Spare And Sublime: A Monastery's Spell Of 'Silence'

A Time To Keep Silence
A Time to Keep Silence
By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Paperback, 112 pages
NYRB Classics
List price: $12.95

Read An Excerpt

Last summer I was struck by a severe case of wanderlust. I wanted urgently to be on my own in the woods, away from the radiating concrete and steel of New York in July. So I packed my bags and set out to the coast of Maine.

On the way, I stopped to see a friend, and when he heard the purpose of my trip — to step outside the daily round of distraction and obligation — he pulled a book off his shelf and suggested I might want to take it along for the journey. It was called A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and I quickly fell under its spell.

At a mere 95 pages, it is a short read, yet nothing about it makes you want to rush. In the mid-1950s, Fermor, an English travel writer who as a young man once walked from Holland to Turkey, became interested in the life of monks. He decided to visit several Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in France. A Time to Keep Silence is the record of those visits and it accomplishes something that few books do: It replicates in style and rhythm the very experience that it seeks to describe. The writing is spare, exactingly precise, and then occasionally quite beautiful, just as the life of the monks we hear about are pared down, highly concentrated, and every now and then sublime. In short, it's a book about the contemplative life that delivers the reader into a contemplation of his or her own.

When he first arrives at the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, Fermor is shown to his visitor's cell. He writes, "a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke." He is used to the world of entertainment and distraction, as most of us are, but all that has now ceased and there is nowhere for his nervous energy to go.

Adam Haslett i i

Adam Haslett is the author of Union Atlantic. Brigitte Lacombe hide caption

itoggle caption Brigitte Lacombe
Adam Haslett

Adam Haslett is the author of Union Atlantic.

Brigitte Lacombe

But after a few days amidst the silent rituals of the monastery, his mood changes. "There were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life." Soon, "dreamless nights came to an end with no harder shock than that of a boat's keel grounding on a lake shore."

To read that beautiful, restful sentence is to experience a small piece of the restfulness Fermor himself found. When we say that a book transports us, this is what we mean. The music of the words themselves sing us into a different world.

I had my own time to keep silence in the woods in Maine last summer. I was lucky enough to have Fermor's book along with me. We can't all be monks, and most of us wouldn't want to be, but the genius of excellent writing is that we can know something of what that other life is.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva, with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lena Moses-Schmitt.

Excerpt: 'A Time To Keep Silence'

A Time To Keep Silence
A Time to Keep Silence
By Patrick Leigh Fermor
Paperback, 112 pages
NYRB Classics
List price: $12.95

WITH CURIOSITY and misgiving I walked up hill from the Rouen-Yvetot road towards the Abbey of St. Wandrille. I had spent an abominable night in Rouen in a small hotel near the station where a procession of nightmares had been punctuated by the noise of trains arriving and leaving with a crashing and whistling and an escape of steam and smoke which, after a week's noctambulism in Paris, turned my night into a period of acute and apparently interminable agony. Even the misty windings of the lower Seine, the fat green fields and Indian files of poplars, among which the bus had travelled next morning, could not dispel my mood of sluggishness and depression; and now, climbing the hot road through the late summer woods, I wondered if my project had not better be abandoned. What I dreaded almost more than success was an immediate failure. If there was no room at the Abbey, or if for some other reason the monks could not receive me, I should have to return to Paris and readjust my plans for the next few weeks. I was arriving unknown and unannounced, a citizen of the heretic island across the Channel, without even the excuse that I wished to go into retreat; I was, in fact, in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book that I was writing. A friend in Paris had told me that St. Wandrille was one of the oldest and most beautiful Benedictine Abbeys in France; and I had made my plans and set out . . .

It was Sunday, and the gatehouse was full of visitors who, just emerged from Mass, were buying pictures, medals, rosaries and assorted bondieuserie. A harassed monk in horn-rimmed glasses was answering innumerable questions; and a quarter of an hour had gone by before I managed, with considerable trepidation, to explain my proposal. He listened sympathetically, and asked me to return after he had spoken to the Abbot. When at last his black-robed figure reappeared across the garden, I saw that he was smiling. Seizing my heavy bag, "The most reverend Father Abbot can receive you," he announced, "and wishes you welcome."

