Last week I spent time on retreat at Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin. The journey was exhausting, around five and a half hours long and involving three train connections, not to mention a bus journey and taxi ride. It was good to finally arrive at the monastery for dinner. The food was delicious and all homemade - many of the ingredients grown by the monks on the grounds. Myself and the two other guests were served some kind of pie, it had all kinds of vegetables inside (meat is only served rarely at the Abbey) and we were all at a loss to name it. It was safe to say simply that it was tasty! During meal times, everything is very formal. Table manners are emphasised, and I felt like an odd one out when I saw everyone using knives and forks to eat their apples as I sat eating my own by hand at dessert. One of the monks goes to a lectern and reads from a book that has been selected, while everyone eats in silence listening. During the days that I was there, the book that was read was relating history of the American Civil War and all the ins and outs of the race relations that punctuated that whole affair. In many ways, some of what we heard was shocking and a world was revealed that seemed utterly alien and that was yet so close to our own in time. The sad reality of human trafficking continues the story into our present age which is well worth remembering, lest we consign the horrors of slavery to history texts and become blind to its modern existence. All these deep thoughts were had on my first night at dinner - this was going to be a deep experience! I went back to my room after the meal and took some time to unpack my bag. Each male retreatent stays in a guesthouse called St. Benedict's while women staying at the Abbey are based in a nearby building called St. Scholastica's. These two great Catholic Saints were brother and sister, and the founders of the Benedictine Order of monks and nuns back in the 6th century. Plans are being drawn up to create one guesthouse for everyone, but this may take some years to realise. Within the male guesthouse, there are around twenty cells (rooms), bathrooms and washing facilities with a few parlours. In the latter, people serve themselves breakfast and can enjoy tea or coffee whenever they wish.
So after a bit of solitary time in my cell, which was dedicated to St. Dominic, I went to the main parlour to get a cup of coffee after my long journey. There I met another retreatant who had only arrived an hour or two prior to myself. He was a psychologist with a wealth of stories to tell, and he lived in Capernaum having married a Jewish woman some years before. Every year he tries to visit Scotland so he can enjoy some time at Pluscarden. What made this all the more impressive was that he doesn't know if he believes in God. All that distance to travel, and all that effort despite not being convinced of theism let alone Catholicism. The atmosphere at the monastery is such that it draws in people from all walks of life and from all faiths. There have been a few Buddhists visiting at times, in addition to plenty of folk from the Reformed Churches and more.
Some people just go to listen to the Gregorian Chant - beautiful and fascinating to hear, Church music of the Middle Ages. The chant is sung in Latin, and performed eight times a day with Mass taking place around 9am. The various offices (times of chanting the Psalms) are known as Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Vigils are at 4:30am with Compline at 7:50pm. The day is therefore very full and busy, with work also taking place between the offices and meal times. Some monasteries brew beer, but Pluscarden's speciality is honey. One of the other retreatants who arrived a day or two after myself, helped the beekeeper make some fresh honey. We all tried a little for the following breakfast and it was fantastic! Though I can't say I managed to get up for Vigils despite my best efforts - praying at 4:30am takes some doing.
Across the grounds there are animals of many varieties, the most famous of which is the "Benedictine cat" Baxter. It must have been at the monastery for over a decade, and is well looked after. Bookmarks and pictures have been made with his likeness, sold at the shop, with Biblical verses printed underneath. For any cat lovers out there, some of the paraphernalia is hilarious. One bookmark I bought for a friend showed the cat sitting solemnly in the Abbey, with the verse "I will Bless the Lord at all times" quoted below him! More generally, another retreatant from Dunoon commented that the animals seem to sense an overall peace to the place. They simply don't seem to feel threatened by people at all. Hens are all too happy to walk alongside you when you go out for a stroll, and field mice pay no heed to passers-by. There was an inspiring story about a deer which had broken both its hind legs jumping over a fence into the Abbey precincts. People had asked the monks to call a vet, and they refused since it would likely be put down. What they did instead was tend to the deer themselves, and help it regain full health. That kind of compassion is very uplifting, and so very human.