James Robertson has arrived on Barra and is looking forward to his first meeting with Peter, the hermit.

“I woke up feeling warm and well rested. A sense of deep contentment welled up within me and extended to every part of my being. I yawned like a big, fat contented cat and aimlessly rolled out of bed to see what the morning had to offer. Pleasant, soothing memories of the previous day lingered on through the night and the beautiful flight from Glasgow to Barra still remained with me as I opened the curtains, to be greeted by a dull, doleful day. Heavy dark clouds seemed to cling around everything in sight. The clammy Hebridean mist scarcely disguised a gentle but relentless drizzle that made even the stones look soggy. I made myself a cup of coffee and went back to bed. It would be several hours before I met the hermit for the first time after the 11 o’clock Mass. I picked up the book on St Francis that I was reading on the ‘plane and continued to read about the early Franciscans and how important personal daily prayer was to their very existence. I hoped my reading would help me to understand the Franciscan hermit whom I was about to meet. It did not cheer me up, at least to begin with. But once again let the book speak for itself.” music

Decline and Fall

Whenever they forgot to give quality daily time for personal prayer, the inevitable would follow, a steady downward slope into decline and then into decadence. This was already beginning to happen thirty years after the death of Francis when St Bonaventure became general of the Order in 1257. In order to arrest the decline, his first act was to send a general letter to everyone in the Order. He did not beat about the bush or bother to pepper his criticism of the brethren with flannel. Only spiritually insecure ditherers need to do that. He detailed the reasons for the decline in standards which were already apparent in the order and they do not make pretty reading. He writes:

‘The indolence and idleness of certain friars is the cesspool of vice Too many are merely daydreamers, in some awful state midway between the active and the contemplative life but engaged in neither. Importunate begging is rife, which sometimes reaches the point where people are afraid to meet friars lest they be set upon as if by robbers. Then there was the multiplicity of contacts with women which the rule forbids. From this arise suspicions, evil rumours, and many scandals.’

The only way to renewal

Then, after listing many more, St Bonaventure insisted that there was only one thing that individuals had to do in order to arrest the decline. That was to return to the primitive fervour that characterized the early friars. In his words it was simply to return to prayer and the spirit of devotion. In his history of the friars in England since their arrival in Canterbury  two years before the death of Francis, Thomas of Eccleston states that it was their custom to keep silent throughout the night until after the morning office and that the friars  ‘were so assiduous in their prayers that there was scarcely an hour in the night when some one of them was not at prayer in the oratory.’ It was of course the same in Italy where the Order was founded. In addition to the early sources that speak of the close companions of Francis and of how long they prayed, the famous Franciscan preacher Thomas of Pavia gives us his observations. Writing in about 1245, even before St  Bonaventure, he tells us that many friars often spent the whole night in prayer and almost all of them spent at least part of the night on their knees.

Back to ‘prayer and the spirit of devotion’

In order to give everyone an example, St Bonaventure retired to the hermitage at La Verna where he wrote his masterwork on prayer, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum to encourage and inspire his brothers. His simple recipe for effective reform was always at the heart of every subsequent Franciscan reform – back to prayer and the spirit of devotion. Even before the great Observant reform at the end of the fourteenth century under the inspiration and guidance of St Bernadine of Siena,  the Chapter of Pepignan held in 1331, gives us but one more example, amongst many other provincial edicts, stressing the importance of prayer.

 ‘Lest it should happen that the spirit of holy prayer and devotion be extinguished by useless wanderings, by general restlessness, by scurrility, and much talk and finally by dissipation of mind; by this present constitution we order that from the time of compline to the first sign of prime all friars are to be restricted to the oratory, the cloister, and  the dormitory. The purpose of this order is to make sure that friars do not wander about through other houses, porches or squares, so that in all prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, in silence and quiet, let them make known their supplications to God. And he will see them praying with the door shut, and in secret, and will as Christ promised in the Gospels, render them an inestimable reward.’

It is not poverty but prayer that is paramount.

