SCW Book Review: Fermor’s A Time To Keep Silence

Time on to-read: Three years at least.

Reason for not picking up:  I thought I wanted to do Between Woods and Water first and read Fermor chronologically- that hadn’t worked out yet.

Reason for ultimately picking up: This I have time to read, and I miss Fermor.

Verdict: It’s a very different Fermor. But it’s still him.

Patrick Leigh Fermor is best known for adventure. First, his incredible journey backpacking across Europe in the dawning years of Europe’s best effort so far to blow itself to smithereens, as he recorded the last vestiges of a world dying, and the restless busyness of the one being born. And second, his escapades during the war itself working with the Greek resistance (his stint as the ringleader of the band who captured a German general has even been made into a movie, wonderfully dramatically called Ill Met By Moonlight). Indeed, his biographer, Artemis Cooper, could come up with no better title for his story than An Adventure.  I wouldn’t have titled it anything different myself. Who would, when you did the things you did and looked like this at any point in your life?:


The man, the myth, the legend

As is fitting for this subject matter, his writing is lush and multilayered and memorable. Although of course, the most fascinating layers were always the threads of the man himself woven into the story as he created his Self for his readers and for himself. One of the things I loved so much about A Time of Gifts was that he seemed to be indulging in an exercise that benefited him as much as the reader, but without it ever feeling confessional or like I was inappropriately attending someone’s therapy sessions- he actually withheld more than I would have liked at times. But it always felt like he was being open with me… which doesn’t always mean the same thing as truth- not if you’re a writer of Fermor’s caliber.

Fermor in wartime uniform

Not everyone likes that sort of thing. I understand that. But he’s got something else up his sleeve to keep you hooked, which is the other thing, the primary thing I loved about my experience of Fermor: his capacity for what I can only call awe. When he is taken with something, it shines off the pages in a way that could make a plotless description seem like you’d just been momentarily swept away entirely into a tale older than anyone could remember. His literary and historical resources are vast, his mind constantly working, which means these wonderful flights of fancy could go on for pages as he followed the thought down his seemingly never ending path of ideas. To me, more than the boundless charm, more than the stories, this divine sense of joy and otherness is the most precious thing he offers.

And that is what A Time to Keep Silence is about, ultimately. This piece is a tripartite essay, with a coda. Each essay covers Fermor’s sojourns to different monastic communities during the 1950s.   While this sounds like typical Fermor travelogue fare, this volume actually differs greatly from his most famous series. This book is not about him almost at all. And when it is, it isn’t to point the finger at himself, but generally serves to illustrate the point he is making or shed light on the place where he is.* It’s a surprisingly modern collection of short essays that would not be out of place as a series in The Atlantic.

The first essay covers his writing retreat to the great Benedictine Abbey of St. Wandrille in Normandy, the second his stay at the Abbey of La Trappe, the origin point of the very different Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. The third is something quite different, covering his journey to Turkey to explore the remains of a long abandoned group of  Christian temples, churches and decorated hermitages hewn into the desert rock of Cappadocia many centuries before. Through all of them, Fermor seeks to understand the monastic way of life and ultimately, what would motivate someone to leave behind the world and everything in it for another world that may or may not exist.

Postage Stamp of St. Wandrille-1949

Fermor’s intellect is challenged by his attempt to understand the seemingly unforgiving philosophy and harsh way of life of the Cistercian order. His imagination is captured by the fading paintings of Christ and the saints so incongruously leaping to life inside darkened caves the Turkish desert. But it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the gentle, cultivated, scholarly Benedictines who capture his heart and come the closest to helping him to understand the why of cloistered life. He starts his monastic inquiry with them at St. Wandrille and it is with them we find him three years later in the afterword, having not only revisited St. Wandrille several times in the intervening years, but also having apparently become the regular guest of each of the three remaining Benedictine abbeys of England as well.

Refectory of the Abbey of La Grande Trappe

Although it is clear he comes to appreciate the monks, Fermor does not start off doing so. On his first stay with the Benedictines, Fermor has serious difficulty with adjusting to the strict routine and the isolation that comes with it. (Extensive metaphors about walking corpses are used- I suspect many of them crafted after he first ran out of his emergency stash of alcohol. Dark comparisons to the evil monks of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic imagination not-coincidentally followed.) But eventually he undergoes a change. At first, he sees the benefits of monastic life that many of us might expect-regular and plentiful sleep, a removal of distractions, sharpened focus, encouragement to think less selfishly, exercise.

