I may not know much about alcohol, but I do know that morning drinking on the train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen will get you a few odd looks—although probably not as many as you’d expect most other places. The man with the food cart came down the aisle at ten fifteen and asked if I wanted anything. “What beer d’ya have?” I asked him. He looked at his watch with a little concern before hesitantly naming a few labels. I’d never had any of them before, so I employed a tactic that I’ve mastered recently. “Foster’s, please,” I said, nearly cutting him off. I may not know much about alcohol, but other people don’t need to know that, so I play connoisseur as well as the next American twenty-year-old.
“Shake It Out” by Florence & the Machine came onto my iPod and I enjoyed a few moments of victory before the train filled up with Scots. A surly young woman sat next to me. “Don’t judge me,” I told her. “I’ve never drunk on a train before and I wanted my first time to be in Scotland. I swear this isn’t sad.” “No, seems reasonable,” she muttered. I put my earbuds back in.
I wrote in my journal a lot on these train rides. An excerpt written while flying past little Scottish towns:
The steeples on the churches here are dark and bleak. If the Christopher Wrens in London inspire awe and wonder and glory, those here seem to say that there is hard, unglamorous work to do before we can get to where they’re pointing. Protestant work ethic and whatnot.”
The next nine pages of my journal are spent on the metaphor of Christ and his Bride. After that, two pages of quotes from Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, including the following:
Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.” (7)
On falling in love with his wife:
…it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there.” (22-23)
I didn’t understand the brogue of the taxi driver who took me from the train station in Elgin to Pluscarden Abbey, the home of the Benedictine community I was to stay with for the week. I did, however, understand the posh and articulate to the point of theatrical Oxbridge accent of the man who greeted me upon arrival—a young visiting dom, ranked somewhere between priest and monk. “Oh, you’re an Oxford man. Oh, so sorry. I’m a Cambridge man of course, which, as I’m sure you know, is better than Oxford for most things. What college? Wycliffe Hall? OH, so so sorry.” I was surprised and smugly pleased to learn a few days later that the dom was, in fact, a mere New Yorker born and bred who did his undergrad at Cambridge, changed his voice, converted from Episcopalianism, and joined an order.
I dropped my bags in my room, which was part of a large guest house attached to the abbey, capable of holding fourteen men. There were six or seven others when I arrived, including the dom, a middle-aged man from somewhere in southern England, an older middle-aged man from a town between Edinburgh and Glasgow, another Scot of about the same age who had adopted an English accent and had thus, according to the first, “Anglicized,” an elderly Irish man, and two young men interested in perhaps joining the order, one from Nigeria and the other from Poland, I believe.
My first conversation with Charles, the non-Anglicized Scot, began, “So tell me, Sam—you’ve been in Scotland for a little while now?” “Well, a couple days.” “So d’ya think that Scotland is defferent enough from England ta be it’s own country?” “Well…” I said and rambled something about not knowing much about either, really, but there seem to be enough differences to make them separate. Canada and the States are similar, but different nations. “AYE they are.”
Going to the abbey, I really didn’t know what to expect my retreat would be like. The website said that the monks sing the seven daily offices in Latin and retreatants are invited to all of them. I knew that we would eat some meals with the monks and that we had the option of helping out with work around the abbey, but, being sick, I didn’t volunteer. One thing was certain after meeting Charles, though, and that was that my retreat would not be a silent one.
“I’ll tell ya something, Sam,” said Charles one night during the Great Silence, which is, as the name suggests, supposed to be silent. “You’re at a time a life when people will try ta tell ya what ta do. I never tell young people what ta do b’cause I believe you should learn fer yerself. But here’s what you gotta do. When they start givin ya shet advice just tell ’em ‘Pess off!'” (He gave two V’s with his hands.) “‘PESS off.'”
A typical day began with breakfast. Father Bede, the monk in charge of guests, made sure the little fridge in our kitchen was stocked with eggs, milk, butter, and bread, and that there was plenty of coffee, porridge, and Muesli in the cabinets. Being sick, I recalled the breakfast Mum used to prepare for me when I was a kid. I toasted two slices of bread and atop of them placed two poached eggs. As I poured milk over the eggs and toast, Alan, the man from southern England whose accent was nearly as indecipherable as the taxi driver’s, walked into the kitchen. “On earth are you doing to yer eggs?” he mumbled in bemusement. “My mum would always pour some milk over eggs and toast when we had sore throats so that it would go down easier.” “Yer how old?” he said. “…twenty…” I said. “You don’t have to do that anymore, then. Yer twenty years old.” He washed his teacup and left the room. After I had finished my breakfast and was washing my dishes Alan reappeared. “So what other weird and wonderful things has yer mother taught you?”
