Geoffrey Preston 1936-1977 (Teacher at Joe's 1960-1961)

Obituary by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Geoffrey Preston was born in his grandmother's house in Winsford, Cheshire, on 24th February 1936. Winsford is a typical town of the Cheshire plain, where the low landscape stretches away to the horizon, broken in those pre-war years by the salt-mining works and the clustering villages now commandeered increasingly by Manchester businessmen. Geoffrey's earliest years were spent not at Winsford, however, but at one of these villages, Beeston Castle, where his father was a local blacksmith like his father before him. From the windows of their cottage it was possible to take in both Beeston Castle and Peckforton Castle, and those early images no doubt played their part in his later fascination with history as a discipline. Yet this family background was more consequential than merely suggesting a university course. People spoke, after his death, of his “peasant simplicity”, a curious phrase for such a voraciously intellectual man. He had a sense of first principles and of primary human values, a respect for the local and the particular, a sharpness in picking up the spirit of place, a capacity to put down roots into the human soil of wherever he was and a love for the countryside of a quite unsentimental kind, such that the word 'peasant' in fact suited him down to the ground. It would be hard to place his politics but, at the foundations, he was the best kind of natural conservative. He had the countryman's disbelief in large theoretical schemes of improvement, together with his concern for the underdog and wrath at any hubris on the part of the powerful. He was a little like First Isaiah in this. Only he was very English.  

His father's health broke down when Geoffrey was three. The difficulties in the family's circumstances that followed had an enduring significance, not in breeding any sort of resentment or bitterness but in giving him a quick, sympathetic understanding of sickness and poverty. There were two compensating factors in these troubles. The first was the life and devotion of the Methodist church, to which his father’s people were deeply and permanently attached. When, years later, Geoffrey became a Catholic he entered, as he put it a ‘larger room', yet in one important sense he remained consciously and proudly, a child of the Wesleyan tradition. To this element in his upbringing belong his sense of transcendence of God and his feeling for the local congregation as fully the church in its own place, as well as his love for the Bible and his extraordinary inwardness in getting beneath the skin of the scriptural text. The very way he handled the book was remarkable. He said that everyone should have a copy to read and meditate upon and another to study and mark. He loved congregational hymns and took their theological content seriously, though his rendering of them resembled a cow roaring.

The other strongly positive element Geoffrey found in his childhood was a love of learning. He entered grammar school at the start of the post-war era of expansion which brought the best of classical English schooling within the reach of the children of working people. His teenage years were spent in the meritocratic Fifties and like many other gifted children of the time he was attracted strongly and unquestioningly to the prizes of success. At Durham University, when he was able to take up his place there to read History after two years’ national service with the Royal Air Force, he came to preside over a medley of societies, the Radical Society, the History Society and the Union, and most improbably for a man of his physical proportions, the Tennis Club. Those who knew Geoffrey solely as a friar and a priest have been surprised to learn that he held a university prize for debating, since his intellect became thoroughly receptive and contemplative rather than argumentative. But the common factor which persisted from school to the Dominican Order was a habit of omnivorous reading and a delight in information on matters common a out-of-the-way alike. He liked to populate the world with succulent facts. It was an attitude with nothing of the defensive about it: it stemmed from an exhilaration, perhaps especial Dominican, before all the faces of creation. In his later years, his cell was crammed from ceiling to floor with books on every conceivable subject, even though theology was monarch there. Gypsies to dancing, all was grist to Geoffrey's millstones which crushed from what he read every particle that might be of service to faith. He saved up quotations in commonplace books on the Elizabethan model. He never read without a pencil beside him, even in works of fiction. He used to say that, although Dominicans should be theologians and not astronomers-royal, which was safer left to Jesuits, they should have gutted at least one book on astronomy since, after all, God was the God of astronomy as well.  

