James Robertson is on the small island ‘plane on his way to meet the hermit Peter Calvay in the Outer Hebrides. The meeting will change his life irrevocably for the better. But let the story continue and speak for itself.
After tricking the Hermit, Peter Calvay into seeing me I was on the ‘plane flying to his island home off the north-east coast of the Isle of Barra. As we left the mainland there was nothing further to see after gazing at the sublime Highland scenery, so I opened the book on St Francis that belonged to the Hermit I was looking forward to meeting. It was lent to me by my new friend Sheila Watson who did not want to risk sending it in the post so she asked me to return it to him in person. There was now nothing to see but the sea so I began to read it. There would be no time to read the whole book so I decided to read those passages that the hermit had meticulously highlighted with his pencil. I knew that Peter had been professed as a secular Franciscan before he sought solitude in the Western Isles so I thought reading these passages would help me to understand something of his Franciscan soul. I reproduce the first passage that I read exactly as Peter would have read it:
The Primacy of Personal Prayer
It was the deep personal prayer that led to mystical contemplation that Francis first learned at Le Carceri, his favourite hermitage just outside Assisi. For his prayer to develop, Francis needed protracted periods of time in solitude. That is why he founded hermitages wherever he went for himself and for his followers, so that they too could be transformed by the same Holy Spirit who had transformed him. There was no place in mainline monasticism for prayer such as this. The chanting of the Divine Office and the prayerful reading of the scriptures, called the Opus Dei and Lectio Divina was the staple diet of monastic prayer. St Benedict made it clear that personal prayer was an optional extra when he wrote in his rule, ‘If you would pray privately make it swift and ardent’. Far from being an optional extra, private personal prayer of prolonged duration was the essential ingredient that opened Francis to the action of the Holy Spirit more than anything else. All his early biographers echo the words of his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, many times over.
“His safest haven was prayer, not prayer of a single moment, but prayer of long duration. If he began late he would scarce finish before morning. Walking, sitting, or eating, he was always intent on prayer. He would repeatedly go alone at night to pray in lonely and deserted places” (Celano chapter 27).
The Prayer life of the first Franciscans
St Francis was adamant that such prayer must be the mainspring that would prepare his brothers for intensive and effective apostolic action. Long before the Divine Office was introduced into the Order, personal mental prayer was the staple diet of the early Franciscans, as St Bonaventure makes clear in his Life of St Francis.
“They spent their time praying continuously, devoting their time especially to fervent mental prayer. They had not yet acquired any of the liturgical books so they could not chant the divine office” (Life of St Francis Chapter 4:3).
In order to make more time for prayer, Francis shortened the long monastic office radically that took monks hours to perform. For instance in the Cluniac reform of Benedictine monasticism it took eight hours. St Francis rejected this monastic office in favour of what was called the Roman Office, because it was used by the members of the Roman Curial officials and it was, needless to say, infinitely shorter leaving the friars with more time for personal prayer. After they had risen to recite the Divine Office in the middle of the night many of the friars would remain in silent personal prayer until dawn. Now Francis did not reject what the monks called Lectio Divina, the slow and meditative reading of the scriptures, indeed it was the source of inspiration for all Franciscan prayer. So much so that towards the end of his life Francis admitted that he knew most of the scriptures off by heart.
The way to Contemplation
It was the genius of Francis that saw that personal prayer to contemplation had to be learnt by the friars inside his friary or in the hermitage. This would support and sustain them as they went about their apostolic work, without the sort of liturgical prayer that supports and sustains the monk in his monastic seclusion. Furthermore, if his work was going to be successful, the friar had to be trained to a high degree of personal responsibility that was not demanded in the same way of the monk. The friar, for instance, would have to learn how to turn to this prayer often during the day, without the physical presence and support of his community and away from the supervision of his superior. My brother who is a Franciscan has spent months, no years, travelling all over the world giving retreats without the constant support of his brothers and without the watchful eye of his superior. Only God knows that he has been faithful to the daily personal prayer, without which he would have degenerated into a hypocrite, undermining what he said by what laxity would have made of him.
