Tag Archives: A Time to Keep Silence

Seeking monastic peace from the world

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire (Photo: Getty/Andrea Pucci)

This interesting item which I’ve had ready to go for over a year reminds me a little of A Time to Keep Silence. Given the state of the world now, it is perhaps even more relevant.

By Sarah Sands

First published in inews.co.uk

As editor of the Today programme, I was addicted to news – but now I’m seeking monastic peace from the world. Sarah Sands believes there is a forgotten wisdom in monasteries that provides an answer to the tumult of our times – monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live.

On a winter’s day, in which the sky hangs like a flat sheet over Norfolk, I look out at the remains of a 13th-century monastery wall. It’s in the field at the edge of my garden – all that remains of Marham Abbey, a Cistercian nunnery destroyed by Henry VIII.

The king found nothing of note in the abbey – the total loot was worth £46 – yet its last remnants exist as a centre of gravity in my life. The lessons of monastic life are contained within this wall, lessons that have increasingly offered guidance and inspiration for me in times of stress.

The great English Cistercian monastery is Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, a five-hour drive from my home. Deciding that I needed to learn more about the community who built my wall, one day in 2019 I set off with an inexplicable sense of purpose. I drove past miles of skeleton trees, descending into a remote valley of the river Rye in the North Yorkshire moors. The hidden nature of Rievaulx makes its revelation all the more heart stopping.

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery, once said, ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world”(Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There, alone, I wandered through the vistas of columns and framed views of stirring countryside. I imagined the first monks who sheltered there under the rocks of the valley and among the elm trees. The remoteness of monasteries – best viewed from the heavens – is in their essence; it is a rejection of the material world, its rhythms and its values.

The monks lived by sunrise and sunset and spent their time between in learning, meditation and manual labour. This inner concentration buoyed them in an extraordinary weightlessness. In the 12th century, St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx monastery said: “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world.”

When I returned from Rievaulx, I was changed. I saw my wall in a different light. My sense of kinship with it deepened and my curiosity tingled. I saw that it was part of a network of monasteries across the country; ruined, silent, consigned to history, they all had stories to tell.

I began travelling to more and more of them, exploring them one by one – and travelling to monasteries around the world, too, from Greece to Egypt, from Japan to Bhutan, journeys I’ve been since reflecting on for my book The Interior Silence.

There was wisdom in these institutions. There was medicine. From the monasteries came both universities and hospitals, and the monks showed an early understanding of what we now call mental health.

The monastic way of living intrigued me – it had become a secret corner of my life. My work is in London, but Norfolk is my place of sanctuary. The wall represents something antithetical to my London life. It is the still small voice that provides a contrast to the needy, WhatsApp-ing, power-conscious world of politics and media.

‘Today’ and tomorrows

The job that I held when I visited Rievaulx was editing the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs show, the Today programme, during the most politically and socially fractious of periods. People were angry about whether or not Britain should leave the EU, and Today was a lightning rod.

I was responsible for the running order of the show, which was a work in progress over 24 hours. My phone beeped incessantly. There were months when it buzzed hysterically between 3am and 5am, until I realised that, apart from all the journalistic messages, I had somehow become the switchboard for all the taxis ordered by the BBC news department.

Skimming six hours sleep a night and ever part of a jittery and constant news conversation, I was finding it hard to switch off.

One night, during which I simply could not sleep, I picked up a book. It was a slim volume, called A Time to Keep Silence, by the great adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Published in 1957, it is an account of his sojourns at three wonderful French monastic buildings: the Abbey of St Wandrille, Solesmes Abbey and La Grande Trappe.

In the book, Leigh Fermor confessed to depression and anxiety; he yearned for peace and stillness. “In spite of private limitations I was profoundly affected by the places I have described,” he wrote.

“The kindness of the monks has something to do with this. But more important was the discovery of a capacity for solitude and (on however humble a level compared to that of most people who resort to monasteries) for the recollectedness and clarity of spirit that accompany the silent monastic life.”

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times (Photo: Getty/Ian Forsyth)

He also experienced a higher plane of sleeping: “After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep became more remarkable and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug… Then began an extraordinary transformation: night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness.

Can you imagine this? City sleep resembles an operating theatre of lights, movement and bleeping devices. We seek instant remedies for sleep, as for everything else. Of course, I am not going to give up alcohol, but I will throw in a herbal tea at the end of the evening. And I know to close the day with a book, although every few paragraphs my hand slides towards my iPhone, just to check messages or to Instagram.

Sometimes I try to meditate for a few minutes, which only jolts my memory of the emails I should have sent. This is not the path to the dreamless and perfect sleep of which Leigh Fermor writes.

The following day, I bumped into my friend Tom Bradby, the ITV news anchor who had been off work for many months, suffering from extreme insomnia. He had recovered but had not forgotten his state or the causes of it. He had a new awareness of the meaning of what he called “the worried mind”.

I reflected again on what Leigh Fermor had written: “In spite of private limitations, I was profoundly affected [by the monasteries].” This was how I felt about my Norfolk ruins. I knew they touched me deeply but did not know why and certainly did not attribute it to any virtue on my part.

There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times. Renouncing the world, the monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live. They labour, they learn and they master what is described as “the interior silence”. Some orders are in permanent retreat, but others are expected to maintain the stillness of self in the midst of public bustle.

How can they do that? Is the virtue of interior silence something that can prevail in an era of peak technological distraction? I was beginning to question my 5G life. The connectivity, the drip feed of news, the superficiality of politics.

As Radio 4 listeners will know, in the middle of the Today programme is Thought for the Day, a three-and-a-half-minute sermon by a religious figure. It is an anomaly in a daily news show, but I have come to appreciate it as an oasis of reflection. News counts but meaning matters more.