In an article on the history of mental prayer in the Order, one of the most respected experts on Franciscan Spirituality, Fr Ignatius Brady OFM continually stresses the importance of prayer. Speaking about the great Observant reform that flourished two hundred years after the birth of St Francis he writes:

‘At first sight the new reform might seem to be primarily a reaction to the quarrels over poverty and a return to stricter material poverty. But in reality poverty lay on the surface, the root of the divergence was deeper and it eddied around the twofold life of prayer and the apostolate. This is the key to the internal history of the Franciscan order and to the series of reforms that have marked its history, namely the observance or non observance of the spirit of prayer and devotion.’

 This insight is clearly underlined by Christopher of Varisio, one of the superiors of the Observant movement. In a letter to one of the friars he writes quite simply: ‘Holy Prayer is the key to our whole observance. When it is lost all else is lost.’

Despite the behaviour of the few, the new mendicant movements led by the Franciscans were incredibly effective at implementing the ecclesiastical reforms that Innocent III had dreamed about. In spite of their success or perhaps because of it, many supporters of the monastic ideal began to attack the new Orders, insisting that they should be subject to the same sort of monastic rule to which monks were bound. In answer to these criticisms the great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas coined the slogan that perfectly summed up the very quintessence of all the new mendicant orders. “Our calling,” he insisted, “is to contemplate and then to share the fruits of contemplation with others.”  This is the profound prayer that was at the heart and soul of everything that Francis said and did, and the source from which he drew his unique vision.

Meeting the Hermit Peter Calvay

“I had become so lost in reading the book that I almost missed my first meeting with Peter, and then I was so distracted that it was only after he had gone that I was able to reflect on the man whom I had come all this way to see. Firstly, I had misread him completely. This was my own fault. I was forever building up peoples’ charac­ters on too little evidence. I had just assumed that Peter would be so jealous of his privacy, his past, his way of life and his solitude, that he would have placed ‘No Entry’ signs everywhere about his person. He certainly was not garrulous. Nobody could accuse him of that. But the distinct impression was that he was completely transparent, had no secrets at all, and was prepared to talk in a simple, unaffected way about himself, or anything else for that matter. Then there was something else about him which I might not have noticed had I not been unnecessarily worked up into a state of ridiculous hypertension at the prospect of meeting him. There was a hardly definable ‘something’ about him that gently exuded tranquillity and peace. When he finished talking to me I was completely restored to my normal self again. I was relaxed, com­pletely at ease and restored to a state of equilibrium. You could not help but like his totally unaffected and natural disposition, his transparent honesty and irresistible simplicity, but having said this, I have said all I can to convey my first impressions accurately.

Second thoughts

“Well,” said Peter, suddenly looking hard at his watch. “I must go now, James. I have several things to do before nightfall, so if you’ll excuse me.  I’ll see you tomorrow at about two o’clock, if that’s all right?”

“That’ll be fine,” I agreed. “I’ll look forward to seeing you then.”

“I came in, shut the door and sat down in an easy chair to relax and to ponder quietly over the strange and various happenings of that eventful day. I began to feel disappointed, even depressed. The scales that had been obscuring my vision for the last six months were gradually beginning to fall from my eyes, and I was able to see more clearly, more accurately. What I began to see, and began to realize, was that my little dream had come to an end. I had no doubt about his sincerity or his honest-to-God Christian piety and goodness; that was obvious. He had not tried to deceive me, or anyone else for that matter. He had made his position plain before I came to the Isles. He was of course quite right. How could he possibly understand what I had been through? How could a man who had separated himself so completely from the modern world possibly have any idea of the psychological strain and inner conflicts of faith that the modern world placed on a layman like me?

Had I made a fool of myself?

“Once again, it all seemed to add up to one thing. I had made a fool of myself. That stupid emotional and impulsive flaw in my personality had let me down again. I had ended up in another cul-de-sac, this time, in one of the remotest places in Britain. It was another dead end, or so I thought. But thank God, here I was making another mistake, misreading another situation and failing completely to recognize the quality and depth of the man I had just met. I had met the man who was going to change my life completely, a man who would speak to me of the intimate details of the spiritual life with a precision and profundity that I had never yet encountered and probably never would again. This man, I was soon to learn, was a mystic in the literal and fullest sense of the word. His knowledge was the knowledge that only comes from experience. This was why, when he began to speak about the spiritual life he would speak with a confidence and conviction that would leave me in no doubt at all that here indeed was a man who spoke with authority.

“I will continue to relate how he would change my life forever.”


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