Homily for the Re-dedication of Pluscarden Abbey Church

We are a people who need comforting.

So it is. I think if we just pause and feel ourselves, return to our hearts, we will sense this. There’s a great yearning for comfort there. It’s the cry of our hearts. We early 21st c. people, we who are adrift on this strange sea of the world, so hard to understand, so full of gratuitous violence, so insecure – we are in need of comfort, even, curiously enough, if our lives are generally ‘okay’, and so embarrassingly more comfortable than those of many others. We western Christians, we Catholics in Scotland, we are in need of comfort – surely. Each of us, in our families, with our friends, with the passing of the years, we need comforting. We can pose as competent and efficient and confident, or just resigned, but it’s comfort we really want. And when a monk is alone on his bed in the watches of night, or lost in the labyrinth of his mind, what is his heart longing for?

‘When will you console me?’ says the Psalmist (Ps 118:82), and Anna the prophetess, we’re told, never left the Temple, day or night, waiting for the consolation of Israel.

You catch my drift. It’s in the minor key, and this a major key day! But there is something to be acknowledged here and kept close to. It’s something Pope Francis, among others, keeps close to, and speaks from and prays from. It’s something that suffuses the Bible from end to end.

And comfort comes.

The Lord consoles his people. He can console us overwhelmingly if he wants.  ‘They come back, they come back, full of song, carrying their sheaves.’ Other times he consoles us just enough, just enough to keep us going. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ There can be great comfort in little things.

Comfort comes. And it comes to us today and here. It comes to us as it came to Israel by the waters of Babylon: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.’ Indeed, that chapter of Israel’s history, from the 6th and 5th centuries before Christ, that has been a living, active, consoling word for this community over the last 70 years. It was a time of return, or returns from exile, the time of rebuilding, of laying the foundations, erecting an altar, completing the temple, raising the walls of Jerusalem; the time of 2nd Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, and Joshua, son of Jehozadak, of Ezra and Nehemiah. Not a time of unalloyed success, full of setbacks in fact, disappointments and delays, stops and starts, but shot through with the words of prophets, the consolation of the Scriptures. ‘Take courage…courage!…Courage all you people of the land…To work! I am with you –and my Spirit remains among you…and in this place I will give peace.’ Or this from Zechariah: ‘Not by might and not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts… A day for little things, no doubt, but who would dare despise it? People will rejoice when they see the chosen stone in the hands of Zerubbabel’ (Zech 4:6, 10). ‘Many priests and Levites, says the book of Ezra, many heads of families, who were then old and had seen the earlier Temple on its foundations, wept aloud, but many others raised their voices in shouts of joy. And nobody could distinguish the shouts of joy from the sound of the people’s weeping’ (Ezra 3:12-13). And so Isaiah’s words came true: ‘Yes, the Lord has pity on Zion, has pity on all her ruins, turns her desolation into an Eden, her wasteland into the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song’ (Is 51:3).

Yes, there is comfort in our local version of this ancient story. I think of that 18th c papist in this valley, Mrs Gordon of Westerton, who would come here privately and do her devotions alone with her maid in the ruins. She is being comforted. So surely those ‘good many papists’ who were noted in an official report as moving into this valley. What of the Protestant preacher buried in the Lady Chapel, Francis Hasben, who laboured in this valley in the 18th c? Is he glad now, any misconceptions washed away, at the sight of the living Gospel of this place? And what of the first monks here who saw this house in its former glory? What of Thomas Ross, the last-known Pluscarden monk of the 16thc., who annotated his Bible so carefully – that Bible now in the archives of Aberdeen University Library? Yes, what a comfort it has been to see the ruins rebuilt and living stones forming a living Temple, singing the praises of God who has called us out of the darkness into his wonderful light. God has given a great deal of comfort to many people, monks and others, in and through this place. The consolation of the Scriptures; the good word which is above the best gift; the comfort of friendship; the grace of sacraments; even raspberries and tatties, honey and laughter, even Baxter the cat; and not least that mysterious health food, that other kind of single malt, that healing oil – the chant which fills this church and the ears of singers and listeners and helps purify the world’s air of the evil spirits. When I come back here now, it’s often the older generation of monks who fill my mind. And they do today. I think of Abbot Alfred, Fr Maurus, Fr Camillus and all the others. ‘And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in’ (Is 58:12). They made today possible, as did and do so many oblates, friends, architects, builders, joiners and benefactors. How good to seal all this with the re-dedication of this church and altar!

