Father Ambrose Conwayborn 13 March 1906entered Roscrea in 1925ordained Priest 1933founder to Nunraw 1946died 28 November 1986Fr. Ambrose was second superior in the founding of Nunraw Abbey and died aged 80, having suffered a chest infection after years of declining health. A monk in the truest tradition, he was the most self-effacing of men and yet stood out as a member of the community.Fr. Ambrose (John Basil Conway) was born in Ennis, Co. Clare, 13 March 1906. He received the early part of a good classical education at Summerhill College, Sligo, before his family, moved to Dublin. He loved swimming and on one occasion threw his younger brother in at the deep end to force him to swim. When he left school he applied to join the Jesuits, but they did not think he was called to their way of life, so he trained for the civil service. Reading led him to an account of the Trappist life, and he entered the Cistercian Abbey at Roscrea in 1925.His talents and gifts were so suited to the life of prayer, study and work that he was singled out to become Father Master of the Brothers even before he received the diaconate. After his ordination in 1933, Fr. Ambrose lectured in moral theology and became a valued confessor in the public church. In 1946 he was chosen as second Superior for the foundation to be made at Nunraw, and set the tone for a vigorous young community. It was many years later that Malcolm Muggeridge gave him the very apt title of “the Fr. Zossima of the community”. Muggeridge wrote, “The young monks spend their mornings in study. Their chief instructor is Father Ambrose (the Fr. Zossima of the community, I decided) who takes them through Thomas Aquinas with great verve and, I am sure, erudition. He is one of the shining ones; after talking with him, one finds oneself uplifted, walking on air, not so much for anything he has said, but just from his presence.”He had no illusions about the life of the monk. “The monk”, he wrote, “is called to witness that God’s personal service is greater even than the best and noblest of human values, greater even than apostolic work for God, and for Christ’s kingdom, and for his fellow men. Relatively few will be called to make this witness but they have a place in the structure of the Church”. He was, himself, such a witness and we thank the Lord for his life with us at Nunraw.He was a monk of silence and of austere appearance, but when the occasion arose his conversation was rich in humour and knowledge, and his sermons always revealed a heart filled with the love of God.Some, who only saw the rather withdrawn monk, thought his superiors were sending Fr. Ambrose to the new foundation in Scotland because of his lack of talent. Instead it was he who gave example to all and set the tone of spirituality in the new monastery. If help was needed he would be the first to offer. His willingness sometimes outstripped his practical wisdom. Once when, as Subprior, he was leading a line of monks to work, a heavy articulated lorry was stuck on the very steep hill of the road, the Dark Brae, to the upper farm. Fr. Ambrose immediately set the example of putting his shoulder to the task of pushing the lorry. It did not occur to him that if the driver released the brakes the large vehicle would roll back upon everyone. On another occasion he ended up in hospital after he had been helping to clear the storm damage in one of the woods. A tree which had been pinned down by another fallen tree suddenly sprang up and hit him. Days later, his spectacles were found, unbroken, hanging from the branch of a tree at some distance from the spot. He could be rather impractical, but he had one invaluable skill which Superiors availed of constantly, and that was his great competence as a typist and expert in the acknowledgement of correspondence.He was never known to speak an uncharitable word about anyone. He visited the sick, and was available for confessions at any time. His appearance seemed cold and distant but that was due to a certain reserve and shyness. Indeed he had a good sense of humour. Those who came to him for Confession or spiritual direction, with what they thought of as an insurmountable problem, almost always expressed their amazement at his ability to go right to the heart of the matter in a few minutes, and to relieve their anxieties.His reading was wide and deep. In his young days he had read all of Walter Scott and Charles Dickens and could enliven a wearisome car journey from his store of memories. As Librarian he knew books and could advise on their value or lack of depth. His spiritual life was hidden from even those who had lived with him for years. On the surface it seemed austere - hard on himself - but he remained serene, at peace with God. Perhaps he raised the veil a little in a sermon given to the community on the feast of Our Lady’s Purification some years ago.