Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence (New York: New York Review of Books, 1957, 1982, 2007), 96pp.
Patrick Fermor (1915–2011) was regarded by many as one of the best travel writers of his time. He's best known for his two books A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), which chronicled how at the age of eighteen he left England on a three-year trek that ended in Istanbul. The BBC once described him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.” A Time to Keep Silence reads like travel literature with its running commentary on history, culture, architecture, and so on, but Fermor moves beyond the outer journey of the traveller to the inner journey of the heart to describe his experiences visiting four monasteries.
The book begins when he appeared unannounced at the Abbey of St. Wandrille in France, founded in 649, looking for a quiet place to write. He was immediately shocked at the "staggering difference" between life inside the monastery and outside in the world. The vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, stability and community are the exact opposite of the world's infatuation with wealth, promiscuity, independence, freedom, and privacy. After a period of intense loneliness, depression, and fitful nights, the hospitality of the monks and the rhythm of their liturgy made a profound impact on this self-described "giaour" or unbeliever.
Fermor's next stop was the 11th-century monastery at Solesmes, famous for its Gregorian chant. From there he went to La Grande Trappe with their strict austerity and near-total silence. This was an ambiguous experience, and he wonders what a psychiatrist would make of the "manhandling of the delicate machinery of the psyche which these [Trappist] struggles involve." The book concludes with a brief visit to the abandoned ruins of the rock-carved monasteries in Turkey, the origins of which are lost to us today, except to say that in that region back in the third century were the origins of the eremitic way. Fermor is forthright about his experience: adapting to the monastic life was hard, and it raised many questions, but returning to the vulgarity of the world was "ten times worse."
Postscript: for two marvelous films about monastic life, see our JwJ reviews of Into Great Silence (2005), about the Monastery Grand Chartreuse that was founded high in the French Alps in 1049. Then there's Of Gods and Men (2010), about eight monks in a remote village of Algeria, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and was nominated for 11 Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars).