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Remembering... Fr Geoffrey Preston, O.P. (1936-1977)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

By Br Bede Mullens, O.P. | Br Bede remembers the life and spiritual teaching of Geoffrey Preston OP, a gentle giant of a friar.

What brothers remember most vividly of Geoffrey, is his enormity. One biographical sketch conjures the image of him riding his bicycle through the streets of Leicester to take Holy Communion to the sick, “daily and perilously, for his girth had by now reached Falstaffian dimensions”; and in another place thinks fondly 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”. I do not know whether it was with a hint of self-conscious irony that Geoffrey once compared the putting on of Christ in Baptism to putting on weight. In the estimation of not a few friars, his holiness was as notable as his waistline.

Reading his writings, one sees that Geoffrey was a man definitely in touch with his time: he had a sympathy with the preoccupations and the imagination of the ’60s and ’70s, vis à vis the secular and ecclesiastical world alike. Superficially, that can lend his writings a dated air: as when he compares the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with a flower-power demo, or in his attempts to sketch a new symbolism apt to the revisions in the liturgy that took place in those decades.

At the same time, this really was only a sympathy; he could not be defined as a man of the ’60s or ’70s, and at the time he did not fall neatly into any sort of ideological camp. His self-understanding was rooted in the Christian tradition, which puts every age in touch with God’s working in history, above all in Jesus Christ – the ‘immediator’ of God and humanity, who is and shows us ‘God’s way to be man’. We meet this Jesus in Scripture and in Sacrament. Scripture proclaims the fact that God has come to us in Jesus, and shows us how we are to approach him, by showing us how others have done so. In the Sacraments, we in fact approach the man Christ and are tended, nourished and brought to maturity by him. He heals our broken humanity, individually and collectively, and binds us together in the Church, so that he may be ‘bodied forth’ in image and reality, in each individual Christian and in the living together of all Christians.

Gentleness was a hallmark of Geoffrey’s personality and spiritual approach. One nun in Norway to whom he preached retreats recalled how he would look admiringly at the arctic flowers and delicately collect them to bring home. So God comes to us gently, and even comes as close as possible, by becoming one of us. “The epiphany or appearing of God our Saviour is not now going to be by way of earthquake, whirlwind and fire, or even by the still, small voice of silence: it is going to be, rather, as man amongst men.” We in turn must respond in the first place by letting God be God, which means letting Him be a Man among men. The temptations in the wilderness are archetypes of the temptation to demand that God behave with more of the bluster, hysteria and effectiveness which attend on our own way of getting things done.

But, “the Gospel was not for people who could cope,” Geoffrey comments; if we can make do without God, the Gospel and its blessings will not come to us. But this in truth is the worst thing imaginable. “The worst thing God could do is to leave us alone, to let us be, to allow our lives to run smoothly by on through the days and weeks and years.” Our part, then, is to let God interfere, to let him be a nuisance to us.

One could not ask for two more timeless tenets of Christianity – the dogma, that God became man to make men God; and the moral, that it is better to be a wicked sinner in touch with God, than a respectable Pharisee in touch only with the nobler values and politer people of this world. It happens that they are timely tenets in Geoffrey’s lifetime and our own, as secularism hardens a practical godlessness and, more than we realise, we are under pressure to be seen to think and speak the ‘right’ way, according to the judgment of the ‘right’ people.

Fr Geoffrey Preston OP, 1936-1977. May he rest in peace.

There are three posthumously published works of Geoffrey, which interested readers may wish to look at. All three were compiled and edited by Aidan Nichols OP; the first two unfortunately are no longer in print.

  • God’s Way to Be Man, Darton, Longman and Todd (1978): contains the biographical sketch referred to in this piece, along with the text of a retreat.
  • Hallowing the Time, London Darton, Longman and Todd (1980): contains some more personal reflections on Geoffrey’s character by Fr Nichols, and collected sermons of Geoffrey for major seasons of the liturgical year.
  • Faces of the Church: Meditations on a Mystery and Its Images, Edinburgh T&T Clark (1997): a work of ecclesiology.

Br Bede Mullens O.P.

Br Bede was born in Enfield and grew up in Essex. He read Literae Humaniores at St Hugh’s College in the University of Oxford. It was in Oxford that he first met the Dominicans, and he joined the Order in 2017 after completing his degree. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger greatly influenced his development in the Faith. He retains a wide interest in literature; among religious authors, he particularly admires St Augustine and St John Henry Newman. | bede.mullens@english.op.org

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Fr Martin J Clayton commented on 03-Nov-2019 01:25 PM
Thank you for this. I have two of Fr Geoffrey's books on my shelves: I have drawn much inspiration from them - and from him.
Catherine commented on 05-Nov-2019 07:24 AM
I didn’t know Fr. Geoffrey Preston and after reading this obituary I still don’t know him. He was a big man and a gentle man, who wrote some books. I would like to know so much more, is nothing said on purpose? Did he have problems that are not acknowledged. I love the Dominican Fathers and would love to know about his relationship with God and others. Was he holy? Inspirational? Please tell us more.
Thank you.

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