Category Archives: A Time to Keep Silence

A PLF Pilgrimage to the Abbey of St Wandrille

Ed Ricketts has been travelling again and taking the opportunity to follow in the Paddy’s footsteps, this time at the Abbey of St Wandrille where Paddy spent much time writing, and described in A Time to Keep Silence. Ed has sent some pictures for us to enjoy.

If you have your own stories about Paddy related journey’s please send them to me. See About & Contact for details.

Dear Tom,

Hope you are well. Good to hear the news on the Artemis Cooper biog – should make for good Christmas reading!

If it’s of any interest to you, just to say that I was on a brief cycle tour of Normandy last week and passed by (well, it was intentional) the Abbey of St Wandrille, memorably described of course at the start of ‘A Time to Keep Silence’. As you can see from the attached photos, it was a glorious day with the surrounding countryside looking extremely green and in bloom.

I made a quick tour of the Abbey buildings, and slightly regret that I didn’t have more time to ask if it was known which ‘cell’ was PLF’s, or indeed if the connection is still remembered in any way today (no evidence of this from the gift shop). I would recommend a visit some time, it can be enjoyably combined with Rouen and the riverside abbey of Jumieges, a few kilometres to the south. A series of ferries also cross the Seine at various points nearby, which is somehow also quite a Leigh Fermorian experience. Finally, a paperback copy of ATTKS can easily be carried on a bike! (you just about make this out in one of the photos).

I think, from now on, I might try to follow a principle of ‘visiting one place PLF wrote about per year’ – there are worse ways of spending your time.

Cheers and keep up the good work,

Ed Ricketts

Related Articles:

A pilgrimage to Esztergom

An eye for detail and the memory of the Hotel New York in Cluj

Eight articles related to A Time to Keep Silence

Advertisements

The troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear

Paddy in Greece photographed by Joan

Don’t you feel like me that with the passing of Paddy as one of the last of his generation we have clearly entered a new age dominated by uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the values we once held as unquestionably true? These beliefs that bound us (in the West?) together for the latter part of the twentieth century are now unravelling at an ever-increasing pace. As we enter the End Game of the economic crisis, and as the decade of The Forever War rumbles on like the noise of a busy road in the middle distance – there only when we take the trouble to notice – we suffer a dearth of leadership and heroes of substance. Paddy and those of his generation had no such crisis of confidence; they served without question. They sacrificed themselves for the things they believed in, and they provided the leadership, entrepreneurship, creativity, and wisdom that helped rebuild Europe after almost half a century of ethnic and social strife, and destructive war. Maybe they also share some blame for the way things turned out, but who will step up now?

In this considered profile, which prompted my rambling reflection, Paddy’s good friend Colin Thubron assesses his contribution, not as a warrior, but as a writer, and I think for the first time, reveals the torment of Paddy’s troubling writer’s block towards the end of his life.

by Colin Thubron

First published in the New York Review of Books, Volume 58, Number 14

When Patrick Leigh Fermor died in June at the age of ninety-six, it seemed as if an era had come to an end. He was the last of a generation of warrior–travel writers that included the Arabian explorer Wilfred Thesiger, the controversial mystic Laurens van der Post, and the indefatigable Norman Lewis of Naples ‘44. Among these, Leigh Fermor shines with the élan and the effortlessly cultured glow of an apparent golden age. A war hero of polymathic exuberance, brilliant linguistic skills, and an elephantine memory, he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney.

Two pairs of books came to exemplify his achievement. The first pair—Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966)—celebrated the Greece that held his abiding fascination and where he lived for forty-five years on a once-wild promontory in the Peloponnese. In Mani, especially, he described this backwater region as a world whose way of life had survived in a fierce and enchanted time warp.

The land he depicted is barely recognizable now—tourism, he observed, destroys the object it loves—but it was less the Greece of classical antiquity that beguiled him than the spirit and folk culture of the hinterland: the earthy, demotic Romiosyne that he once contrasted with the Hellenic ideal in a playful balance sheet of the country’s character.

In these, and in later books, the style was the man: robustly imaginative, cultivated without pedantry, unstoppably digressive, forgivably swanky, and filled with infectious learning. The impression—overflowing into elaborate footnotes and flights of learned fantasy—is one of omnivorous delight in the quirks and byways of history, art, language, genealogy, myth, song, superstition, costume, heraldry, and everything else that struck his fancy.

His literary models were Norman Douglas and Robert Byron, but his writing was more vivid than the one, more kindly than the other. Despite the richness of his prose (occasionally slipping into purple) he forged an illusion of intimacy with his readers, as if they were sharing his mind in the moment of writing. But in fact his manuscripts were worked, reworked, and reworked again with such painstaking perfectionism that his publisher (the benign Jock Murray) often had to reset his galley proofs wholesale. The apparently natural flow of words was in reality a densely worked choreography, which came at cost.

