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A Time to Keep Silence
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
New York Review Books, 112 pages, $12.95 paper

One of the most memorable films of the decade was also one of the most countercultural: Philip Gröning’s 2005 Into Great Silence. This severely unadorned, unnarrated, and unsoundtracked documentary presented the daily life of Carthusian monks housed in the ancient Grande Chartreuse, one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries, nestled in the mountains just north of Grenoble.

A relentlessly understated presentation of a deliberately undramatic subject, Into Great Silence quietly abjured much of the illusionary magic that filmmakers rely on to gin up excitement. And yet it succeeded in attracting audiences and critical acclaim. Our noisy, hypermediated world conditions us to expect a steady flow of visual and auditory cues—words to tell us what to think, images to tell us what to admire, and background music to tell us what to feel. Denied those prompts, viewers of Into Great Silence were treated to the discovery that the human eye can adjust to the absence of artificial lighting and that the exercise will disclose to them things that were formerly invisible. They experienced the shock, not of the new, but of the old.

Monastic life has high entry costs and high rewards, and the two are so tightly related that onlookers must pay respect to the costs in order to catch a glimpse of the rewards. Such onlookers might not feel called to join the monks. But they will be moved by the sight of them walking a time-honored path, whose difficult renunciations, concentrated focus, selfless comportment, and unspeakable joys represent the ultimate signs of contradiction in our restless, liberal age.

All the more reason, then, to be grateful for the republication of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1957 account of monastic life, A Time to Keep Silence. That such a book would emerge from Fermor seems about as likely as Teddy Roosevelt’s producing a cookbook for vegans. Paddy Fermor, a man of extraordinary vigor who is by all reports still going strong in his nineties, does not fit anyone’s monastic profile. He was a larger-than-life adventurer and soldier who fought heroically against the Nazis. Parachuted in 1942 into occupied Crete, he spent two years as a resistance organizer, living in the mountains disguised as a shepherd. He is perhaps most famous for masterminding the daring 1944 operation that captured the island’s German military commander. Disguised in the uniform of a German corporal, he managed to transport his prisoner in a hijacked staff car through fourteen checkpoints and then smuggle him by boat to Cairo.

His exploits as a writer have been equally impressive. Jan Morris has called Fermor “the greatest of all living travel writers,” but even such high praise, coming from such an unimpeachable source, barely begins to do him justice, given how completely he transcends the genre. His still-unfinished autobiographical trilogy, consisting so far of A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), relates the tale of Fermor’s youthful rambles, living as a vagabond tramp and crossing Europe on foot. He started out in Rotterdam and ended his journey in what was then still called Constantinople, accumulating along the way a vast treasury of exotic stories and observations, limning for posterity a moving portrait of an older Europe, more diverse and more rooted in its past, that would soon be swept away by tyranny and war.

There is little in this picaresque curriculum vitae to suggest an unusual aptitude for conveying the meaning of silence and solitude for the modern life. But that is precisely what Fermor gives us in A Time to Keep Silence. The book opens with his arrival at the Abbey of St. Wandrille, one of the oldest and most beautiful Benedictine abbeys in France. Fermor entered the monastery in an anxious mood, the causes of which he doesn’t explain. His initial experience of the abbey, with its grand and grave antiquity, only deepened that mood. Add to this that Fermor did not come to St. Wandrille’s as a pilgrim, motivated by his Christian faith or by any spiritual longing of which he was aware. Instead, he came on the recommendation of a friend, who thought it might be a quiet and inexpensive retreat for him to work on a book.

At first, the plan appears to have been a bad idea. No sooner did he settle in than a mood of unbearable loneliness fell on him “like a hammer-stroke.” The place seemed to him “an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.” Eyeing the monks as they glided into the cloisters for vespers, their bodies concealed beneath voluminous gowns and their faces nearly hidden in the tunnels of their pointed black hoods, Fermor thought they looked “desperately sad,” their skin “preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green,” their faces at once haggard and smooth, with never a smile or a frown crossing their lips, eyes always downcast, no emotion visible other than an occasional flash of what looked like melancholy. In their presence, he writes, “I had a sensation of the temperature of life falling to zero, the blood running every second thinner and slower as if the heart might in the end imperceptibly stop beating.” Back in his cell, overcome with gloom, he downed a flask of Calvados and brooded.

