This post is seriously going to test the capacity of Blogger's word limit. It may be long, but it will most certainly be one of my more relevant blog posts. There will probably be random excerpts dotted about - they'll just be my thoughts. Feel free to skim past those.
If you want to see some pretty photos of the place, click here, and here.
I keep looking up towards the sky hoping the clouds will shift. I want to see beyond the greyness, beyond the blanket, the layer. I want to see blue.
Monday 4th April
I met the genial Fr Matthew - quite the character. As we walked down to St Scholastica's (the female retreat house) we spoke about the abbey's life during the Scottish Reformation. He asked if I was Catholic, to which I replied yes. He then responded saying 'Oh, that's good. You know you never know with people....' He then proceeded to tell me about his life - that he realised he had a vocation to become a monk when he went on retreat to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, with a group of students from Southampton. He returned to university then went back and stayed there until he encountered 'complications', and was told take a year out in France. But instead he came up to Pluscarden, loved it, and has stayed ever since. It's not all the time that one gets to hear someone's life story, least of all one of an enclosed monk. Apart from being as deaf as a post - bless him - he's a very likeable chap. So much so, I ended up having a much longer conversation over tea with him the following day.
Just like other religious I've met, Fr Matthew has a charm and down-to-earth personality about him, that if encountered, would be sure to dispel any preconceptions people may have of nuns and monks.
No one is perfect. I got the impression that Fr Matthew's life thus far was littered with 'complications'. However, in God's eyes none of this matters when one turns away from life to dedicate themselves to Him. I admire the religious. I often wish I was cut out to dedicate my life to God in the way that they do. There is something about going on retreat that makes me discern the monastic life.
St Scholastica's is quaint. Every cupboard in the kitchens has a little label on it telling you what lies behind the door. The shower room at the back of the retreat house paints the picture of a typical communal shower one finds in old convent girls' schools. The rooms themselves also have names - mine was St Catherine - and on the back of the door there is a little biography on your saint. The room is small - as one would expect - with a small basin and a desk. Reading material is provided, and includes titles such as a book on St Benedict, the lives of the mystics, the New Testament and the Psalms, as well as the usual welcome note and an introduction on the Divine Office.
Inside the abbey there are various reading materials that one can purchase, including a history on Pluscarden. There are also paintings, as well as a timeline that detail the abbey's history from 1230 onwards.
I attended the Stations of the Cross before Vespers. It is held within the male quarters of the abbey, so the women were only allowed to stand on one side of the threshold. I had forgotten how beautiful a cloister can be. They had bookshelves that were probably full of the most inspiring spiritual books with the Stations of the Cross running along the wall above. The atmosphere was just moving. The prayers, the genuflecting, the silence. It all moved me in a way that I don't experience in any part of my daily life. It's only when I'm on retreat or attending Mass or Benediction where I come anywhere near that feeling I felt partaking in the Stations. I can't really describe it apart from it being like an overwhelming warmth emanating from the inside out.
I may have lost my way, but being on retreat attending the Divine Office, and observing the Great SIlence makes me believe that there is hope to start again; hope to re-discover those values; hope to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
'People cannot live without religion. They are searching for something they are not going to find in life' ~ Jean
I've just spent the last two hours having a nice conversation with a lady named Jean. She's Catholic and has served the Church in many ways including missionary work in Canada. She said some profound things, Regarding university she said that once you got your foot in the door of 'that culture, you'd sink'. She believes it's really difficult for young people today with all the pressures of society. I told her I'd like to be a journalist and we spoke of various pieces on religion in the news, and how the media can manipulate or exaggerate a story just for it to sell papers. One thing she said stuck with me: 'Well I'm sure you would write the truth'. Would I though? Would I be able to keep that integrity in a sector where one must do anything to get a story? It's a difficult one.
Tuesday 5th April
I slept terribly last night, waking up every hour. I had planned to attend Lauds at 4:45am but was so tired, I assumed Jean was right and that God wanted me to rest. I think it was probably due to me not wanting to disturb anyone with my alarm; I hoped I would wake up before it. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.
I commented on the architecture - well floor plan - of the living room and kitchen, and was told that it was my penance to deal with it! (It wasn't that bad....)