Fifteen years ago, swimming in the Ionian Sea beneath his home, where nobody could overhear us, Paddy (as friends and fans called him) suddenly confessed to me the writer’s block that would plague the rest of his life. The expectations of a now-avid public, and his own obsessive perfectionism, were taking their toll, and he could not overleap this cruel impediment.

I remember him strong into old age. He swam every morning, with a sturdy breaststroke far out to sea, the tattoo of a twin-tailed mermaid glistening on his shoulder. He still kept up a striding march in the Taygetus foothills, where he and his wife Joan had designed their own house above the ocean. It was a place of “mad splendor,” he wrote. Its sitting-room library—bookshelves banked nine feet high—opened onto a vista of cypresses and the Messenian Gulf, and was flagged with the greenish stone of Mount Pelion. In the afternoon Paddy would disappear into his study to confront—or escape—the demons of his failed writing, and would emerge to the liberation of ouzo or whiskey, generally to report some arcane piece of research—that the Huns wore stitched field-mouse skins, perhaps—or to share a passage of Ovid. We dined in the monastic half-cloister he had built beside his home, and once we visited the tiny, red-tiled Byzantine chapel where—five years before—he had buried the ashes of Bruce Chatwin.

The conflict between a natural gregariousness and the solitude of writing never quite resolved for him. In a short, intriguing study named A Time to Keep Silence (1953) he recorded his sojourn in three great French monasteries. He described this retreat not as a religious exercise, but as a need for a haven for writing, and the nature of its cleansing—”the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear”—remains suspended like a question mark in the oeuvre of a man to whom self-revelation seemed indulgence.

The second pair of books, which established Paddy’s primacy among travel writers, must be among the most extraordinary ever written. In 1933, as a youth of eighteen, he left England for a journey that would take a year and a half. As “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly,” he set out to walk to Constantinople (as he nostalgically called Istanbul). Walking stick in hand, a copy of Horace’s Odes in his rucksack, he pursued a meandering course up the Rhine and down the Danube, across the Great Hungarian Plain, into Romania and through the Balkans to Turkey.

It was almost forty-five years before he published the first part of this journey, and another nine years before the second. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) represent prodigious feats of memory. They record the rite of passage of a precocious, exuberant young man as he encounters the peoples and languages of a Middle Europe now littered with obsolete names: Bohemia, Transylvania, Wallachia. His story must have become the dream journey of every enterprising and footloose adolescent.

Inevitably the accuracy of Paddy’s memory was questioned, and he was frank about occasional imaginative license and conflation. (His first diary was stolen in Munich, a solitary last one recovered years later in Romania.) Certainly his recall was extraordinary. I remember the first time we met (by chance), when he quoted verbatim from my first book passages that I had myself forgotten. A year before his death we chanted verses from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám together in an antiphonal competition (which he won).

His urge to describe his epic journey more than forty years after its end was a deeply natural one. He was revisiting his youthful persona with the judgment and knowledge of maturity; yet in a sense he had remained unchanged. Despite his sophisticated learning, he retained an almost boyish innocence, as if the troubles of the modern age had bypassed him. In the Peloponnese, where he settled to live in the 1960s, he had remained in thrall to a more ancient, rooted culture than that of the urban West.

The final volume of his proposed trilogy—carrying its author through the Balkans and down the Black Sea coast to Turkey—became his tormenting and elusive project for the next quarter- century, and was never completed. Some near-finished version, however, survives him, and will eventually be published.

With his youthful trek done, Leigh Fermor’s career took off into near fable. Caught up in Greek unrest, he joined in a triumphal royalist cavalry charge against wilting Venizelist rebels. In Athens he fell in love with the artist Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, twelve years older than him, and lived with her in Moldavia for over two years, before World War II recalled him to London.

As a fluent Greek speaker he was recruited by the Intelligence Corps, and sent as a liaison officer with the Greek army first to Albania and finally to Crete, where he survived the brutal German invasion. For almost two years, while an officer in the Special Operations Executive, he lived disguised as a shepherd in the Cretan mountains, organizing the gathering of intelligence.

Then, in 1944, occurred the exploit that—more than any other—was to burnish him into legend. He and his fellow SOE officer Stanley Moss dreamed up a scheme of harebrained bravado. Dressed in stolen German uniforms, with a party of Cretan guerrillas, they ambushed the car of General Heinrich Kreipe, the German commander of occupied Crete, kidnapped him, and concealed him under the back seat. Moss took the wheel, Paddy donned the general’s cap, and together they drove through twenty-two checkpoints to emerge on the far side of Herakleion and march Kreipe for three weeks over the mountains, to be picked up by motor launch and taken to Egypt.

