Fife priest Willy Slavin on a life of chastity and obedience

Embracing poverty voluntarily is an imitation of Jesus. That is what Christians are supposed to be called to. It is the best way to know oneself, stripped of as much distraction as possible, giving us hope that we can find out the truth about ourselves and our place in the world. St Paul urged the better-off among his converts to take up a collection for those worse off than themselves. He was also anxious to let his listeners know that he worked to provide for himself (as a tent maker).

Fr Willy Slavins memoir tells his life story through the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty he took at his ordination
Fr Willy Slavins memoir tells his life story through the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty he took at his ordination

The influence of Celtic monasticism on the Church has been significant with respect to poverty. Ireland as an island was able to keep some of the stricter ideals inherited from the original eastern spirituality. Irish monks generally were not ordained as priests. Their charism therefore was not obedience to a bishop: it was poverty. Lay people could live a simple lifestyle in harmony with the whole of creation. Now the question is: can an individual today become ‘a monk in the world’.

The first monks had wanted to be away from it all and built their monasteries in inaccessible places like Skellig Michael in the Atlantic off the west coast of Ireland. The great Benedictine monasteries of the Middle Ages combined work and prayer – laborare est orare (to work is to pray). They revolutionised agriculture, and market towns sprang up beside them. After the Reformation monastic renewal emphasis was on the solemn celebration of a robust liturgical practice that was faithful to the past but allowed also contemporary influences. All three of these aspects speak to us today. We are not to listen to the dead voices of the living exhorting us to mindless repetition. It is the living voices of the dead that encourage us to imitate them.

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For Pope Francis the imitation of the poverty of Jesus is more important than the habit of clerical obedience. He proposed that the model of the Church should be a field hospital where those who are most in need can get help. Francis of Assisi lived at the beginning of banking and realised he didn’t want anything to do with a system that would help the rich to consolidate their wealth. The banks today are still proving him right.

In 2013, on the Feast of St Francis, the poor man of Assisi, I retired from St Simon’s, my church in Glasgow, into just a campervan. Someone asked what I did with all my books. (I bought an iPad which had a Kindle app.) In our regulated society it is not quite as easy as this to simplify one’s life. I joined the Thousand Huts movement, which seeks legal reforms in land use that make it easier to have access to a cabin, shed, hut. I had known from my Justice and Peace days a landowner who was sympathetic to land reform and who had several huts on his estate. I was able to negotiate the use of one of those and relocate it at the edge of a wood some distance from the road. On the 50th anniversary of my ordination I received the keys. We have to advocate a political change that will allow older people to reduce themselves to a simpler – and poorer – way of life.

The landowner R.B. Cunninghame Graham, the first socialist MP in Scotland and the founder of the Scottish National Party, lived much of his life overseas in a hard way. When he returned to Scotland he said: ‘All that is left to reasonable men is to pay the bootmakers’ and tailors’ bills with regularity, give alms to the deserving and the undeserving poor, and then live humbly under the sun, taking example from the other animals.’ It reminds me of the story of the wealthy man who died suddenly. A friend asked: ‘How much did he leave?’ Came the answer: ‘He left it all.’ Another story is of a rich man visiting a hermit and asking him where his furniture was. The hermit said: ‘I don’t see you with any.’ The rich man replied that he was only a visitor. ‘So am I,’ said the hermit. We should be detached from our possessions.

Homeless Jesus

After I retired there came a request out of the blue from a Canadian sculptor: Timothy P. Schmalz had made a sculpture of a figure lying on a park bench covered with a blanket and only the feet sticking out. The feet were pierced. He called it Homeless Jesus. He offered it to the cathedral in his home town of Toronto. But they declined, saying Jesus had risen and was no longer homeless. He had a nice place in the tabernacle in the church. The Jesuits took it and placed it in downtown Regis College. Copies have since been erected in various cities throughout the world. Schmalz asked if one could be set up in Glasgow. This required, reasonably enough, a complex planning procedure. There was some apprehension that it would become a political issue. Such fears proved unfounded and permission was granted to place the sculpture, with the support of the minister and congregation, behind St George’s Tron in the city centre. A young fellow I knew who could sing and became one of the cantors in St Alphonsus told me he had once been reduced through addiction to sleeping on a park bench. He simply ignored those who abused him. What he remembered was those who gave him a friendly look or a compassionate smile. It was hoped that the Homeless Jesus icon would encourage a similar response to beggars.


Walking the Camino has become enormously popular in the years since we did it in 1998, when it was still fairly primitive. There is a bit of a debate about who is entitled to call themselves a pilgrim. Do you have to have a religious intention? This is interpreted fairly widely at the cathedral in Santiago. The Camino finds room for everybody, whether they are doing the walk religiously or not. The most common denominator is that those on the way have mostly stripped themselves down to the essentials. They are willing to depend on the hospitality provided. One Franciscan priest walked it in his habit without money and lacked for nothing over the six weeks. There is plenty of food and shelter for everybody in the world. We need to be converted by our pilgrimage through life to share what we have with others. This is the real meaning of poverty.

Choices and equality

We are all ‘Jock Tampson’s bairns’. In a world divided between the haves and the have-nots there is evidence that equality makes for a better community. If we took from our garage or from under the bed what we haven’t used in the last year and gave it away, somebody else would enjoy it. With respect to the Third World the choice is even more stark. The coltan we need for our mobile phones comes from the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has consequently become a bloodbath of competing factions. We are bargaining with the lives of the poor. There is a whole range of commodities for which we should be willing to pay a little more so that mothers who are at present too poor to do so can feed their own children. We are called to heal the broken-hearted.

Life is Not a Long Quiet River by Willy Slavin is published by Birlinn (£12.99, paperback);