A tribute to Brother Columba – by his former student

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“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
― John O’Donohue

Siow Ling with Brother Columba in an undated photo
Siow Ling with Brother Columba in an undated photo

It is an honour to be writing this tribute for such an inspirational man who was a mentor, friend, spiritual guide, teacher and ex-principal to so many of us.

He was Br Columba, James, Jimmy, James Columba Gleeson to me. He once said that he probably confused me with all his identities; but no matter what he was called, he was total peace and inspiration to me.

He was an inspirational teacher who believed that the glory of the teaching profession lies in nurturing the minds and hearts. He was more than a teacher; he was an educator of the highest order and a nurturer of life. Educator is derived from the Latin, ED: out, DUCO: I lead. His goal was not to push facts and knowledge into us but to lead us out. He inspired us to be aware of all that life has to offer – beauty, courage, truth. Br Columba lovingly used his life to serve us all.

While I may not have understood the depth of his wisdom while a school girl, I feel so very lucky and grateful that fate conspired to keep us in touch over the 30 over years, so that as I aged, I was able to fully appreciate his wisdom. We were able to move beyond the relationship of a beloved principal and his happy graduate; we became friends and we acknowledged each other as the other’s Anam Cara, the Gaelic words for “Soul friend.”

James had a gift for living life. He never lost the twinkle in his eyes. There was nothing he couldn’t laugh about with his wonderful sense of humour. He lived in the present, nourished by his family, community and warm memories of friends across the globe, content and peaceful, regardless of circumstances, in good health or otherwise. In his last e-mail to me, of 10 January, he wrote “I am happy to live as long and as best as I can with the realities of life and of my particular situation.” In our last conversation on 28 January, with his sense of humour intact at the hospital, he said, “I’m fine but I’m talking to you while I’m pinching my bleeding nose. This is quite an annoyance.”

His view of life may be best summed by his favourite prayer.

God our Father, open our eyes to see your hand at work in the splendour of creation, in the human life. Touched by your hand our world is holy. Help us to cherish the gifts that surround us and experience the joy of life in your presence.

I thank you my dear friend James Gleeson for all your love, wisdom and inspiration. I shall grieve healthily for our connection that has been lost, but I will also celebrate your life, live your spirit and pass on your legacy of living in inspiration, with beauty, courage and truth.

Tan Siow Ling (Siow L Vigman)
SJS Lower Six 1982

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