I experienced that juxtaposition of connectivity and meaning at a dinner for the tech industry in the same week that I had read Leigh Fermor’s book from cover to cover – properly read it, rather than speed-read it as I usually do.

The conversation at the tech gathering was all about pace of change and personal realisation. We are driven by multiples of success and scale. Meanwhile, at my table, a broadcaster was looking furiously at her Twitter feed because a political joke had started a bush fire of condemnation. By the end of the evening, her resignation from the BBC was being demanded. This was a time of maximum hubris, before the arrival of the great reckoning.

The ubiquity of news media is a form of hubris, at odds with monasticism. Aggravated by social media, the journalistic impulse is exhibitionism and noise and entitlement.

The former Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby, who campaigned for Boris Johnson as London mayor and later as prime minister, said to me that people were motivated by jobs, money and family. His candidates won, he said, because he and they understood this. The remarkable thing about the monasteries is that they are inspired by none of these things. They are there on behalf of humanity, suspended between heaven and earth.

What if I were able to step away, I thought, even in the midst of political and media battle? There is a history of spiritual retreat after all.

Lockdown isolation

After three years of editing the Today programme, I left the BBC last September. I had made the decision at the start of 2020. The addiction to news had become corrosive to me and I had learned how to exist outside the news cycle, thanks to contemplative trips to monasteries. My hectic, distracted mind had experienced stillness.

News is generally regarded as a form of enlightenment but it is often just information wrapped in judgement, or worse, incitement. News demands drama and hyperbole. I remember when I was the editor of The Sunday Telegraph more than a decade ago, looking at a headline claiming local ‘fury’ over a piece of planning permission. I remarked to the news editor that having read the quotes from residents it seemed more a case of mild irritation than fury. The news editor responded wryly: “Irritation isn’t a headline word.”

I was planning to visit more monasteries ahead of my departure. Easter week was meant to have been spent in Salzburg, at the Nonberg Abbey – otherwise known as the setting for The Sound of Music – but in March last year lockdown arrived. Flights were halted, hotels closed. Monasteries continued in their customary state of self-isolation, and I was unable to reach them.

The Government demanded that the population return to their homes: mine was in Norfolk, in the remains of Marham Abbey. A monument to mortality and the futility of secular ambition. Henry VIII destroyed this monastery but could not destroy its meaning; perhaps because its endurance was based on acceptance of powerlessness.

Newspapers carried photographs of vats of beer and wine being tipped away. This was the London economy – bars and coffee shops. Farewell to my working life.

The existence that I was trying to escape suddenly seemed unbearably delightful. I watched television scenes of dinner parties or concerts as if through a looking glass. My bank statements read like an historical archive. Soho House, Joe the Juice, Caffè Nero, Daniel Galvin and, in the final days, Wigmore Street Pharmacy, Boots, Boots, Boots.

The Today programme was being produced remotely, and I spent hours pacing the garden on Zoom. What were the latest death figures? What was the state of the Prime Minister’s health? The country staked its identity on the principle of caring for the sick. A principle begun in its monasteries. Indeed, St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where the Prime Minister was treated, grew out of a priory.

Like everyone else, I was separated from what and whom I knew and loved. My younger son FaceTimed me from Hong Kong. He told me that he would not be coming home for his summer break because of the strict rule of quarantine. My elder son sent me a photograph of my grandson, only 20 miles away, but beyond reach now. My daughter went into lockdown in London, the epicentre of the virus. Every family had a story to tell of separation.

Monasticism teaches that you can love and participate, while being absent. This was what I had to learn; to appreciate relationships in the abstract. To delight in the existence of others without physical engagement in their lives.

I would describe the feelings I associated with the wall in my garden during those weeks of isolation as intense serenity and a sense of belonging. Most of all, I associated it with birdsong. The trees surrounding the abbey remains were full of birds – blackbirds, blue tits, finches, wrens, chiffchaffs, robins, rooks and, descending from the wide skies, the first swallows.

There was one thing I wished to learn in isolation: the distinctive differences in birdsong. On the first day I picked up the alarm call of the blue tits and the different whistles of the great tit. I wondered at the lung capacity of the tiny wrens. The busy sound of the chiffchaff will always remind me of this time, this period of death tolls and birdsong.

I hope to be visiting more monasteries soon, when life opens up again, but I’m lucky to have my wall. There is something about the melancholy ruins against a Norfolk sky that reminds you that a contemplative life has a natural setting and that the endless striving and building around it will not last. The tranquil message of my ruins of Marham Abbey and the great Rievaulx is humility. Personal ambition is an impediment, not a triumphant force.

This is an edited excerpt from The Interior Silence: My Encounters with Calm, Joy, and Compassion at 10 Monasteries Around the World by Sarah Sands. Buy it here.


Inspired by Paddy: Alexander McCall Smith on reading in a time of quiet

Writer Alexander McCall Smith

A reflective piece for a Sunday morning. I enjoyed this and I hope that you do too.

By Alexander McCall Smith.

First published on The Herald.

Like many others, I have a pile of books waiting to be read. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have more than one pile of books. I have one on the bedside table, where most people keep their unread books, but I also have two in my study – one on a chair and another on a table.

I suppose I should also count the temporary pile near the window, but that is the stack waiting to go to the charity shop. That, I fear, may be difficult to reduce in the short term: charity shops are said to be dreading the return of normal opening, as a positive deluge of stored-up donations threatens to engulf them. Barriers have been erected, we are told, and long-suffering staff are steadying themselves to turn away three months’ worth of paperback novels, out-of-date guides to Finland, and Higher English study notes. That, of course, is before they are offered last year’s political memoirs and football biographies.