“Love knows no limits. Law is limited, a wise law must be, and it is general, so it requires frequent explanations and dispensations. It appears hard because law irks men, and also the law must be observed before one is quite ready for it, making demands for the common good or the good of the individual himself. Love makes demands, sometimes very hard demands. The law has its limits but we never know what the love of Christ will ask of us next. Still, fulfilling it brings happiness. It can be painful at the time, as the blood coming back to a numbed finger, but it is life. The demands of the love of Jesus are very intimate too. Anyone can at least roughly judge if another is fulfilling a law; none knows what demands are being made on another’s love or how he fulfils them.”So, we shall never know the secret of his soul. That mention of the numbed finger will remind us of how much he suffered towards the end of his life. But he never relented in the faithful following of his vocation.His death occurred on Friday 28th Nov. 1986 in East Fortune Hospital where he was made at ease in his last illness by the kindness of the staff and patients, and the regular attendance of the Parish Priest as well as the brethren. His niece was with him on his last evening. His last written request was for “prayers”.Community Chronicle - Excerpts on Fr. Ambrose:Friday 16th Jan. 1981: - Fr. Ambrose was taken into Roodlands Hospital shortly after lunch time whilst a blizzard was raging.Wed. 21st Jan. 1981 - The news about Fr. Ambrose given us this evening was that he was fairly comfortable, had been examined and was awaiting the outcome of tests which might show that he would have to go to the Western General for further treatmentMonday 30th November 1981 - Over the past few days, Fr. Ambrose has started to use the lift - some thought he would never do so.Thursday 26th August 1982 - Fr. Ambrose remarked to the organist the that we would have to suppress the current Offertory hymn ‘? unleavened bread, white and pure ?’. Why? Because we’ve started using brown coloured breads.Thursday 21st October 1982 - Scottish Television arrived yesterday to do some filming for “a part of a series of programmes”. The text is quite good, so the filming involves no dialogues for us - filming is bad enough. The eight film chaps came, they were really quite unobtrusive - though they got to within inches of Fr. Ambrose whilst he was reading during lunch, he remained unflappable, his flow continued unabated, other brethren were filmed close up eating! Munching! Looking vacant! Looking defeated by a heavy lunch! - all somewhat eerie.Thursday 10th February 1983 - Fr. Ambrose is very sick indeed. He has been moving around slowly, often seeming to be near to falling over, a waxen pallor on his face. Today he stayed in bed and Fr. Abbot anointed him during the morning. He was also seen by the doctor. He appears to have liked Fr. De Pont’s Retreat and remarked to one of the brethren yesterday, “I’m ready to depart in peace.” He is 76 years old.Tuesday 15th February 1983 - Fr. Ambrose is quiet, apparently quite chatty about old days, the new Canon Law, etc. etc., to anyone who visits him. This morning Fr. Benedict celebrated the Mass of the Guardian Angels, in the adjoining Oratory, for Fr. Ambrose - there were tears in his eyesTuesday 31 December 1985 - The District Nurse calls every other day to put fresh dressing on Fr. Ambrose’ most recent ulceration on his leg. To the cook’s surprise, Fr. Ambrose has begun coming into the kitchen to prepare the veg.!Sunday 6th May 1986 - Fr. Ambrose has surprisingly stepped back into the preaching cycle by giving the 11.00 Mass HomilyHis Last MassWednesday 26th November 1986, East Fortune Hospital - Fr. Leo Glancy, our P.P., organised a Mass, for 2.0 p.m. in Fr. Ambrose’s Ward. The staff had fixed up an altar and flowers. Br. Andrew, (also a patient), his sister, Dominic Burke who used to work on the farm here years ago, Fr. Andrew, Br. Kentigern, the Chronicler, Br. Stephen, Patsy and Lillian from the guesthouse, plus Staff Sister Bennet and two nurses with three or four patients. A stole was somehow draped round Fr. Ambrose’s neck; we said the Mass of Christ the King. It was a lovely Mass, simple and intimate, - Fr. Ambrose showed delight in the celebration.. We have no idea how long he will hold on for.Thursday 27th November 1986 - In the afternoon, Br. Stephen and Br. Kentigern went over to see Fr. Ambrose, and found there beside him, his niece, Mrs Kelly, from London. Fr. Ambrose was dozing much of the time, but on those moments when he came to, his face lit up in a beautiful smile.Friday 28th November 1986 - We got news of Fr. Ambrose’s death early this morning. He died at 5 am, during the time of the community Mass.Final Appreciation: Fr. Ambrose - Veiled Face - by Abbot Donald“Come you whom my Father has blessed, says the Lord.”I have been in the position of having to say a few words for a departed brother several times but never have I felt it to be so superfluous, so out of place as this morning. Any word I utter regarding Fr. Ambrose I feel to be some kind of impertinence - although for himself, in that wonderful spirit of Faith and simplicity, the word of