A Death at the Abbey

One of the Benedictine monks at Pluscarden died in the night while I was staying at the abbey. I’d seen him just before supper the previous evening, sitting on a chair in the dimly lit cloister, his canes leaning against his legs. He was bespectacled and beaming, and I presumed he was in his 80s. I later learned that he became sick some hours later and that a doctor was called from Elgin. He was said to be fine.

The next morning, there was no way to know that a monk had died—no outward change to the daily routine, no extra bells, or none that I heard—and I didn’t hear about his death until the late morning, when I bumped into the guest master in the hall of the guest house. He relayed the news. What an interesting life this monk had had prior to his taking monastic orders, said the guest master. He’d served as a soldier in the Middle East in World War II, had parachuted into Cyprus, and had apparently acted heroically. The abbot, the guest master continued, had told the brothers about this earlier life just that morning.

In corporations, it is not uncommon for people who work together for years to have little, if any, idea of who their colleagues are besides being colleagues. The suppression of self is how many offices function, and an office environment is most brutally corporate when selves are harshly suppressed, and when that suppression is harshly enforced. It’s hardly a surprise that, in these conditions, paranoia and power play are often overwhelming, much of it predicated on not knowing what anyone else is going to do, because you don’t know who these people really are.

Yet at a monastery, where monks live among one another, often for decades, that you would know nothing about a man’s life prior to his becoming a monk until the day he died seems astonishing to anyone who is not a monk. On joining a monastic order, a monk writes his vita; it is a form of confession that is handed to the abbot, who will never reveal its contents. Thereafter, that earlier life is considered entirely irrelevant. The Rule of St. Benedict says expressly that to talk about others, never mind gossip, is devil talk.

At lunch that day, the brother’s name was added to the necrology; another brother at Montserrat had also died overnight. The monks at their tables ate and listened to more from the life of John Betjeman. They placed their hoods on their heads when they had finished, and the remaining guests—the two tattooed Scotsmen having left—were led out of the refectory and back to the guest house. Nothing was outwardly any different.

I have no idea why any of the monks at Pluscarden became monks, although I can understand why some people want to leave their lives behind. I think I can understand that the grimness of war might make life afterward quite unbearable for some, even if I have no way of knowing if that was the reason for this brother’s exit from what passes as ordinary life. It’s also true that some have joined monasteries because they considered themselves burdens, not necessarily wanting to become monks but having considered it the one thing they could do.

You are killing something of yourself by joining a monastic order. It seems to me that you kill even more of yourself if you look forward, as monks do, to death. Sociologist Émile Durkheim made distinctions between egotistical and altruistic suicide in his famous book on that subject. There is, in the decision to become a monk, a form of suicide, which is perhaps partly egotistical and partly altruistic.

That afternoon, I went for a walk in search of a phone box. I walked by a stream, through more Scots pine, and over a boggy flood plain. There was a shooting party in the woods. Beaters were driving pheasants toward a line of gunmen, and I skirted around them, or hoped I would, less out of fear of getting shot than to avoid the red-faced, apoplectic unpleasantness that country types usually inflict on anyone who accidentally interferes with their fun. I found a phone box, an old-fashioned vermillion one, inserted some coins, and made a call to New York. It’s hard to believe that you can call New York from a pay phone that, at least on this afternoon, really did seem in the middle of nowhere. So, it was all the more irritating when the line went dead after what seemed like 10 seconds.

There seemed an enormous amount of time to kill before supper. I walked on a tarmac road back to Pluscarden, back through the gates that said Pax, back toward the guest house. In the gardens, some monks were weeding; in another part of the abbey’s grounds, others were at work as masons, drilling and chiseling stone as part of the abbey’s never-ending restoration, upkeep, and repair.

Had it not been for monasteries and for what they preserved, it’s sometimes argued, there would have been no Renaissance and no Enlightenment, because abbeys housed and protected many ancient texts, just as they preserved the artistic and scholarly traditions that would allow for Renaissance and Enlightenment. Yet such acts of preservation were also about the suppression of knowledge, and while they did protect aspects of scholarly and artistic traditions, monasteries, and the church in general, held back much, while they advanced themselves and what they believed in. There was in a Christian education no knowledge for its own sake; everything had to relate to God. Nothing existed independently of religion—how could it?

An apocalypse is usually understood today as a nightmarish battlefield or nuclear war, but the original meaning of the word, from the Greek, is the revelation of hidden, dangerous knowledge. Christian eschatology has it that the unveiling of such knowledge would lead to hell on Earth. Ironically, the apocalyptic Black Death of the 14th century undid much of the power and the authority of the church in England and Scotland—ironically because the remoteness of monasteries and the tremendous economic muscle they often exerted over land and people might, you could think, have insulated them from the epidemic. Isolated they may have seemed, but they weren’t entirely separate from their surroundings, and once inside a monastery, the plague was unstoppable. Forty percent of the monks and the clergy of England died in the late 1370s and early 1380s. Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries in the 1530s to establish royal supremacy, the state, over religion. Yet the contents of many monastic libraries had left abbeys long before. The church had less authority over knowledge and art than it once had.

By supper, for all I knew, news of the death of the brother at Pluscarden had by now been e-mailed to every Benedictine monastery on the planet with a computer—social networking of a morbid variety. Now that he was dead, news of that brother’s earlier life, his hidden knowledge, could safely be revealed.