The mornings here are just wonderful. I can see the forest out of my window, the varying shades of brown and green radiant from the rays of the morning sun. Whilst at Prinknash Abbey I had sheep outside my window, at the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph I had horses, and here at Pluscarden I have pheasants. They make the strangest noise - like a cross between a seagull cackle and an engine rev. Very odd.
Emotions were running high during Mass. It's a wonderfully moving thing to see a community of brothers saying Mass together in their vestments, and in Latin. There was one particular moment when the laity were going up to receive Communion, that I met the gaze of the monks and just felt an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. I felt judged. It wasn't the look on their faces, or even the fact that they were looking in my direction, but I felt as if God was glaring at me through them, reminding me of the things I had done, and that without confession I will not be able to receive the Eucharist. At that point I nearly cried.
I don't know what to do. I want to start anew, but whenever I feel like I'm making progress I'm offered an opportunity to stray, and I take it. But the immense guilt afterwards! I know God loves me, and it is I who is turning away from Him, but I cannot help but think it's futile to ask for forgiveness if I'm just going to continue leading the life that I do. I know I'm not perfect, but I cannot avoid the feeling that I must be.
As mentioned, I spent a good portion of an hour listening to Fr Matthew tell me about his life and what it's like to be a Benedictine monk. He was very engaging and and eager to answer my questions (I'm thinking of writing on Benedictine spirituality and specifically the monastic life for my dissertation). We spoke of spirituality, of science, and of art.
I then went for a walk in the forest behind the abbey. The view was simply amazing. From the top I could see the surrounding fields. I could see brothers tending to the vegetable patch as well as flocks of sheep further in the distance - small white flecks on a palate of green. The quick movement of the clouds meant one could see where they cast their shadows and where the sun was able to shine through. It was like the clouds were slowly creeping across the fields.
After Sext I sat outside the abbey to draw (the end result can be seen in my previous post). A few people approached me to see what I was doing. One old man told me about his daughter and his pet ferret, as well as his friend who has already completed his funeral arrangements even though he's still alive! He did also mention that the monks make honey ... it's a shame it's not the right time of year for it.
Wednesday 6th April
I woke up this morning for Lauds. It was pitch black walking up to the abbey but luckily enough a torch was provided. Reaching the top of the road one is met with a towering, almost ominous looking abbey, with only the stained-glass window being visible and providing a welcoming atmosphere.
I've met many lovely people here, everyone with a different life story to share. There's the lady who's been Catholic her whole life; the single mum who was in the army; the lady who works at the university she used to attend. I've enjoyed my time here at Pluscarden.
Is the monastic life for me?
Every time I go on retreat I think the monastic life is for me - but every time I return to the routine of daily life I soon forget this.
I enjoy the chanting and especially the silence. I like taking walks and writing in the afternoon sun. But does this mean the monastic life is for me? I think about the freedom I have to wake up when I choose; to have breakfast when I like; to write and read what I please. And then I think about waking up every morning at 4am; praying alone for most of the day; keeping one's faith and strength ... I don't think I can do it.
I don't always do the right thing, but part of me enjoys life like this. Yes I do feel guilt for some of the things I've done, but not enough to dedicate my life to God. Perhaps my bitter experience is what makes me think I should live the contemplative life. I know deep down I'm still angry and upset at what happened; I cannot let go of the thought that things could be different. I'm trying to do the right thing now, change my life around. I realise that we don't always get what we want, but more importantly, we can't please everyone. Sometimes we have to think about what's right for us. We have to take care of number one first before we can take care of anyone else.
In the taxi on my way to Elgin I could not help but feel sad about leaving Pluscarden. If that wasn't bad enough I got quite emotional (again). It made me think, what does life out here have to offer that the monastic life doesn't? Subway? A trip to the pub for a pint? Sex? All of it is trivial.
It's too noisy out here. There's too much of a hum. Not two hours away and I already miss the silence. I hear a bell and I compare it to the one that rings at the abbey. Out here, all there is is hubbub, white noise: chatter about how great the football match was, what time the next train is at and what people had for lunch. All of it trivial compared to what can be found in the silence.
I don't know why I came back.