Aylesford (which means a “crossing place for all peoples”) is a small village in the English county of Kent where in 1242, a group of hermits from Mount Carmel fleeing the violent Saracen attacks, were given land to establish a community by a crusader returning from the Holy Land.
Aylesford Priory is one of the ancient houses of the Carmelite Order, and a major place of pilgrimage. Five years later Aylesford hosted a General Chapter (meeting) of Carmelites from across Europe. The hermits took decisions at that Chapter which led them to adopt the lifestyle of mendicant friars at the service of Church and Society. So fundamental was this decision to the future development of the Carmelite Order that Aylesford was henceforth revered as a spiritual epicentre, sometimes nicknamed “the second Carmel”. Several leading figures of the medieval Order were associated with the priory.
In 1538, during the reign of Henry VIII with his demand for the dissolution of the monasteries, Aylesford passed from Carmelite ownership into the hands of a series of Royalist families, when it became known simply as “The Friars”, descending finally into ruins. It was purchased back by the Carmelite Order in 1949 when, on 31st October (the vigil of All Saints), Mass was celebrated once again and, in the words of the first prior of the restored community, Fr. Malachy Lynch, “life returned”! Many of the medieval buildings have been restored and a new open-air church has been built on the site of the medieval chapel.
The shrine at Aylesford is dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption, and beautiful chapels dedicated to the saints of Carmel, notably St. Simon Stock, have been described as “prayers in stone”. (Our Lady appeared to St. Simon Stock in 1251 and gave him the brown scapular as a mark of her special protection for the Carmelite order). Aylesford has always inspired creative endeavours, and the work of artists such as Adam Kossowski and Philip Lindsey Clark add great beauty to the priory.
Situated alongside the gently flowing River Medway, Aylesford provides a haven of peace in a busy world. It is currently run by a community of 16 Carmelite Friars; hundreds of pilgrims travel to the Priory every year seeking religious inspiration. I spent the day there in this idyllic setting of the Kentish countryside on an organised retreat on Saturday 5th October, led by the energetic and exceptionally talented priest, Fr. Marcus Holden*.
There were lovely prayers and singing, then time to reflect and make a good Confession before the celebration of a beautiful Traditional Mass. Fr. Marcus gave two inspiring spiritual talks, one of them on the subject of the Holy Rosary whose feast day we celebrated two days later. The relics of St. Simon Stock behind the altar were venerated and a formal ceremony to enroll members into the Brown Scapular took place. We prayed the Rosary before finalising the day with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
From time to time we all need to get away from our whirlwind lives, away from so many distractions, daily duties and work, to revitalise our faith in peace and quiet. Aylesford Priory offers the perfect setting for this. Only when we occasionally manage to wind down this way, putting the frantic “busyness” of our life to one side, dedicating ourself solely to Our Lord in uninterrupted prayer, adoration and reflection, does the realisation of what we have been longing for (perhaps without even knowing it) come to dawn on us. Being a “Mary” rather than a “Martha”, just for a day, is indeed “the better part”.
* Fr Marcus Holden, currently parish priest of Ramsgate and Minster (Kent), of the Archdiocese of Southwark, is co-founder of the Evangelium Project: http://www.evangelium.co.uk/introduction