After some days, though, these feelings imperceptibly slipped away, gradually replaced by respect for what these monks were doing with their lives. Only someone who has lived in a monastery, Fermor argues, can grasp “its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead.” The two ways of life “do not share a single attribute.” The period of adjustment can be painful, but he soon came to see the abbey as “the reverse of a tomb,” as his unnamed inner torments released their grip and the monks became real people to him—lively and highly educated men who, far from being feeble and emaciated escapists, were living in “a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday.”

Their devotion to prayer and worship, their keen interest in scientific and humanistic learning, the graceful buildings and peaceful grounds they assiduously maintained: All of these, far from being signs of fearful withdrawal, were the distinguishing marks of civilization itself. In the end, he concluded, it was he and not the monks who was the escapist.

Along the way, Fermor provides a capsule history of each of the monasteries he visits, histories that span most of the Christian era. What strikes the reader about these accounts is how full of tumult and upheaval they are and how resilient and intrepid the monastic houses had to be, just to survive.

Take St. Wandrille, for example: Founded in 649 by an aristocrat who had abandoned the court for the cloisters, it has gone through a dizzying array of experiences in nearly a millennium and a half. Not all of its abbots were devout or scholarly; some, in fact, were more warrior than priest, known mostly for their archery and swordsmanship. That was not without reason, for the monasteries were constantly under threat, and in the ninth century the Normans wrecked St. Wandrille, forcing the monks to wander for a century, bearing the relics of their predecessors.

Once the monks could finally return home and rebuild in the tenth century, St. Wandrille became a center of reform in the Church and grew steadily in stature and influence. Even the introduction in the sixteenth century of “commendatory” abbots—patronage appointments, much of the time to nonclerical absentees as pure political rewards—did not destroy the intellectual fervor and the discipline of the monks. That was accomplished by the French Revolution, which abolished the religious houses of France. The abbey church was pulled down by the revolutionaries as if it were junk, its masonry sold off as building material.

The monks would stay adrift for another century. Not until 1894 did they return to their former home. They would once again be forced into exile to Belgium in 1901 by anti-monastic legislation, but by 1930 they had come back to stay. The abbey found itself in the middle of the battle during the assault on Normandy, and many of its buildings were destroyed by Allied bombs. Yet the monastic brotherhood endured through it all, and by the time of Fermor’s visit the monks were enacting its ancient liturgies “as if nothing had ever ruffled the quiet rhythm of their history.” The equipoise was profound but dearly bought, and it was of much more recent vintage than appeared at first.

A similarly up-and-down tale could be told of Solesmes, where Fermor also stayed. Founded in 1010, Solesmes is famous for its role in the promotion of Gregorian chant and the restoration of Benedictine monastic life. But its history, too, has been more checkered than its high status might imply. Devastated by the English during the Hundred Years War, damaged by the Huguenots, by Commendation, by Jacobins, and finally by Napoleon’s armies, its priory was finally reduced to “a ruined and empty shell,” an embodiment of the sad fact that, as the nineteenth century began, “the monastic idea was nearly dead.” But the miraculous revival of Solesmes in the 1830s under the vigorous leadership of young visionary Dom Prosper Guéranger not only preserved it but made it into an intellectual and cultural powerhouse.

More challenging and haunting was Fermor’s time at La Grand Trappe, the origin of the legendarily austere Cistercians known familiarly as the Trappists. Their founder, a wealthy aristocratic clergyman named Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, had been born to all life’s advantages: godson to Richelieu, a favorite at court, brilliant, worldly, a hunter and swordsman, a bit of a dandy, and a man who “seemed certain of a scarlet hat.” But a brush with mortality transformed him. He sold his chateaux, all his possessions, resigned his sinecures, and withdrew with his valet to the abbey at La Trappe, where the two became monks. Eventually, his ingrained habit of command induced Rancé to install himself as abbot and take over the place, imposing a “ferocious austerity” that included strict observance of St. Benedict’s Rule.

