Monday, February 6, 2012
Fr. Robert Llewllyn (1909-2008)
Today the Order of Julian of Norwich commemorates the 4th anniversary of the death of Fr. Robert Llewelyn, who died on February 6, 2008, at age 98. His godly life in the Church of England and his expertise as a notable teacher of prayer endeared him to many others acrosss the world.
In his service as chaplain of the cell of Dame Julian in the town of Norwich, Fr. Robert made known to countless people the life and writings of this English mystic who lived in the small cell attached to a church at the turn of the 14th-15th centuries. He compiled a book of 200 of Dame Julian’s sayings, and it sold more than 100,000 copies. It was the first in a series of small devotional books authored by Fr. Robert. In 1994 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for his contribution to the advancement of religion in the field of spirituality.
Born Robert Charles Llewelyn at Exmouth, Devon, on July 6 1909, Robert’s great-grandmother, who lived on the Isle of Wight, was a friend of Queen Victoria. He was raised in a devout Anglican home, and first attended Pangbourne College, hoping to enter the Navy. Deciding that this didn’t suit him, Robert completed his schooling as head boy at King Edward VI School, Southampton. He read Mathematics at Pembroke College, Cambridge, then joined the teaching staff of Westminster School, where Peter Ustinov and Tony Benn were among his pupils.
Robert was ordained by Bishop Winnington Ingram in St Paul's Cathedral, London, and, while continuing to teach Mathematics, he spent much of the rest of his time in prayer and meditation in Westminster Abbey’s St. Faith’s Chapel. At this time he was greatly influenced by the Cowley Fathers, whose house was nearby.
In August, 1939 Fr. Robert took leave to travel to India. There he spent a year with the Cawnpore Brotherhood, a missionary community. It turned out that he was on the last passenger ship for several years to sail through the Suez Canal.
Fr. Robert found it impossible to get back to England after his year in India because of World War II, and he was cajoled into to becoming the headmaster of the Hallet War School. This had been established in an abandoned former Anglo-Indian school, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Robert was asked to create an emergency school for the children of British officials and others who could no longer be sent to public schools in England. A temporary teaching staff was recruited from various parts of the sub-continent, and the school, continuing until the end of the war, was a huge success. Its students’ examination results were comparable to those of long-established English schools.
In 1945 Fr. Robert returned to Westminster School as chaplain, but a year later was invited to go to the Bahamas to establish a diocesan school, St John's College, in Nassau. Under his six years of leadership, the school, with a large, mainly black, student body, thrived.
Fr. Robert was called back to India in 1951 to become headmaster of Sherwood College, the Lucknow diocesan boys' school, which had fallen on hard times and was in danger of closure. He reversed the situation there, and during his 15 years the enrollment reached 500, many of the pupils coming from East Africa.
He returned to England in 1966, India but was immediately asked to return to serve as chaplain to the Wantage Sisters, an outpost of an English religious community at Poona. He also became priest-in-charge of St. Mary's Church, and eventually Archdeacon, though he preferred his ministry in the convent and the prayerful discipline of a monastic life.
Back in England again in 1972, Fr. Robert accepted an invitation to become Warden of Bede House at Staplehurst, Kent, the community of the enclosed Sisters of the Love of God. In addition to celebrating Mass and offering priestly ministry to the nuns, Llewelyn welcomed visitors and travelled to other parts of the country to conduct retreats.
In 1976, as he was about to retire, he received a request to go to Norwich and simply be a “presence” at the shrine of Dame Julian’s cell. The original cell occupied by Julian had long since disappeared, and the church to which it had been attached was itself severely damaged by bombing during the war. A tiny chapel had been rebuilt on what was believed to have been the site of Julian's cell, but wasn’t much used until after Fr. Robert, who publicized its existence to his many contacts arrived.
With a renewed interest in Julian, in large part thanks to Fr. Robert, who remained celibate his whole life, and increasing awareness of the place of women in the Church, Julian’s cell has become a significant focal point of devotion and inspiration for many people of all faiths from around the world. Robert’s contribution was to offer daily prayer, give talks on Julian, her life and Revelations, and, when required, to give spiritual counsel to those who journeyed there.
Fr. Robert’s own spirituality was in some ways very similar to that of Julian. He was aware of the supernatural in everything, and took very seriously reports of visions, voices, healings and coincidences. On one occasion, when wondering whether or not he should retire from his chaplaincy at the shrine, he asked God to remove a small but long-neglected lump from the back of his neck. "Lord, if you make the lump go down, I shall take it as a sign that I should continue my work." Within a few days the lump had disappeared, and Fr. Robert remained at the cell for until he was 81.
There were many influences on Fr. Robert’s spirituality. Certainly in no way neglecting the Anglican tradition, he made several visits to Medjugorje, in Bosnia, the site of six teenagers’ purported appearances from the Virgin Mary. Lourdes was less attractive to him, though he nonetheless made a number of visits there. By way of contrast, Fr. Robert also visited Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, where he had no difficulty in appreciating the spiritual factor in members’ of the congregation falling to the floor or speaking in tongues. His insights into prayer were also deepened by attending a Zen Buddhist retreat.
Robert Llewellyn was a priest of unquestionable holiness of life and a warm human being. Undoubtedly, Fr. Robert read the following words, from Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 64, and savored their meaning: "Suddenly, said our courteous Lord, you will be taken out of all your pain, all your sickness, all your unrest and all your woe. And you will come up above and you will have me for your reward, and you will be filled full of joy and bliss, and you will never again have any kind of pain, any kind of sickness, any kind of displeasure, no lack of will, but always joy and bliss without end. I saw that God rewarded man for the patience which he has in awaiting God's will and his time, and that man has patience to endure throughout the span of his life, because he does not know when the time for him to die will come. It is God's will that so long as the soul is in the body it should seem to a man that he is always on the point of being taken. For all this life and this longing we have here is only an instant of time, and when we are suddenly taken into bliss out of pain, then pain will be nothing."