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Remembering Colm Lavelle, Jesuit and artist

Irish Jesuit and artist Colm Lavelle passed away peacefully in Cherryfield Lodge on 12 September, at the age of 87. Colm joined the Society in 1950, and for the greater part of his Jesuit life he was engaged in teaching, in art therapy, and in directing the Spiritual Exercises.

In 2014, Colm marked 60 years of his life as an artist with an exhibition of his large catalogue of paintings in Milltown Park, called ‘A life re-lived’. The paintings especially expressed Colm’s passionate interest in how art can represent the unconscious. Speaking at the event, the then-Provincial Fr Tom Layden SJ referred to the spiritual underpinning of Colm’s work: “The experience of conception and coming to birth, Colm sees as an unconscious reminiscence of the universal experience of origin”, and continued saying that there was an Ignatian strain in all of Colm’s works, as he found “the creator God in all things, the Source, and energising force that brings all things to birth”.

Fr Layden also gave the homily at Colm’s funeral in Milltown Park Chapel on Saturday, 14 September. He recalled having Colm as his German and his Art teacher as a first year student in Clongowes: “While he expected us to work and to pay attention in class,” he remarked, “we knew him as a kind and not excessively strict teacher.” He illustrated Colm’s kindness:

A few weeks after I received my first year academic report from the Prefect of Studies, an unexpected parcel arrived in the post. I recognised Father Lavelle’s handwriting on the outside of the large envelope. On opening it I discovered a book of German short stories and an accompanying letter telling me that this was a prize for doing well in the summer exam. This was not an official school prize. It was entirely an initiative on Colm’s part. As a student who had not found first year in boarding school either easy or enjoyable, I was moved by this teacher taking the time to show interest and give encouragement. This memory has stayed with me over the years.

Fr Layden continued:

For so many of us here today Colm always reminded us of the centrality in our lives of our relationship with the Holy Mystery, the God who is beyond all and in all. Maybe we met Colm on a retreat or in spiritual direction. Above all there was the example of his own life in the years in which he spent time in solitude and prayer in remote places in the west and north west. We are not all called to that kind of solitude. It is a gift bestowed on a small number in our midst. That gift is a reminder to the rest of us of the one thing that is really necessary and that ultimately matters in life. Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, the truth and the life. He is our way to the Father. We are all called to communion, to friendship, to intimacy with the Father. This is what brought Colm to the desert of his caravan, his mobile home.

Colm was always attracted to the idea of life as a hermit. Indeed in recent years he spent considerable periods of time living a contemplative and semi-eremitical life in Co. Donegal. In his funeral homily, Fr Layden quoted Colm himself on this matter:

Leading up to the months of solitude can be difficult. I find myself weeping at the prospect of the loneliness involved. I can also find myself weeping at the prospect of leaving my solitude. It’s not easy to stay for long periods without any company. Such experiences fit with the traditional teachings of the mystics, for example John of the Cross who maintained that there is a benefit to being wholly in the desert. Sometimes I have a radio but I feel I am better off without one. I can visit neighbours, or sometimes they want to see me. It’s very much an experience of emptiness and searching. After all, God is ultimately beyond everything, so one has to let go of a great deal to live by faith without clinging to making an idol of this or that.’

For the last four years Colm lived in Cherryfield Lodge, the Jesuit nursing home in Milltown Park. After a short illness he died on the morning of 12 September. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.