James Robertson continues to tell the story of his journey to the outer Isles. After meeting Peter, the Hermit on the Isle of Barra for the first time James has had a sleepless night.

“Some people can make do with seven hours sleep, others with six or five. I need eight, and if I can get nine, I will take them. That particular Monday night after my first meeting with the hermit, Peter Calvay, I slept for only two hours. If I wanted to rise to something more than the subhuman before Peter arrived again, I simply had to get more sleep. When I did finally emerge, I plucked up enough courage to step outside and bid what was left of the morning a cheery ‘Good day’, only to discover that it, too, had a rotten night! Disgruntled-looking clouds were scurrying across the sky, peering threateningly down as if to dare you to wander more than a drenchable distance from home. I came inside and allowed myself a medicinal nip of the local wine. It is a much sought after luxury in more equitable climates. in the Isles it is a necessity, an indispensable bulwark to fortify the spirits against the elements.

With love all things are Possible

“I was awake for hours the night before, going over the conversation and re-meeting Peter in my mind. He was so right, although he was not in any way making a criticism of me personally. I could see that I was more of a Christian stoic than a Christian mystic. Jesus Christ was the first and the greatest of all mystics because he was at all times open to receive the same Holy Spirit who first conceived him. All he said and did was infused with the love that God continually lavished upon and into him. What Peter was trying to teach me was that if I continually allowed the same Holy Spirit who at all times filled Christ to fill me, then I could do all he was able to do, as he promised at the Last Supper (John 14:12-14). I could see now why Peter wished to follow his mentor, St Francis of Assisi into solitude so he could have more time to pray. Now I was beginning to understand the deep and profound prayer that follows first enthusiasm, where gradually in time and with perseverance, the divine spirit and the human spirit, divine loving and human loving, are fused together to unite us with Christ in his endless loving of his Father.

“I now knew why Peter had underlined and highlighted all the passages on the importance of prayer in the book on St Francis that he was reading.  I knew Peter had so very much more to teach me and I had so much more to learn. I would not be going on a day trip to Eriskay, or Uist for that matter. Five more days would be little enough time for all I wanted to say and all I needed to learn.”

Peter arrived promptly

When Peter arrived promptly and sat down, James addressed him. “You must be something of an oddity out here.”

When Peter appeared surprised,  James answered quickly, before Peter could explore other unintentional interpretations of his remark. “I have always found that people out here have hardly any idea of time at all. Last time I went to Eriskay, the ferry arrived three hours late, but nobody seemed concerned.” Peter smiled to himself as he mused affectionately on the past.  “My father was a fanatic about time and I have to admit that it is a sort of phobia with me.”

James then immediately told Peter that he had not made his position clear as he was not a Roman Catholic but an Episcopalian and that frankly he was rather embarrassed to be staying in a Catholic presbytery under false pretences. Peter reassured James without showing the slightest surprise, replying that it did not matter at all as I was a fellow Christian, and if anything he said could be of help then that is all that mattered. He said that as there are no different denominations in heaven there should not be any on earth either. Peter never brought the subject up again nor did he ever say anything that could be construed as trying to convert me to Roman Catholicism.

Knowing that you are loved and experiencing being loved

James had spent the previous morning thinking up excuses to reduce their future meetings to two. What time had been salvaged from the wreckage of that morning was spent trying to find excuses to extend them to five by making use of the Saturday morning before the ‘plane departed. James had no intention, therefore, of wasting further time with trivial icebreakers. He was annoyed at the way Peter’s phobia about time had interrupted what was just turning out to be an absorbing conversation the day before. He was eager to get things going again so he reminded Peter that he had said that there is all the difference in the world between knowing that we are loved and experiencing being loved.

Peter answered without hesitation shifting from side to side as if he had nothing further to say. “I meant just what I said. However, I do think the distinction has important implications for the spiritual life.” Let me  explain.

A security problem – a classic case

“I was at Strawberry Hill teachers’ training college in London staying with a lecturer and his wife near Twickenham Station. There were six other students and a young psychology lecturer called Mark, all staying in the same house. Mark and I found we had a lot in common and a deep friendship grew between the two of us. He was a brilliant lecturer and I often went with him to the many outside engagements that he accepted. Wherever he went he would always begin by belittling his competence, assuring his audience that he felt sure they knew far more about the subject than he did. If the contents and delivery of his material did not blatantly belie his preamble, you could not have blamed his audience if they walked out before he finished. I think it was what I originally took for genuine humility in Mark that initially drew me to him. It was only later that I came to realize that he took a morbid delight in denigrating himself. It was only because we had grown close that I was able to ask him why he always apologized and ran himself down in front of others. “I suppose I have what we psychologists call a security problem. I’m a classic case,” Mark said, shrugging his shoulders as if it was of no consequence.

Knowledge alone is not enough

“He told me something about his childhood, about his parents and how they believed they did their best for him. There was no doubt that they loved him. However, because of some Victorian hang-up, they were prepared to go to any lengths to avoid spoiling him. They shunned all manifestations of affection. He was never kissed, never caressed, never held close or cuddled. All physical expressions of love were prohibited, even though it went against the grain. Naturally, all this came out during his training. As he looked back over his past, he could see quite clearly, without a shadow of doubt that his parents loved him. He was absolutely convinced of it, but they never showed their love. He never experienced their love and that made a big, big difference to his life. Because he had not received love, he found it difficult to build up friendships, difficult to let others love him, never mind love them. That is why he felt insecure and behaved so immaturely on occasions. He was quite aware of his character problems and knew the reasons for them. But as he explained himself, knowledge alone is not enough. It may give insights into yourself, but it does not give you the power to change.

“When I went to Paris, he went to the States to do a postgraduate course. It was there that he met his future wife, at Harvard, just as you did. I met him just before coming out here and he told me what falling in love had done for him. He said that for the first time in his life, he did not just know, but rather he experienced through her love that he was loveable. He said the experience was like somebody breathing the breath of life into him for the first time. He came alive through her love and was beginning to discover a deep security, an inner strength to throw away the defence mechanisms with which he had surrounded himself over the years, and really start to become himself.”

Only the experience of being loved can change a person permanently

Peter prepared once more to press the analogy home.

“It is exactly the same with our relationship with God. Through faith we believe God loves us. We know he loves us; there can be no doubt about that. We can list all the gifts that have been showered on us to prove it, enumerate not only what he has said, but what he has actually done. But this is not enough as long as this sort of knowledge remains on the level of dry abstract truth. No matter how indisputable it is, or logically incontestable or even scientifically provable,  it will not deeply affect us. Knowledge alone is not enough. Knowledge alone will never change anyone permanently. But the experience of being loved will.”

Peter delivered the last phrase in a hushed, well-modulated tone of voice, and then he paused for a moment’s respite. It was one thing to see a truth with the cold eye of an intellectual, quite another to view the same truth with the eye of the mystic, or the poet. It is all the difference between looking at a stained glass window from the outside and looking at it from within, all aglow with vivid colour, bursting with vibrant vitality and life. Peter was able to view a truth from the inside, not just because he had a facility with words, but because his profound prayer enabled him to see the truth from the inside through the mystical love that possessed him.”

James was annoyed when the housekeeper came to say that she had just put their meals on the table in the kitchen. He wanted to tell Peter about his own spiritual journey that had led him nowhere. But there was plenty of time and Peter was a good listener.

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