The offices were generally ten to fifteen minutes long, besides the daily mass—which I only attended twice—and Vigils and Lauds, the morning services held together, which begin at four thirty in the morning and last until six. I attended these only once. There wasn’t much of a night life at Pluscarden outside of my conversations with Charles, Alan, and Francis, the old Irishman who was filled with stories that didn’t really go anywhere but were enjoyable nonetheless because he was an amiable old Irishman, so I went to bed fairly early every night and woke up fairly early in the morning—4:05 am on 3 October.
Besides attending the services, all of the retreatants ate lunch and dinner with the brothers. We walked through their quarters, passing their library, to reach the dining room. The brothers’ long wooden tables formed an ‘n’ shape to the right and a few shorter tables were reserved for us. We stood until all of the brothers had assembled and waited for the opening prayers to end, which was our cue to sit down. The brother who climbed up to the elevated lectern behind us would then read the Bible passage or section of the Rule of St. Benedict allotted for the day and meal while we waited for one of the monks to bang a salt shaker on the table. Then, napkins on lap, water in glass, and butter on toast as the brother in charge of serving brought the food in various rounds. During lunch the lector read from the new C. S. Lewis biography by Alistair McGrath. During dinner he read from a book about the life of Bakhita, an African slave brought to Italy and canonized—there were some important details in between.
I did quite a bit of reading on my own during my copious free time. I finished My Bright Abyss, flew through Silence: A Christian History by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and got halfway through the wonderful Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon. Besides reading, I prayed, journaled through a lot of things, sat in silence, browsed the gift shop, petted the abbey cat, and went on a couple of long walks.
I entered the kitchen. “Would ya like some tea, Sam?” “Uh, sure. Thanks, Charles.” We walked into the lounge that was really more of a dining room and sat down at the table. Charles and Francis, who was already seated, told stories of their upbringings, of the only girlfriend Francis ever had and the night a stranger, like one of Scrooge’s ghosts, brought him to the window of a pub to show him that his girlfriend, after four years of being together, had been seeing another man in secret, how this broke Francis’ heart, how Francis later opened his door to find her smiling, expecting to go out on the date they had planned, how he told her what was what, and how that was that. Charles—himself a small scrap of a man—recalled the day when a big lad confronted their high school’s young teacher who treated them all poorly, saying, “Look, this is me last year. If you don’t fight me now one day Ill find you on the street or in the pub and beat the shet of you then.” They went outside and boxed with bare fists while the students formed a ring to block off the sight. “And you know what?” Charles asked. “He did beat the bloody shet outta him.” “Which one?” Francis asked. “The student beat the teacher in front a the whole class—and the teacher couldnae say anythin because he knew he deserved it, too!”
Charles gathered stones from the abbey’s grounds to place around the grave of his wife, God rest her. “D’ya have a bag, Sam? Any old plastic bag’ll do.” I found one and brought it to him. He spoke about missing his daughter and her friends, who have become some of his better friends, too. “You’d see ‘er and fall in love in a minute, Sam. She’s a beautiful lass. She just called me from a party she’s havin. I asked her who’s there? ‘Robbie, Jen, Christy, Adam’—ach! Everyone!” He laughed. “I wish I could be there! People give me a hard time. They say I do too much for ‘er. She’ll call me and say she’s got a party tonight, can ya come help me clean? ‘Aye’ I say and head over. I get there and Jesus! it’s like a storm hit.” More chuckles. “They say she’s old enough to clean up fer herself. I say ‘Pess off. My daughter has a good time on Friday nights…’ Fuck’em.”
In my short time at Pluscarden I came to love the rhythm of the offices, irregular though I was in attendance. I miss the minimal organ accompaniment that haunted the “Gloria Patri” at compline every night—the simple chord progression that shifted something in your soul as you bowed at the name of the Trinity; the purity of the brothers’ voices as they chanted their praises and love seven times a day; if you listened closely, the slight illusion of a bell chimed with every sung syllable an octave above the voices—a collision or cohesion or sympathy of sound; and the ominous tolling of the abbey bells that shepherded us out of the sanctuary when the service was over, reminding us that there is still work to do.
[This is the second post of two on my trip to Scotland. Part I may be found here.]