge and prayer, to help me leave the ‘old man’ behind and become the ‘new man’ I would hopefully become in the future.