It was during this hazardous Cretan march, as the dawn broke over Mount Ida, mythical birthplace of Zeus, that the abducted general began to murmur a verse of Horace: Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte….1 It was an ode that Paddy knew by heart, and he completed the six stanzas to their end. “The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine,” Paddy later wrote,

—and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

This precocious kidnapping was later reimagined in a lackluster movie named Ill Met by Moonlight (1957) with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. But there were other exploits too. Paddy had already engineered the defection of the Italian General Angelico Carta from Crete; and he was due to undertake a near-suicidal mission to Colditz when the war ended.

His upbeat account of these events was tempered by regret. He had planned that the abduction of Kreipe be bloodless, but his accompanying Cretan partisans slit the chauffeur’s throat, and rumors of grim German reprisals for the abduction have never quite died down. Above all, Paddy’s accidental shooting of one of his fellow guerrillas may have stained his memory of the whole period.

On June 16 Leigh Fermor was buried back in the English countryside, attended by an Intelligence Corps guard of honor, to lie beside his wife Joan, his dear comrade since 1946. This was, in a sense, fitting. For in certain ways he was exemplary of a wartime Englishness now almost gone, whose more dashing qualities merged seamlessly into the hardy stylishness of Greek leventéa.

To those who knew him, his books are hauntingly redolent of his sensibility. His conversation was irrepressibly warm and inventive far into old age, moving from arcane anecdotes to fanciful wordplay or bursting into polyglot song (sometimes singing the lyrics backward). His friends ranged from Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire—last of the six legendary Mitford sisters (his correspondence with her was published in 20082)—to early acquaintance with a raffish interwar bohemia and his own great predecessor, the travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron, whose borrowed rucksack he bore across Central Europe as a youth.

Almost the last time I met Paddy, he had returned home after an operation for suspected cancer, and I feared he would be depleted, his old zest gone. He was growing deaf, and he suffered from tunnel vision (which he called Simplonitis). For a while, sitting over lunch, he seemed subdued. Then something struck him. He perked up, and said: “You know, there is an apple lying on a table in the hall. It’s been there all weekend. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if it cocked a snook at Newton, and simply took off into the air!”

This was typical of his boyish resilience. In the field of travel he evoked both the youthful wanderer who discovers another world and the avid scholar who melds with it. His prose was too rich and elaborate to be a safe influence on others (although a few have tried); but he brought to the genre not only the distinction of his densely brilliant books, but his innate dignity, ebullient mind, and capacious heart.

  1. 1″See Mount Soracte white with snow….”
  2. 2The correspondence, In Tearing Haste , edited by Charlotte Mosley, was published in the US by New York Review Books (2010), which has also republished the other books by Patrick Leigh Fermor mentioned in this article, as well as The Traveller’s Tree .

A long stillness scooped out of the very heart of the sound

On this tenth anniversary of 9/11.

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Conventual High Mass was at ten every morning, immediately after Tierce. The beginning of this office was austere enough: the same silent entry of the monks, the same taking up of positions in the stalls that I had seen the first day at Vespers. At a tap from the Abbot, the monks stooped almost double in silent prayer, their rows of tonsures appearing for a minute on either side of the aisle like tiers of discs.(Their heads were shaved once a fortnight. One day their scalps were as blue as burglars’ jowls; the next freshly pollarded and gleaming in their circles of hair.) All the canonical hours began in the same way: ‘Deus in adjutorium’, the hebdomadary monk’s voice sang on one note, ‘intende.’ ‘Domine’, the rest intoned in unison, ‘ad adjuvandum me festina.’ A hymn followed, one of those short poems with four-line verses in the Latin of the early church, sung to an unseizable little tune. Then, sitting back in their stalls, the monks chanted the morning psalms in antiphony, the Gregorian music booming from opposite sides of the chapel as each verse of St Jerome’s Latin succeeded its forerunner. Tierce ended, the officiating monk entered in his vestements, and the deacon and sub-deacon, the acolytes and torch-bearers. They genuflected together, and the Mass began. Every moment the ceremony gained in splendour. If it was the feast of a great saint, the enthroned abbot was arrayed by the myrmidons in the pontificalia. A gold mitre was placed on his head, and the gloved hand that held the crosier was jewelled at the point of the stigmata and on the third finger the great ring sparkled over the fabric. The thurifer approached the celebrant and a column of incense climbed into the air, growing and spreading like an elm-tree of smoke across the shafts of sunlight. The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that the black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four-line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross. Slowly they proceeded through the cylinders of gold into which the Gothic tracery cut the sunlight. Their footfalls made no noise and only the ring of the crosier’s butt on the flags and the clanging of the censer could be heard across the Greogorian. The procession reached the shadow-side, pausing a few minutes while the sixty voices sailed out over the tree-tops; and then back through the church door, where arcs and parentheses of smoke from the burning gums, after the sunlit quadrangle, deepened the vaulted shadows. The antiphonal singing from the stalls continued to build its invisible architecture of music: a scaffolding that sent columns of plainsong soaring upwards, to be completed by an anthem from the choir that roofed it like a canopy. The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of the sound. After long minutes, a small bell rang and then the great bell from the tower which told of the rites that were being celebrated and the mysterious events taking place; and the heads of the monks fell as if one blow had scythed them away. Next, an unwinding, a decrescendo. The Mass sang itself out, the kiss of peace passed like a whispered message down the stalls, the officiating court dispersed, and the vestements were removed. A monk extinguishing the candles, the hood went up, the Abbot intoned the opening verse of Sext and still on the same note, the response came booming back …