From the late 16th c., this church was abandoned and progressively stripped or used for other things. When Fr John Geddes (later Bishop) visited the ruins in 1761, he noted that the Dunbar Vestry was used as a ‘butcher’s house’. But was that exactly desecration? I asked a liturgist recently, what allows us to re-dedicate a church? He gave a compelling answer. The key, he said, is the altar. If the altar went, then you can re-dedicate. And it did go, and the Eucharist went, and there was a great emptiness. And today with the dedication of this altar, with the setting of the Blessed Sacrament in its new place, the void is finally re-filled. The angels return, and we are comforted.

But the Eucharist itself and the Gospel ask us to go one step further. When Jesus stood in the Temple restored by Zerubbabel, re-dedicated in the days of Judas Maccabeus, enlarged and beautified by Herod – the Second Temple as it’s called – he looked beyond. He pointed elsewhere. ‘Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.’ ‘He was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body, and when Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the words he had said.’ I hope there won’t only be funerals celebrated here, good as it is to go to your grave from here. I hope there will be monks professed and ordained here, a steady procession of them. I hope today will spark new choices of monastic life. I hope the living stones will continue to rise. But no church building, no altar, no one community, has a guarantee of immortality. Our journey isn’t finished yet and our hearts can still be broken. Didn’t we hear just recently that, courtesy of ISIS, there was no Mass in Mosul for the first time since Christianity came there?

‘The sanctuary of his body.’

It is Christ’s desire to bring us comfort, to give us sanctuary. And every small consolation, like today’s, every encouragement for our pilgrimage, he wants us to taste and enjoy, but as a spark from a greater fire, as a touch of what Paul calls ‘eternal comfort’ (2 Thess 2:16). These sparks run through the stubble of history. They break out now here, now there – in a person, in a community, in a holy place, in a moment or a word. And with them we can comfort one another with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. But they are to draw us on to the fire at the heart of the triune God, the joy that no one can ever take away from us. ‘When Jesus rose from the dead…’ And our liturgy has its whole and only value in signifying that. A dedicated church, a dedicated ‘altar tells us that the body of Christ is no longer here or there in a mortal place, but is risen and fills everything with its presence’ (J. Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship, p. 195). It is a sign of the final consolation, our definitive sanctuary, our eternal comfort, which is life in the body that was crucified in weakness and raised in power. Here we have no abiding city or temple or church, ‘but we seek the one which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:14). ‘The people of God who gather in a church are only pausing there on their exodus journey; the ground they occupy is that on which as pilgrims they set their feet [seven times a day perhaps], but as soon as they lift up their eyes, they contemplate their Lord who is coming, along with the holy Mother of God, [St John the Baptist and St Andrew] and the cloud of witnesses who are journeying with them’ (Corbon, p. 197).

‘When Jesus rose from the dead…’ The Resurrection is irrepressible. This community, this place, this day is a sign of it. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. It is a gift, a consolation, a touch of the Comforter. It is a spark in the stubble and a portion of our daily bread and strength for our pilgrimage. An occasion to re-dedicate ourselves, to reset the compass of our hearts. Most of all, though, it is an intimation of something more, of our lasting home. It lifts our hearts to the sanctuary of Christ’s body, the house of the Father, the embrace of that infinite love which, as Pope Francis says, can alone heal our infinite sadness.

‘And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a great voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev 21:1-4).

And we will be comforted.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122