Meal Time at Pluscarden Abbey

Pluscarden Abbey seen from the hillside to the north

I hadn’t eaten anything all day when I eventually arrived at Pluscarden Abbey at about 2 in the afternoon. The Latin word Pax is emblazoned on its gates. I walked up an avenue of ilex and rhododendron to the abbey, case in tow; the monastery’s graveyard to the right. I had missed lunch. Brother Gabriel, the guest master—one of the three most challenging posts at a monastery, along with the abbot and the accountant, because these officers are required to cope with the outside world—informed me that on Wednesdays, because the monks ate heartily at lunch, they ate only bread, cheese, and an apple in the evening. This outside world’s first reaction to monastic life wasn’t enthusiasm, although I could blame only myself for not stopping in Inverness or Elgin on my way. Unusually, these Benedictines wore white, not black, habits. This brotherhood was originally Protestant and wore white before converting en masse to Catholicism.

I was taken to a room on the second floor of the guest house adjoining the abbey. Benedictines have a tradition of allowing male travelers to stay. The room—a cell—contained a bed, a sink, and a Formica-covered counter at the window, as well as an armchair and environmentally friendly, electricity-saving light bulbs, one hanging from the ceiling, the other fixed on the wall above the bed, where there was also a crucifix. Monasteries have adapted to modern conditions, even if the ideas that govern them have not. From an environmental point of view, this is about as green as an institution could be: saving light; producing much of its own food; above all, wasting nothing. Monasteries don’t produce trash.

Then Brother Gabriel explained the only rules, which concerned eating times; the order of daily services I could find on a timetable pinned to the door. He showed me the kitchen on the ground floor, where guests could make breakfast for themselves from the instant coffee, tea, eggs, apples, and bread provided. I can’t remember five days when I’ve eaten more bread. They didn’t bake their own, but bread, huge slices of it, was ever-present. Food is love, wrote St. Benedict in his rules, and eating together, a communal experience, was an aspect of that love.

Monos is the Greek word for alone. Monks are not alone; they aren’t hermits. Monasteries began in Turkey, the Levant, and Sinai when hermits grouped themselves together to better live lives devoted to God. They are together in the sense that they are within a community and are brothers to one another, but they’re on their own when it comes to their godly devotion.

My mother thinks monasteries are sad places. They are, despite the boyish, almost cherubic, expression on the faces of some of the monks some of the time. An ancient monk who manned the guest house’s entrance for several hours each afternoon looked as if he were 90 going on 15, and the one memory I have of a great-uncle who was a monk and whom I met only once, is of him giggling. In photographs, he’s always smiling and is usually the most expressive person in the picture.

The north transept of the abbey

At Pluscarden, apart from the abbot, whom I was introduced to after supper the first night I was there, and some brief words with the guest master, I spoke to none of the monks. “Hello,” I said to a brother walking one afternoon in the opposite direction, heading toward the graveyard. He walked past without a reply, his hood drawn up over his head. The tips of his white socks protruding from his sandals said more than he did. He wasn’t willfully ignoring me, I don’t think; he was so possessed by what he had to do that moment that he wouldn’t have heard me if I’d shouted. He looked ahead, his mouth turned glumly down, his arms held in front of him. In demeanor and in dress, he really looked like a monk.

So did all of the monks at lunches, suppers, and at their services. Their expressions were those seen a thousand times before in medieval paintings, where the art of the picture is the gesture of the depicted saint, monk, or Madonna. The powerful gestural element to a monastery isn’t surprising. If the suppression of all individual feeling other than an ordered and shaped devotion to God defines monastic life—a society where you don’t talk about yourself as yourself—then gestures assume greater importance. The rules of St. Benedict frown upon idle talking and jesting, which he considered laziness, but there are no rules governing facial expression.

The refectory at Pluscarden is an L-shaped room with whitewashed walls and a single vaulted wooden ceiling. The abbot sits at the table farthest from the door, the brothers at tables running down each side. Guests sat opposite the abbot 80 feet away. On each table are several plates stacked with cut bread. Each meal begins with a prayer sung in Latin by the abbot, the monks standing with their hoods over their heads. The abbot rings a bell, which signals hoods off, and everyone sits down. A monk sweeps out of the kitchen door, pushing a large trolley, and places the day’s dish on each of the tables, serving the guests first. The monk-waiter moves fast: He never stops moving, monitoring the state of the plates and bowls, looking to see if you want more before he removes the aluminum trays from the table.

Monks don’t talk among themselves when they eat; they listen as one reads to the rest from the pulpit. At lunch, he begins with the monk’s main news: the deaths of other monks in Benedictine monasteries the world over. This is the necrology. In January, monks at the monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona, seemed to be dying by the day. The list of the newly deceased complete, the brother then turned to the book he was reading aloud. When I was at Pluscarden, at lunch the brother read from a biography of poet John Betjeman—there were occasional murmurs of approval at Betjeman’s observation of Dublin in the 1940s but no laughter. In the evening, he read from the early 20th-century chronicles of a convent close to Inverness. The convent has since closed, and its buildings have been converted into a spa.

At each meal’s close, the monks dipped their napkins in their glasses of water and wiped their cutlery with the dampened cloth; then they folded the knives, forks, and spoons into the napkin and placed these packages on a shelf below the table tops. They raised their hoods to show they had finished. Another bell, another prayer. The guest master walked toward the guests and led them out of the refectory into the neighboring cloister, through its library, and back to the guest house. Unless you planned to attend the last service of the day, Sexte, at 8:45—which in a Scottish winter is performed in complete darkness—that is the last you’ll see of the monks. You’re on your own. The monastery goes to sleep; Pluscarden was dead for the night, even if it wasn’t exactly brimming with my kind of life during the day.