Sunday, 4 September 2016

Sister Helen Columba - Portrait of a Friendship

How did we meet? Well, I met this lady on a train coming down on the train from my first ex's family in Edinburgh. We got talking. I don't normally talk to people on trains. She said "you must know Fairacres!", and I said I didn't. She said it was about time.

It was the autumn of 1988 and I was writing a letter to the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (the guy who has to filter out the complete loonies before they ask for the bishop's permission to become priests), and I thought, well, why not? So I wrote a loony letter saying I'd met a lady on a train, and I was very happy to meet them, whoever they turned out to be.

And they turned out to be Sister Helen Columba.

Back then, she must have been about 60, a nun for perhaps fifteen years, a Glaswegian Scot, of short stature, and with shiny, bright intelligent eyes, and eyebrows above that rose and fell with the occasion. We only ever met, as one might say "at her place", and she was always in uniform (brown habit and scapula, black veil, and in those early days, white wimple), except at the very end when I visited her in the infirmary and she was bludgeoned out of bed in her nightgown.

My situation back then was that being with my first partner, and harsh things having been said about gay people at the 1987 General Synod, I was not immensely hopeful. At Fairacres, I was welcomed wholeheartedly.

We never used the words "spiritual director", but that's what she became. Some people find it an odd idea, rather archaic, and redolent of the controlling sado-masochism of a certain kind of Christianity which thinks of "priestly formation" in terms of breaking the person you were before, and telling you what to do next. But she never told me what to do, on the contrary her wisdom and her ideas and her receptiveness to the new, made my world so much bigger, and safer, and more exciting. It was a relationship in which it really was "all about me", so I gleaned relatively little about Helen Columba herself - she wouldn't have thought herself a very interesting subject - but over 27 years, you do hear, and remember a thing or two.

She'd never had the chance to go to university - her mother was poorly, and she had to look after her younger siblings, and I doubt her family was the sort that sent children to university anyway, even in erudite Scotland. Nonetheless, she was an avid reader, and a self-taught theologian, and that is perhaps where we clicked, because we were both eccentric and eclectic in our interests. She, of course, knew much more than me, and two wonderful worlds of knowledge she introduced me to were the works of Carl Jung, and the Russian theologians. "Answer to Job" (C G Jung) and "The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church" (Vladimir Lossky) I read at her advice, and they were life-changing books. Both focus on how we are, more than how we got to be that way, and tell their stories as they happened, not as the church would prefer them to have happened. That was a key things for us - truth-telling. Because I told the truth about being gay, my admission to the selection process for the C of E ministry was delayed for five years. But also because I told the truth, when the selectors eventually turned me down, the bishop discarded their advice, and sent me to start training. I have been a priest now for twenty years, and without Helen Columba's prayers, I strongly doubt it would have happened at all. Her dedication was "of the Holy Spirit".

The monastic life fascinated me - and she did wonder whether it might be my own calling in the end "a lot of gay priests end up called by the cloister" - and coming on retreat was an amazing new experience. We guests sat in the visitors' chapel while the sisters - round the corner, we couldn't really see them - sung the psalms to us, and back in those days really quite poorly sisters with dementia would be in the chapel too, muttering, and humming away, during the services. Then we ate our meals in silence together in the refectory, out of wooden bowls, with a spoon. And if you didn't finish your first course, your pudding would arrive on top of the leftovers! Lunch was called "Dinner" and after Vespers we went for "High Tea", which was a cafeteria-style help-yourself system in the kitchen, but also eaten in silence, except for the occasional mewing of the convent cat, which made everyone laugh. Helen Columba told me that the sisters were not permitted to hurry, because the rule required them to manage their time, nor to discuss their health because "imagine! a community of women at all times of life - we'd never stop!".

We talked sometimes of marriage and family life, which she said she'd always expected and hoped for for herself, "but now, I have more sons and daughters then I could ever have had as a married woman in Glasgow". I had become one of them. She might have seen my rather chequered lovelife over the years as a sign of a calling eventually to be a monk, and it's a shame that her last, frailer, years, coincided with my time of happiness, and getting it right with Ricardo. He was the only partner, now husband, of mine she met, briefly, at a Fairacres garden party open day one summer.

She followed my career with interest, and, as it had more downs than ups, with concern. One time I was struggling with colleagues, one of whom feuded with me about praying for the dead, and the other, about the role of Mary. "If they argue with you about those things, no good will come out of that place", she said. For me, none did, so I moved on.

She was possessed of an intense spiritual sensitivity, something which I recognised, without sharing, and it caused her to contact me one time about an interesting pastoral matter. Ostensibly, she was after my genealogical understanding, because there was a couple she knew for whom there was a background of abuse and unkindness, and the perpetrators were dead, so unable to repent, or be forgiven, in person. So she asked if I would celebrate Holy Communion with a special intention for Reconciliation, in the family's new home. I did as I was bidden, amongst the boxes and jumble of a recent move. We had candles but not, I think, incense. Maybe holy water. I never concentrated more in my life, on the words, the prayers, the people, the names. When it was done, Helen Columba said she had seen figures walking out of darkness into light. This was about the time that she was going through a mystical period of her own - "seeing the reality of things, seeing the Holy Spirit". A sceptical reverend mother said "we've got a leak in the laundry room, see if you can see that". And she did. I have no deep spiritual aspect to my soul, thank God, but I have no reason to question what she saw at those times. She was a great enthusiast for the Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, who from time to time showed in himself the signs of transfiguration. I think it gave her a great sensitivity to the light of Christ in this world.