Cardinal Hume on Monastic and Mendicant Prayer
In 1978, the year after my mother died, I stayed with my brother at his friary at Woodford Green in London to sort out a few problems arising from my mother’s will. The day after my arrival, my brother invited me to join him on a day of recollection given by Cardinal Basil Hume to the clergy of Brentwood Diocese. The Cardinal perfectly summed up the point I have been trying to make. He explained how, as a monk at Ampleforth he had been formed and sustained by monastic spirituality. Each day he was supported by his brother monks as together they pursued perfection through the ancient and hallowed rhythm of the monastic life, as they moved effortlessly from the Opus Dei and the Lectio Divina to their various spheres of work in the community in their search for God. But now, he admitted, since being made Archbishop of Westminster he had to learn a new form of spirituality. Moving towards a group of Franciscan Friars in his audience he said, “And I have had to learn from these gentlemen here”. He went on to explain how he now had to master a different way of praying in his private chapel and in his apartment without his brethren to support him. It was a way of praying too which he needed to return to when he was out and about serving his people, through an apostolate for which he had not been specifically prepared. If he was to be supported by prayer when he was travelling by tube or taxi or by ‘plane or train, or while waiting at a station or in an airport departure lounge, it would have to be by new forms of prayer. These forms of prayer were those developed by the mendicant, rather than the monastic tradition on which he depended before.
During the Second World War a Cistercian monastery released thirteen monks to man local parishes to enable secular priests to act as army Chaplains. Only one returned after the war! The majority lost their vocations and several lost their faith. This is not an indictment of monasticism, but merely an example of what happens when monks are suddenly asked to do work for which their spirituality has never prepared them. Block time for personal prayer each day then became the main way in which the early Franciscans sought the contemplative prayer that would alone open them to experience the same Spirit who sustained Jesus. They could then become other Christs to those they were committed to serve. Whenever they forgot to do this, the inevitable would follow, they would be on the steady downward slope into decline and then into decadence.
Paradise on Earth.
My reading was suddenly interrupted. Once again, and for the last time, we heard the captain speaking to us through his microphone.
“We are now approaching Barra. Please fasten your safety belts.” He then continued in a less official tone of voice. “I’m not sure if the sand is dry enough to land on yet, but we’ll go down and have a look. If it’s not, we will fly round the Isles for ten minutes to give it time to dry out!”
My stomach suddenly lurched forward as the plane gently stuttered in her descent. Then, oh! What a view. Literally out of the blue, the plane dropped to less than a thousand feet and on the approach to the beach she banked up, her right wing pointing to the sea. There was a hum of excitement as all the passengers looked out at the scene below. There seemed to be miles upon miles of impressive sand, the silver sands of Barra. No, it was not the Southern Seas, nor the Aegean; this was Barra in all her magnificence. I have seen other beaches that may claim to rival hers, but nowhere have I seen such delicate shades of colour in the sea skirting the coastline; blue, emerald green and maroon predominated, but almost every shade of each merged into one another to form a panorama of pastel splendour. This was Paradise on earth.
The plane suddenly straightened and swooped down to inspect the beach. I knew that Peter’s Island home would be visible from the other side of the plane. It could not have been more than a couple of miles away. I could see the Great Cockle Beach on which we were preparing to land. We were almost upon it. I could just see a small group of people standing next to the tiny air terminal building. A couple of cars had stopped along the road to watch the landing. This was it. This was the moment the ‘plane had been waiting for. She might be just another unimportant, undersized nobody at Glasgow Airport, but here she was Queen of the Isles! Even the soaring golden eagle of Hellisay would have to stand aside as she came to inspect her dominions. Apparently the sand had dried sufficiently and, greatly to my disappointment, she was preparing to make her landing. Reaching the top of her imperious swoop over the sea, she banked up, this time to the left, affording new and enchanting views to the passengers as she turned to make the most of her final entrance, with all the haughty dignity she could summon.
The journey was over. She landed and taxied over to the air terminal, where Father Callum the parish priest in whose presbytery I would be staying was waiting to meet me. I thanked him for everything before he boarded the ‘plane for the return flight and I drove off to North bay in his car. It was scarcely two miles away. I did not go out after lunch. I suddenly felt tired. It had been a tiring day, but one of the most unforgettable days in the whole of my life. Almost the perfect day. Could it be the beginning of the perfect week?