[Note: there are no paragraph breaks as that is how Paddy wrote this piece; 628 words and he really does not want to finish there! Paddy is writing about the Abbey of St Wandrille]

Excerpted from A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor Copyright 1957, 1982 by Patrick Leigh Fermor

An excerpt from A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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.

By Patrick Leigh Fermor

Use the Print Friendly facility. Print Friendly and PDF

… 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. Originally posted on National Public Radio and excerpted by permission of the New York Review of Books.

Use the Print Friendly facility. Print Friendly and PDF

Spare And Sublime: A Monastery’s Spell Of ‘Silence’

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.

By Adam Haslett

First published on National Public Radio, 10 February 2011

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.

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 can also listen to Adam reading the above here.

Scholar in the wilds – a profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor

A comprehensive profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor.

By James Campbell. First published in The Guardian 9 April 2005

As a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor walked through Europe to Turkey, sleeping in hayricks and castles. Forty years later he wrote two pioneering books about it; a third is still in progress. He lived in Romania, met his wife in Egypt, and was decorated for his wartime exploits in Crete. Now 90, he continues to work in the house he built in Greece in the 1960s.

“So here’s the traveller,” a Hungarian hostess greets the teenage Patrick Leigh Fermor as he trudges towards her Danubian country house. The year is 1934 and Leigh Fermor is four months into his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, undertaken to shake off what he refers to, 70 years on, as “my rather rackety past”. The journey is captured, with erudition and fond detail, in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). They are unique in several respects, not least that they were written more than 40 years after the events described. Leigh Fermor derived the former title from a couplet by Louis MacNeice, “For now the time of gifts is gone – / O boys that grow, O snows that melt”, which encapsulates the double vision involved in evoking one’s own adolescence from a distance. A concluding volume, which will take the boy to his destination, has long been promised.

Leigh Fermor is not a “travel writer” – like others, he disavows the term – but there is no denying he is a traveller. After Constantinople (as he still insists on calling it, though the name was changed to Istanbul in 1930), he moved to Romania, where he stayed for two years, barely conscious of the inklings of war from beyond the Carpathian mountains. In the 1950s, he explored the then-intractable southern finger of the Peloponnese known as Mani, where he lives, followed by a similar journey in the north of Greece, making his reports, in characteristically exuberant style, in the books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966). His stays in French monasteries, where he achieved “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”, are recorded in an exquisite book of fewer than 100 pages, A Time to Keep Silence (1957).

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

He is also a scholar, with a facility for languages so prodigious that he would amuse himself on his footslog by singing German songs backwards and, when those ran out, reciting parts of Keats the same way: “Yawa! Yawa! rof I lliw ylf ot eeht”, etc. “It can be quite effective,” he says. After a lunch of lemon chicken at home in Mani, accompanied by an endlessly replenished carafe of retsina, he entertains his guest with a rendering of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in Hindustani.

In addition, Leigh Fermor is recognisably that figure many writers of the past century have yearned to be, the man of action. When the inklings could no longer be ignored in 1939, he abandoned his Romanian idyll and enlisted in the Irish Guards. A major in Special Operations Executive during the second world war, he was awarded the DSO for heroic actions on German-occupied Crete. Few writers are entitled to include in their Who’s Who entry: “Commanded some minor guerrilla operations.” His publisher, John Murray, whose father, the late “Jock” Murray, edited most of Leigh Fermor’s books, describes him as “almost a Byronic figure. If you met him on a train, before long he would be reciting The Odyssey , or singing Cretan songs. He loves talking, and people are always absorbed by him.”