A few moments later a door had shut out the noise of the Sunday visitors and a silent maze of white staircases and passages swallowed us up. The monk opened a door and said, "Here is your cell." It was a high seventeenth-century room with a comfortable bed, a prie-dieu, a writing-table, a tapestry chair, a green adjustable reading-lamp, and a rather disturbing crucifix on the whitewashed stone walls. The window looked out over a grassy courtyard, in which a small fountain played, over the grey flank of the monastery buildings and the wall that screened the Abbey from the half-timbered houses of the village. A vista of forest flowed away beyond. In the middle of the writing table stood a large inkwell, a tray full of pens and a pad into which new blotting paper had just been fitted. I had only time to unpack my clothes and papers and books before a great bell began ringing and the monk, who was the guest-master, returned to lead me to the refectory for the midday meal. As we walked, the buildings changed in period from the architecture of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries to Gothic; and we halted at length by the piscina in an ogival cloister of the utmost beauty, outside a great carved door where several other visitors had also been assembled. The guest-master shepherded us into the refectory in which the Abbot, a tall, white-haired, patrician figure with a black skull-cap and a gold pectoral cross on a green cord, was waiting to receive us. To each of the guests he spoke a few words; and some, sinking upon one knee, kissed the great emerald on his right hand. To me he addressed a polite formula in English that had obviously been acquired at some remote period from a governess. A novice advanced with a silver ewer and a basin; the Abbot poured a little water over our hands, a towel was offered, and our welcome, according to Benedictine custom, was complete.

The singing of grace continued for several minutes; and, when we sat down, I found myself between two visiting priests, their birettas folded flat beside their plates on the long guest-table in the middle of the refectory, just below the Abbot's dais. Down the walls of this immense hall the tables of the monks were ranged in two unbroken lines, and behind them a row of Romanesque pilasters with interlocking Norman arches formed a shallow arcade. The place had an aura of immense antiquity. Grey stone walls soared to a Gothic timber roof, and, above the Abbot's table, a giant crucifix was suspended. As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with a simultaneous and uniform gesture, an unearthly voice began to speak in Latin from the shadows overhead and, peering towards it, I caught sight, at the far end of the refectory, of a pillared bay twenty feet up which projected like a martin's nest, accessible only by some hidden stairway. This hanging pulpit framed the head and shoulders of a monk, reading from a desk by the light of a lamp which hollowed a glowing alcove out of the penumbra. Loudspeakers relayed his sing-song voice. Meanwhile, the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup before us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish of potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by discs of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery. Every now and then a monk left his place, and knelt for a few minutes before the Abbot's table. At a sign from the Abbot, he would rise, make a deep bow, and withdraw. . . . Inspired probably by Victorian oleographs of monastic life, I had expected a prodigious flow of red wine. The metal jugs on our tables contained, alas, only water.

The recitation had now changed from Latin to French, delivered in the same sepulchral, and, to me, largely unintelligible, monotone. A few proper names emerged — Louis Phillipe, Dupanloup, Lacordaire, Guizot, Thiers, Gambetta, Montalembert — and it was clear that we were listening to a chapter of French nineteenth-century history. This stilted manner of treating a lay text sounded absurd at first and oddly sanctimonious; its original object, I discovered, had been both to act as a curb on histrionic vanity and to minimise the difficulties of the unlearned reader in the days of St. Benedict. Throughout the entire meal no other word was spoken. The tables were cleared, and the monks, their eyes downcast, sat with their hands crossed beneath their scapulars. The Abbot thereupon gave a sharp tap with a little mallet; the reader, abandoning his text, bowed so low over the balustrade that it seemed that he would fall out and then intoned the words Tu autem Domine misercre nobis ; all rose, and bowing to a rectangular position with their hands crossed on their knees, chanted a long thanksgiving. Straightening, they turned and bowed to the Abbot and, still chanting, moved slowly out of the refectory in double file around two sides of the cloisters, into the church and up the central aisle. Here each pair of monks genuflected, inclined their heads one to another, and made their way to opposite stalls. The chanting continued for about eight minutes, then the entry was gravely reversed. As they reached the cloisters, the files of black figures broke up and dispersed throughout the Abbey.

