Approximately 35 miles to the northwest of Inverness one finds the only historical monastery in Britain still in use. It is, perhaps more than most places I visit, a truly out of the way place. It was only after three bus rides, the last of which was hitched from a local school bus, that I found myself at the start of the small road that winds its way through the woods.
As I walked, the wind began to rustle and the last light of the sun was peeking through the trees. It seemed impossible that this remote location could be home to anything more than a small cottage, but as I rounded another small bend in the road, the woods opened up and revealed a great mass of stonework and stained glass. It was as if by walking through these particular woods I had traveled back in time and found myself at the door of some long forgotten castle. The dark rustling leaves and cold, worn stone gave the whole scene the air of a dark fairytale.
The cold darkness of the exterior gave way to great warmth as I was welcomed inside to tea and cookies. This was accompanied by a lively conversation with the brother whose task it is to welcome wayward travelers such as myself. We spoke for quite some time, with a degree of mutual interest, almost fascination. For what is more interesting than to spend an hour with some who appears so close to being your opposite? He, a monk for whom a trip to the dentist is rare excursion, and myself, a wandering nomad who calls no place home. Yet through our conversation, we found that we had surprisingly much in common. We both lived lives outside the norm, living lives that could puzzle or anger those close to us. We both were naturally drawn to academics and we both had a passion for reading. I could continue, but the point is simple, we seemed to be natural friends.
Our conversation was brought to an end by one of the many services that mark the passage of time here and as I sat listening to the monks chant in Latin, much as they would have done some eight hundred years ago, I was once again transported back in time. Dinner was equally remarkable shared with two dozen monks and accompanied by an oral reading, a method of learning that began to pass out of fashion in the high middle ages, but which is a soothing accompaniment to dinner.
After the meal, the brother who had welcomed me escorted me back to the guest residence and on the way we passed through the monastic library. I was disappointed to learn that the long shelves were reserved for the use of the monks and I’m sure my disappointment showed on my face. “I thought you might have been interested in finding something to read,” the brother said. “If you take a look in the cupboard under the stairs you’ll find a white bag. In it I’ve left four books for you. You don’t have to read them of course, but I tried to pick some I thought would interest you.” We really were natural friends after all.