Known as Paddy to the acquainted and unacquainted alike, Leigh Fermor has turned 90. He is still sturdy, with an all-round handsome appearance. Here is a man who at 69 swam the Hellespont (or Dardanelles), two kilometres wide at its narrowest, in emulation of Byron and Leander, who swam it nightly for the love of Hero. Leigh Fermor swam it under the concerned watch of his wife Joan, who followed in a small boat, and averted her eyes as he narrowly missed being sunk by a liner. An innocent sweetness hovers about his face, which finds a focus in his eyes as he makes a joke or stumbles on a happy recollection. There is a dash of the old soldier, clubbable and courteous, in his approach, his speech punctuated by “Look here …” and “I say …”, and not much of the “rather rackety” figure he claims to have been before he cured his ills by walking. When, relatively late in life, he became a mentor to Bruce Chatwin, the younger writer adopted Leigh Fermor’s motto, solvitur ambulando – it is solved by walking.

Paddy at home in the Mani

After more than six decades in the country, Leigh Fermor is inextricably tied to Greece. His command of the language extends to several regional dialects. He is an honorary citizen of the Cretan capital Heraklion, and of the village of Kardamili in Mani, and is a proud godfather to children in both places. In the mid-1960s, as if to lay the foundation for a committed life, he built a house that reflects the various aspects of his personality. Perched on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Messenia, it overlooks a small uninhabited island, behind which the sun sets nightly. He has described how he and Joan camped in tents nearby as the works progressed, studying Vitruvius and Palladio, but admits that the design was largely the result of improvisation. Ceilings, cornices and fireplaces allude to Levantine and Macedonian architecture. Hard by the commodious living room, an L-shaped arcade, which might have been built centuries ago, provides a link to the other rooms and gives on to an olive grove below. Out of nowhere, cats materialise on chairs and divans, prompting Leigh Fermor to remark on “interior desecrators and natural downholsterers”. The great limestone blocks of the main structure were hewn out of the Taygetus mountains, visible in the background, as the sea is present in the foreground. A weathered zigzag stone staircase leads down to a horseshoe bay. “There was no road here at all when we came. The stone had to be brought up by mule. We got most of the tiles from another part of the Peloponnese, after an earthquake. They were happy to be rid of them – couldn’t understand why we wanted this old stuff. They wanted everything new.” The master mason behind the house was a local craftsman, Niku Kolokatrones, whom Leigh Fermor met by accident while out walking. “I spotted his bag of carpenter’s tools and told him I was looking for somebody to help me build a house. He said, ‘Why not take me? I can do everything.’ And he was absolutely right.”

It was finally fit for habitation in 1968, and the couple “lived very happily here for 30 years”. Joan Leigh Fermor, daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Bolton Eyres Monsell, died in 2003 at 91, after a fall. The couple met in wartime Cairo. She took the photographs for several of his books, including the first, The Traveller’s Tree (1950), an account of a journey through the West Indies, and for Mani and Roumeli – although these pictures have sadly been omitted from later editions.

He was born in London in 1915, to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, who became director-general of the Geological Survey in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His childhood relationship with his parents was “rather strange, because I didn’t really know either of them until I was about three-and-a-half. My mother returned to India after I was born, leaving me with a family in Northamptonshire. I spent a very happy first three years of my life there as a wild-natured boy. I wasn’t ever told not to do anything.” When his mother returned, at the end of the first world war, “my whole background changed. We went to live in London. And she was rather unhappy, because I didn’t really know much about her, or my father or my sister, who had been born four years earlier. They hadn’t seen me since I was a few months old.” He claims he was “more or less tamed after that”, though he has written that his lawless infancy “unfitted me for the faintest shadow of constraint”.

Patrick Leigh Fermor at school, Kings Canterbury

His mother “adored anything to do with the stage” and wrote plays that were never produced. She made friends with Arthur Rackham, who painted a picture inside the front door of their house in Primrose Hill Studios “of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, being blown along in a nest with a ragged shirt for a sail”. He wonders if it’s still there. When the time came to think about school, the “wild boy” re-emerged, and he was beaten from one educational establishment to another. “I didn’t mind the beatings, because there was a bravado about that kind of thing.” At one stage, he was sent to a school in Suffolk for disturbed children – or, as he puts it, “where rather naughty children went” – and later to King’s School, Canterbury, the oldest public school in England, where the unruly old boys included Christopher Marlowe. “It was all rather marvellous,” says Leigh Fermor, who casts a rosy light on almost all experience, “but my discipline problems cropped up again. Things like fighting, climbing out at night, losing my books.” Among his contemporaries at King’s was Alan Watts, who later wrote popular books on Zen Buddhism and became a hippie guru. In his autobiography, Watts recalled Paddy “constantly being flogged for his pranks and exploits – in other words, for having a creative imagination”. Watts confirms the familiar tale that Paddy was expelled “for the peccadillo of taking a walk with the daughter of the local greengrocer”. Leigh Fermor recalls: “She was about eight years older than me – totally innocent, but it was a useful pretext for the sack. I think it was very kindly meant. Far better to get the sack for something slightly romantic than for just being a total nuisance.”

