Monday, February 18, 2008

Patrick Leigh Fermor's "A Time to Keep Silence": Book Review

The other night, needing a calm book after an agitating day, I re-read this short but typically-- granted this author's ability to convey much depth in a few pages-- account of the famed travel writer's visits to monasteries. His simple account focuses on a long stay at St Wandrille's in Belgium, a bit of Solesmes, more at La Grande Trappe in France, and the journey later among the ruins of Cappadocian foundations in Turkey.

Fermor knows his limitations in retreating to such places in search of solitude to work on his own manuscripts. He tries to take on the mystery of the call to silence even as he tries to put it into words, to account for its appeal to a few and its strangeness to many of us. The results may not please all readers, for Fermor submits to the difference he encounters, and so by his lay status must remain too at the margins of what the monks take decades to live within. Writing well before Vatican II, Fermor conjures up an astonishingly austere regimen that he glimpses among the Trappists at their motherhouse; the Belgian Benedictines, by contrast, earn much more time for study and scholarship.

I wondered, in the decades since, how many monks remain at such European houses. Fermor provides us with efficiently told summaries of the past depredations and recoveries of such venerable communities, and one closes Fermor's depictions of life as it was lived there a half a century ago with a realization of how close it was to observances centuries older. Again, such a description leaves me to ponder how much as been altered and how much remains the same given the enormous shifts in Catholic practice and the decline in vocations since then.

This reflection leads to the comparatively short glimpse of the biscuit-colored mountains, with their pyramidical, anthill-like terrain, that housed some of the first monks in Christianity. The photos, as the one on the cover show, of this forbidding terrain remind me of an objective correlative for La Grande Trappe. The caves, the few remains, the hostile environment present, it seems, Fermor with a sense of an otherworldly terrain in more ways than one.

(Posted to Amazon US today. Book republished by NY Review Press last year with an introduction by Karen Armstrong; my copy is an older British edition.)

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