Who’d Be a Monk?

Some people, absolutely convinced of their sanity, travel the world in search of places where they can, for a short time, go out of their minds, whether these places are resorts or hotels or retreats. Others, convinced they’re already going out of their heads, travel equally long distances in search of places where they think themselves more sane, such as hotels or resorts or retreats.

There are a few people, however, who travel because they believe themselves to be possessed. “Jerusalem syndrome” is the name given by that city’s police force to those who arrive there and say they are the next messiah, if only everyone would listen to them. Monasteries attract their own freaks, and out of the darkness one night, between supper and the Sexte, while I was smoking a cigarette at the door to the guest house, a man came from nowhere. He was walking fast, wearing a blue bomber jacket and faded jeans. His eyes, when I could see them, picked out by the light above the entrance, looked demented. He held one arm behind his back, as if he were hiding something important and not terrifically agreeable.

I didn’t know then that monasteries are magnets for people who claim a vision has inspired them to show up. It turned out that the man in the bomber jacket wanted only a cigarette and someone to listen to him. He said he was from the Western Isles—his accent was more Belfast than Glasgow. He was a solipsist and talked forcefully, even if nothing he said made sense. The single sentence he spoke allowed for no questions or interruption. He talked about the violence he had witnessed in Northern Ireland and knew the names of many of the fanatical Protestant paramilitary groups and what they had done. He eyed the abbey in the distance and talked about good, but much more about evil. Did he want to become a monk? Was that why he was there? Was he up for a life of continuous Lent? I don’t think he knew what he wanted, and without knowing that, he couldn’t possibly become a monk.

Should you wish to become a monk, you can just show up, even if the more usual route today is through theological colleges. In the fifth and sixth centuries, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands went to monasteries in Europe, not because of the visions they had but because the ordered life of a monastery offered a form of survival the rest of the world did not. The mad man I met desperately needed a refuge, but he would be unlikely to keep up with the prostration required by the monastery before he could be accepted. That’s an arduous endeavor, and not an attractive one—even if you are accepted as a novice, on trial before the rest of the brothers, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be asked to stay for the rest of your life.

There were five other guests staying at Pluscarden when I was there. One was more silent than the monks, and I didn’t see him except at lunch and supper. I thought he must be a friar, but I wasn’t sure. There was a student from Edinburgh, polishing his subject before exams, and a man from the Isle of Skye on a retreat. There were two middle-aged Scotsmen from Fife, both of whom had colossal tattoos on their far-from-insignificant forearms. They weren’t on a retreat, nor did they turn up for every supper; in the evenings, they drove into Elgin to dine.

One morning, I went down to the kitchen, and the larger of two tattooed Scotsmen was at the stove cooking bacon he’d brought with him. It looked as if he were preparing half a side of a pig for himself and his friend’s breakfast, such was the scale of his fry-up. He’d been in the army, his friend in the navy. (The man from Skye was a former member of the merchant marine, working banana boats from the Caribbean to New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s.) He’d lived in Canada, working on oil rigs and construction, and had drunk, so he said, enormously. Now he was retired. He and his friend were on a post-Christmas vacation, living it up by living it down at Pluscarden Abbey. Then a bearded and bald man from Elgin turned up out of the blue; he seemed to be at Pluscarden so that he could raid the fridge in the guest house’s kitchen. He didn’t show up again. He talked about the importance of living frugally and about the equal importance for him of the large flat-screen television he’d bought for himself as a Christmas present. The clarity of the picture, he said, was incredible.

It’s not uncommon for people on holiday to know a form of torpor or lassitude and to find this very relaxing. Nor is it uncommon for those on a retreat to find themselves sleeping at irregular hours. I went back to bed after that breakfast. I had slept badly. The bells from the abbey’s clock tower kept me up, as had the electrical bell rung at 4:30 to indicate Matins was imminent. I didn’t attend. Instead, I read Clive James’ latest volume of autobiography, North Face of Soho, about drinking, talking, and journalism in London in the ‘70s.

When I woke up in the midmorning, I went for a walk in the forest on the hills above the abbey. Before I went, I’d read about the disappearance of a Pluscarden monk, a 90-year-old brother who had gone for a walk and vanished. No body was found, and it remains a mystery whether he died having gotten lost, was abducted and murdered, or escaped. If he was presumed dead, he would be closer to God—and monks live to die—but his death could only be presumed.

A monk’s vocation is disturbing to anyone who isn’t a monk. They are not only awaiting their deaths, they’re looking forward to them; and even if you’re at a monastery for only a short time, you’d have to be blind and deaf not to notice this central preoccupation with death.

Then, while I was walking in the woods, a low-flying Tornado jet from the RAF base at Kinloss tore up the glen. Pax was on the gates to the abbey. Peaceful was one thing Pluscarden was not.