Back in my cell, I sat down before the new blotter and pens and sheets of clean foolscap. I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke. On the inner side of my door, the printed "Rules for the Guests' Wing" contained a mass of cheerless information. The monks' day, I learned, began at 4 a.m., with the offices of Matins and Lauds, followed by periods for private masses and reading and meditation. A guest's day began at 8:15 with the office of Prime and breakfast in silence. At 10 the Conventual High Mass was sandwiched between Tierce and Sext. Luncheon at 1. Nones and Vespers at 5 p.m. Supper at 7:30, then, at 8:30, Compline and to bed in silence at 9. All meals, the rules pointed out, were eaten in silence: one was enjoined to take one's "recreation" apart, and only to speak to the monks with the Abbot's permission; not to make a noise walking about the Abbey; not to smoke in the cloisters; to talk in a low voice, and rigorously to observe the periods of silence. They struck me as impossibly forbidding. So much silence and sobriety! The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.

The first bell was already ringing for Vespers, and I went down to the cloisters and watched the monks assemble in silence for their processional entrance. They had put on, over their habits and scapulars, black cowls: flowing gowns with hoods into which those of their ordinary habits fitted, and so voluminous that the wearers appeared to glide rather than walk. Their hands were invisibly joined, like those of mandarins, in the folds of their sleeves, and the stooped faces, deep in the tunnel of their pointed hoods, were almost completely hidden. A wonderful garb for anonymity! They were exact echoes of Mrs. Radcliffe's villainous monastics and of the miscreants of Protestant anti-popish literature. Yet they looked not so much sinister as desperately sad. Only in the refectory and the church was I able to see their faces; and, as I sat at Vespers watching them, now cowled, now uncovered, according to the progress of the liturgy, they appeared preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from any others. How different, I thought, from the fierce, whiskered, brigand-faces of the Greek monks of Athos or the Meteora, whose eyes smoulder and flash and twinkle under brows that are always tied up in knots of rage or laughter or concentration or suddenly relaxed into bland, Olympian benevolence. The gulf between the cenobites of Rome and those of Byzantium was often in my mind. A cowled figure would flit past in silence, and all at once, with a smile, I would remember Fathers Dionysios and Gabriel, Brothers Theophylaktos, Christ and Polycarp, my bearded, long-haired, cylinder-hatted, war-time hosts and protectors in Crete, pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols, cross-questioning me interminably about Churchill, and snoring under olive trees while the sun's beams fell perpendicularly on the Libyan Sea. . . . But here, in the Abbey's boreal shadows, there was never a smile or a frown. No seismic shock of hilarity or anger or fear could ever, I felt, have disturbed the tranquil geography of those monastic features. Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of remote and burnt-out melancholy. The muted light in the church suspended a filament between us, reproducing the exact atmosphere of an early seventeenth-century Spanish studio in which — tonsured, waxen, austere and exsanguinous — were bowed in prayer the models of Zurbarán and El Greco. Not for nothing had these painters followed so closely after St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross, and so faithfully portrayed the external stigmata of monastic obedience, prayer, meditation, mortification and mystical experiment — the traces left by the soul's dark night, by the scaling of heavenly mountains and the exploration of interior mansions. As the monks dispersed after Vespers and, a few hours later, after Compline, 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. These men really lived as if each day were their last, at peace with the world, shriven, fortified by the sacraments, ready at any moment to cease upon the midnight with no pain. Death, when it came, would be the easiest of change-overs. The silence, the appearance, the complexion and the gait of ghosts they had already; the final step would be only a matter of detail. "And then," I continued to myself, "when the golden gates swing open with an angelic fanfare, what happens then? Won't these quiet people feel lost among streets paved with beryl and sardonyx and jacinth? After so many years of retirement, they would surely prefer eternal twilight and a cypress or two. . . ." The Abbey was now fast asleep but it seemed ridiculously early — about the moment when friends in Paris (whom I suddenly and acutely missed) were still uncertain where to dine. Having finished a flask of Calvados, which I had bought in Rouen, I sat at my desk in a condition of overwhelming gloom and accidie. As I looked round the white box of my cell, I suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils.

Excerpted from A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor Copyright 1957, 1982 by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Excerpted by permission of the New York Review of Books.

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