Last year, one of the best books I read was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: his account of his 1933 journey, on foot, at the age of 19, from Rotterdam to Hungary. Fermor’s humor, his humility, his lively interest in everything around him, his intelligence and education, and perhaps most of all the rich language he used for this travelogue made for wonderful reading. It was like making a new friend, one whose broad humanity could deeply enrich my own.
It was with this expectation, then, that I approached A Time to Keep Silence, Fermor’s short book about the times during his life that he spent in monasteries. Fermor was not a believer, but like many others, from time to time during his rather dashing and James-Bond-like life he took refuge, needing somewhere quiet to stay in order to do some writing or recuperating. This book describes the history and purpose of monastic life as it was formed in Western Europe (and later goes right back to the beginning of cenobitic practice in the Middle East). It also describes, with sympathy and tenderness, the effect that concentrated silence has on the human soul.
His first experience, at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, is jarring for him at first. He feels imprisoned, even buried alive, missing talk and alcohol and human contact, sleeping badly. But then a shift occurs:
No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity…. 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.
At this monastery and at the more deeply ascetic monastery of La Grande Trappe, Fermor points out the purpose of the monks’ lives and vows. If you don’t admit the power and efficacy of faith and prayer, he says, all this must seem farcical. But given those two things, how essential a service the monks render. The preservation of knowledge, the beautiful buildings, all this is merely a byproduct of the faith that intercedes for millions. Fermor, with characteristic self-deprecation, shows himself as a tiny beneficiary of the great monastic tradition:
At St. Wandrille I was inhabiting at last a tower of solid ivory, and I, not the monks, was the escapist. For my hosts, the Abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom. Strange that the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.
In the third and briefest section of the book, Fermor visits the rock monasteries of Cappadocia. These Byzantine cells, carved out of rock, are the strangest of the three, and Fermor finds both the utter alienation of them and the thread of similarity. In the end, he makes the vocation and the silence beautiful and compelling, both from the point of view of faith — even from his respectful skeptic’s eye — and from the point of view of that humanism I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Each monastery, each tradition, and in the end, each monk receives the same gentle consideration, the same scrutiny in the light of all art and architecture and history and experience.
I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused a moment and said, “Have you ever been in love?” I said, “Yes.” A large Fernandel smile spread across his face. “Eh bien,” he said, “c’est exactement pareil…”