A Time to Keep Silence [NOOK Book]


While still a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor made his way across Europe, as recounted in his classic memoirs, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. During World War II, he fought with local partisans against the Nazi occupiers of Crete. But in A Time to Keep Silence, Leigh Fermor writes about a more inward journey, describing his several sojourns in some of Europe’s oldest and most venerable monasteries. He stays at the Abbey of St. Wandrille, a great repository of art and learning; at Solesmes, ...
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A Time to Keep Silence

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While still a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor made his way across Europe, as recounted in his classic memoirs, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. During World War II, he fought with local partisans against the Nazi occupiers of Crete. But in A Time to Keep Silence, Leigh Fermor writes about a more inward journey, describing his several sojourns in some of Europe’s oldest and most venerable monasteries. He stays at the Abbey of St. Wandrille, a great repository of art and learning; at Solesmes, famous for its revival of Gregorian chant; and at the deeply ascetic Trappist monastery of La Grande Trappe, where monks take a vow of silence. Finally, he visits the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, hewn from the stony spires of a moonlike landscape, where he seeks some trace of the life of the earliest Christian anchorites.

More than a history or travel journal, however, this beautiful short book is a meditation on the meaning of silence and solitude for modern life. Leigh Fermor writes, “In the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual, and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Delightful…His book is not only an admirable piece of travel writing; it is also a brilliant piece of human exploration." — The New Statesman

"Prose lapidary and evocative enough to please even the hardiest skeptic." — The Washington Post

"His shortest book (and to my mind his best)…its hammered terseness is…a good match for the sobriety of the subject." — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

"Fermor writes logbooks of discovery, keenly meandering through architecture, music, art, history and the minutiae of everyday life…[His] erudition and courage are matched by his discerning compassion, which shapes the probing character sketches that populate his books, including A Time to Keep Silence." — Los Angeles Times

"A most successful attempt to portray the reactions of the man of the world (in the literal sense) when confronted with the monastic life." — Daily Telegraph (UK)

Praise for Patrick Leigh Fermor:

"One of the greatest travel writers of all time”–The Sunday Times

“A unique mixture of hero, historian, traveler and writer; the last and the greatest of a generation whose like we won't see again.”–Geographical

“The finest traveling companion we could ever have . . . His head is stocked with enough cultural lore and poetic fancy to make every league an adventure.” –Evening Standard

If all Europe were laid waste tomorrow, one might do worse than attempt to recreate it, or at least to preserve some sense of historical splendor and variety, by immersing oneself in the travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor.”—Ben Downing, The Paris Review

The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Brooke Allen

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, The Nation, and more.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590175217
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 11/9/2011
  • Series: New York Review Books Classics Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 215,000
  • File size: 707 KB

Meet the Author

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was an intrepid traveler, a heroic soldier, and a writer with a unique prose style. After his stormy schooldays, followed by the walk across Europe to Constantinople that begins in A Time of Gifts (1977) and continues through Between the Woods and the Water (1986), he lived and traveled in the Balkans and the Greek Archipelago. His books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) attest to his deep interest in languages and remote places. In the Second World War he joined the Irish Guards, became a liaison officer in Albania, and fought in Greece and Crete. He was awarded the DSO and OBE. He lived partly in Greece—in the house he designed with his wife, Joan, in an olive grove in the Mani—and partly in Worcestershire. He was knighted in 2004 for his services to literature and to British–Greek relations.

Karen Armstrong, a historian of religion, spent seven years in a Roman Catholic religious order; she has written about this experience in Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase. She is also the author of many books, including A History of God, The Great Transformation, and, most recently, The Bible: A Biography.
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