By strange co-incidence, when our life changed in March and we entered this period of social isolation, I happened to have just completed a reorganisation of the books in the house. This was long overdue, as over the years I had placed books according to what might charitably be called a chronological system. This involved putting the most recently-acquired books in the front and leaving older books at the back. As a result, books on very different subjects sat next to one another on the shelf and the only method of locating them would be visual memory – “I’m sure I saw that book somewhere on that shelf” – or the recollection of when the book came into the house. Neither of these ever worked very well, and as a consequence I came to be the owner of a large number of books that I had forgotten about.

My reorganisation – carried out by a particularly competent person who agreed to take on the task for me – transformed my personal collection. Not only were books shelved according to subject, but within the classifications they were arranged alphabetically, according to author. This meant that now, if I need to find a book on the social practices of baboons, I know exactly where it is. And I do have such a book, as it happens: in fact, I see that I have two. I can also lay my hands on my Dictionary of Australian Slang and Colloquialisms – a very vivid book – or, not far from that on the shelf, my Concise Scots Dictionary. No longer do I have to spend half an hour searching for the biography of King Zog of Albania that I know I possess. There it is, next to the other memoirs of less colourful lives.

As a result of this reorganisation I discovered not a few books I had forgotten about or had never got round to reading. As isolation began, I had embarked on reading one of these recently-surfaced books, which happened to be about monasticism, and what the monastic traditions of sanctuary and quiet can do for us in our increasingly busy world. Or formerly increasingly busy world, because just as I started this book, our world slowed down perceptibly. Traffic noise disappeared; the sky, once criss-crossed by vapour trails, became inhabited only by natural clouds; delicate birdsong filled the air, as if suddenly birds felt they no longer had to shout to make themselves heard. People walked or cycled. They stopped their headlong rush; they paused to take a breath; living in the future was replaced by living now. Time was arrested. It was just the right time to read about monasticism – that curious voluntary withdrawal from the world in pursuit of spirituality.

That book was quickly followed by another on the same subject that I found on my newly-ordered shelves. This was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. Leigh Fermor was a remarkable writer, whose books about his famous walk across Europe before the Second World War are justly celebrated. In A Time to Keep Silence he describes visits he made to monasteries in France and elsewhere in the early 1950s. He writes at some length about the implications of suddenly finding time in the day – to read, to meditate, to stay still.

It helped, and it also set the tone for my reading over the next few months of this unusual period. I found that I had no appetite for anything fast-paced or exciting. I found that I wanted to read books where there was a strong authorial voice saying something about what counted in life. In particular, I turned to poetry, and to books about poetry. Reading poetry requires an initial quietness in the mind. When you sit down with a poet, you are being addressed in a way that is intimate and direct: the poetic voice is a very personal one – somebody is talking to you, is saying “listen, this is how I feel”.

Then Zoom came along. Zoom meant that we could see and talk to friends, but it also meant that people could keep book clubs going in spite of not being able to meet others physically. I do not belong to a book club, but I started to have regular virtual meetings with four friends in which we discussed two or three poems for the occasion. One of these friends happens to be a professor of literature and an expert in 19th century poetry. That helped, but the net has been cast wide and we have included contemporary poets in our discussions. At our last meeting, we looked at Thomas Gray’s Elegy (I last read that when I was 16) but we also spent a very happy half hour talking about Edwin Morgan’s King Billy and Iain Crichton Smith’s You Lived in Glasgow. Both of these poems contain beautiful and arresting lines: I have always been struck by Morgan’s haunting opening to the King Billy poem, “Grey over Riddrie the clouds piled up…”

One cannot survive on a diet of poetry, of course, just as one cannot survive exclusively on a diet of biography or architectural history. But I did find myself concentrating on books that ask what one might call profound questions – the sort of questions that we are often too busy to address with the attention they deserve. I learned about subjects I needed to know more about – I had a sense of catching up with myself. I realised I had been too busy, too distracted, to read things I needed to read. These last few months have taught me a lesson. I hope I remember it.

Patrick Leigh Fermor and the monks of the west

An excellent article from the Catholic Herald by Michael Duggan; “religious references” in his work (and life). I hope that you enjoy this.

Seventy years ago, in September 1948, the English author Patrick Leigh Fermor decamped from the nightspots of Paris to the Benedictine monastery ‎of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle near Rouen. His purpose was to work on a draft of what would become The Traveller’s Tree, an account of his voyages in the Caribbean. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the books recounting part of an epic pre-war walk across Europe as an eighteen-year-old that would secure Leigh Fermor’s lasting fame, were still decades away.

As his letters published last year show, ‘Paddy’ had a penchant for high living, forever drawn to the “soft hiss of the soda syphon”. His ingenious, entirely euphemistic descriptions of sex are a bawdy hoot. He once provoked a massive punch-up at the Kildare Hunt Ball and was only rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and, not long after the near-riot in Ireland, Paddy’s lover.

His publisher, Jock Murray, once half-jokingly suggested a boarding house in Aberdeen as the ideal place for Paddy to knuckle down and finish a much-delayed volume. Even so, a monastery steeped in the ascetic rigour of the Western tradition seems like an extreme measure for a man who had just been staying at the Hotel Louisiane, around the corner from the Café Flore and the Deux Magots. Moreover, Leigh Fermor wasn’t a Catholic (though it is somewhat more complicated than that, as we shall see).

After his death in 2011, the First Things website published a touching, fulsome appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor written by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart: touching because the news of the passing of a very elderly man whom he did not know seemed to have left Hart discombobulated and bereft; and fulsome because Hart believes (as do I) that here was a writer whose prose “has few credible rivals in modern English letters”.

Toward the middle of this article, Hart makes a brief reference to the place of religion in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. He mentions the twentieth birthday spent at the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos and praises Leigh Fermor’s book Roumeli for “some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English”. But he also notes that even close friends seemed uncertain whether Paddy actually had any particular religious convictions at all.

