Pluscarden Abbey is one of sixteen Houses of Benedictine monks in Britain. These comprise 13 Abbeys and a Priory. In addition there are 11 Houses of Benedictine nuns. The total number of monks in 1988 was 600 and of nuns 334. At Pluscarden there are 21 monks. The Order of St. Benedict, first established by the Rule of St. Benedict in the sixth century, was the most widespread Order of monasticism in medieval Europe. From the 13th century it was organised into Provincial Chapters or National Congregations so that in Britain today there are Houses belonging to the English Benedictine Congregation and to four other Congregations besides Houses of the Anglican Benedictines. The English Congregation is most numerous and counts within its number such well known Houses as Downside, Ampleforth and Buckfast. But Prinknash near Gloucester and Pluscarden together with Ramsgate and Farnborough and are Houses of the Congregation of Subiaco, established in 1851 and originally known as the Cassinese Congregation of Primitive Observance. Within each Congregation each House is a separate family under its Abbot or Prior, but once in every four years an Abbots' Congress meets in Rome under an Elective Abbot Primate of the Order.
Monasticism is as old as Christianity - and indeed the desire of some men to lead a life of prayer and contemplation withdrawn from general society is a trait found in most religions. The first Christian monks lived in Egypt and only gradually did the ideals of monasticism spread to western Europe. The reputation of being the first man to introduce these ideals to the west is generally given to St. Athanasius. Those who chose to live apart from the world could do so as solitary men (or hermits) or alternatively could join together in communities (as monks). Of necessity, those who share a community together should believe in and obey a common set of Rules and it was the Rule propounded by St. Benedict that secured most common acceptance in the west. St. Benedict lived approximately from 480 to 550 A.D. and founded his principal monasteries at Subiaco and at Monte Cassino. From the original Benedictine Order most other Orders of western monasticism have derived. The Cistercians, the Carthusians, indeed the ancient Valliscaulians too, all were initially indebted to Benedictine understanding, differing in their varying emphases on different aspects of the Rule.
Before considering a monastery's local condition and its function in the world of today, we need to know what monasticism sets out to do. Since the sixth century, when our way of life was instituted, Benedictines have taken the Holy Rule to be their guide in life: the gospel of our Lord expressed, for those who are called to it, in a particular form. The monastic vocation supposes two main elements: witness to the eternal truths of God, charity in the temporal relationship with man. Pope Paul VI, addressing the monks of Monte Cassino (St. Benedict's first foundation) on October 24, 1964, said that a Benedictine monastery was designed to be "an abode of humanity, spirituality and the interior life". In a secular and materialistic society, monastic communities represent a protest against worldliness and social disharmony. Pope Paul, while approving the monk's separation from the world, reminds us that 'the world and the church are realities to be faced'. It becomes a question, then, as to how, without loss to the original conception, the needs of contemporary man are to be met. Guided by their vocational grace, some communities minister actively to the needs of souls - whether in the work of teaching, giving retreats, supplying in the pastoral apostolate - while others feel drawn to further the church's evangelical mission from inside their enclosures. Pluscarden Abbey belongs to this second category.
Thus the monks of Pluscarden conceive their primary service to lie in prayer, regular observance and their life in common. At first sight such an interpretation of monasticism is often seen as something selfish, as a lack of concern for people outside, as a failure to carry an evangelical responsibility. On closer examination it can be seen as the conservation of energies which are now directed immediately to God. If St. Benedict, who lived in times as turbulent as our own, judged that the world could best be served by withdrawing from it and praying for it, we, fifteen centuries later, are only doing what our founder then had in mind and what in varying degrees has been practised throughout the Benedictine tradition.
Moreover, in accordance with Saint Benedict's Rule, guests are received in the monastery guest house. Men and women of all faiths and degrees of belief are welcome to stay, and to take part in the life of prayer and work according as they are able or inclined. As well as fulfilling the Gospel requirements of hospitality, this also provides a valuable facility for rest and the recuperation of a spiritual focus.
So much for the principle on which the enclosed life is based. What about the actual shape it takes at Pluscarden? Apart from not going out except on rare occasions, there are features which stand out in this community, and which, though certainly to be found elsewhere in the Benedictine federation, give it a distinctive character in Britain. Unlike most monasteries, Pluscarden has chosen to keep Latin in the Mass and the Divine Office, except for the readings. The whole Office, the Opus Dei as drawn by St. Benedict, has moreover been retained and apart from Vigils, is sung, with the community Mass as the liturgical point of focus; as well as grace in the refectory together with such devotions as are prompted by the season. When not at work in the grounds, or looking after guests, or at the crafts which are carried on in workshops and studios, the monks are employed either in the domestic jobs which inevitably take up the day in a monastery which does not engage paid labour or in the lectio (meditative reading and study) to which St. Benedict gives much prominence in his Rule. Thus the monks do their own laundry, mending, cooking, painting, repairing and maintenance generally.
Most of what is eaten comes off the property, though there is no superstition about this and provisions are supplied from Elgin and elsewhere. Meat is restricted to Sundays and Solemnities. Though simple and of a quality traditionally associated with monastic diet, the fare could not be called penitential.
As regards the timetable, the first office of the day, Matins, is at 4.45am; the last, Compline, follows the evening chapter which is at eight. The sung Mass is normally at 9am, allowing a full morning's work as evisaged by St. Benedict; and on Sundays it is at ten. On Sundays and feasts the brethren combine tea in the afternoon with recreation; on other days the recreation period is after supper and lasts for half an hour. At the two principal meals, dinner and supper, a book is read. Breakfast (pittance) and tea (caitas) are taken in silence. Guests are admitted to the refectory as well as to any of the services they may wish to attend. A part of the church is reserved for the use of lay people, women as well as men.
The visitor to Pluscarden will perhaps be surprised to see the white habit instead of the more usual Benedictine black. The privilege of wearing white is inherited from the Prinknash community from which Pluscarden was founded in 1948, and who in turn received it from the original foundation on Caldey Island. In might be noted that the monks who came from France to Pluscarden in 1230 belonged to an order, the Valliscaulian, which also wore a white habit.