The Russian Grandmother With Red Boots Goes to an Abbey

Well, kids, after a great, relaxed couple of days in Inverness, Mariah and I split up, and I headed about an hour and a half bus ride away to Elgin, Scotland, and then hopped on a bus with a bunch of school kids to get to Pluscarden Abbey, where I spent the next 5 days.

(While you read the rest of this post, you can listen to this music. It’s approximately what every service sounded like. This first one is fairly typical of how the monks sung the Psalms, which was one “tune” sung over for each line. The second one is more varied and was more typical of the hymns they would sing.)

First, the outward practicalities of life: I stayed at the St. Scolastica’s guesthouse just down the road from Pluscarden Abbey. The little (10 room) guest house had been built just 10 years ago or so, so it’s nothing too remarkable, except that it had the kind of decor in the shared spaces that I’ve decided is very specifically Catholic and “of a certain generation”: lots of floral prints, lots of pictures of saints, constant availability of coasters for your drink.

This is the St. Scolastica guesthouse. If the light spilling out onto the snow is not a welcoming sight on a cold night walking back from the Abbey, I don't know what is.

There were four other women there at the time. 3 of them were over 60 and lovely, stereotypical Scottish Catholic ladies, warm and chatty and devoted to cleanliness. (the other was a nonreligious 20something Canadien studying at Oxford. But she was mostly on walks, and less chatty, so we didn’t talk much.)

We shared food (bread and milk and tea were provided), and I mooched off people’s food.

We were set in a decently remote valley with fields and pastures of sheep and forests and old stone walls.

I walked up a path just beyond that meadow, and it was a perfect day for just 2 hours, and I had amazing views across the valley, and it was beautiful beyond speaking of it. I didn't take my camera, and I'm not sorry. Sometimes you just have to go on a walk with God and nothing else.

Just a five minute walk away was the Abbey. The building has been around in some form since 1230 A.D. That is crazy to me. 15 years after the Magna Carta, monks started living at Pluscarden. But it was sacked once and was roofless and progressively more tumbled down from 1500ish to 1800ish, then it got fixed up a bit, and then refinished progressively more since the 1950s by the predecessors of this group of 26ish monks. On the inside of the chapel the stonework is roughened by being outside for years, and only some of the stained glass windows are replaced. Some are just white Plexiglas. I really like that. It wasn’t a museum piece. It was a rehab project en process, however slowly. I felt at home, although no rehab project I’ve been involved in had a history back 800 years!

These two facing seating areas are the public part of the chapel. The monks walk through from that door on the left to their benches out of view on the right. Every one of them bows to the cross hanging above the altar every single time he passes it.

I typically went to two of the 8 services a day. They sing (in Gregorian chant in Latin) all of the Psalms every week and have full Mass once a day. There were guides provided for each of the services that had the Latin translated into English. It was a cool experience to be with them, but it was hard to worship. It didn’t feel like it was a worship service for us anyways; the public were off to the side, and couldn’t sing with them (not that we could). It’s just something that is a different way of participating, I guess.

I didn’t have much interaction with the monks, but they seemed friendly.

My typical day consisted in sleeping until I woke up (I averaged 10-11 hours of sleep a night. It was GLORIOUS.), reading the Bible, eating breakfast, going to Mass, then going on a walk, hanging out with the other women, writing letters, etc. Then going to bed by 9.30. What a life!



3 Comments on “The Russian Grandmother With Red Boots Goes to an Abbey”

  1. Dad says:

    Thanks for the informative update. Great photos and I love the photo of you.

  2. Renee B. says:

    Best quote from this blog by far: “I didn’t take my camera, and I’m not sorry. Sometimes you just have to go on a walk with God and nothing else.”

  3. EJGcatholic says:

    PAX, i happened upon your post about Pluscarden .I hope , God willing, to become a monk there someday.I thought you’d be interested in this video mash about PLuscarden Abbey,with interviews and Chant… (its 30 minutes long though).
    thank-you for your wonderful photos, wish there were more!. ps, did you by any of the monks chant cd’s from their little store?

    In Christ, Emile (Vancouver Canada).

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