As it happens, the matter of Patrick Leigh Fermor and religion need not rest where David Bentley Hart leaves it. Artemis Cooper’s fine 2012 biography contains an intriguing clue to her subject’s religious feelings. Though he never actually converted from the Anglicanism of his childhood, it appears that Paddy identified himself as “R.C.” on official forms right up to the end of the Second World War, when he was thirty years old. After that, his religious feelings, which at times during his childhood took the form of what Paddy called a religious mania, seemed to subside.

However, while the mania may have lapsed, the historical allure of Christendom never seemed to fade for him. The famous trilogy about his trek across Europe (the final instalment, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2014) is studded with episodes and incidents redolent of the continent’s historic Christian culture. Disembarking in Rotterdam in the dead of night in December 1933, at the beginning of his epic adventure, the first person Leigh Fermor saw was Erasmus, in the form of a snow-covered statue outside the fifteenth-century Laurenskerk. Not long after, he spent a night discussing, among other things, the correct pronunciation of Erasmic Latin with a couple of German students in the house of the widow of a Classics professor in Cologne. His account of arriving in Hungary on Holy Saturday 1934, crossing the bridge at Esztergom just in time to be swept up into the ceremony at the great cathedral, is unforgettable.

Leigh Fermor’s literary heroes included the French Catholic novelist, J-K Huysmans, who sparked his interest in monasticism, and St Basil of Caesarea in whom Paddy seemed to find something he craved: a fusion of Christian and classical humanism, such that “the polished Greek sentences are sprinkled with classical allusions one would expect more readily in the writings of a fifteenth-century humanist than in those of a Doctor of the Church living in the reign of Julian”. In Basil’s letters, there was “a mood of humanity and simplicity, (…) an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still.”

Religion was also, of course, an indissoluble part of the Greece he loved and celebrated. According to Artemis Cooper, Paddy liked to think that he could still detect a sort of eternal, cultural Europe, untouched behind the cities and factories, where life was dictated by the rounds of the seasons and the feasts of the Church. He liked to claim descent from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire who had originally journeyed to Austria from Ireland; and he lamented the desolation caused by the Reformation, seeing the ruined abbeys of England as “the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.”

Leigh Fermor did write one book on an overtly religious theme: a slim volume entitled A Time to Keep Silence, which records his sojourns in Saint Wandrille and two other French monasteries – Solesmes and La Grande Trappe – along with a trip to see the enigmatic, abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of this book, first published in 1957, is the depiction of an outsider, a self-proclaimed homme moyen sensuel, adapting to the austerity of life in a western monastery. The monks Leigh Fermor had known previously, in wartime Crete where he served as a British army intelligence officer fighting alongside the resistance, were holy men who were nonetheless prone to “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”.

And he did also have some brief encounters with the monks of western Europe when walking his way across Europe. As recounted in A Time of Gifts, when he made his way to the workhouse in Düsseldorf in search of a place to stay, a bearded Franciscan in clogs led him to the dormitory. There he had a night disturbed by the snores, groans, sighs and shouts of the other inmates. (“Lying in wait in the rafters all the nightmares of the Rhineland descended on the sleepers.”) The next day, the monks on duty supplied him and his companions, who were set to work on cutting logs, with axes and saws, coffee and black bread.

Later, at the great abbey of Melk in Austria, a young, learned, amusing Benedictine, speaking beautiful French, showed him around, proving to be the “ideal cicerone” for the splendours beyond the gatehouse. Further up the Danube, at the Abbey of Göttweig, he is introduced to an Irish monk “of immense age and great charm”, who “could have sat for a picture of St Jerome”.

Come 1948, his encounter with monasticism was defined, at first, by an initial descent into “unspeakable ‎loneliness”, “overwhelming gloom and acidie”, a sensation of “circumabient and impending death”. But then comes his re-emergence, still within the monastic walls, into a life of “light, dreamless and perfect sleep”, lasting five hours and coming to an end “with no harder shock than that of a boat’s keel grounding on a lake shore”; of awakenings “full of energy and limpid freshness”; and of days of “absolute vitality and god-like freedom”. (Later on, leaving the monastery, and returning to the kind of world announced by Cinzano advertisements seen from a train window, would induce a painful process of adaptation in reverse.)

Leigh Fermor was full of admiration and respect for the role that the monks of the West had played in history, for the centuries in which they were the only guardians of things he loved: literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities. He also found that the company of the small number of living monks‎ he was permitted to speak with was like the company of any civilised, well-educated Frenchmen “with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness which is common to the whole community”.

More profoundly, he also came to appreciate the role of monasteries in what is sometimes called the economy of salvation. It was their belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer – “a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought” – that explains the sacrifices these men made. Vows embracing poverty, chastity and obedience were destined to smite “all fetters that chained them to the world, to free them for action, for the worship of God and the practice of prayer; for the pursuit, in short, of sanctity.”

Leigh Fermor smiled at the fact that the monastic habitat should prove “favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed”: his ambition, on the one hand, to get a book finished and his publisher off his back, and, on the other hand, the ambitions of the monks. These men, he found, could still embark on those “hazardous mystical journeys of the soul” which culminate in “blinding moments of union with the Godhead”, the very inkling of which, “since Donne, Quarley, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne wrote their poems, has drained away from life in England”.

In the Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, Paddy grappled briefly with the question of what his experiences inside the monastery walls might ultimately signify. He wrote that he was profoundly affected by the places he described. Though unsure about what his feelings amounted to, he was convinced that they were “deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy”. In monasteries, he found “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”. Describing himself as no stranger to “recalcitrance or scepticism or plain incapacity for belief”, he implies nevertheless that he had been the beneficiary of a “supernatural windfall”.

In the end, Paddy never fully cashed in this windfall. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, but there were to be no more books on an exclusively religious theme. His life (a quite extraordinary one, in ways I have barely touched on here) was filled with many different interests, pleasures and friendships, some of which would have thrown up serious obstacles to any burgeoning Catholicism.