his abbot was a word from the Lord.The Rubrics of the Renew Liturgy, which have seemed to me to be a bit fussy on the point of directing that the homily should not be a panegyric, would be welcomed by Fr. Ambrose as directing attention away from himself. He would prefer the focus of the ‘love of God’. It was often remarked on how this monk who appeared so austere never failed to speak of the ‘love of God’.In this time of Advent we are in the time of ‘coming’, the ‘coming of Christ’. We can think of the ‘Christ of coming’ as he transforms the times and seasons of our loves. The fullness of time comes for us all, the time for our ‘coming home to the Lord’.In the haunting Celtic melody of the first Hymn we sang,“Riches I need not, nor man’s empty praiseThou mine inheritance now and always.Thou and Thou only, the first and the lastHigh King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art.”There was something of the Celtic monk about this man. If he had not made himself so much part of the community and embraced the spirit of St. Benedict in humility and moderation, I feel he would have been the perfect throw back to the ancient Celtic monk, the ascetic and scholar.Recently I visited one of Ireland’s most ancient and revered monastic sites, Clonmacnoise. Slightly apart from its seven chapels and round towers I noticed another circle on the ground with strange hieroglyphics on it. I was right when I guessed it was the helicopter landing pad constructed for the visit of Pope John Paul II. But there it lay for all the world like a part of an old civilisation.And that, in some ways, is how Fr. Ambrose seemed to bring St. Kieran and the old Celtic monastic tradition into the 20th century. In fact he had a family connection with Clonmacnoise. He seldom spoke of himself but I only wish I could remember the fascinating details of the history he once narrated to me of the Clan Conway. He had a number of favourite poems which remain in his own hand-written copies in a ‘Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry’ found on his desk. I found the place marked at the translation of an old Gaelic poem on Clonmacnoise which has the line:In a quiet watered land, a land of rosesStands St. Kieran’s city fairAnd the warriors of Erin in theirfamous generationSlumber there.There beneath the dewy hillside sleep the noblestOf the Clan of ConnEach below his stone with name inbranching OghamAnd the sacred knot thereon.There one hears echoes of an ancestry which like his own life were for the most part his secret.But a living secret which merged with his vocation of regular monastic life and prayer.If the secret of prayer is to pray, and the secret of success in prayer is to pray much, as one great spiritual director put it, ‘ to give more time to prayer’, then we had this living example among us. Every spare moment was given to prayer. Fr. Ambrose could never have enough time for prayer and yet, by some strange paradox, he was never short of time when called upon by others whether for the most trivial or the most spiritual service. Plenty of time for others but what is even more rare plenty of time without delay. St. Benedict recommends his monk to obey ‘without delay’ and that became so much part of Ambrose’s way that the Abbot often found himself in the rather comical position of getting things done before he had explained just what it was he wanted . It could also lead to dangerous living as those at the common work learned when Ambrose came to help. Clearing up the woods after a storm Fr. Ambrose was busy sawing a tree bent over and trapped by another tree. As he cut through the tree sprang up and sent him flying. He was taken to hospital with a fracture but his only worry was that he had lost his spectacles. Days later his specs were found, unbroken, hanging from a branch 50 yards away. It was that spirit of readiness and willingness which proceeded from a very inner life. Few could know the depth and dedication which we all revered without quite understanding. The Syrian monk, James of Sarugh, asked the question, “What is meant by the veil that covered the face of Moses”. When you think of it, this is rather odd that one who was at the origin of all prophetism should appear to give witness with a face hidden under a veil. Eventually he answers, “Because Moses covering the face of Moses signifies that the prophetic words, the spiritual have a hidden meaning”. Ambrose did not write his message in tablets of stone. We may not be able to describe fully all that his life and example have meant to us. He was one of those who speak by silences and by his actions. And because of that he remains part of us until that day when the veil is drawn away and by the poser of Christ’s resurrection we shall see God in the glory of full vision. Because he was always so ready, so willing, so alert and so awake we can have confidence that, as we sing in the Psalms, ‘the Lord has found His wise servant watching when He came’. A monk in the truest tradition, we thank God for his life with us here at Nunraw.