Obituary: Father Roland Walls, theologian and hermit
Father Roland Walls, theologian and hermit. Born: 7 June, 1918, in Bembridge, Isle of Wight. Died: 7 April, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 92.
The death of Father Roland Walls leaves a significant gap in Scotland's spiritual and ecumenical resources. He was a man of influence but also one to shun the spotlight; he was a shaman and a recluse.
It all began in a quiet corner of Roslin village. Not far from Rosslyn Chapel, a focus of intense worldwide interest, stands a weather-beaten green tin shack, a former Miners' Institute saved from demolition in 1965 by the last-minute donation of a local benefactor. Brother John Halsey, an Anglican priest, and the late Father Roland Walls, an Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic, settled there in what they called at first the Hermitage of the Transfiguration and, then, the Houses of the Transfiguration.
When I interviewed Father Roland there some years ago, his mischievous but serenely cherubic smile welcomed me. He leaned over the wooden gate, drawing meditatively on his pipe. Behind him on the gable-end of the Houses of the Transfiguration (founded to promote Christian unity) hung a sign reading comaraich (Gaelic for "sanctuary"). This was Father Roland's "Buddhist garden".
He emphasised that "The Lord is the gardener", pointing out an even more twisted antique root, shaped like a man. "That's what we call the Devil," he smiled. "He's fleeing - I hope!"
Both Father Roland, who was followed in that post by Brother John, had been priests in charge of Rosslyn Chapel, the former from 1962 to 1968, the latter succeeding him for a period in 1968. In 1965 they had, along with several others, set up an experimental religious community not far from the Episcopal rectory.
During these early years, following the promptings of the Second Vatican Council, Dom Columban Mulcahy, Abbot of the Cistercian Sancta Maria Abbey at Nunraw in East Lothian, was one of the driving forces behind the ecumenical movement in Scotland. While on retreat at Nunraw, Abbot Columban directed Brother John and Father Roland to spend their first day meditating on the fact that "God loves you".
On the following day the Abbot proposed that they think about a truth that "You can love God". On the final day, he suggested they concentrate on the hardest truth of all: "Love one another", the injunction of Jesus to his disciples.
This was a moment of enlightenment, for Abbot Columban had made them realise that these three truths were the foundations of a religious life.
Here was not only a community that was ecumenical and open to all, but one which was able to reaffirm the value of the discarded and the decayed, an oasis of reality with no telephone or television. Before he retired, Brother John - an Anglican priest and then Prior of the house - worked as a labourer in a local garage stripping down cars for re-painting.Father Roland, an Anglican priest for more than 40 years, had the gift of prising people open with the challenge of his humour and insight.
His original community of three, basing their lives on the Rules of St Benedict (a central tenet of which was sobriety) and St Francis, had their cells and their chapel in the back garden of the house where silence was maintained at all times.
A key public event in the life of the Houses of the Transfiguration was the celebration of the community's 25th anniversary on 16 August, 1990, held at Rosslyn Chapel, with leaders of the different denominations - the Episcopal primus, Bishop Richard Holloway, the Greek Orthodox Archimandrite, John Maitland-Moir and members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Cardinal Gordon Joseph Gray and Archbishop Keith O'Brien.
In the shade of the Houses of the Transfiguration most of us would find the community's cells (garden sheds of treated wood with roofs of black roofing felt) constricting; their mattresses lay on stout wooden doors.
In the chapel with what Father Roland called its "feminist icon" (showing the valuable role of women in the church) was the most telling example of the community's cherishing of the ordinary things in life - Stations of the Cross, each made from two used matchsticks pierced by a pin.
The overwhelming impression of Father Roland and the Houses of the Transfiguration was of a community at the leading edge of religious life.
When I asked him about God, Father Roland replied that "If he's really the God of the Bible, God is interested in the pluralism of love. Love not only endures but rejoices in diversity - as in the Blessed Trinity itself."
He told me he was more and more inclined to go back to avoiding the word God as often as possible. As I've lived in Roslin for many years, I believe that one of the attractive sides of Midlothian is that, unlike some other rather overtly touristic counties, Midlothian contains this extraordinarily rich diversity. But it also has its struggles towards unity which is always fraught and always has to be remade again and again - rather like love affairs anywhere.
"It's only when we're persons in society, in community, that we're going to reflect, as the Bible says, 'The image of the God who made us'.
"It is very important, it seems to me, that we localise very particularly and rejoice when people are going to write or speak or work for a particular locality."
He went on: "I'm very optimistic about the present situation because in this sort of homelessness, exile and alienation there's been a reaction.
"People speaking on the media and writing about locality and characters have become very popular.
"Such books and programmes have a good commercial selling value which indicates to me that there's a need for roots and a seeking for roots. It's very important that people should be affirmed not only in their jobs and their activities, but in their locality.It's to do with faith.
"Home is one of the most powerful words you can use in a sermon. However dreary you are in a sermon, if you use the word 'home' you get attention for that sentence.
"This homelessness I think can be healed in a locality. That locality is the place where you can think about a God who is Home because He's love, who is love because He's diversity in unity. Wherever these two words God and Home appear (whether in economics, social developments, family problems or successes, in the Church and in the Church's unity and disunity) they are of paramount importance."
Father Roland concluded with the observation that "if you want a laboratory where you can look at these words in detail, then this county of Midlothian is as good as any in Britain".
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