Thus was the Trappist Order born. The program at St. Wandrille or Solesmes was a picnic compared to the Trappist horarium. Rising at one or two in the morning, after a few hours’ sleep on a bed of straw, the Trappist monk spent seven hours in church and the rest of the day in labor, intercessory prayer, and readings from the martyrology.

There was no leisure, no recreation, little time for study, no heat, and no privacy. Diet consisted of roots, and a program of fasting was required for six months out of the year. There were weekly periods of self-flagellation and other mortifications. The rule of silence was absolute for all except the abbot and a few other officers, and the contemplation of death was never far away. “Plus on est mort,” Fermor read on a sheet pinned to the wall, “plus on a la vie.”

This raw and rigorous regimen was too forbidding for Fermor, who especially regretted its near complete neglect of the intellect, one legacy of Rancé’s antipathy to learning. But he was more than willing to credit the regimen’s admirable results: “a humble and completely unintellectual simplicity” born of unstinting concentration of mind and heart on God and the dedication of every single action to him alone. Fermor resists the temptation to pathologize these Trappists’ outwardly self-denying life into something other than what they themselves meant it to be. From a strictly secular and psychological view, he concedes, such men will be assumed to be “Pandora’s boxes that no amount of prayer or faith or willpower could save from eventual explosion.” Yet the explosion never came, and the defections or apostasies were rare. Instead, Trappist writers spoke of their experience not as suffering and denial but as a divine ravishment and an intimation of Paradise. After his time at La Trappe, even the skeptically minded Fermor was inclined to take them at their word.

Fermor concludes his travels with a visit to the abandoned rock monasteries and hermitages of Cappadocia in central Turkey. A common tourist destination today, this moonlike landscape, set in the shadow of an extinct volcano, was still considered remote and exotic in Fermor’s time, and it required a three-day journey from Constantinople. It was to all appearances “a dead, ashen world, lit with the blinding pallor of a waste of asbestos, filled, not with craters and shell-holes, but with cones and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to a couple of hundred feet high.”

Yet, stepping into an aperture at the bottom of one of the cones, he gradually recognized before him the remains of what appeared to be a Byzantine church, a veritable cathédral engloutie emerging out of the volcanic tufa, complete with a central dome frescoed with Christ Pantocrator, eight accompanying cupolas, and stuccoed walls and arches decorated in red, yellow, blue, and green. Many of the other cones in the area were similarly hollowed out from base to top, like so many rotten teeth, in order to create caves for dwelling and worship.

Fermor was captivated by the sense of mystery surrounding these places. There was so much speculation but so little sure knowledge of who these monks were, why they came, and why they left. The sight of such empty monasteries filled him with an “elegiac sadness,” a “sorrow sharper than the regret of an antiquarian.” The same feeling affected him even more deeply when he contemplated empty monasteries closer to home:

For us in the West . . . the ruined abbeys of England that have remained desolate since the Reformation will always be the most moving and tragic. For there is no riddle here. We know the function and purpose of every fragment and the exact details of the holy life that should be sheltering there. We know, too, the miserable and wanton story of their destruction and their dereliction, and have only to close our eyes for a second for the imagination to rebuild the towers and the pinnacles and summon to our ears the quiet rumor of monkish activity and the sound of bells melted long ago. They emerge in the fields like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep. The gutted cloisters stand uselessly among the furrows, and only broken pillars mark the former symmetry of the aisles and ambulatories. Surrounded by elder flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged at their summit with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the treetops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its ­climax ever since.

This passage is in part a melancholy reminder of a historical wrong, a memorial function that ruins can serve well. But there is a yearning tone in the passage, which, taken in tandem with the rest of this book’s contents, suggests that something more may be at work. When we compare the fate of the English abbeys to the long timeline of St. Wandrille or the Cappadocian settlements, we remember that, in the life of the Christian Church, four hundred years is not a very long time. And ruins are not merely tombstones marking what has been and gone but reminders of what once was and could be again.

The tasks of restoration and return to origins have always been key elements in the monastic vocation. Perhaps that tremendous Gregorian chant that Fermor imagined is not merely hanging there petrified. Perhaps it is waiting, patiently, for the long interruption to pass.

Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of the editorial & advisory board of First Things.

Image by Patrick licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.