Thursday, 17 November 2011

Book Review - A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A time to keep silence  by Patrick Leigh Fermor

New York, New York Review Books, 2007                   ISBN 9781590172445

Patrick Leigh Fermor, even if he never wrote a word, would still be known for his daring wartime work with the Special Operations Executive, where he played a vital part in the daring kidnap of a German General, Heinrich Kreipe on the island of Crete in 1944.

Fortunately for us he did write, and write beautifully. Known as a travel writer, he was far more - his works are full of not only travel, but history, philosophy, art and an overflowing evanescence of language.

A time to keep silence is a collection of three - should we call them essays? - perhaps meditations might be a more exact term - written by Fermor in response to sojourns at two Abbeys in France, and a journey to the deserted cathedrals and cells for the Basilian monks in Cappadocia.

The work is sourced mainly from letters Fermor wrote at the time to his future wife, worked up for publication. In his introduction he points out that he is in no way an expert on religion or monasticism, and in fact not really fit to describe the monastic life in any complex way. And yet the book is a fascinating account of the life and times of the great Abbeys. The first 'meditation', written from the Abbey of St. Wandrille De Fontanelle, is Fermor's first introduction to such an institution - he has travelled to the Abbey as he thinks the peace and seclusion of the location will help him with his writing.

At first Fermor has an aversion to everything in the Abbey: the monks seem cadaverous, the location grim, and the solitude lead-heavy, like being "by mistake locked up in a catacomb". After a few days however, he begins to fall into the rhythm of the Abbey, and feels wonderfully refreshed. He writes "The two ways of life [monastic and secular] do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse."

He gives a history of the Abbey, which, far from being a millenium-long island of peace, coped with many periods of dis-estabilishment, despoilation and despair; in fact as recently as 1901 the monastry was dispersed, and passed to a new owner who roller-skated down the cloisters followed by his various hounds! The power of the life of prayer for those who chose to follow it is wonderfully evoked by describing all the hurdles these communities have overcome to just be able to devote their lives to their Lord.

As he delves further into the life and belief of the monks who share this space with him, he realises "the dominating factor of monastic existance is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle - a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought - to the monks who practise it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism." Fermor directly 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 larger Fernandel smile spread across his face. 'Eh bien,' he said, 'c'est exactement pariel...'".

From the contemplative surroundings of St. Wandrille De Fontanelle, Fermor then moves, with a quick detour via Solesmes, to La Grande Trappe, the headquarters of The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.S.C.O.), or Trappists. Fermor quickly describes the much stricter rules of this house (no separate cells for monks, no talking at all, very vigorous daily labour, prayers beginning at about 2am after a mere five hours sleep), and then proceeds to try to understand why these monks would submit to such a labour. The following quote is long, but neatly encapsulates the way of Trappist thought - "To understand these Cisterican rigours, we must dismiss modern accomodations and rationalistaions and seek to return to the uncompromising literalness of the early Christians. Prayer for the redemption of mankind is the basis of Benedictine monasticism; and in the Cisterican branch of the Benedictine family the principle of prayer has been supplemented by the idea of vicarious penance........A Cistercian Cloister is a workshop of intercession and a bitter cactus-land of expiation for the mountains of sin which have accumulated since the Fall. A Trappist career is a long-drawn-out atonement, a protracted imitation of the Wilderness, the Passion, the Agony in the Garden, the Way of the Cross, and the final sacrifice of Golgotha. By fierce asceticism, cloistered incarceration, sleeping on straw and rising in the darkness after a few hours' sleep, by abstinence, fasting, humiliation, the hair shirt, the scourge, the extremes of heat and cold, and the unbroken cycle of contemplation, prayer and back-breaking toil, they seek, by taking the sins of others on to their own shoulders, to lighten the burden of mankind."

Fermor is allowed no contact with the monks at La Grande Trappe, which frees him for his writing, but leaves him wondering how a person can chose this life; he falls back on conversations with someone who has left the order to try and gain insights into the psychology of a Trappist, a problem he grapples with in this section of the book.

The final section is a description of a trip taken by Fermor and a friend to Urgub, in Cappadocia. These few pages are mostly given to marvellous descriptions of the cells and churches cut into the living rock, with a wonderful evocation of the life that must have once been lived there, centuries ago, and, when Fermor was there, all but forgotten by the modern world.

A short postscript describes the growing monastic movement in Fermor's home country England.

At 96 pages, this is a book that is short in length, but long in what it gives the reader - highly recommended for those who are interested in finding out more about the monastic life without too much religion thrown into the mix, or those who love magnificent evocative writing - it has encouraged this reviewer to read more of Fermor.

The New York Review edition of this book is wonderfully presented, with an interesting introduction by Karen Armstrong. You can purchase it directly from their website, online at Amazon, or borrow it from your local library if they have it.

 Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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