It is hard to say precisely what feeds this sense of peace and serenity at Pluscarden. For a Catholic or indeed for a person of faith more generally, the obvious answer would be God, but the question remains as to why Pluscarden is special. It is for example, one of the few places that I would personally describe as having a supernatural feeling. Myself and the psychologist from Israel talked at length about all this - with both of us sharing our thoughts and beliefs more broadly as well. From a secular standpoint, his idea was that the order and routine of the whole environment gave great comfort to the monks and people within the Abbey. When we have ordered lives, he said, we tend to feel more secure and safe. It is also perhaps sometimes difficult to have this kind of order in the busy and competitive world outside, which is why somewhere like Pluscarden can be a haven of sorts for everyone and anyone. On top of the order and discipline of the monastic day, there is also all the accoutrements of Christian faith. Whether it be the Abbey walls themselves – eight centuries in age – or the brilliance of the stained glass, or the candles, or the white habits of the monks there is some effect on the human psyche. All the symbolism within the environment draws people of all faiths and backgrounds into something spiritual. I certainly felt this myself. Yet another retreatant put it very well – he felt that at Pluscarden, he was drawn into the company of Saints and Angels. Certainly, when walking through the transepts and nave of the Church, you are actually walking over the graves of dozens of people buried there centuries before. Often they chose the Abbey as a final resting place out of a great faith that the prayers said there daily would help them in the hereafter. Many of the tombstones have been preserved and now adorn some of the walls – their age is evident by the skull and crossbones design, usually found on graves sculpted around the 16th and 17th centuries.
However, there is a final way in which I think the calm and inviting aspect to Pluscarden is achieved: silence. After the final set of prayers, Compline, the monks enter into what is known as “the Grand Silence”. Conversation and noise in general are avoided as far as possible, with personal time for reflection and prayer encouraged. To many, including myself initially, this can seem austere. Yet, upon thinking about it some more and experiencing it, the whole idea makes some sense. Some readers may have heard of the recent craze in “mindfulness”, which advocates more time to be given for reflection and introspection away from the hustle-bustle of everyday life. In the typical Benedictine monastery the idea is very similar. If we but take time out, and retreat into our own minds, we can better understand ourselves and gain more control over our own actions and intentions. For me, this is quite a profound insight. The silence helped me think of the wider world around me, and shift my focus to ideas above and beyond my immediate surroundings. Too much silence could of course be a bad thing, causing people to brood and over-think their lives, but in small doses each day I think it can be a great gift. One of the monks actually said it also helps stop them fight one another! There are of course a whole range of personalities in a monastic community, and it is easy to imagine tensions rising if there wasn't some time out for each monk.
So after four days of relaxing in this peaceful and spiritual environment I came back home quite refreshed indeed. I do intend to go back next year if possible, and I wonder who I will meet the next time around. Perhaps I will take one or two of my friends along, as I've done before. Whatever the case, I hope some readers will consider a trip themselves. If anything, it's a good chance for inter-faith dialogue and an experience in which I believe anyone can take something good from.