31 October 2007

Retreat 2007: Pluscarden Abbey

For my annual retreat this year, I went to Pluscarden Abbey in rural Morayshire a few miles inland from from Forres (and/or Elgin). I chose Pluscarden because I visited it briefly about fifteen years ago. Truth to tell, I couldn't remember much about the place beyond the fact that it seemed very peaceful.

It is certainly well hidden in the hills of Morayshire: a secret oasis of medieval monastic existence where the Benedictine monks still sing the hours.

I confess I didn’t make it to Vigils, Lauds or even Prime while I was there. The first three services of the day are all over by 7.00 a.m. (with Vigils starting at 4.45 a.m.). The daily conventual Mass (with Terce tacked on at the end) happens mid-morning. Sext is sung immediately before lunch with Nones in the early afternoon. Then Vespers is at 6.00 p.m. before supper. Compline at 8.00 p.m. completes the daily round of services.

It makes for a nice rhythm to the day: work/study punctuated by regular breaks for prayer. Apparently the monks grow a good deal of their own food. They also keep bees (I returned home with a pot of their honey). Relying on home-grown produce does tend to make the meals fairly simple. The diet at Pluscarden seems to be relatively meat free (more a matter of simplicity than vegetarianism). I can’t recall ever being offered porridge as a dessert anywhere else.

It is very much a male environment, with the guesthouse for women visitors being located just outside the entrance to the Abbey grounds. That segregation extends to meals, with male visitors to the Abbey being invited to eat lunch and supper with the monks in the refectory while the women cater for themselves in their guesthouse.

This year for my retreat I set myself the task of putting my thoughts on Church in some sort of order (with the help of Miroslav Volf’s study of ecclesiology). Volf sets out to develop a Free Church ecclesiology in dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. In the end, I found myself gravitating to a more episcopalian outlook than Volf would advocate. Having walked away from the Scottish Episcopal Church about a year ago, I have been trying (and failing) to make myself at home in the Church of Scotland. My real sticking point is the Eucharist, which as far as I am concerned is about the real presence of Christ in the congregation.

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