A Time to Keep Silence

Patrick Leigh Fermor, now 92 years of age, is considered a national treasure both in his native Britain and in Greece, his adopted country, but he has never been widely known in the United States. That is strange, for he is arguably the greatest living travel writer: stunningly erudite, witty, humane, and a consummate master of English prose.

Leigh Fermor was also one of the most famously dashing and glamorous men of his generation. During the Second World War he organized and directed the Cretan Resistance while disguised as a shepherd and hiding out in caves. A decade earlier, still in his teens, he walked all the way from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it), following the courses of the Rhine and Danube rivers through Central Europe. Many years later he turned his memories of the journey through these enchanted regions, by then looted and degraded by the Nazis, the Soviets, and sundry other dictators, into two indescribably charming volumes, A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). His other travel classics include two books on Greece, Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966).

A Time to Keep Silence, originally published in 1957 and now reissued by New York Review Books, is slighter than any of these, really just a collection of three essays. Leigh Fermor’s subject is monasteries and monasticism, and while he indulges in a certain amount of reflection on the nature of monastic life, spirituality, and the religious vocation, the book is essentially a travel chronicle rather than a more extended study of the phenomenon of monasticism, like Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence for example, Isabel Colgate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness, or Through the Narrow Gate, the account by theologian Karen Armstrong (who has provided the introduction for this edition of A Time to Keep Silence) of her early years as a nun and her eventual exit from the convent in favor of a life of scholarship. Leigh Fermor is an observer rather than a theorist or a participant; a brilliant one, but essentially a painter of surfaces rather than an explorer of depths.

Of course that’s part of what makes A Time to Keep Silence so beguiling; like most of his readers, Leigh Fermor must strain to comprehend the powerful sense of vocation that leads someone to enter the monastic life. His first visit, to the ancient Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in Normandy, was undertaken merely in an attempt to find a cheap and quiet place to write. The Abbot was hospitable and allotted Fermor a quiet cell. So far, so good?but after a few days in the scarcely broken silence Fermor found his consciousness undergoing a peculiar transformation. “I think the alteration must have taken about four days,” he writes. At first he felt “dereliction,” “a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude?. The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.”

Leigh Fermor hazards an explanation for the whole process. “The desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything.” Free of what he calls “the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life” (that was 1957; make it a thousand now, in our brave new world of BlackBerrys, email, and ever-ringing phones), the soul reawakens “full of energy and limpid freshness.” “The Abbey became the reverse of a tomb-not, indeed, a Thelema or Nepenthe, but a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.” Karen Armstrong, with her greater range of experience, concurs. “If properly and wholeheartedly pursued,” she comments in her introduction, “the monastic life liberates us from ourselves-incrementally, slowly and imperceptibly.”

This, then, was how Leigh Fermor stumbled upon the idea for his book. With its well-appointed cells, its camembert and excellent bread at dinner, and its civilized conversation, the Benedictine St. Wandrille was not too foreign an experience for the cosmopolitan writer and he now wished to experience a purer type of heremetic discipline. La Grande Trappe, the fountainhead of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, provided that opportunity. Trappist austerity is legendary; the monks rise at one or two in the morning, spend seven hours a day in church and the rest of their waking time doing field labor “of the most primitive and exhausting kind.” Their diet consists largely of roots; six months of the year is spent fasting; the monks sleep in their habits on mats of straw. Except for a few officers within the order, the rule of silence is absolute.

A forbidding existence, but once again Leigh Fermor observed the magic worked by a voluntary withdrawal from the world and a sublimation of the all-devouring ego, “the lightness, the spiritual buoyancy, the experience of liberty regained by the shedding of all earthly possessions and vanities and ambitions.” He also noted the odd fact that “the austerity of the diet, the arduous labor and the lack of sleep have on the monks the reverse of a debilitating effect and seem to furnish them with almost indestructible health.”

Leigh Fermor wound up his whirlwind tour of monastic communities with a visit to the bizarre rock monasteries of Cappadocia: an experience radically different, of course, from his sojourns in France. For one thing these communities have been deserted for centuries and there were no monks for Leigh Fermor to observe; for another, monastic traditions and philosophies differ vastly between the Latin and Greek churches, as the philhellene Leigh Fermor was well aware. Nevertheless, as he points out, “remote and problematical as they may appear, these outlandish places are far closer to the primitive beginnings of monasticism than the dim northern silence and the claustral penumbra which the thought of monasticism most readily conjures up. The scenery of early Christianity lay all around us.”

Leigh Fermor’s treatment of his subject is fairly cursory, but it is exquisitely written, each sentence a gem. The prose borders on the purple, and I have rarely been sent to the dictionary so often: he tosses around words like “thurifer,” “velleities,” “rupestral,” and “giaour” at will, makes lavish use of archaisms like “whence” and “thither,” refers to the Black Sea by its classical name, the Euxine, and generally assumes a level of cultivation on the part of his readers that must have been rare even in 1957. He is the sort of writer who provides generous dollops of Latin without insulting his readers by translating them — a habit more likely to mystify them now than it would have done 50 years ago. Leigh Fermor is an unabashed mandarin, and this fact will irritate some readers. But more of them, I hope, will find the style, like the subject, bracing and beautiful.