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Born: 15 Sep 1907 –  died: 13 Aug 1984
Clothed - 22 Sep 1930
Solemn Vows- 23 Sep 1934
Priest - 17 Jul 1938

Fr Aelred was born in Liverpool on 15 September 1907 and went to school at St Edward's College Liverpool. As he makes clear in a chapter on his personal life in The End of Religion, the love of study which later became dominant had not at that time developed. He persuaded his parents against their inclination to allow him to leave school at the age of 16 and he followed in the steps of his father who was a merchant in the Cotton Exchange. He worked in Insurance and Cotton for six years. This introduction to business left no observable mark on him, but they were not wasted years. By the age of 18 he had read the whole of Shakespeare and combined the reading of Kant and Hegel with the study of apologetics for the Catholic Evidence Guild. It was an unusual combination of interests in those days.

In 1930, attracted to the Benedictine life through our parish fathers in Liverpool, he received the Benedictine habit at Ampleforth. He made his solemn profession in 1934 and was ordained priest in 1938. In the monastery, when he emerged from the novitiate, he quickly developed that dedication to reading and study which determined his life. It was then that what he regarded the lost ground of his education 'was rather more than made up'. From 1933 to 1937 he was at St Benet's Hall studying theology at Blackfriars. The title he chose for the dissertation which won him the STL was: 'An enquiry into the origins and nature of the gift of wisdom'. It was an enquiry which was not completed for him as he finished this impeccably Thomistic dissertation. The title provided the keynote for his life of study, and the enquiry continued beyond the bounds he had originally anticipated.

After Oxford Fr Aelred returned to Ampleforth and began to do some teaching in the school. Although he enjoyed this is it was not his principal concern. He caused some astonishment by publishing his first book The Love of God in 1939 - a year after his ordination. It was not exactly what was expected of a young monk in those days but Fr Aelred was undeterred by and also enjoyed some of the local comments - including an enquiry from one of his pupils in the school about who was going to buy the film rights.

In 1940 he began to teach Dogmatic Theology at Ampleforth to the young monks preparing for the priesthood and he was also made parish priest of Ampleforth Village. The latter gave him some scope for pastoral work, which he greatly appreciated and after the war he produced plans for a new church in the village which were later abandoned.

In 1951 Fr Aelred was appointed by Abbot Byrne, as President of the English Benedictine Congregation, to be Prior of Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island in USA. This Priory, which was to become an Abbey in 1969, had been founded, like Washington and St Louis, by the English Congregation and still remains a member of it. He was appointed Prior for 8 years and in 1959 was elected by the community there for a further 8 years. Thus for the next 16 years he was the ruling superior of this community. A separate memoir will be published in the next issue of the Journal written by a member of that community and covering that period of his life in America. [AJ 90:2 (1985) 46 incl bibl]

Fr Aelred retired from his position at Portsmouth in 1967 and thus reverted to his status as a member of the Ampleforth community. He was accorded the honorary title of Cathedral Prior of Chester (which was later changed to Winchester) in recognition of the notable success of his work in America.

The preoccupations of all this work never deflected him from what he once described as: 'my favourite hobby - saying what I think in print'. Apart from numerous articles he continued to publish books both before he went to America and at Portsmouth: in 1943 The Final Victory, in 1947 The Christ of Catholicism, in 1948 The Church on Earth. These were before he left for America. Then followed: Catholicism and the World Today 1952, The Person and Teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ 1953, Christian Thought and Action 1958, Zen Catholicism 1963. The last title reflects the development of his interest in eastern religions, and especially Buddhism, while he was in America.

On his retirement from Portsmouth his publisher financed a year's travel in the east to study some of the eastern religions which interested him. During this tour in November 1967 he was proud of being the first Benedictine to be received in audience by the Dalai Lama in India. The result of this year of enquiry was the publication of Conversations Christian and Buddhist in 1968

Towards the end of 1968 Fr Aelred returned to Ampleforth where he continued his study and writing without any further distractions from holding office. He published The End of Religion in 1971 and his last book Contemplative Christianity in 1974. In health Fr Aelred had never looked robust and from his days at Oxford had suffered a number of crises which were undoubtedly due to overwork but passed quickly. In 1971 on a visit to America he was taken ill and had to go to hospital. After his return to Ampleforth he had an attack of shingles, the effects of which were prolonged. There were other ailments including heart trouble and gradually he began to decline and become weaker and less capable of activity.

