Andy Raine rang last Thursday (April 7th 2011) to let me know Br. Roland Walls had gone to be with the Lord. In the days that followed I have been recalling memories of this dear man, my mentor and close friend.
I met Roland at Lincoln Theological College( 1979) when he came to deliver a lecture on Contemplative Prayer. My first glimpse of him was when he arrived at the College in the Bishop’s chauffer driven limousine. When the driver opened the rear door, out popped this small and nimble man, in his sixties, who looked and dressed like a wayfarer (a man of the road) rather than a Monk and former Cambridge Don. I had planned to miss the talk, expecting it to be a boring exploration of the technicalities of prayer. Seeing Roland had changed my mind, I was going to his lecture no matter what.
That evening Roland stood at the lecture podium, gave a broad and mischievous smile that narrowed his eyes and wrinkled his whole face and began; ‘Contemplative Prayer is being at home with Jesus Christ’
He then went on to tell a story of a holiday he made over twenty years ago.
At that time his friends and parishioners offered to send him on holiday, all expenses paid because they thought he needed a rest. His first choice was Spain, where he thought he could rest, relax and have some fun. He ended up on the Isle of Patmos, a small Greek Island made famous because it was the place of Exile of St. John the Apostle, and it was here St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. While in Patmos Roland heard about a solitary monk who lived in a cave by the sea, he decided to visit him. Walking along the seaside he met a middle aged, well dressed lady who looked angry and agitated:
‘Are you going to see that Monk?’
she barked at Roland
‘Then save your time.’
‘I came all this way to see him
to receive spiritual nourishment
and he waffled on for half an hour
about the beauty of creation
and told me the names of all the plants
and fauna around him: Waste of my time!’
She took off down the beach. Roland arrived at the cave, and the rather dishevelled looking man, pointed to a rock, which Roland presumed he should sit on. The monk never said one word for over 30 minutes, he just sat quietly, looking directly at Roland, who fidgeted the whole time. Roland was convinced the Monk had looked into his very soul, not found anything a great substance and so decided to say nothing. The Monk stood up and gestured to Roland to do the same, he then embraced Roland and spoke quietly to him;
‘Those who lean on Jesus breast
hear God’s heart beat’
It was a life changing moment for Roland. He recognised this to be what the Desert Tradition describes as a ‘Word for your life’ and he must now embrace that word and have the courage to follow wherever it would lead him.
Roland’s lecture had a profound effect upon me. I too felt that call, but how would it be possible for me to respond. I had committed myself to the sacrament of marriage to my wife Linda, and our then two kids, Jayne and Sara. I was soon to be ordained as a Priest, a vocation I embraced and celebrated. Roland had stirred something in me that I needed to face. A few weeks later I read Bonhoeffers call to ‘a new type of monasticism’ perhaps this was the way forward?
In 1985 I found myself in the ‘desert’ having left Parish Life to pursue what it meant to follow the monastic way; I decided to seek out Roland out for advice.
I discovered he lived a three hour drive away, and one day my friend Alan Andrews and I set off to see him. We arrived early evening, it was just getting dark, and was the weather was cold and damp. Roland’s community house was located on a very nice street of 2 and 3 story detached Victorian and Georgian houses. In the middle of this street was a miner’s clubhouse. It was made of wood and corrugated iron and it blended anonymously it to the background of its more elegant neighbours, it had a small sign that said: The Community of the Transfiguration.
We knocked on the garden door, and a few minutes later we heard a voice from behind it: ‘What do you want?’ ‘We have come to see Brother Roland Walls?’ I replied. ‘Look, go way, there is nothing for you here’ was the response. ‘Wait a minute’ I replied, ‘We have driven three hours to see Brother Roland, can’t he spare us a few minutes’ I asked? ‘Why drive three hours to see somebody when you don’t even know if they will be there!’ This was not the response I expected.
‘Listen.’ I said, ‘God is not going to send me on a three hour drive to see someone if they are not going to be in.’ At that point the door opened and behind it was that broad mischievous smile I first saw in Lincoln.
We sat late into the night chatting to Roland. His love of God was contagious as was his laughter and down to earth ness. He smoked a pipe, which was usually perched in his mouth. When he laughed sparks from the pipe used to fly into the air and then land on his jumper and singe or burn it. At one point he jumper was on fire, but he just brushed in to one side and carried on sharing his thoughts.
We shared with Roland about internal émigrés, a new type of monasticism, of our concern that we new little of the monastic way. It got late, intuitively, I knew I needed this man to teach me about monasticism, and asked if I could return at a later date and he agreed.
Moving to Northumbria meant we had less miles to travel so I got to see him more frequently, and got to know Brother John and Brother Jonathan with whom he shared community.
They lived in a garden huts, behind the community house, each was about 6’ by 6’. Their chapel, consisted of two larger huts, joined together, where they celebrated Eucharist daily and said their Daily Office. At mealtimes you could find yourself sitting with people from all walks of life, and if it was lunchtime, eating the daily ration of raw onion and cheese. Their lives together was a visible expression of what they were about, and for many years Roland and the Community of Transfiguration became an ‘old man’ to Linda and I, passing on to us the ‘way for living’ in which they had been nurtured. This life became a vital ingredient of the new type of monasticism we were seeking to live and the Northumbria Community to which we belonged.
What were the essential characteristics of their way for living ?
1. Seek the Lord with all your heart find Him daily in everyday places.
2. Trust in him completely for everything and do you part.
3. Don’t take yourself seriously, or seek social status or popularity
4. Celebrate, enjoy, share, use well the all you are given by God.
5. Treat all folk the same, show hospitality to all.
6. Don’t seek to teach anybody share what you know with your companions
7. Don’t judge anyone, gossip about them, lie about them.
8. Be humble before God and your community.
9. Those who lean on Jesus breast hear God’s heartbeat.
10. Laugh a lot, deep meaningful belly laughing remember God’s goodness
11. Speak up for those who have no voice of their own.
12. Be a real blessing to others with no expectation of a reward.
When Linda and I left Northumbria to begin our peregrinate we were unable to see Roland for several years. I managed to pop in to see him once on a brief visit home. He had developed dementia, and the community explained he would probably not recognise me. He was sitting alone in the community garden and I sat next to him and said hello. He sat for a little while, digging deep in his memory to see if he could find me: ‘John my dear boy…how are you?’ and his face burst into that broad and mischievous smile.
“Br. Roland Walls entered Heaven on April 7th at 8.20 am surrounded by his community, A Holy death and a right conclusion to a good Holy Saintly life. His Funeral Mass will be in Edinburgh next Friday at St Mary’s
Metropolitan Roman Catholic Cathedral at 11 ,am on 15th of April followed by Burial at Roslin Cemetery. His
Coffin will be received into the Cathedral at 5.pm on 14th April with the Rite of Reception to rest overnight.”