Let's say you have been picked for Mastermind and have chosen Benedictine monasteries as your special subject. Your first question ("starting now,") is "What is the world's most northern Benedictine monastery?"
Somewhere in Scandinavia, perhaps, or Alaska or the Yukon? No. Pass? The answer is the very unusual and interesting Abbey of Pluscarden, a few miles from Elgin and not far from Aberdeen. It may not seem all that far north in global terms until we remember that it is a hundred miles north of Moscow.
Pluscarden was the venue for a recent ecumenical occasion of no little import. It was visited (officially) by this year's Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Dr David Smith, to mark the close of Christian unity week. He was accompanied by his wife, and these distinguished visitors were received, as seen in the adjoining picture, by the Abbot of Pluscarden, the Rt Rev Alfred Spender, OSB.
It so happens that Dr Smith's Benedictine connections go back a long way. He was born in Fort Augustus — centuries ago part of the land owned by the original Pluscarden Abbey — and was blessed in his youth by the then Abbot of Fort Augustus, the famous Sir David Oswald Hunter-Blair, OSB.
Among other guests that day at Pluscarden was the local Church of Scotland minister, David Lunan, the only Moderator of a Presbytery in Scotland to enjoy the title Very Rev. (Nobody quite knows why).
Another guest was the Rev A R R Torrie, parish minister of the nearby (Episcopalian) church of St Brendan the Navigator.
It was a splendid occasion, but scarcely more splendid than the chequered history of Pluscarden which may be said to be, at once, one of the oldest, and yet most modern monasteries in the entire British Isles.
Pluscarden Abbey was first founded by King Alexander II in 1230 for the Valliscaulian monks from Burgundy. In those days, of course, Scotland's links with France were close, while the common enemy was England. In 1390 Pluscarden was burned down. It was said that the arsonist was a local baddie known as the Wolf of Badenoch who had a grievance against the Bishop of Elgin.
Pluscarden was reconstructed but not before England had managed to isolate Scotland from France. The new monks were from Dunfermline. Not long afterwards something happened to Pluscarden which was Co have important results at and after the Reformation. It was something, moreover, which could only happen in Scotland and never to a religious house in England.
Pluscarden was taken over by the Dunbar family as a "commendatory" friary. This meant that the house became lay-owned, the custom being for the King to award religious benefices and properties, even, sometimes, an entire See, to his courtiers or favourites. This was of considerable financial benefit to the recipient and ensured his much-needed loyalty to the King.
Pluscarden was by no means the only monastery or religious house to suffer this fate. And thus it was that so many of such houses were not dissolved at the Reformation, being already in lay hands. The effect of the Reformation was, rather, that the supply of monks gradually dried up and Pluscarden lost the last of its friars in about 1600.
The abbey thereafter went through many vicissitudes, being at one time owned by the Duke of Fife, who turned the refectory into a Kirk. Later it was a hunting lodge, but it was some cousins of mine, I'm glad to say, who bought it back at the end of the 19th century. It was thus the Bute family who eventually gave it to the Benedictines. My favourite of that generation, Robert Crichton-Stuart, a devout and delightful man, told ,rne something of how it all happened.
The first monks to re-enter Pluscarden in modern times were 11 monks from Prinknash. This was in 1948. But what makes the present monks (there are 27 in the congregation) the most modern, possibly, in all Britain is the liturgy they perform every day.
They are essentially contemplatives and spend four hours each day singing High Mass and the entire Benedictine Office in Latin. But the Latin version they use is bang up-to date. Newer in fact than its English counterpart. For it comes directly from Vatican 11 and the liturgical books used by the monks of Pluscarden were first published in 1983.
Contemplation, however, is not the only activity that flourishes at Pluscarden. My other picture shows a stained glass window made in the studio at Pluscarden and installed last month in the new chapel of the Bon Secours Sisters in Glasgow The window was a gift from Bishop Charles Renfrew and is based on a mosaic in the foyer of the sisters' hospital. It was adapted from this mosaic by a Pluscarden monk, Br Giles, in conjunction with Martin Farrelly, On the same night that the window was installed, the chapel was dedicated by Archbishop Winning of Glasgow and by Bishop Renfrew.
I should perhaps add that Pluscarden seems. to be attracting many young people, not only as visitors but also as novices for its community. Eleven of the 27 monks are under 40, a high proportion by today's standards.
The whole community was naturally delighted by the honour of an official visit from the Moderator who, as you will see in the picture, is wearing the tricorn hat, ruffles and cloak traditionally donned on ceremonial or special occasions.
Another notable victory for ecumenism and a notable day in the long and varied history of Pluscarden Abbey.
Year of peace
1986 has just been declared National Year of the Bat. I mention this fact because some weeks ago I asked how much attention should be paid to the dedication of such-and-such a year to some such, occasionally rather off-beat, cause.
It must be admitted, however, that one cause highlighted in one of the titles for 1986 definitely is worthy of serious attention. This is the naming of 1986 as "A Pastoral Year for Peace."
The suggestion for this title came from Pax Christi after discovering that the United Nations had declared the year to be the International Year for Peace. They were prompted to do so by the declaration made at the recent Synod in Rome that "We are not made for death but for life. We are not condemned to division and war but called to fraternity and peace."
Pax Christi is sometimes identified as a disarmament movement, but this is a mistake. Its correct title is the International Catholic Peace Movement.
As the latest (January-February) issue of its journal Just Peace points out, "Rightly in recent years, much emphasis has been placed upon making more Catholics aware of the basic scriptural and theological principles for a sound Christian judgement on the issues of war and peace in the nuclear age, But all the time we have tried to show that peace is the fruit of right order — it follows on justice."
In Gospel light
All of this came out very clearly last Sunday, the day chosen by the Pope as World Day for Peace. Pax Christi was naturally very actively involved, working under the slogan "North-South, East-West: Only One Peace."
A widespread programme reached many parish churches, schools, associations and people in general, and the programme included prayer vigils, sermon notes, discussion outlines and also practical ideas for the involvement of adults and young people through the year.
Fax Christi is lucky in having as its new general secretary the dynamic Fr Owen Hardwicke. He has worked long and fruitfully in the field.
What is particularly striven for in Pax Christi at the moment is the raising of greater awareness of the injustices rampant in South Africa, Northern Ireland and so many parts of the Second and Third Worlds.
"The Pastoral Year of Peace", writes Fr Hardwicke, "is a year in which we hope all Catholics will look closely at the facts (See), then assess them in the light of the Gospel (Judge), and move towards some lively response (Act). We hope for a massive increase in involvement of ordinary parishioners in 1986". The address of Pax Christi, by the way, is St Francis of Assisi Centre, Pottery Lane, London W11 4NQ. (Tel: 01-727 2609).