Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

March 19, 2012

A Time to Keep Silence
Patrick Leigh Fermor
(Penguin, 1988) [1957]
95 p.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor arrived at Fontenelle Abbey, it was not his first encounter with Christian monastics; we infer from his sun-drenched memories of “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols…” that he had previously sojourned among monks of the Eastern tradition. Those earlier experiences set him up for a rough surprise that first evening, for he discovered a rather different ambiance: the monks filing into the chapel for Vespers were, he wrote, “exact echoes of Mrs Radcliffe’s villainous monastics and of the miscreants of Protestant anti-popish literature.” He sat back in a kind of dumbfounded disappointment:

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… [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 burned-out melancholy… I had a sensation of the temperature of life falling to zero.

Fermor retreated to his simple room that night in the monastery’s guest house with a sense of dismay bordering on disgust. And there, in the great silence, alone with his thoughts, he “suffered what Pascal declared to be the cause of all human evils”. It was a difficult beginning.

Yet is was only a beginning, and a good deal of the pleasure of this fine book is in seeing these first impressions slowly overturned, greater familiarity breeding respect, understanding, and admiration. Fermor was and remained — so far as I know, and for the purposes of this book — an unbeliever, and so in a real and significant sense he could see and experience monasticism only from the outside. This was a limitation. Yet, as observers go, one could look long and fail to find one as perceptive and generous.

The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to his experiences at Fontenelle Abbey (as above), the second with his journey from the great Benedictine house of Solesmes to the Trappist motherhouse at La Grande Trappe, and the third with his explorations of the abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia, in modern Turkey. (Of these last I knew nothing prior to reading this book, and I was fascinated. Scrambling to learn more, I made the sad but predictable discovery that these wild outposts of ancient monastic life have today been converted into tourist sites.) The narrative is a mixture of history, personal observations, portraits of individual monks, and reflections upon the monastic way of life. Fermor came to admire certain aspects of monasticism: its practical self-sufficiency, its integrity, its total commitment to an ideal, its sheer durability. But mostly, I felt, his good opinion was due to his regard for individual monks whom he came to know well. They were men who could look him in the eye, with all that that entails. With the passing of time, he quietly reversed his original judgment, so that he could write, from the deep silence of La Grande Trappe:

All — and I profoundly believe this to be true — is quiet and peaceful, and the privacy of the individual silences is bridged by an authentic and brotherly love.

Fermor is regarded by some as one of our great prose writers, and there is much in this slim volume to support such a judgment. Even those of us who already know and love monastics and monasticism can enjoy the book for its literary beauty. For those who have not been exposed to monasticism, on the other hand, or for those for whom it seems especially strange or foreign, this book would make a fine introduction. It compares favourably with books which, arguably, serve a similar purpose, such as Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain or Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk.


Their values have remained stable while those of the world have passed through kaleidoscopic changes. It is curious to hear, from the outside world in the throes of its yearly metamorphoses, cries of derision levelled at the monastic life. How shallow, whatever views may be held concerning the fundamental truth or falsity of the Christian religion, are these accusations of hypocrisy, sloth, selfishness and escapism! The life of monks passes in a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday; and no living man, after all, is in a position to declare their premises true or false. They have foresworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless; and they alone have as a body confronted the terrifying problem of eternity, abandoning everything to help their fellow-men and themselves to meet it.

[Spiritual warfare]
In mediaeval traditions, abbeys and convents were always considered to be inexpungable centres of revolt against infernal dominion on earth. They became, accordingly, especial targets. Satan, issuing orders at nightfall to his foul precurrers, was rumoured to dispatch to capital cities only one junior fiend. This solitary demon, the legend continues, sleeps at his post. There is no work for him; the battle was long ago won. But monasteries, those scattered danger points, become the chief objectives of nocturnal flight; the sky fills with the beat of sable wings as phalanx after phalanx streams to the attack, and the darkness crepitates with the splintering of a myriad lances against the masonry of asceticism. Piety has always been singled out for the hardest onslaught of hellish aggression. The empty slopes of the wilderness became the lists for an unprecedented single combat, lasting forty days and nights, between the leaders of either faction; when the Thebaid filled up with hermits, their presence at once attracted a detachment of demons, and round the solitary pillar of St. Symeon the Stylite, the Powers of Darkness assembled and spun like swarming wasps.

5 Responses to “Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence”

  1. Janet Says:

    That looks like a book I would love to read, but probably won’t have time. I really appreciate writers who try to be truly objective when writing from the outside of things, whatever the inside may be. They are pretty rare.

    The name of this post is appropriate for me today, as I am going to take this as advice and be silent until Easter, except for my blog and maybe Sundays.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Have a very good remainder of Lent, Janet. Your blog is quite excellent thus far.

  3. This is a great book, and well worth reading – like you, I gravitated to A Time to Keep Silence because of my interest in monasticism, and enjoyed it enough to buy a copy of A Time of Gifts, which is on my to-read pile at the moment. His prose is superb, and I appreciated his willingness as an unbeliever to explore and learn from the Christian religious tradition (would that all atheists were equally broad-minded. . .)

    You spoke of PLF in the present tense, but in fact he has recently died (in June 2011).

  4. cburrell Says:

    I had forgotten about his passing, but now that you mention it I do remember reading about it. Like you, I have A Time of Gifts on my to-read pile. I expect you’ll get to it first.

  5. doug scotney Says:

    Sounds of Silence
    Meaning obfuscating pattern,
    future past,
    he reduced words to sounds.

    Free of the ground,
    they interwove and hovered,
    signs of silence heard.

    written while reading the book.

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