It was at Durham, while taking a diploma in Education to prepare himself, as he thought, for teaching the young, that Geoffrey set off on the odyssey which took him through Anglicanism to the Catholic Church and eventually into one of its most venerable religious orders. Humanly speaking, it seems to have been a thirst for spiritual spaciousness that impelled this journey. He wanted to share a room with Donne and Andrewes and Herbert, as later on he would with the Fathers of the Latin West and the Greek East, with Anselm and Bernard and Thomas, and eventually, as his sense of 'masters in Israel' became wider, with Teresa and Ignatius Loyola, Francis de Sales and Cardinal Bérulle. Writers somewhat out of favour in modern Roman Catholicism he would rescue lovingly from second-hand bookshops in London or the Wye Valley. He came to have an extraordinarily rich and attractive sense of the Catholic tradition as a common pool of wisdom and example in the communion of saints. His Anglican time was, however, a brief and not especially significant one in this development. His Nonconformist origins gave him, possibly, a native dislike for religious establishments: something almost palpable when one accompanied him round the more splendid fanes of the 'Ecclesia Anglicana'. He encountered Anglo-Catholicism in the form of a Marian procession in reparation for televised unchastity, held during Evensong in a West End square in the parish of a well-known London church. It was enough. He had a horror of the demonstrative in religion though he saw good ritual as avoiding just such inauthentic over-statement. It was perhaps a mercy that he travelled little in the traditionally Catholic parts of Europe. On becoming a Catholic he took a teaching post in a boys' secondary school run by Irish teaching brothers on the Fylde Coast of Lancashire. No spiritual préciosité could survive the meeting with Anglo-Irish and recusant Catholicism. By reaction the experience fed his desire to get as deeply as possible into living and articulate theological culture which would draw together his sense of God and of human community, his zest for knowledge and a call to communicate to others. To say that he found all this in the Dominican Order would be at once to say too much and too little.  

When at Oxford in 1970 he became novice-master in the Order he had entered only nine years before. He liked to commend to his novices Dom Jean Leclerq's book on the monastic culture of the high Middle Ages whose title sums up the two chief strands in Geoffrey's attraction to the English Dominicans, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. This initial monastic and contemplative orientation was, however, some-thing he had to struggle with for the rest of his life. It was lost and re-found. It could not be enjoyed in innocence, for he found aspects of himself, and aspects of the institution he lived in, that were recalcitrant to this, yet somehow had to be integrated. The cost was great. His first years as a religious (the term is used in the technical sense of a person committed to the Christian life under some version of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience) were spent in large and rambling Victorian houses in the countryside of Gloucestershire and Staffordshire. The Dominican life there, largely unchanged since its revival in a slightly self-conscious neo-Gothic form in the nineteenth century, proved unprepared to meet the crisis of the questioning of all assumptions that Pope John XXIII's revolution brought on the Roman Catholic church in the 1960s. Many felt that only a good dose of secularism and concentration on the pastoral would enable a thirteenth-century religious order to speak to people in a Britian then changing culturally at a breath-taking pace, It would be true to say, one may hazard, that the pattern of aspirations Geoffrey had set himself fell apart at that moment, and that it took him the remainder of his short life to put them together again. The process had so many sides that different people inevitably saw chiefly one or another, although many of those who knew him had a sense of the complexity and unexpectedness of his judgments and passions. It made of him almost, but not quite, a great man.  

Geoffrey's personal crisis was in its own way a paradigm of that of the whole church in his lifetime. It involved asking, and asking extremely persistently, the question which has governed Christian life, and particularly the life of Christian religious, at all turning-points. Where is God to be found? The meditations that follow in this book touch time and again on a dialectic of the absence and the presence of God. Geoffrey was temperamentally a man who trusted human culture, all tried and tested human things. He had nothing of the iconoclast about him. But he saw, in that torturingly difficult decade of the Sixties, that to rely on a historical culture, whether Wesleyan or Catholic or, more specifically, that of the English Dominicans, to bring God to one was a rank kind of superstition. The discovery, given the warmth of his historical attachments, did not fail to hurt him. It drew from him a temporary acerbity against traditional Catholic patterns of life and worship in which this enormous, bovine, cheerful, inquisitive and childlike man found it in him to hurt others by what seemed, but was not, a careless radicalism. But as he approached priestly ordination and began his ministry he realised, it seems, that this necessary deflation of an over-confident church-culture was not enough. If the living God were to be found within the common life of his Dominican brethren and among the groups of layfolk he served at Oxford and elsewhere, the clues to his presence could only be uncovered in some rapport with the liturgical, spiritual and theological tradition which linked the church now with the time of Jesus and his disciples, even if this rapport were a good deal more taxing, deep and strenuous in the attaining than he had once thought. This was a desert experience of the classical kind, in which the image of God is broken and re-made in an interior suffering which hardly anyone else can share. From it issued a striking ministry of teaching and preaching and pastoral care. His gifts as a liturgist, a man of ritual, were out of the ordinary. He had a facility for combining the intimate with the solemn which made it thankfully impossible to claim him as either a progressive or a traditionalist. He could not only see but practise the strengths of both parties. He could understand and share the impatience of many with the limitations of the historical Catholic church, although he knew there was no other. He could feel for and express the anxieties of Catholics dismayed and bewildered by the loss of moorings in the post-conciliar church, although he knew there was no way back to a pre-lapsarian Eden. Most important of all, in his own eventually serene possession of ancient and modern, held together in a personal unity, he gave people a sign that can justly be called, in the over-worked phrase, 'prophetic' for the future of the church of Christ.  

