Abbot Laurence was a Londoner, and he was very proud of the fact. However, owing to the exigencies of war, his parents had been evacuated to Oxford, and so it was there that he was born, Anthony John O’Keeffe, on 15th July 1943.
He was educated at Shooters Hill Grammar School in Woolwich, where he showed an interest in, and flair for, languages, both classical and modern, an aptitude which would later extend to biblical, especially semitic, languages.
As a young man he was a committed member of the Anglican Church, later describing himself as a ‘Prayer Book Anglican’, and had initially intended to enter the Anglican ministry. However, at the age of 17, while still in the Sixth Form, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Wishing to explore and deepen his new found Catholicism, he made contact with a Benedictine monastery in Ramsgate on the Kent coast, and took part in an Easter Retreat that they were offering. This was the beginning of his discernment of a vocation to the Religious Life, and, more specifically to the Benedictine life.
But his parents were so set against the idea of their son’s entering a monastery that they refused to give him their permission. He was still only 18 years old, and, back then, in 1961, the legal age of majority was 21. Undeterred, he left school, and entered the Civil Service.
In 1964, at the age of 21, he was now free to pursue his monastic vocation. He entered the Novitiate of St Augustine’s Abbey in Ramsgate, making his Religious Profession a year later. He began his theological studies first under the Jesuits at Heythrop College, which was then located near Oxford, but subsequently transferred to Douai Abbey near Reading, where a monk who taught him Scripture encouraged him to pursue his interest in the Bible. He completed his studies for the priesthood at the Benedictine Athenaeum of Sant’ Anselmo, in Rome, and was duly ordained priest in 1970.
Having already begun to study Greek and Hebrew in the monastery at Ramsgate, he was sent by Abbot David Parry to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome to enrol for the Licentiate in Sacred Scripture, where, for three years, he was able to deepen his already considerable knowledge of the Bible, and take courses in some of the more specialised languages of the Ancient Near East, such as Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian, and Ugaritic. So impressive was his grasp of Hebrew by now that he was asked by his Professor to teach the language to a group of English speaking students during his final year. He successfully completed his Licentiate in 1974, with a dissertation on the language of suffering in the Book of Psalms.
On his return to England, he began teaching in the monastery school which had recently relocated to Westgate on Sea and his love of the theatre, and, especially Shakespeare, led him to direct and produce the school play, involving boys of all ages, as well as the girls of the neighbouring Ursuline Convent school.
In the 1980s, under Abbot Gilbert Jones, he was made Prior and Novice Master, while still commuting from Ramsgate, several days a week, to teach in the school.
Despite his involvement in many varied activities, he always adopted a disciplined approach to his spiritual life of personal prayer, lectio divina, and his passionate and ongoing study of the Bible. Having completed his degree in Rome, he set about studying the whole of Old Testament in the original Hebrew, reading a small section each day, and looking up any unfamiliar vocabulary in the relevant dictionaries and lexica, and recording his findings in a series of notebooks – one for each separate Book of the Bible. This painstaking work took him 15 years to complete, and, when he’d finished the Old Testament, he began to do the same with the New Testament – 27 books and letters in koine Greek. A massive undertaking, and a huge commitment, but one which gave him an enviable knowledge of both the content and origins of Sacred Scripture.
Abbot Laurence had always been a popular and entertaining Retreat Preacher to monks and nuns, and was also involved in programmes of Ongoing Formation for secular clergy, but in the 1990s his teaching skills were put to even wider use, when he was invited to become a Tutor and occasional Lecturer at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, an international Catholic College which offers courses up to undergraduate and postgraduate level.
In 1996, on the retirement of Abbot Bernard Waldron, he was elected Abbot, and not long after became involved in the academic training of candidates for the Permanent Diaconate, giving lectures in Scripture at St John’s Seminary in Wonersh, just round the corner from here, to students from a number of Dioceses.
After being in a serious road traffic accident in Italy, when he returned to Ramsgate, he began a long convalescence and rehabilitation in the monastery’s infirmary wing. Then, two years later, while undergoing some routine medical tests before surgery to remove the metal plate that had been fitted in his injured leg in Rome, it was discovered that he had other more serious health issues, including diabetes, low kidney function, and sarcoidosis, for which he began to be treated.
The steady deterioration of his eyesight due to macular degeneration obliged him to give up driving once and for all, and, in early 2022, he began daily kidney dialysis here at our monastery, ably administered by two of his Brethren who had received special training. He was then diagnosed with lymphoma, and underwent a course of chemotherapy, but his overall condition quickly worsened, and after spending three months in the Renal Unit of St Helier Hospital in London, he died late in the evening of Friday 12th August.
Anyone who knew Abbot Laurence will testify to his warm, jolly, infectious personality; his sense of humour, and gift of friendship. He will be remembered as a gifted teacher and communicator, who used his knowledge and love of the Bible to unlock its mysteries, and to share its riches with others.
May he rest in peace. Amen!