Most Benedictine monks wear black. So why do Pluscarden monks wear white?
To answer that question, we have to go back to our origins. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a young medical student called Aelred Carlyle set out to establish a monastic community of strictly contemplative life within the Anglican Church. As a sign of this ideal, and of the desired austerity of the proposed way of life, he and his followers imitated the Cistercian custom of wearing a white tunic with a black scapular. But then in 1911, on Caldey Island, a change was made. Monks in perpetual vows would henceforth wear an entirely white habit. The sister community of nuns across the water from Caldey, at St. Bride’s, Milford Haven, adopted the same change at the same time.
A two-fold motivation lay behind this change. In the first place, the most strictly contemplative of all the monastic Orders in the Western Church, the Carthusians and the Camaldolese, have always worn entirely white habits. The Caldey monks wanted, by means of this visible symbol, to associate themselves somehow with their tradition. Also, the Benedictine monks who inhabited Caldey Island in mediaeval times might have worn white habits. They stemmed from the strict reform movement established in the early 12th century by St. Bernard of Tiron. As an interesting aside, the Valliscaulian Order, founded in Burgundy by a former Carthusian brother in the late 12th century, also had an austerely contemplative way of life, and an all-white habit. Quite likely Abbot Aelred and his brethren had never even heard of them. But it was from this Order that in 1230 a community of white-habited monks came to Pluscarden in Morayshire.
The second motivation for the all-white habit was a desire to signify special devotion and consecration of the community to Our Lady.
Two years after this change was made, both motivating factors were put to a severe test. The Anglican Church authorities, represented by Bishop Charles Gore, found themselves unable to tolerate the stated ideals of the community. In particular, Gore decreed that any ordained members could in no way be exempted from the general laws governing Anglican clergy at the time. These laws made no provision whatever for the contemplative monastic life. And he insisted that direct public invocation of Mary be abandoned, together with the celebration of her feasts of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption into heaven.
The result of the crisis that followed was that both communities, of monks and nuns, were in March 1913 received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Pope St. Pius X, with the advice of Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion, insisted that the communities remain in existence, changing their life and customs as little as possible. So it was that, for the monks, the white habit remained. Financial difficulties led the community to leave Caldey Island in 1928, and to transfer to Prinknash in Gloucestershire. It was from Prinknash that in 1948 the present Pluscarden community was founded.
A century after it was adopted, our white habit continues to proclaim both our commitment to contemplative Benedictine monastic life, and our special love for Our Lady. It offers an enduring reminder, too, of a great grace in the history of the community: the gift of the fullness of the Catholic faith, and of Catholic communion, received on Caldey Island in March 1913.