It was to contemplative religious and chiefly to the women among them that he gave most in these terms. It has been among them that the sense of his loss, at the age of forty-one, is most acutely voiced. That is, it has been among people for whom theological matters, so far from being synonymous with academic irrelevance to life, are the very stuff of existence, since the life of believing simply is their life. Two things stand out, in considering the comments they have made. One is the relief which his theological and spiritual balance brought, his lack of either hasty and negative fashionable criticisms or that embattled defensiveness which betrays its own secret loss of confidence. There was a wholeness in his presentation of the Christian life, and of the great mysteries of God, Christ and the church. The other is the degree of personal appropriation he had made, in his own heart and mind, of the teaching he gave. Controversial and controverted as his views might be on a variety of topics, when he spoke of Scripture, according to one enclosed Carmelite, 'one could only feel that here was a man speaking of what he knew, and what he knew not "through flesh and blood or through the will of man" but through the grace of the Father. There may well be others who have a greater technical knowledge of God's Word, but none who could so hold it up to his hearers in all its divine radiance. For this, his loss is irreparable'. It is often the case that people who exercise spiritual fatherhood in communicating the life of the spirit to others carry the distinctive cross of finding no-one themselves in whom to confide. But in Geoffrey's case whatever he gave to such women he received back in occasions of understanding, in which the grace of spiritual motherhood in them bore fruit in a re-possession of self in him. How much he needed this, his own Dominican brethren can scarcely say since it was, paradoxically enough, among them that the gains of his desert experience proved most difficult to communicate. ie There was a hurt in him which had not healed, its symptom an inability to risk opening himself fully to them. Like all such hurts this condition hastened the spread of a disease of the self. To some extent, in his years as novice-master, he lost his sense of self value. It was only, perhaps, his election as prior of the community of Holy Cross, Leicester, in 1976 that restored this in the presence of his brethren. He would admit frankly to such women the tremendous amount it meant to him to be honoured by the trust of his fellow-Dominicans. They could see how simply and sweetly this human security restored his spiritual confidence. It was right that it should be two friars of the Leicester house, then, who were with him when he collapsed suddenly at Hawksyard Priory, Staffordshire, on the Monday of the first week of Passiontide, 1977. Gall-bladder trouble was diagnosed but the surgeons could not operate immediately because of his size. Three days later the same of brethren were called in haste to his bedside. The heart had failed, and they saw his body relax finally in death.

In that last year, when he was prior of Leicester, the strands came together sufficiently to justify looking at this death on the thirty-first of March, 1977, as not so much tragic as the plucking of the ripened fruit. With his brethren in that year he was a pillar of strength, communicating indefinably a sense of the reality of God and of joy in God. With his people he was a memorable pastor, loving everything he did, whether discussions with the university students or receiving an old lady into a the church, catechising children or taking communion to the sick, which he did by bicycle at seven in the morning, daily and perilously, for his girth had by now reached Falstaffian dimensions. One person remembers him most characteristically as sitting for hours at the bedside of an elderly sister with verbal diarrhoea who thought, mistakenly, that she was dying and had a grip like the ancient mariner. Another sees him most clearly caught in a conversation with an atheist, where his complete lack of narrowness of mind communicated its own direct and honest sympathy. One of the brethren cannot eradicate the image of that great mass of a man in a slightly grubby cream serge Dominican habit, occupying an armchair with the air of a beached whale, a rosary in his fingers and the Authorised Version of the Bible on his tummy. Someone will remember him for remembering the trivial but telling detail of their own history. A non-Catholic in Leicester writes to the local paper how in some personal distress they telephoned and found a man who would sit supportively with them in the solitude of the priory church in the early hours of each morning. A nun in Norway remarks on his immediate appreciation of things and persons, his enjoyment of what was novel and strange in creation as a mirror for the ingenuity of God.  

The same woman happened to note how in the intervals of retreat-giving he would clamber off to look at the luxuriant wild flowers of the brief Arctic summer and bring a few gently home. Perhaps that may serve as a final image of him. Such vulnerability and such godly beauty. Truly, as the apostle Paul says, 'We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us'.

Aidan Nichols O.P.      ©


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