In January, I went to stay at a monastery in northern Scotland. There was, I thought at the time, no more foreign place I could visit.
How many Christian monasteries and convents there are in Europe and the Mediterranean, I don’t know—many—and few are now as fully occupied as they were. Many religions allow for monasticism; others outlaw it—Judaism and Islam, for example, even if there are in southeast Europe a few unusual, semiheretical Muslim monasteries located near or on old roads leading from Istanbul into the Balkans. In England, Protestants banned monasticism for more than 300 years and destroyed most monasteries; the French revolutionaries outlawed monks. But in both England and France, monasteries returned. If monasticism isn’t thriving as it did in medieval Europe, neither is it dying. Going on retreats to monasteries, whether they are Christian or Buddhist or semimonastic institutions, seems more popular than ever. A recent book by Tobias Jones, Utopian Dreams, argues that a retreat should be a human right.
From Portugal to Romania, many monasteries allow outsiders to stay, but a Benedictine monastery in Morayshire, 30 miles east of Inverness, one of the northern-most monasteries in Europe, seemed in January as remote as, say, St. Catherine’s in the Sinai, one of the most ancient monasteries and the longest continuously inhabited one. St. Catherine’s was built on the site where Moses saw a bush go up in flames and was “discovered” by European travelers in the late 19th century, but monks have been at Sinai for 1,600 years—or, in more human terms, about 65 generations.
Pluscarden was founded in the 12th century, dissolved in the 16th in the Scottish reformation, and then re-established in the 1940s. The battlefield of Culloden, where Jacobites fighting for Scottish independence were defeated by the English in 1746, isn’t far away; on the way to Pluscarden from Inverness, you pass the castle of the Thane of Cawdor.
Pluscarden is six miles from Elgin, famous for its association with the aristocratic family of that name, one of whom returned from Athens with the Parthenon’s famous marble friezes. Elgin is today known mainly for Scottish survival produce: shortbread biscuits, canned soups, and, most famously of all, Speeside whiskey—the peaty-brown water in the streams and rivers of the Highlands of Scotland looks as if it is whisky if you haven’t had a drink in a few days. The Scots have always been tremendous empire builders and travelers—it isn’t such a surprise that Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was of Scottish descent—and arguably this was because they, like peoples of deserts, made for themselves a hardy, easily transportable, nonperishable diet. Less successful empire-builders have liked their food too much. Not far from Elgin is the Royal Air Force base at Kinloss, whose squadron was sent to Iraq by the Scottish-born prime minister, Tony Blair.
Pluscarden isn’t as historically interesting as St. Catherine’s, but monasteries are interesting, and they are usually remote. I wasn’t going to a monastery for the weather or for the food, although the lunches and suppers at Pluscarden were good—simple, well-prepared dishes made from vegetables grown by the monks themselves. Northern Scotland in January, contrary to what you imagine, is not unattractive. The sun, when it’s out—and it often was—hovers at the horizon all day; it’s in people’s faces as it is in the golden hours liked by directors in Hollywood, although because it is often overcast, leaden, and wet in Scotland, there’s no likelihood of DreamWorks going to Glasgow to make Burbank on the Clyde. Many Scots, however, have eyed America.
It’s not accurate to say that nothing happens in a monastery; nor is it true that they are places of silence. Much happens, because monasteries have to sustain themselves, even if you as a “foreigner” at a monastery can do nothing. While the monks themselves may be silent (each order has different rules governing speech), the services held throughout the day at a Benedictine monastery are hardly soundless. Song becomes deafening; as a foreigner at a monastery you can find yourself waiting for the ringing of bells. You are silent because you aren’t a monk. The silence, such as it is, is in the ear of the beholder; among the monks, every waking minute is passed in their conversation with or about God.
Monasteries may appear deeply foreign because of their forbidding discipline, the communality, as they go about perpetuating an ancient tradition. Many of those who went to see Into Great Silence, the documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps released earlier this year, may have thought they were observing life as alien as an exotic tribe in the Sahara filmed by Werner Herzog. Monasteries are exotic compared to everyday life in a city.
Yet if the silence is deceptive, so is the foreignness. The university and the corporation have their origins in monasticism. Look up your company’s rules governing conduct in the office. They may appear to have nothing in common with the Rule of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine order, whose strictures and the adaptations of them form the rules for most of European and Mediterranean monasticism. Yet company rules exist because the idea of a corporation is, to a considerable extent, derived from the idea of a monastery. The longer you look at Into Great Silence, the more familiar much of monastic life becomes. The lives of the Carthusians in Into Great Silence are strikingly ordered and remote, or so it seems at first. But then, the casualness with which these men live a completely institutionalized life becomes the more striking.
I went to Inverness by overnight bus from London. This journey is known by some who have taken it more than once as the graveyard express. I wouldn’t advise an overnight bus journey, but so unreliable have the trains become in Britain, I wouldn’t advise them, either. There are planes, and you can rent a car, but I don’t like flying, I like public transportation, and, uncomfortable as they are, buses tend to arrive on time.
At night, traveling up the spine of Britain, there’s little to see—some snow in the Lake District—except for the warehouses beside the highway and the trucks that haul containers from one warehouse to another and to the supermarkets in the cities and towns. Take an overnight journey to Inverness, the graveyard express, and the scale of the revolution that would be required if a society such as Britain’s was to be weaned off gas and road transportation looks incomprehensible.
Years ago, the French made a bet on railways and went about building high-speed lines across France. They have won the argument: Britain and the United States look backward by comparison. The transportation legacy of Margaret Thatcher was miles of new roads and nothing but more traffic and pollution. Her wish on her first day in office in 1979 was to bring harmony where there was discord. On London streets and on British highways, you can now come across drivers who not only look as if they want to kill you, they drive as if they are trying to kill you.