Believing that the best place for a nuisance was the army, his parents tried to direct him towards Sandhurst, but his academic failures put paid to that too. The military historian Antony Beevor, who was an officer cadet at Sandhurst, and has known Leigh Fermor for many years, believes he would not have prospered. “I think he may have had a romantic idea of what army life was like, but he would have found the peacetime garrison incredibly stultifying. Army life in the 1930s was very staid. Paddy was too much of a free spirit.”

It was then that Leigh Fermor came up with a scheme “to change scenery”. Envisaging himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots”, he decided to walk across Europe to Turkey. “It was a new life. Freedom. Something to write about.” To make it even more improbable, he set out in December when, as he states in the opening paragraph of A Time of Gifts, “a thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by stream ing water, had become a submarine arcade.” When his ship docked in Rotterdam, “snow covered everything”. He dossed down wherever he landed, on one occasion outside a pigsty to the sound of “sleepy grunts prompted by dreams, perhaps, or indigestion”.

In addition to his sleeping bag, Leigh Fermor packed the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace. An allowance of £4 a month was to be collected along the way. “My general course was up the Rhine and down the Danube. Then to Swabia, and then into Bavaria.” At the time, he had published a few poems (“dreadful stuff”), but was inspired to switch to travel writing by Robert Byron, whose book about a journey to Mount Athos in north-eastern Greece, The Station , had recently been published. “I was keeping copious notes, songs, sketches and so on, but in Munich a disaster happened. I stayed at a Jugendherberge and my rucksack was pinched, with all my notes and drawings.” And then comes the Paddy stroke: “In a way it was rather a blessing, because my rucksack was far too heavy. It had far too many things.” His sleeping bag was lost too -“good riddance, really” – and his money and passport. “The British Consul gave me a fiver – said pay me back some time.”

Leigh Fermor has pursued his literary career haphazardly. His Caribbean book was originally meant to be a series of captions for photographs. Then came his only novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques (1953), followed by A Time to Keep Silence and Mani , all written in the mid-50s, after which he restricted himself to one public outing per decade. However, the 40-year interlude between the events of his European journey and the writing of the books enhances their appeal. At times, the hero of A Time of Gifts seems like a boy faced with a tapestry on which the entire history and culture of Europe is portrayed, unpicking it thread by thread. Byzantine plainsong; Yiddish syntax; the whereabouts of the coast of Bohemia (it existed, for 13 years); the finer nuances of regional architecture – “the wild scholarly enthusiasms of a brilliant autodidact”, as the writer William Dalrymple says. Theories are worked out, set down and often jettisoned, before another day’s walking begins. No one modulates as energetically from speculations on the origin of Greek place names to the “not always harmful effects of hangovers” as Leigh Fermor does. “If they fall short of the double vision which turns Salisbury Cathedral into Cologne,” he writes of his sore heads, “they invest the scenery with a lustre which is unknown to total abstainers.” When it came to writing about the journey, Leigh Fermor claims that “losing the notebook didn’t really seem to matter. I’d got all the places I’d been to noted down in another little notebook. Early impressions and all that sort of thing would only have been a hindrance.” It is impossible to say where imagination gets the upper hand over memory, and aficionados are adamant it does not matter.

Dalrymple, who as a student set out to follow the route of the First Crusade in emulation of Leigh Fermor, says: “I can’t think of any younger writers who have tried to write like Paddy, who have succeeded in the attempt. Not that I haven’t tried. When I set out on my first long journey in the summer vacation I had just read A Time of Gifts and I tried to write my logbook in faux-Paddy style. The result was disastrous. Just last summer I visited Mani and reread his wonderful book, and found myself again trying to write like him. I should have learned my lesson by now.” Dalrymple feels that the strongest influence of Leigh Fermor on the younger generation of travel writers “has been the persona he creates of the bookish wanderer: the footloose scholar in the wilds, scrambling through the mountains, a knapsack full of good books on his shoulder. You see this filtering through in the writing of Chatwin and Philip Marsden, among others.”