He had an open relationship with his wife, Joan Rayner, who was also a committed atheist. While he stayed on in Rome to witness (and “swoon” at) the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, his primary reason for being in the Eternal City in the first place was to conduct an affair with a young divorcee. Three pages of A Time to Keep Silence are devoted to the conflicts and mysteries of chastity.

I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Leigh Fermor’s temperament – that old, latent religious mania – sometimes led him back towards the threshold of belief, only for his appetites to lead him away again, down the path of least resistance, garlanded with pleasures, adored by friends and lovers, and adoring them in return.

Many of us know some version of this dilemma. We need a strong motive to turn our backs on the worldly delights which converged on Patrick Leigh Fermor like iron filings on a magnet, in favour of the less certain rewards that emanate from spiritual dread and spiritual joy. As Artemis Cooper has pointed out to me, Paddy (unlike, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene) “could live without answers to the big questions: what am I doing here, why is there evil in the world, what has God got to do with it. These big themes didn’t preoccupy him much.”

To those who’ve read the books and letters, this observation has the ring of truth. But could it be that Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to live a life seemingly unpreoccupied by God because of the knowledge that he had acquired at first-hand in places like Saint Wandrille and La Grande Trappe?

This was the knowledge that, all the while, in those monasteries scattered across the West, which he called “silent factories of prayer”, there were other civilized, well-educated gentlemen just like him who had succeeded in abandoning everything. And that they had done so in order to help their fellow-men, and themselves, to meet something he had intuited himself during those brief pockets of time spent in monastic cells, woods and cloisters, something which he and most of us push to the back of our minds for most of the time, and to which he gave a name: “the terrifying problem of eternity”.

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

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.

Honoring Patrick Leigh Fermor: Review Essay

This is quite an excellent essay that focuses on Paddy’s writing more than many other profiles.

Paddy in 1966

by Willard Manus

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor today is both an exhilarating and depressing experience, exhilarating because of the depth and brilliance of his prose, depressing because the Greece he portrays so memorably has been hammered to dust by the march of time. Fermor, who was knighted in 2003, is best known in Greece and in his native Britain, where he was born nine decades ago to Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor, director of the Geological Society in India, and Eileen Ambler, who was partly raised there. His first book, The Traveller’s Tree, published in 1950, dealt with the journey he made through the Caribbean islands in 1947-48. The book won the Heinemann Foundation Prize for Literature, and established him as a writer of note.

His next two books, 1952’s A Time to Keep Silence, which described his stay in various European monasteries (where he discovered in himself “a capacity for solitude”), and 1956’s The Violins of Saint-Jacque, a novel, are interesting but minor works. His literary and political importance is linked to the two books on Greece he published a decade later—Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Established his reputation as the pre-eminent non-native writer on 20th century Greece.

Fermor’s first experience of the country dated back to 1933, when as a rebellious and untamed 19-year-old, he dropped out of Sandhurst and set out on a walking tour of Europe with Constantinople as his ultimate destination was Constantinople. Envisioning himself as “a medieval pilgrim, an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots,” he embarked, in mid-winter, on a journey that eventually spanned three years and took him through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania and, eventually, Greece. 2

Remarkably, Fermor did not write about his picaresque adventures in pre-war Europe until many years later. “So when A Time of Gifts appeared in 1977 and Beneath the Winds and the Water in 1986, the life of the mid-thirties that he described had been utterly destroyed,” his biographer Artemis Cooper has noted, “and much of the land he had walked over was in the grip of communism for years. Yet his memory recreated this world with an astonishing freshness and immediacy, and recaptured the young man he was then: full of curiosity, optimism and joy in the vibrant diversity of the world.”  The concluding volume of Fermor’s trilogy is scheduled for publication (by John Murray Ltd.) in early 2007.

Fermor made it to Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935, and then crossed south into Greece. He spent time in a monastery on Mt. Athos, got caught up later in a Royalist vs. Republican battle in Macedonia, arriving finally in Athens, where he met the great love of his life, the Romanian Balasha Cantacuzene. They went to Poros and lived together in an old water mill, where he wrote and she painted. When the money ran out they retreated to her decaying family home in Baldeni, Moldavia.

Fermor described the house in an essay published in Words of Mercury, “Most of a large estate had been lopped away in the agrarian reform. There was little cash about, people were paid in kind by a sort of sharing system, so, in a way, were the owners; and, on the spot, there was enough to go around. Elderly pensioners hovered in the middle distance and an ancient staff would come into being at moments of need. . . .

“There was one crone there who knew how to cast spells and break them by incantations; another, by magic, could deliver whole villages from rats. After sheep-shearing, a claca, fifty girls and crones, bristling with distaffs would gather in a barn to spin; hilarious days with a lot of food, drink, singing and story-telling.

“Snow reached the windowsills and lasted till spring. There were cloudy rides under a sky full of rooks; otherwise, it was an indoors life of painting, writing, reading, talk and lamp-lit evenings with Mallarme, Apollinaire, Proust and Gide handy; there was Les Enfants Terribles and Le Grand Meaulnes and L’ Aiglon read aloud; all these were early debarbarizing steps in beguiling and unknown territory.”

Fermor was not quite the barbarian he fancied himself. Despite having rejected higher education, he was already something of a polymath, an autodidact. Not only was he conversant in five European languages (only Hungarian stumped him), he was knowledgeable about art, history, architecture, geography, sociology, religion, fashion, etymology, cartography, heraldry and many other subjects, all of which he had absorbed through voracious reading.

