Obituary: Dom Illtyd Trethowan
Wednesday 10 November 1993
ILLTYD TRETHOWAN was a man for whom God was the priority. In 61 years of unswervingly faithful monastic life, he lived what he taught: that it is possible for the human mind to be aware of God.
Born Kenneth Trethowan in 1907, he was educated at Felsted School and Brasenose College, Oxford. While at university he contracted polio, which left him with a withered arm - a disability he endured with great independence and strength of character. In 1929 he was received into the Catholic Church, and he taught at the Oratory School and Ampleforth, before entering the novitiate at Downside Abbey in 1932. He taught Classics and then English literature in the school from 1936 to 1982. He was ordained priest in 1933 and from then until not long before his death taught philosophy to junior monks in the monastery. He was a fine teacher with a palpably disinterested love of truth and a genius for finding exactly the right book for a particular student. He was valued as a confessor of great prudence and good sense.
Trethowan was the author of eight books and over a hundred articles, as well as translations, an edition of Walter Hilton's The Scale of Perfection, and numerous book reviews. He was concerned to bring writers he considered important, such as Maurice Blondel and Dominique Dubarle, to a wider notice. From 1946 to 1952 and from 1960 to 1964 he edited the Downside Review.
In his own writing, he was a fearless thinker. He argued the centrality of contemplation as the growth of faith and the possibility of philosophical certainty about the presence of God. He was not without brushes with ecclesiastical censorship: he good-humouredly recalled receiving an alarming communication to the effect that something of his had been condemned, only to discover that it was a sock that could no longer be darned. His work has done much to make known the intellectual cogency of the Christian faith.
He held the office of subprior at Downside for the legendarily long period of 33 years, from 1958 to 1991, when he was given the honorary title of Cathedral Prior of Ely.
Illtyd Trethowan liked sunbathing and cats. He was always lucid. In the weeks before his death he told us he was happy to die and he faced the end of his earthly life with impressive equanimity and detachment. He was, wrote one friend, 'a gentle, learned, and always kind monk'.
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