According to Jeremy Lewis, author of a biography of Cyril Connolly, with whom Joan was friendly, “Occasionally, one comes across some unromantic soul who objects to Leigh Fermor on the prosaic ground that he couldn’t possibly remember in such persuasive detail the events of 60 years ago.” Lewis suspects that “quite a lot of it is made up. He’s a tremendous yarn-spinner, and he has that slight chip on the shoulder of someone who hasn’t been to university. Sometimes one gets the feeling that he’s desperate to show he’s not an intellectual hick. He’s quite similar to Chatwin in that way. With Chatwin I find it irritating, but not with Leigh Fermor.” Lewis adds, “There is also a strong boy-scout element about him, which annoys some people, singing round the campfire and so on. I doubt if there was ever anything very rackety about Paddy.”

Balasha Cantacuzene

He has been asked many times why the composition of the books was delayed for so long, and has finessed the reply to his characteristic self-effacement: “Laziness and timidity.” He had a shot at writing during his sojourn in Romania in the late 1930s, “but I thought it was no good, so I shoved it aside. And I was right, actually, because when I tried it much later it all began to flow.” His companion in Romania, the first love of his life, was a young painter, Balasha Cantacuzene, whose family was part of an “old-fashioned, French-speaking, Tolstoyan, land-owning world. They were intensely civilised people. I spent the time reading a tremendous amount … when I wasn’t making a hash of writing. I felt rather different at the end of it all, from the kind of person I’d been before.”

After the communist takeover at the end of the war, the Ceausescu government branded the Cantacuzenes “elements of putrid background” and forced them to leave their property. Leigh Fermor made it his mission to rescue them from their new dismal circumstances, eventually succeeding in slipping into the country on a motorcycle and contacting Balasha and her sister. They met for only 48 hours. “We dared risk no more, and during that time I was unable to leave the tiny flat where they were then living, for fear of being seen.” He found that their early thoughts of leaving Romania had lapsed, “partly from feeling it was too late in the day; also, they said that Romania, after all, was where they belonged”.

His war service was spent mainly on Crete. After the British retreat from the island in May 1941, Leigh Fermor was among a small number of officers who remained, helping to organise resistance to the occupation, “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd, with my wireless and so on”. In the spring of 1944, after an onslaught on villages “with fire and sword” by German troops in reprisal for the rash actions of some Cretan guerrillas, Leigh Fermor conceived a plan to kidnap the general responsible for the carnage, and to spirit him off to Cairo. The idea was to make a “symbolic gesture, involving no bloodshed, not even a plane sabotaged or a petrol dump blown up; something which would hit the enemy hard”. Together with a select band of associates, British and Cretan, he succeeded – except that the officer they were after, General Müller, had already left Crete, and they found themselves taking charge of his replacement, a milder figure by all accounts, General Kreipe. After three weeks of trekking through the mountains, they managed to get the captive on board a vessel bound for Egypt.

The events were drawn into a book, Ill Met by Moonlight (1950), by Leigh Fermor’s comrade in the operation, W Stanley Moss, and an inferior film in 1957, with Dirk Bogarde playing Paddy. He is polite about the actor, whom he met, but it is clear that Bogarde’s performance as Major Fermor failed to impress. “I didn’t go to the opening, or anything like that. It was all so much more interesting than they made it seem.” The military historian MRD Foot has referred to the Cretan escapade as “a tremendous jape”, which in Leigh Fermor’s opinion puts it in a “rather frivolous perspective”. Beevor, whose book The Battle for Crete (1991), pays handsome tribute to Leigh Fermor’s actions, feels the description of the kidnapping as a “jape” is unjust. “What was very clever about the Kreipe operation was that it was planned meticulously to give the Cretans a tremendous boost to morale. They needed to do something that would damage the Germans, but was not going to provoke civilian casualties. They were absolutely scrupulous about this.” Certain accounts of the exploit have suggested that it resulted in reprisals against the local pop ulation, but, says Beevor, “they are completely wrong. I’ve been through all the relevant documentation, and there is nothing to suggest that the kidnapping of General Kreipe provoked direct reaction from the Germans. It wasn’t just a jape. When I was researching my book, a member of the Cretan resistance told me, ‘The whole island felt two inches taller’.”

Captor and captive, stuck together in freezing caves (the general had to sleep between Leigh Fermor and Moss, all sharing a single blanket), found a common bond in the Odes of Horace. In a report written at the request of the Imperial War Museum in 1969, published in Artemis Cooper’s anthology of Leigh Fermor’s writings, Words of Mercury (2003), he described what happened: “We were all three lying smoking in silence, when the general, half to himself, slowly said: ‘Vides ut alta stet nive candidum / Soracte …’ [You see how Soracte stands gleaming white with deep snow]. I was in luck. It is the opening line of one of the few Odes of Horace I know by heart. I went on reciting where he had broken off: ‘… Nec iam sustineant onus …’ and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end.”

