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A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor
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Jun 13, 2011

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bookshelves: 1950s, buildings, walks
Read on June 13, 2011

By the mid 1950s, Patrick Leigh Fermor was living in France, drinking abundantly, enjoying the company of friends, and reading everything he could get his hands on – all of which severely distracted him from the real task at hand: writing a book. In ‘search for somewhere quiet and cheap to stay’, he retreated to the abbey of St Wandrille, a Benedictine foundation in Normandy known for its hospitality, the purity of its plainsong, and most importantly, its vow of silence. The book that emerged from this sojourn, A Time to Keep Silence (1957), may not be the book Leigh Fermor intended to write when he entered the abbey; but this short, sober meditation, drawn mostly from letters he wrote during his stays at St Wandrille and other monastic communities, remains a favourite with many readers who delight in its gentle insights on the rigours and rewards of the cenobitic life.

‘A novice advanced with a silver ewer and a basin; the Abbot poured a little water over our hands, a towel was offered, and our welcome, according to Benedictine custom, was complete’. In spite of this warm welcome, Leigh Fermor can’t at first shake a painful feeling of living in a catacomb: silence and insomnia torment him, followed by regret and boredom. After a few days, though, his mind begins to clear of worries, his system starts to dry out, the distractions of life outside the abbey’s walls gently drift away; and refreshed by deep, uninterrupted sleep, he finds that his work has become a pleasure. For the next couple of months he lives among the abbey’s residents, rising with them in the early morning hours appointed for the Divine Office, dining with them in silence while the lector reads aloud in Latin from the Martyrology, and studying extensively in the abbey’s excellent library (even calling occasionally for books from Enfer, a depository of works considered ‘damaging to monastic life’ – alas, he names no titles).

A short time later, seeking a more severe monastic experience, Leigh Fermor takes a ‘plunge into the depths of a Trappist monastery’ known for its ‘fierce asceticism, cloistered incarceration ... abstinence, fasting, humiliation, the hair shirt, the scourge’. The dip leaves him a little more bewildered than refreshed. Unimpressed by the Cistericians’ emphasis on physical asceticism and intellectual simplicity, he goes so far as to describe his stay there as fruitful only insofar as he took ‘masochistic enjoyment’ in its ‘sad charm’. A third monastic visit, this time to the abandoned subterranean churches and hermitages of Cappadocia, likewise proves almost as perplexing as inspiring. Unable to determine who exactly the former inhabitants were or what their mode of spiritual exercise entailed, he at least finds some philological satisfaction when he notes that, judging from the inscriptions on the frescoes, the 11th-century community there pronounced Greek in much the same way as a modern Athenian.

While A Time to Keep Silence is a book about the quiet, contemplative life, it is also to a surprising extent a book about words and their use. During his long walks with the Benedictine abbot, Leigh Fermor confesses to feeling a ‘spasm of delight’ whenever the abbot slips into the ‘Latin of the Vatican’. This delight in arcane, foreign, and unusual words (noctambulism, giaour, villeggiatura are a few I had to look up) reverberates throughout the book in a way that would have made Corvo green. ‘Dans le monde hors de nos murs, on fait un grand abus de la parole’, the abbot opines. Leigh Fermor may have nodded in agreement at the time, but this book, like much of his work, is nevertheless best read with a thick dictionary and a set of encyclopaedias at your side.

‘The secret of monastic life, that entire abdication of the will and the enthronement of the will of God which solves all problems and trials and turns a life of such acute outward suffering into one of peace and joy, is a thing that is given to few outside a cloister fully to comprehend’. Leigh Fermor never claims to have been one of the lucky few. Even thirty years after writing the book and after countless other visits to monastic communities scattered across Europe and the New World, he felt himself ‘unqualified still to deliver a verdict on the conditions and possibilities of life in that hushed and wintry solitude’. What he does come to understand, though, is his own ‘capacity for solitude’ coupled with an undeniable sorrow for the sight of empty monasteries. Not exactly earth-moving revelations. And to be sure, A Time to Keep Silence isn’t a profound spiritual autobiography, or even a particularly religious book. But it does offer a brief, interesting look at the world of mid-century monasticism; and in the end, you’ll probably take away not only a greater sympathy for those who have chosen to pursue the conventual life, but also a deeper appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s geniality, humanity, and wit.
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