Mary Wakefield meets Dom Hugh Gilbert, the Benedictine Abbot of Pluscarden — said to be the Pope’s ‘dark horse’ candidate to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor
What is holiness? How do you spot it? I’ve come to Worth Abbey in Sussex to meet a monk often described as ‘holy’ — Dom Hugh Gilbert, OSB, Abbot of Pluscarden in Scotland — and I wonder as I wander around in search of him, what form his sanctity will take.
What is a holy man, and where is this holy man? Worth seems deserted. Puddles lie low in sleeves of ice; clouds hang motionless over what looks like a spaceship but must be the church. The air is full of a curious, attentive silence.
On further investigation, the spaceship, too, is empty. There’s a vast cross suspended over an altar, and in a hallway, a little unmanned bookshop containing Pope Benedict XVI’s collected works and — phew! — a note addressed to me: ‘Dear Mary, Apologies for being late, Fr Hugh.’ So I sit in the shop and wait, watched over by little book-jacket Benedicts.
It’s nice of the Pope to keep me company, and it’s fitting too. After all, he’s the real reason I’m here. Later this year he’ll have to name a new leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales to replace the outgoing Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, and 55-year-old Fr Hugh — much though he’ll loathe the proposition — is said to be the dark horse, the one to watch in the race towards Westminster.
Why a monk? Why even consider giving England’s soul to a man who’s spent 33 years buried in northern Scotland? Well, according to Vatican gossip (not in short supply), the kind Pope is concerned about our capsizing country and wants England to have a devout, inspired leader — one as far removed from the tired clique of England’s urbane and power-hungry liberal bishops as possible. Fr Hugh fits the bill.
‘Hello, Mary?’ Fr Hugh Gilbert is standing in front of me smiling, his bald head poking tortoise-like from a white cowl. I follow him to the spaceship’s upstairs sitting-room, where I discover that one of the side-effects of holiness is a reluctance to bang on about yourself.
‘Not much about me on Google? Oh well, um, what do you want to know? I went to St Paul’s School, then university in London, then 33 years ago I moved to the other end of the country,’ says Fr Hugh, blushing. But you weren’t born a Catholic, how did you become one? I’m hoping for a Damascene conversion or a Newmanesque moment of clarity (‘I saw my face in the mirror, and I was a Monophysite!’). No dice. ‘There was nothing dramatic,’ says Fr Hugh apologetically. ‘I suppose the holiness of saints struck me as a thing of joy — the fullness of human existence.’ He drums his feet on the floor and grins. I try to remember the last time I had to encourage someone to talk about themselves.
What Fr Hugh really wants to discuss, it turns out, is Pluscarden, where he has been in charge for 16 years, and where by some miracle, at a time when vocations are pathetically rare, there are now 27 monks living, working, praying in the Morayshire hills. Do you have men from all backgrounds? I ask. ‘Oh yes, yes!’ he says. ‘We have accountants, barmen — oh goodness — soldiers and teachers.’ Isn’t it a difficult life? ‘Of course it is. St Benedict says, “Let him not be given an easy entry.” But to put it grandly and simply, one enters the monastery because one wants union with God, so one accepts the consequences of that choice. Who desires the end desires the means. And, well, you fall back on grace.’
A bell begins to toll. Through a window I can see the monks of Worth moving across the frosty lawns in the winter sun, and I say with more bitterness than I intended: so what good does a monk do for the rest of the world? Aren’t you men of God supposed to be helping everyone?
Fr Hugh grins again. ‘That’s a fair question, yes. Well, of course we provide sanctuary. Believers and non-believers can come on retreat to Pluscarden and find silence and beauty. And then, I hope, we pray, which would be the main thing.’ But does prayer actually do anything? I ask, feeling like a teenager. ‘Intercessory prayer does raise a lot of theological questions,’ says Fr Hugh. ‘But the fact is, putting it very simply, it seems God wants it. God works with prayer.’
Fr Hugh looks sympathetically at me. I remember a passage on prayer in his book, Unfolding the Mystery: ‘The monk hopes that his modest, daily, never quite consummated attempt, nonetheless repercusses positively and far; that his prayer somehow keeps prayer alive and pure.’ It’s the idea of the monk as spiritual gardener, working to clear the silted-up channels between God and man. And I wonder: is it fair to take this man of prayer and dump him in Westminster?
Of course, it sounds reasonable to want a holy chap to head up the Catholic Church in England but, in reality, isn’t there a paradox? To be holy is to rely utterly on God, to have kicked your addiction to the usual daft comforts, but can such an unworldly man survive such a very worldly job? Fr Hugh has been likened to Basil Hume, our last monk-Cardinal, but Hume (though holy) was God’s gift to public relations, trailing natty soundbites and celebrity pals. Fr Hugh Gilbert, by contrast, is utterly unPR-ed, an unspun hero, full of the levity that comes from humility. He’s happy to laugh at himself and quick to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers. On the subject of Islam he says: ‘Yes, I think Muslims are praying to the same God but, at the same time, we should stand up for Christian identity and values. But look, I really would have to think more before answering such a serious question.’
Every priest hungry for the top job will have long prepared a punchy response to the problem of Britain’s dwindling church attendance. The impressive and sensible Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols (one of the chief contenders for Cardinal), has published a timely book about the need for vigorous evangelisation. Dom Hugh Gilbert’s latest book, on the other hand, is about how the liturgical year unfolds the mystery of Christ, and his remedy for secularisation isn’t leaflets or lobbying, but the Holy Spirit. ‘We need to go back to the patrician period, the period of the fathers of the Church, to see how they dealt with the culture. Our culture is in many ways antipathetic if you like to the work of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still the Holy Spirit and can still, well, raise up children to Abraham out of the stones.’
As I get up to leave, I have my last lesson in holiness, which is that you just can’t second-guess it. Would you ever leave Pluscarden? I ask, expecting a definitive ‘no’. But Fr Hugh looks thoughtful: ‘Yes, I think it is time to leave. I can’t stay there forever, though I have no idea what I’ll do next.’ And equally unexpected is an email I receive a week later:
You may well have decided that I was not worth ‘profiling’, which I would quite understand. If not, am I allowed a little follow-up?
I like the idea that beauty and holiness are the apologia for Christianity. The beauty of Christianity needs to shine out more; this is where the celebration of the liturgy becomes central. And the goodness of Christianity, i.e. the holiness of self-giving love (the witness of charity) and of prayer, needs to be sustained and developed. And this too, certainly: that the one thing Christianity has to offer is Easter. Simply: Christ is risen!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 22, 2008