Moss, Kreipe and Paddy

The heroics in eastern Crete had a surprise sequel, which throws into relief the absurdity of war. Some 30 years later, Leigh Fermor was asked to take part in a Greek television programme based on This Is Your Life , in which the subject was to be General Kreipe. “I felt quite certain when I heard about it that it was not on the level, and so I found out General Kreipe’s number and got on the telephone to him. I said, ‘It’s Major Fermor’. He said, ‘Ach, Major Fermor, how are you? It seems we are going to meet again soon.’ I said, ‘So you are coming?’ He said, ‘Yes, of course I’m coming. Tell me, what’s the weather like? Shall I bring a pullover?’ And you know, it was the most terrific success. They were all there.” The exception was Moss, who died in 1965; and it is probably safe to discount the Cretan guerrillas who carried off the general’s chauffeur and slit his throat, much to Leigh Fermor’s displeasure.

He writes in a small studio apart from the main house. Dictionaries, volumes of Proust, books of verse in various languages and back issues of the TLS occupy every surface. Asked if he has a title in mind for the promised last volume of his European trilogy, he looks suddenly pained and answers no. He describes himself as “a very slow writer”. His pages are laboriously revised and readers who revel in his florescent style may be surprised to learn that the finished sentences are pared down from something the author considers “too exaggerated and flowery and overwritten”. Murray says: “It’s rather like a musician: each time he changes a word, he has to go back and change all the other words round about it so that the harmony is right.” Murray recalls “seven versions of A Time of Gifts being submitted to my father. And each one would be written-over, with bubbles containing extra bits. The early manuscripts are like works of art themselves.”

As he is writing, Leigh Fermor thinks of one or two friends “that it might amuse. How would they respond? Where would they sneer?” He refers to his old notebooks for things like dates and place names, but relies on memory for a clearer vision of the walking boy and the snows. “I’ve written quite a large amount. For some reason, I got a sort of scunner against it several years ago. I thought it wasn’t any good. I always think that. But now I think I was wrong. I’m going to pull my socks up and get on with it.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Born: February 11, 1915, London.

Education: 1929-33 King’s School, Canterbury.

Married: 1968 Joan Eyres Monsell.

Employment: 1945-46 deputy director British Institute, Athens.

Books: 1950 The Traveller’s Tree; ’53 The Violins of Saint-Jacques; ’57 A Time To Keep Silence; ’58 Mani; ’66 Roumeli; ’77 A Time of Gifts; ’86 Between the Woods and the Water; ’91 Three Letters from the Andes; 2003 Words of Mercury.

Some awards: 1944 DS0; ’47 honorary citizen of Heraklion, Crete; ’58 Duff Cooper Memorial Prize; ’78 WH Smith Award; ’86 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; ’91 Companion of Literature; 2004 Knighthood.

Adjusting to quiet – A Time to Keep Silence

Many of you will know that I was recently in the Holy Land on a Pilgrimage. Seven days following in the footsteps of Christ from the synagogue at Capernaum to the Via Dolorosa had a significant impression. I learned, not for the first time, that it takes time to adjust to new surroundings and experiences, and to fully appreciate them for what they are, for what they offer. Paddy experienced this too when he visited the Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle of the Benedictine order near Rouen. He wrote about this experience in the wonderfully concise “A Time to Keep Silence” published in 1957.

This article by Debra Bendis briefly compares her recent experience with that of Paddy.

Adjusting to quiet

First published Apr 14, 2011 in the Christian Century by Debra Bendis

While on retreat recently, I picked up Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. I was making my own transition from noisy life and noisy mind to four days of retreat when I came upon Fermor’s description of his retreat at a French monastery in the ’50s.

My adjustment process isn’t as difficult as Fermor’s. For one thing, I’m retreating close to home (and not close to Paris, as is Fermor); for another, I don’t find myself having to emerge from a “monsoon” caused by a drinking habit. (I sneak away from the monastery to find good coffee, but I have yet to sneak in a flask of Calvados.) In part because of his ignorance of monastic life and then his sudden immersion into it, Fermor’s is a humorous but accurate account of the transition.

Here’s Fermor after his first four days at the Abbey of St. Wandrile de Fontanelle:

My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. . . .The mood of dereliction persisted some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude. . . .the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment.

Fermor ended up thriving at the monastery and focusing on the book he had hoped to write. He compares his coming with his going and says the departure was “ten times worse.”

Related articles:

Posts from the ‘A Time to Keep Silence’ Category