One episode before Fr Aelred left for America has not been mentioned. In 1949 he published a remarkable Leader in The Times. The authorship of the Leader remained unknown while a very distinguished correspondence continued in The Times for two months. The Leader and correspondence were later published separately under the title Catholicism Today. The theme of the article was that it was time for the Catholic Church to make some moves towards ecumenism. 'The Polemics of the Counter Reformation are felt to have outlasted their usefulness to a society demanding not the dubious stimulants of sectarian controversy but a fundamental re-Christianisation.' Although there were some Catholics who in the course of the correspondence welcomed the idea of dialogue and co-operation, the idea at that time seemed to some adventurous to the point of folly. In correspondence one Catholic bishop explained patiently why it was not possible for a Catholic and non-Catholic to say the Lord's Prayer together. The ideas which Fr Aelred argued would now be taken as commonplace; in 1949 they were far ahead of the time. His identity as writer of the original article remained unknown except to a few. It is interesting to speculate whether he might have become a leading ecumenist in this country, if he had not shortly afterwards gone to America. There his interests gradually turned towards the east.

No attempt can be made here to assess the absorbing interest of Fr Aelred's thought and writing in his latter years, namely the relationship between Christianity and eastern religions. Those who read his books - particularly the last two - should remember that he never claimed to be expressing anything other than a personal view in the exploratory manner he had made his own. As he looked towards the east he was looking for convergence and he found also new inspiration from what he learned of eastern mysticism. He did not think that any conflict with the fundamental meaning of Christianity was involved when he described true religion as 'An attitude or life-style based on the conviction that one's individual ego needs to undergo a transformation whereby we become our authentic selves by being brought into harmony with pure Existence.' His approach may certainly be regarded as syncretist and was often controversial, but there was a certain freedom and detachment in his writing. He was seeking wisdom himself, wherever it might be found and he demanded not agreement from others but that they also might seek as he did.

Study, reading and writing what he thought were central to Fr Aelred's life. His reading was wide and eclectic and he managed to combine all his reading and study with pastoral work and quite heavy responsibilities. Somehow he managed also to find time for friendship, which at every stage of his life meant a lot to him. He always had a strong rapport with the young particularly those who responded to his stimulating and often provocative talk. Most of the stories against him were safe from oblivion, because it was he who recounted them with gulps of laughter. He was happy in his vocation as a Benedictine and grateful, as he often said, for the kindness and tolerance that had been shown him. As his physical powers failed he spent time praying and thinking and waiting.

Fr Aelred's last illness was slow in its development so that it was only gradually that his physical powers slipped away. He became dependent on medication and suffered much more over a prolonged period than one might have thought, for in his good moments he remained very much himself. He resisted hospital investigation or any exceptional interventions to postpone the approach of death. He made it very clear that he wanted to die in his monastery. He was deeply grateful for the nursing provided by the infirmarians and Miss Houlihan; he became increasingly dependent upon this help. In the summer of last year he seemed to rally and became slightly better. When the Dalai Lama visited Ampleforth on 26 June, he went specially to see Fr Aelred in his room; this Fr Aelred recognised as a quite exceptional honour. They exchanged gifts and spent some time on conversation. The visit was a very special occasion which gave the greatest pleasure to Fr Aelred for he felt that they understood each other. In the weeks after that there did not seem to be any significant change until the evening of 12 August, when he was clearly suffering more than usual. The doctor came, but there was little he could do and Fr Aelred died early in the morning of the 13th with two of his brethren present and praying for him.

N.P.B. [Fr Patrick Barry]


Details from the Abbey Necrology

1907   15 Sept      Born Liverpool
1915-24             ebc St.Edward's College  Liverpool
1924-30             Insurance and Cotton business in Liverpool
1930   22 Sept      Habit at Ampleforth       Abbot Matthews
1931   23 Sept      Simple Vows                 "      "
1934   23 Sept      Solemn Vows                 "      "
1934    2 Oct       Tonsure                     "      "
1935           Minor Orders                "      "
1935   21 Jul       Subdeacon        Bishop Shine
1936   19 Jul       Deacon             "      "
1938   17 Jul       Priest             "      "
1933-37             Oxford  Theology at Blackfriars   STL
1940-45             Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Ampleforth
               PP village parish at Ampleforth
               Head of RE
1951-67           Jul    Prior of Portsmouth Priory  Rhode Is USA
1967      Jun       Cathedral Prior of Chester
1967-8              Tour of Far East and Buddhist monasteries - meeting with
               Dalai Lama
1968           Returned to Ampleforth - retirement
1972           Cathedral Prior of Winchester
1984   13 Aug       died at Ampleforth
               Buried in church vault

Sources: AJ 90:1 (1985) 51
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