The importance of books in his life was discussed in a piece he wrote for The Pleasure of Reading (ed. Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury, 1992). “When the miracle of literacy happened at last, it turned an unlettered brute into a book-ridden lunatic,” he confessed. “Till it was light enough to read, furious dawn-watches ushered in days flat on hearth-rugs or grass, in ricks or up trees, which ended in stifling torch lit hours under bedclothes.”‘

Among his favorite writers were Dickens, Thackeray (Vanity Fair, anyway), the Sitwells, Norman Douglas, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, not to speak of Kipling and Houseman; Baudelaire and Ronsard in French; Horace and Virgil in Latin; Holderlin, Rilke and Stefan George in German.

“The young learn as quick as mynahs, at an age, luckily, when everything sticks,” he continued. What also stuck were “reams of Shakespeare, border ballads, passages of Donne, Raleigh, Wyatt and Marvel . . . two Latin hymns, remnants of spasmodic religious mania . . swatches from Homer, two or three epitaphs of Simonides, and two four-line moon-poems of Sappho.”

Fermor’s list also includes “the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica … a battery of atlases, concordances, dictionaries, Loeb classics, Pleiades editions, Oxford companions, Cambridge histories, anthologies and books on birds, beasts, plants and stars.”

When Britain declared war in 1939, Fermor immediately went home to join up, leaving Balasha behind in Romania. He first enlisted in the Irish Guards, but because of his fluent command of Greek he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps, serving at first as liaison officer to the Greek army fighting the Italians inAlbania. After Greece fell, Fermor was sent to Crete where he took part in the battle against the German airborne invasion. He remained on the island after the German triumph; disguised now as a Cretan shepherd, with a big handlebar moustache and a dagger in his belt, the tall, slim, Fermor cut a swashbuckling figure as he roamed the mountains to help organize the resistance movement.

It was there, in Crete’s high, wild country, that he recalled in Words of Mercury that…

“devotion to the Greek mountains and their population took root. . . . We lived in goat-folds and abandoned conical cheese-makers’ huts and above all, in the myriad caverns that mercilessly riddle the island’s stiff spine. Some were too shallow to keep out the snow, others could house a Cyclops and all his flocks. Here, at ibex- and eagle-height, we settled with our small retinues. Enemy searches kept us on the move and it was in a hundred of these eyries that we got to know an older Crete and an older Greece than anyone dreams of in the plains. Under the dripping stalactites we sprawled and sat cross-legged, our eyes red with smoke, on the branches that padded the cave’s floor and spooned our suppers out of a communal tin plate: beans, lentils, cooked snails and herbs, accompanied by that twice-baked herdsman’s bread that must be soaked in water or goat’s milk before it is eaten. Toasting goat’s cheese sizzled on the points of long daggers and oil dewed our whiskers. These sessions were often cheered by flasks of raki, occasionally distilled from mulberries, sent by the guardian village below. On lucky nights, calabashes of powerful amber-colored wine loosened all our tongues. Over the shoulders of each figure was a bristly white cloak stiff as bark, with the sleeves hanging loose like penguins’ wings; the hoods raised against the wind gave the bearded and mustachioed faces a look of Cistercians turned bandit. Someone would be smashing shells with his pistol-butt and offering peeled walnuts in a horny palm; another sliced tobacco on the stock of a rifle; for hours we forgot the war with talk and singing and stories; laughter echoed along the minotaurish warrens.”

In 1944 Fermor took part in a bold and perilous mission that later became the subject of a best-selling book, Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss, a fellow intelligence officer. 5 The British plan was to kidnap the German army’s chief of staff, General Muller, who had become notorious and hated for his brutal treatment of both Cretan partisans and civilians. When Muller was called away, the new target was his replacement: General Heinrich Kreipe, a professional soldier arriving straight from service on the Russian front.

Fermor and his team, which included Moss, Sandy Rendel (former political correspondent for the Sunday Times), the Cretan partisan Niki Akoumianakis and a dozen other andartes, had to radically alter their original plan. Fermor and Moss agreed to disguise themselves as German military policemen. That meant Fermor had to part with his Cretan moustache Without it, he looked so much the stiff-necked Teuton that Moss kidded him about being on the wrong side. They decided to promote themselves to corporal’s rank and decorate themselves with a few (stolen) ribbons.

Taking up positions outside the isolated Villa Ariadne—the headquarters for the German army had been built above Heraklion before the war by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans—Fermor and Moss flagged the general’s car down at 9.30 pm.

“Is dies das general’s wagon?” he asked.

“Ja, ja,” came the muffled answer from inside.

With that assurance, key members of the band attacked from all sides, tearing at the doors of the car. The beam of a flashlight showed the startled face of the general and the chauffeur reaching for his automatic. There was the thud of a bludgeon; the chauffeur keeled over and was dragged out of sight.

The general, who offered no resistance, was brought to Anogia, the largest village on Crete, located on the northern slopes of Mt. Ida. “Famous for its independent spirit, its idiosyncrasy of dress and accent, it had always been a great hideout of ours,” said Fermor in an account written in 1969  for the Imperial War Museum.

Fermor related that a note had been left in the general’s car stating that he was safe and “would be treated with the respect due to his rank,” and that the kidnap had been carried out by British officers and Greek nationals serving as soldiers in the forces of His Hellenic Majesty. “The point  was to give the Germans no excuse for carnage and reprisals in the Knossos area.”

The next day, however, a single-winged Feiseler-Storck reconnaissance plane circled above Anovia and dropped a steady snowfall of leaflets. “To all Cretans,” the message read, “last night the German General Kreipe was abducted by bandits. He is being concealed in the Cretan mountains and his whereabouts cannot be unknown to the inhabitants. If the General isn’t returned within three days, all rebel villages in the Heraklion district will be razed to the ground and the severest reprisals exacted on the civilian population.”

The general was not, of course, returned to the Germans; he was smuggled off the island and delivered by submarine to British army headquarters in Egypt, and the Germans exacted their promised revenge. Fermor deals with this in circumspect fashion in his official report, asserting that “most untrue to form, there had been little violence, few arrests, no shooting on the part of the Germans.”

