The 'atheist' priest

It was 9 am: the first lecture of  the day. A small class at the head of which was a tall, hunched elderly figure with thinning grey hair and a scalp that deposited flakes of dried skin onto the shoulders of his bulky, black polo neck sweater. His face was florid from a fondness for drink and indeed his breath permanently carried more than a tinge of gin.

He began to speak: his words were bright, hard, incisive and often funny. He was lecturing on Wittgenstein and this complex and in equal measure alluring and off-putting thinker, came alive, not only as a carrier of knowledge about but as a philosopher who genuinely challenged and teased your assumptions about the world and life.

Cyril was a tour de force: a maverick Irish Jesuit priest, he taught for many years at the University of Warwick and traveled to us (in London) once a week. He had lived for many years outside any Jesuit community, in the Society but a free spirit, drawing his own salary and owning his own house and accumulating an art collection (bequeathed after his death to the University) of an extraordinary nature. He had known many of the significant artists in the UK in the post-war period. There was a Francis Bacon in his loo and even the ceramic ash trays were by Picasso. He picked things up, often when the artist went unrecognized, often to help them out.

I used to have lunch with him at his club, the Savile Club, which he had joined as a bet with a friend, imagining that they would turn down a Jesuit priest as a member. They did not.

I found myself remembering him yesterday when I found myself attending a private view in a gallery on Fifth Avenue. It was a very vivid moment of remembrance, sparked I think by a contrast. It was a very familiar scene - the art on the walls being thoroughly ignored by the majority of people who stood around talking to each other, consuming the just good enough wine and the canapes, but then a person enters who genuinely looks, inhabiting virtually a parallel universe. In this case, it was a beautifully dressed, patrician like, elderly woman who progressed through the room, looking and seeing what was there.

Cyril was the Reader in Aesthetics at Warwick and it was conversations with him that were my first attempts to clarify what and how to look at art.He helped bring me to my own mind about what I was seeing and how and an ability to judge quality (distinct from what I may or may not like). The contrast of the woman looking against a backdrop of social networking reminded me of him, as did the wry thought of the shambolic Cyril progressing through this particular gallery space inhabited by the polite and the beautifully attired, quaffing the wine in cupfuls and making vigorous observation. 

He did like to shock. He once introduced himself to one group of earnest young Catholic students from the US, whom he was to teach, 'Hello, I am Fr Cyril and I am an atheist'. He was making a serious point - that God is not a thing among other things, only bigger, but no-thing out of which all existing things are created. If we have existence, the being of God must be non-existence. The delight of Cyril's style (and capacity as a teacher) was that by the end of the course all the American students, after their initial shock, were thinking about their faith in ways that made the choice for (or against) it an intelligent one, rather than one made in complacency.


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