On the 21st of November, 1966, the solemnly professed monks of this monastery assembled under the presidency of the then Abbot of Prinknash, Dyfrig Rushton, to begin the process of electing the first Superior of the Monastery following the grant of independence on the preceding 15th September.
This was the first meeting of the new monastic Chapter. As always at a meeting of a monastic Chapter, it would have begun with the roll call. The name of each monk would have been read, and everyone in turn would have said ‘Present’ as his name was called. The names read on that day were: Dom Columba Wynn, Dom Maurus Deegan, Dom Basil Heath-Robinson, Dom Bruno Webb, Dom Vincent Dapré, Dom Edmund Fatt, Dom Andrew Prescott, Dom Ninian Sloane, Dom Barnabas Kerr, Dom Camillus Warner, Dom Adrian Walker, Dom Bernard Morgan, Dom Mungo Aitken, Dom Droston Nunan, Dom Duthac Grey, Dom Hildebrand Flint, Dom Fergus Gorman, seventeen in all.
Up to that point, since the community’s foundation in 1948, the community resident here was an extension of Prinknash Abbey and was governed by the Abbot of that monastery through an appointed Superior. The last acts of the Abbot of Prinknash for the new community were to preside over the election of its first Superior and then to install that Superior in office. We are happy to have with us today Abbot Dyfrig’s successor, the present Abbot of Prinknash, Abbot Francis.
The grant of independence would have made little difference to the daily flow of the life here. It was not as noticeable to the public as the resumption of the monastic life here in 1948, or the elevation to the status of Abbey and the blessing of the first Abbot in 1974. But it was the crucial step in the community’s growth. It made it possible for the community to continue on a permanent basis.
It is normal for a Benedictine community to be ‘independent’ or ‘autonomous’. Of course it is a relative autonomy, within certain larger structures, but by and large a Benedictine community manages its own affairs, spiritual and temporal. This is the situation envisioned by the Rule of our holy Father Saint Benedict. Still, the granting of this status is never automatic. It requires a considered decision and commitment on the part of the monks who will make up the new community. The monks here at that time had already been here together for some years. But they had retained the security of being attached to a larger and more established community, their mother house at Prinknash. There was an element of risk, material and spiritual, in separating from the mother house and taking full responsibility for themselves.
The risk was perhaps greater than we can easily realise now. Though the community then was approximately the same size as now, the majority of them were monks who had come from Prinknash. In the years they had been at Pluscarden, only a few had entered the monastic life here. This was during a period, after the Second World War, when vocations were numerous, particularly to the monastic life. In fact it was a boom time for vocations. Pluscarden had not benefited from this. It must have made the brethren wonder. By 1966, the general trend of growth was over, and many of those who had entered in the previous twenty years were leaving. Again, it must have made the brethren here wonder. On the basis of experience, there was little reason for them to expect vocations. Financially, they were not well off. The buildings were more of a ruin than now. It was not the warm and reasonably comfortable house it is now. It was cold, and unhealthily damp. The seventeen were not choosing an easy future for themselves.
For their first Superior they elected not one of their own but a monk of Prinknash, Dom Alfred Spencer. For him, too, the future he now faced would not have seemed easy. Apart from the difficulties inherent in the office he was elected to, he had to abandon hopes he had entertained for a more solitary form of monastic life. If he was ever happy about this change in his life, he never said so! He arrived here at 5.35 on the evening of 14th December, and was installed in the Superior’s place at 6.00 the same evening. He would occupy that place, first with the title of Prior then as Abbot, for the next twenty six years. At his installation the seventeen gathered again, to hear him make his oath of fidelity and to make their own individual promises of obedience to him. With that, the new community was launched. Because of that, because of the choices and promises those seventeen and Prior Alfred made, we are here today.
Only one of us here now was here then: Br Adrian. Most of us knew some of the seventeen, some of us knew most of them. What can we say about them? I think it was a Trappist abbot who compared a monastic community to a box of chocolates: a lot of soft centres, and some hard nuts. Probably the proportions of hard to soft were reversed among our seventeen. They were not as gentle and easy going as we are now.
If one compares the various Religious Orders in the Church to the military, some Orders, the missionary ones, might be compared to commandoes or marines. The Monastic Orders are like guards. They don’t go out on campaign, there are no great battles and glorious victories. Their task is to stand guard on the walls and towers. What is asked of them is that they stay at their post, vigilant.
The remarkable thing about our seventeen is that only one later left the monastic life, for reasons that deserve sympathy. For the rest, one is still here, the others all kept their vows and promises to the grave.
When the roll call is made at a monastic Chapter meeting, you often have to strain your ears to hear some of the monks reply, ‘Present’. From some older ones, it is a faint whisper. I like to think that as a monk is being laid in the grave, an angel calls out his name, as the Chapter clerk does in a Chapter meeting, and in a voice too soft for us to hear the reply is given, ‘Present. Here I am. I stand guard, until the Resurrection.’ I would like to think that when the names of those Chapter members of 1966 were read out today, each replied, ‘Present’.
Fifty years from now, at the hundredth anniversary, perhaps one or two of those here now will be here then. Most of us will be gone, but should there be a roll call, may we all reply, ‘Present’.