Fermor’s statement is disputed by Dr. Michael E. Paradise, a Midwest-based Greek-American whose father and two brothers were members of the British intelligence group on Crete. Though in his teens, Michael himself was often used as a courier. “Attacking in the darkness of one night,” he wrote in the April 10, 1997 edition of The Greek American (a now-defunct, New York-based newspaper), “the Germans proceeded to destroy several villages with the utmost brutality and ferocity. I was witness of the destruction of one of the villages, Ano Meros, on Mt. Kendros in Amari.”

The kidnapping of Gen. Kreipe, Paradise asserted, “contributed to the unnecessary death of hundreds of men, who were hunted down like wild animals in the streets of their villages, then, while some were injured and still alive, they were burnt in the houses of the villages, and buried in them when the dynamiting of the houses followed.”

Most Cretans, though, have not held a grudge against Fermor and his gung-ho confederates. As one veteran Cretan commando said at the time of Kreipe’s abduction, “So they’ll burn down all the houses one day. And what then? My house was burnt down four times by the Turks. Let the Germans burn it down for a fifth time! And they killed scores of my family, scores of them, my child, yet here I am! We’re at war and war has all of these things. You can’t make a wedding feast without meat.”

After the war—and his brief Caribbean sojourn—Fermor realized that his love of Greece had tied himself forever to the country’s fortunes. He lived for a time on Evia, then Ithaca and Hydra (in the house of the painter, Niko Ghika). Soon after he began his travels in the far corners of the Greek mainland which led to the publication of his two masterpieces, Mani and Rozemeli. Accompanied by the photographer (and his wife-to-be) Joan Rayner (daughter of the Conservative politician and First Lord of the Admiralty in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government, Belton Eyres Monsell), whom he had met in wartime Cairo, Fermor set off with this goal in mind: “To situate and describe present-day Greece of the mountains and islands in relationship to their habitat and history.”

Mani is the southernmost part of Greece, an isolated, mountainous and forbidding peninsula known for its stark, sun-blistered landscape and warlike, feuding inhabitants. Despite having been warned not to attempt to penetrate into The Deep Mani— “the Maniatis are dangerous”—”they are Jews”—”they fear and hate foreigners”—”they live on salted starfish”—Fermor and Rayner defiantly set out on foot and mule, bus and caique, in search of an authentic Greek world.

What they found and reported on was a revelation to one and all. The Mani was a strange, combative place, to be sure—most people lived in pyrgi, stone towers that were more fortress than domicile—but it was fantastical at the same time, rich in history and bravery (no part of Greece played a more conspicuous and valuable part in the War of Independence). With its code of honor and hospitality, its love of freedom, the Mani was also pulsing with life, colorful in speech, custom, ritual and superstition.

The book that came out of this expedition into the heart and soul of the Mani became an instant classic. Fermor’s prose and Rayner’s photographs (sadly dropped from subsequent editions) won plaudits from critics and readers alike. The British artist (and longtime Greek resident) Polly Hope has said, “Mani was one of the books that brought me to Greece. When my husband and I first read it we knew instantly that this was the world we wanted to go to. It told of magic and fury and history and people and landscape. Completely breathtaking. We read it and reread it and read it again until our heads were full of towers and feuds, cucumbers like slices of ancient pillars, and ouzo. Donkeys and heat. And the dark sea that because of the extraordinary Greek light stands up vertically as far as the horizon. We had to go. And immediately. “We did, and remained, though not in Mani. Still all these years later it is the book that tells about Greece as it is. It is still right and as clear and informative as that first reading. Although tourism has spread its ugly veil over most of Greece the people are still there, the feuds and cucumbers, the vertical sea and broiling sun.”

Similar praise was bestowed on Roumeli when it was published eight years later. Fermor and Rayner’s portrait of the northeast corner of Greece, including Messolonghi, where Lord Byron (one of Fermor’s heroes) fought and died for Greece, is as vivid and compelling as anything in Mani. Whether writing about the sarakatsans, the nomadic shepherds—”self-appointed Ishmaels”—who inhabited the mountaintops, speaking in a  secret tongue; or the origins of the local Karayiozi puppet shows; or the Meteora monasteries; or the “stone-age banquet” (celebrating an arranged marriage) to which they were invited, Fermor’s prose shines and shimmers like beaten gold.

Historian John J. Norwich believes that Fermor “writes English as well as anyone alive.” 7 He also praised ‘the preternatural copiousness” of Fermor’s two books. Jan Morris seconded the statement, adding that Fermor was “beyond cavil, the greatest living travel writer.” In November, 2004 the British Guild of Travel Writers concurred, bestowing on Fermor its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fermor won another important prize in 2004: the second Gennadius Trustees’ Award for his support of things Greek. At the ceremony in Athens,  the previous recipient of the award, writer/translator Edmund Keeley, said, “I look upon Mr. Fermor as one of my first mentors, a man of letters who taught me, perhaps more than any other Philhellene, the best way to write about the second country we have both come to love and to  celebrate in our work.”

After lauding Fermor for his “imaginative projection of Greece,” Keeley offered a specific example of the kind of “special insight” that Fermor  brings to his writing about Greece. “A scene in his superb book on the Mani . . . not only captures the essence of Greek hedonism . . . but  demonstrates his easy and subtle understanding of the Greek sensibility.”

The scene took place in “the glaring white town” of Kalamata where the Feast of St. John the Baptist was being celebrated. Fermor, his wife Joan, and their friend the writer Xan Fielding sat down to eat their dinner set out at the water’s edge on flagstones “that flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off.”

