Book Review: Life is not a long quiet river

Life is not a long quiet river

Willy Slavin

Birlinn, 2019

Willy Slavin is well-known to readers of Open House as a long-time member of the Executive Committee and for many years a perceptive and provocative reviewer of film.  But even for those who know him well this fascinating Memoir will be full of surprises.

This compact volume is really several different books compressed into one.  It is a self-searching autobiography, reviewing a lifetime of rich and varied achievement.   It is a portrait of the ordained priesthood in the generation following Vatican II.  It is a revelation of the immense worldwide reach of the Roman Catholic Church.  And it is a testimony to the significance of Jesus of Nazareth to the person who would live a meaningful life.

The author accepts the scriptural assertion that human beings live for 70 years, or for 80 if we are strong.  As he himself approaches the full share given to the strong, he examines the role played in his life by his three vows – ‘promises’ as he calls them in respect of a ‘secular’ priest of the parish, such as he has been.  He sees that old age tends to enforce these promises on us all – poverty and celibacy and obedience.

The book has a three-part structure, each part focusing on one of the promises: Obedience, Poverty, and Celibacy.  And in each part the major themes of the book are closely interwoven.


The book’s narrative follows a chronological path through Willy Slavin’s life, and he speaks with affection of his parents and family life.  He is trained in obedience at home and then as a boarder at Blairs College.

For a minister of the Reformed Church, as this reviewer is, it is difficult to imagine making a promise of obedience to the authority of someone higher in the hierarchy.  But we see that in fact, while Willy promises obedience to the authority of the bishop, his own insights and his persistent curiosity frequently bring him into conflict.  We learn that such differences of opinion often lie behind him being moved from one parish to another, albeit in obedience to the bishop’s instruction.


We can discern that Willy performed important roles in one field after another.  He trained as an educational psychologist, and learned about urban poverty in Glasgow.  From Glasgow he moved to Bangladesh.  In the Xaverian education centre in Jessore he put the whole college grounds under cultivation to produce food.   Back in Scotland, he became secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission; and he was a key member of a small residential community of activists pursuing a Justice and Peace agenda.  As chaplain in Barlinnie Prison he foresaw the infamous riot in 1987, and established a charitable fund for remand prisoners who had no privileges and few visitors.  He was organiser of the Scottish Drugs Forum in its first five years.  Moving to St Alphonsus’ parish, with the Glasgow Association of Family Support Groups he started an annual Service of Remembrance for those who had died through drug-related problems.  He initiated a men’s group, to enable men to reflect on their spiritual life.  He served as Chaplain to Yorkhill Hospital for Sick Children.  In twelve years as parish priest in St Simon’s, Partick, he created a cafe for the homeless; and he founded Glasgow Emmaus, which offers structured support and community life for homeless people.

The uniting characteristic in initiating all these enterprises was Willy’s compassion for people facing difficulty.


The final section explores the narrowing place of celibacy in an increasingly sexualised culture.  Willy affirms the traditional case for a person to remain unmarried: without a wife and other dependents the priest is free to devote his life and his love to a wider range of people.  He regards the fluency of his own way of life as having been made possible by the dynamic of his three promises.

Willy’s writing style compresses a mass of information and opinion into each paragraph.  Elliptical sentences and epigrams flow from his pen.  So swiftly is the reader moved from one theatre of action to another, and so lightly does the author touch the surface of large events and his response to them, that sometimes the significance of Willy’s activities and interventions can be overlooked.

Finishing the book the reader will be in awe at Willy Slavin’s prodigious energy and imagination.  I am certain that his influence still echoes in the places where he set foot, with individuals paying tribute to his challenge, his insight and his devotion.

Although he says ‘it is possible to see only the embers of faith’, he has written a genuinely evangelical work.  It speaks well of the Church he has served, and of the one whose name and spirit the Church bears.

John Miller



Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.