Force of habit: The struggles facing the monks of Pluscarden Abbey

EVEN amid the peace and tranquillity of Pluscarden Abbey the monks have their daily battle to fight.

The Latin chant drifts through the dim church in a beautiful echoing murmur; tidal, it flows and ebbs, flows and ebbs, the white-cowled men bowing, now rising, now bowing once more, as if caught in the sublime surf of their song. This scene could be taking place at any time in any of the last eight centuries, but it happens to be half-past four in the morning on 14 June in the year of our lord 2012. The monks of Pluscarden Abbey are at their prayers.

Pluscarden Abbey, near Elgin, is the only medieval monastery in Britain inhabited by monks and used as a place of worship. It is home to 22 Benedictines. They range in age from their twenties to their eighties. Some have pale unlined faces, some are lined and lame. It is likely that most, probably all, will spend the rest of their lives here and be buried, eventually, in the Abbey cemetery, their graves marked by simple wooden crosses, which, as time passes, will grow so thick with lichen that at last their names will disappear. Intrigued visitors, tracing with a finger the furred letters, will make out only this carved epitaph: “After life’s fit fever he slept well.”

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If life is a fever, Pluscarden is immune, its natural resistance built up over centuries of isolation. There is a rare stillness here. No silence; birdsong and bells make sure of that. But there is a deep quiet. The Abbey is in a fertile glen at the foot of steep fields with a palisade of firs at the top. The hill and forest feel like a looming wall, keeping the monks in, the world out.

The Benedictines spend five hours each day in church, three-and-a- half hours engaged in “spiritual reading”, and four hours on chores and manual labour, which can be anything from sowing chives to tending hives. Pluscarden is well known for its honey, but the bees which provide it do not do so in a spirit of Christian charity. “We get these docile Buckfast queens but before too long they’ve developed a peppery temper,” Brother Michael explains. “They are notoriously fierce. Poor Father Dunstan has been taken to A&E at least twice.”

Pluscarden’s day begins at 4.30am with Vigils and Lauds, at 90 minutes by far the longest of the eight daily services. At this hour, even the Abbey cat, Baxter, named for the soup, is still asleep. Yet the monks are up, among them Father Giles, who has been at Pluscarden for 40 of his 63 years and is still so ill-suited to early rises that one of his brethren must, each morning, batter on the door of his cell.

For much of the year, Vigils and Lauds will be performed while outside it is frozen darkness. Even now, the dawn is dim. Looking at the sky through the church windows, as the monks sing, it’s rather moving to think that for centuries this place was a ruin, that rooks once flew through unglazed arches and ivy choked the nave.

Founded in 1230, the monastery was dissolved in 1587 and went through a long period of decay, some of its stone used to build the kirk in Elgin. In 1948, five monks began to rebuild. By the time Father Gilbert arrived at the monastery on a dreich day in 1971, cycling up from Edinburgh, the church was still missing much of its roof and rain was running down the walls. “It’s astonishing,” he says, “what has been achieved.”

Taking holy orders and becoming a monk at Pluscarden is to enter a self-contained world of seclusion and repetition. The point is to focus attention on God. External stimuli are thus removed. There is no television or radio, phone calls are rare, and internet access is restricted to those senior monks whose positions require them to retain contact with society. In theory, the Abbey receives a daily newspaper, but it does not arrive daily, and in any case is regarded as “a snare and delusion” – probably the first time the Telegraph has ever been described in quite that way. The monks also make their own entertainment, singing songs and performing comic sketches. “They are usually adaptations of ones we remember from the distant past,” says Brother Michael. “Do you remember when the Two Ronnies did Mastermind? That was quite good.”

There are small signs that the brothers are more worldly than one would expect. The three Polish brethren, for instance, seemed to be cheerfully aware that their football team had drawn with Russia in Euro 2012. Then there was the fact that the guestmaster who arranged for me to stay joked, by email, that I might actually be a drug smuggler and asked whether I would bring him some Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut. Such treats loom large at Pluscarden, I think. “We eat liturgically,” Father Dunstan explained when I arrived, “which means at Christmas it’s mega-food, but tonight it’s just a simple meal of bread and cheese.”

Lunch and supper are taken in the refectory at long wooden tables. Grace is sung, but during the meals no-one speaks. Instead, a monk ascends to a pulpit and reads aloud from some dry volume. He also reads out a necrology – a list of Benedictines round the world who died on that particular day. When the meal ends, the brethren wipe their cutlery and bowls with a cloth and return them to a shelf beneath the table. Each monk brushes the crumbs from his place and then passes the dustpan to his neighbour. All this without a word. Chat is reserved for the 20 minutes put aside each day for recreation.

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To an outsider, the monastic life can appear narrow and relentless. Certainly, it is testing. The usual thing for a young man who thinks he would like to become a monk is to first stay for a month. He can then spend six months as a postulant, wearing the grey habit, followed by two years as a novice. He would then become a junior, and, after a total of five-and-a-half years, could take vows and become a monk, pledging himself under threat of hellfire to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.

“One is still tempted,” says Father Benedict, a 53-year-old former soldier who is the Prior, or second-in-command, at the Abbey. “I still find ladies terribly attractive and sometimes the idea of having a wife can overwhelm one. That’s an ongoing battle till one dies. It’s the same with things. It’d be quite nice if I could have a motorbike, or even an extra pair of socks.

“But for me, the joys outweigh the sorrows so much that the sorrows become irrelevant. Every single day, from the moment you get up to the moment you fall asleep, everything you are doing is completely worthwhile. There are moments when one is aware of really complete deep happiness. To lose the love of a wife to get the love of God more fully and directly, to be stripped of earthly goods in order to have the Kingdom, well what we get compared to what we give is ridiculously out of proportion.”

There are two postulants at Pluscarden at the moment, one of whom has been at the Abbey for three months and is being visited by his brother. The family are concerned to find out how he is coping. During the first year following the postulancy, a novice is forbidden visits from his family. During the second year, he will be allowed to meet them just once. To live like this must be overwhelming at first. Most would-be monks give up during the first two months. “I remember,” recalls Brother Finbar, “I burst out crying when I was putting on the habit. I thought, ‘Of all the stupid things you’ve ever done, this takes the cookie.’”

He is 55 now and has lived here joyfully since his mid-twenties, his former life as a chargehand in a Glasgow pub an ever fading memory. I was especially keen to meet Brother Finbar. He had been recommended to me by his friend, the actress Tilda Swinton. She said he was a cinephile, which he is happy to confirm – “God, I think Tilda would be so good in an Almodovar film. I’ll put that on my prayer list.” The monks are allowed to watch, en masse, around three films each year, selected by the Abbot, but when a monk is celebrating a significant anniversary he is allowed to choose. Finbar, to mark 25 years at Pluscarden, opted for The Blues Brothers, a very popular choice among his brethren.

In his Rule, written in the sixth century, Saint Benedict condemns laughter. The Benedictines of Pluscarden, sticklers in so many ways, allow themselves some laxity here. They are fond of a funny story, and this is to their credit. But make no mistake, theirs is a serious life – profound, solemn and deeply felt. What will stay with me, then, is attending Mass – the smell of wax and old stone, the clink of glass against golden chalice, the glug of wine and blood. The brethren, as they sip, look serene, like they are exactly where they are meant to be, doing exactly what they are supposed to be do. The altar candles, when gently extinguished, send blue smoke twining upwards.

“Everything is fragile nowadays,” Father Benedict says afterwards. “Will we still be here in 40 years? Please, God. We’ll see what happens.”