Suddenly they decided to pick up their iron table, neatly laid out, and set it down a few yards out to sea, followed by their three chairs, then by the three of them sitting down with the cool water up to their waists. Quite sensible, the only slightly odd thing about this was that all three were fully dressed. Yet the really significant moment, the epiphany, came when the waiter arrived on the quay, gazed in surprise at the space they’d left empty on the burning flagstones, and then (quoting Fermor) “observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure,” stepped without further hesitation into the sea and “advanced with a butler’s gravity” to put down their meal before them, three broiled fish, “piping hot, and with their golden brown scales sparkling.”

As Keeley pointed out, “It is Fermor’s seeing both that flicker of pleasure and the quick masking of it that says so much, more even than his report that others on the quay sent their seaborne fellow diners can after measuring can of retsina, and a dozen boats gathered around to help them consume the complimentary wine, and a mandolin arrived . . . to accompany rebetika songs in praise of the liberated life. Only those who have often taken apart and savored a broiled tsipoura or fangri . fresh from the sea and amply bathed in an olive-oil-and-lemon sauce would recognize why no representative Greek citizen given to pleasure would think of disturbing, except in a celebratory way, any table holding such a succulent, earthy gift from the Gods. And only a writer with Fermor’s precise vision and brilliant skill in expression would choose to show our hedonistic waiter appropriately masking his pleasure and assuming the gravity of a butler as he entered the sea on his mission to deliver the gods’ gift.”

It is, alas, harder and harder to find such raffish scenes in 21stcentury, tourist-choked, EU-regimented Greece. Even Fermor, in a recent essay, had to admit that much of what he first encountered and experienced in Greece has disappeared. “Progress has altered the face and character of the country,” he commented. And as for tourism, “it destroys the object of its love.” 10

That said, Fermor still continues to write about Greece. In his 90s, living alone in the pyrgos he built in the Outer Mani—Joan died in 2000, of injuries suffered in a fall—he toils away on the final book of his Hook of Holland to Constantinople trilogy, the one that deals with his first years in Greece, working from notebooks, maps and memory. In a way Fermor is a chronicler of a bygone age, a rememberer of things past. The Greece he reveres may have died, but he battles with the last strength in him to keep its spirit alive.


1. ‘Only two of Fermor’s books are in print in the United States: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. They are New York Review of Books Classics. In the UK, most of Fermor’s books are published in hardbound and paperback by John Murray Ltd., but Penguin has published a few of his titles as paper reprints. The following are his major publications. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese. Photos by Joan Eyres (London: Murray, 1958); Translation of George Pyschounadkis, The Cretan Runner: His story of the Germany Occupation. (London: J. Murray, 1978, c1955); Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (London & NY; Penguin, 1983, c1966); Introduction to Kostas Chatzepateras, Greece 1940-41 Eyewinessed (Anixi Attikis {Greece}: Efstathiadis Group, 1995); Text with Stephen Spender of Ghika: Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture (London: Lund Humpries, 1964); A Time of Gifts; On Foot to Constantinople, from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (NY: New York Review of BooKs, 2005).

2. Quotations is from a review from “Scholar in the Woods,” a review by James Campbell in The Guardian, April 8, 2005.

3. ‘James Campbell, Words of Mercury.

4. A11 quotes regarding Fermor’s reading tastes are taken from his essay in
the anthology The Pleasures of Reading edited by Antonia Fraser, Bloomsbury,

5. ‘The details of the kidnapping are taken from Ill Met by Moonlight (London:
Harrap, 1950). In the movie of the same name released in 1958, Fermor is
played by Dirk Bogarde.

6. Letter to the author sent in 2004.

7. Copy written for the dusk jacket of the paperback edition of Between the Woods and the Water.

8. Ibid.

9. This and subsequent Keeley citations are from a 2004 letter to the author. Date?

10. See Fermor’s essay in A Time of Gifts.

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 

Numbered and bound copies of A Time To Keep Silence

I received the following note from Phil Holden, who resides in Athens, pointing out that A Time to Keep Silence was in fact first published in a numbered limited edition in 1953. I hope Phil does not mind me posting this letter.

Dear Tom,
I have been enjoying your blog about Paddy Leigh Fermor very much – thanks for the effort you have put into it. One point – in your list of Paddy’s books, you have A Time To Keep Silence listed as being published in 1957. That was the John Murray publication. However 500 copies were published in 1953 by the Queen Anne Press. Paddy signed the first 50 of these, which had been numbered and bound in dark blue leather. The other 450 were numbered but bound in cloth and were unsigned. It is a significant book in that the 500 copies represent the only time a numbered limitation took place with any of Paddy’s books and the first fifty of those, which he signed, are the only books he ever signed in a limited printed run (that is, not individual copies or at book signings and launches).
Keep up the good work, best wishes from Athens, Greece.
Phil Holden

Writer and WWII hero honoured with Order of the Phoenix

Report of the presentation of the Greek Order of the Phoenix to Paddy

First published Ekathimerini online 3 March 2007

By Helbi

Patrick Leigh Fermor (right) with Colonel Mark Blatherwick, the British defense attache in Athens

The week that passed brought both joy and sorrow to those close to two British heroes who fought for Greece during World War II and whose love for the country never dimmed. The writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of famous books such as “Mani” and “Roumeli,” “A Time of Gifts” and “Between Woods and Water,” even settled in Greece, near the Mani village of Kardamyli. This week President Karolos Papoulias bestowed upon him the Order of the Phoenix in the New Year honors for 2007. Ambassador Tassos Kriekoukis, director of protocol for the Foreign Ministry, spoke of “Sir Patrick’s love of writing and traveling but also for Greece, for whose freedom he fought at the side of Greek and British commandos. Who can forget his part in the kidnapping (in wartime Crete) of (German) General Kreipe?” Colonel Mark Blatherwick, the British Defense Attache in Athens, accompanied Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor to the event.