My life in ministry was as much a struggle as my journey to get ordained, and we sometimes spoke in - I think - the Prioress's office, where on the wall was a carved wooden Christ crucified. No cross, just the body. It was a most impelling image, and we fell to talking about it. She spoke of the cross as the point of meeting, and of tension, between God and man (she had no time for inclusive language), between heaven and earth, life and death, hope and despair. That carved figure now presides over the refectory, much more fittingly, under the word "sitio" ("I thirst", in Latin, one of the last words from the cross). Sometimes its eyes seem to look up at you, with arms outstretched, and ask "will you hug me?"

She loved music, and was an accomplished singer, and tried her best to teach me to sing when I was ordained. I couldn't do it then, but a little later, under other pressure, I did learn, my teacher building on the foundations she'd laid. Mind you, the chosen song for my first lesson with her was "You've got to Accentuate the Positive!" She did not confine herself to plainchant and Latin introits. She had worked for Scottish Opera years before, and when she worked at Iona, sometimes she would go out and sit on a rock and sing to the seals. In a hazy time, towards the end of her life, she mentioned this and her carers thought she'd lost the plot. But no, it was a fond memory coming back, of a place she'd loved deeply.

We shared an interest in, and awareness of, the created world. I'm a bird nerd, and would often arrive to see her with reports of the wildlife I'd seen on the way. One time it was goldfinches - "a symbol of the Holy Trinity". I'd seen three of them - "a trinity of trinities!". And the wren. This one she had to look up, but it turns out the wren is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, maybe because you hardly notice it's there, and then its voice is louder than any other. My contribution one time was a homily at the morning mass about the kingfisher as an icon of Mary, adorned with the glorious blue of heaven, over the russet of the earth.

She fell ill at some point in her late sixties, and told me with relish that her doctor had only given her five or six years to live. I obviously looked aghast, and she said "but it's the whole point of this life, getting rid of this old crock" (the body) "and starting again". At first she resisted the relatively simple heart operation that would ameliorate the problem, thinking, and hoping, that she'd have a nice tidy heart attack and die in the night. But she didn't - people seldom do in such circumstances - so she accepted the operation, recovered from it, more or less, and that gave her another decade or so which the rest of us perhaps enjoyed rather more than she did.

As she was ebbing away on the Friday night before she died, we said the Jesus Prayer together. A staple of the Orthodox tradition, I'd never have known it without her. Maybe her hand responded to mine as I said the words, I don't know. But I do know that that prayer, and breathing as you pray, and praying as you walk, are gifts I owe to her. The first time I tried breathing the Jesus Prayer in and out, within a month my asthma was conspicuously better. Since walking and praying, my black dog depression is at bay.

What do I have to show for these 27 years? An exquisite little book about the Jesus Prayer by Mother Maria, an icon of the Trinity, by Rublev, and another icon of the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, her tchotki (prayer rope, like a rosary, given by Sister Eve), a piece of Iona marble ("carry it, and you won't ever drown" - and I do, all the time) her morning oblation, written in her own hand, and given to me by the Warden, many letters and cards over the years, but, most of all, the sheer fun and joy of having known her, memories which will never fade, and words she said to me one dismal time "nothing is lost". And nor is she, nor I, nor our friendship, which, as she has exchanged time for eternity, is marked forever on eternity's map.

Sister Helen Columba - Saint Andrew's Day 1927 to Saint Bernard's Day 2016

Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord
And may light perpetual shine upon her
May she rest in peace
And rise in glory

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2016


  1. much learnedness there,thought provoking

  2. That reads like a good long walk, hand in hand, on a really perfect beach, the kind that has both pebbles and sand, sun and mist, neither too hot always nor bleachingly cold, but changing as you go along. I'm glad she has gone home, though, and she will be waiting there for you to show up in due course.

    1. What a wonderful tribute to a lovely lady. Thank you for sending us a copy. It made us laugh and cry in equal measures. Lovely to hear your stories of Auntie Helen. Glad to know she had such a good friend in you.
      Love The Kirkwood's (Sister Helen's family) xxx

    2. So very glad you found this little piece, which hardly begins to do justice to the friend she was to me. And glad too, to have met some of you before and at the funeral. The Sisters said it made the day special in a new way.

      I'm now left wondering about the name Kirkwood! My Great-Uncle Matt married a Jessie Kirkwood in 1919 at St Andrew's Edinburgh, (she was born in 1896 in Loudoun, Ayrshire, and died in 1978 Irvine, Ayrshire).

      I hope you all got safely back home after your long journeys.

  3. How lovely! Kirkwood is Aunt Helen's sister's married name. And my parents (Helen's Niece) actually live in Irvine now after we grew up in Ayrshire! It really is a small world we live in. I tried to contact you through facebook to no avail. I was given some music manuscripts from the Sister's that belonged to Aunt Helen as I am musical myself. I thought as you had such a beautiful connection through your music that you would appreciate these manuscripts and tapes. I already have Aunt Helen's piano stool and the rest of the family have very sentimental items too. Being so close to her heart, i'm sure she would love you to continue to flick through these books and belt out a few tunes for her! My name is Zoe Kirkwood on facebook. Send me a private message so I can forward these on to you. Hope you are well!
    The Kirkwoods