In the 1950s, Patrick Leigh Fermor, an English travel writer, memoirist, soldier in WWII and adventurer, who once walked from Holland to Turkey as a teenager, became interested in the life of monks. Though not himself a believer, he decided to visit several Benedictine and Cistercian and Trappist monasteries in France. A Time to Keep Silence is the record of those journeys. In this short and moving book the writing is spare, and delivers the reader out of the everydayness of the modern world, and into the life of a mid-century monk.
In the book, Fermor stays at the Abbey of St. Wandrille, a great repository of art and learning; at Solesmes, famous for its revival of Gregorian chant; and at the extremely ascetic Trappist monastery of La Grande Trappe, where monks take a vow of silence, sleep on pallets of straw on the ground, and eat a diet consisting almost entirely of roots. Finally, he visits the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, where he sees traces of the lives of the earliest Christian anchorites.
Fermor writes, “One is prone to accept the idea of monastic life as a phenomenon that has always existed, and to dismiss it from the mind without further analysis or comment; only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead.” Even a lifelong Catholic will find much in this book that surprises, and at times repels. For example, when a monk at the Trappist monastery of La Grande Trappe dies, no coffin is used. His face is covered by his hood, and he is lowered into the ground by his fellow monks who then continue their lives of vigorous penance. The asceticism is shocking, and yet Fermor, because he lives with the men he is writing about, describes their lives with great understanding and, at times, admiration.
More than a history or travel journal, this short book is also a meditation on the purpose of silence and solitude in an noisy world. Fermor writes, “In the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual, and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought-of of in the ordinary world.”
If you enjoy reading nonfiction about people whose lives are utterly unlike your own, we recommend A Time to Keep Silence.