Cloisters and Courtyard, Abbey of St. Wandrille


But then, after the shock treatments to the body are complete, a true imaginative expansion of thought occurs. This allows him to see not only practical benefits of the monks’ lives, but also the beauty he had been missing:

“The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross. Slowly they proceeded through the cylinders of gold into which the Gothic tracery cut the sunlight. Their footfalls made no noise and only the ring of the croiser on the flags the the clanging of the censer could be heard across the Gregorian. The procession reached the shadow-side, pausing a few minutes while the sixty voices sailed out over the tree-tops; and then back through the church door, where arcs and parentheses of smoke from the burning gums, after the sunlit quadrangle, deepened the vaulted shadows…”

As you see, what many readers love about Fermor’s writing is still intact. While journalistic in nature where appropriate, his classic ability to paint a picture has lost nothing and is still capable of sweeping his audience away along with him when he is transported by discovery. Although he has difficulty reaching his place of supernatural awe with the Cistercians (which makes sense- although I admire him for seeing that as his own failing and not theirs), he finds a similar place of joy in the still lingering, still beautiful mysteries of Cappodocia:

The churches can be numbered in the dozens, and the neighboring hermitages by the score. Every second cone is chambered and honeycombed till it is as hollow sometimes from peak to base as a rotten tooth. Occasionally, where the rock is thin, the brittle sides have fallen away to expose the painted prophets and seraphim to the open air. But most of them, posturing in stiff heiratic attitudes, are hidden in the cold half-darkness. Saints Constantine and Helen supporting the True Cross between them, St. John Prodromos bearing his haloed head in a charger, while an obliging curve in the foliage of a miniature tree redeems from scandal the nakedness of St. Onouphrios. The personage who appears most frequently-for Cappodocia was his birthplace- is our own island-patron, St. George. Armored, red-clocked, heavily helmted, and reproduced ad infintum, he cranes from the saddle of his white charger to drive his lance through the serpentine coils of innumberable dragons. Eternal twilight surrounds these prancings and  death-throes. But each time we we emerged, the same incandescent glare was beating down. Out of the shadowy churches, we were once more in the kingdom of accidie, in the land of the basilisk and the cockatrice, of Panic terror and the Noonday Devil…”

Beyond this, Fermor’s prose offers other attractions. He is more focused in his writing than I’ve ever seen, and his descriptions of each place are lucid and thoroughly well-intentioned, even when offered temptation not to be (oh man, those Trappists would have tempted me to some less than kind adjectives for sure). And his historical anecdotes are well-chosen, colorful, and memorable as always. (Did you know that the founder of the Cistercian order was originally a libertine of a courtier in the court of Marie de Medici who became a zealot, harsh religious reformer after he saw the chopped off head of his mistress in her coffin? Explains a lot!)

Ancient cavetown near Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey
Ancient cave near Goreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

There are gifts enough in this slim volume, then. But I think ultimately what touched me was thinking about the underlying question: Why was he doing this at all? Of all subjects he could have chosen? On the snap judgment face of it, it does seem odd and out of character for our typically dashing hero. Why does the leader of dashing nighttime raids and haver of hijinx with teenage girls in prewar Bavaria, who admittedly isn’t sure that he believes in God, suddenly seek out a cloister? And then why does it he do it again and again and again later on? In a throwaway comment early in the book, he talks about the “quiet and healing spell” that he experienced at St. Wandrille once its lifestyle forced him to stop self-medicating with alcohol (joking from earlier aside, he comments on the “the usual flood” he drinks daily) and constant socializing and movement. It reminds me of all the walking clubs that formed after the Great War,  about the interest in Eastern meditation traditions that would follow in the 1960s, and about all the counter-revolutionary movements that cycle through after upheaval. With a moment of thought, his fascination with the way that the various abbeys and orders he visited rose from the dead over the centuries** becomes understandable and his repeated insistence on reviving centuries-old English guilt for the destruction of the great abbeys of the British Isles doesn’t seem so strange.

I don’t know if he ultimately found the certainty about the divine he never seemed comfortable with, but he did find something. And so, I think, will readers of this book.

cappadocia cave church
Cave Church of Cappadocia



*The one exception to this being his sometimes melodramatic worry about the fact that he is a guest of people who have devoted their lives to a God that he isn’t quite sure that he believes in. Which is always funny to me that people think that Catholic monks or priests have never encountered people who doubt their faith- as if they don’t doubt it within themselves, to start with.

**Seriously, the story of St. Wandrille is pretty amazing. Being situated in Normandy will ensure you always live in very interesting times- the same order of brothers lived through the recruitment for William’s invasion of England and through the landings on D-Day. You guys. History! And the brief notes on the English Benedictine abbeys thrown in  in the afterword were incredible on their own- did anyone else know that Napoleon III, Empress Eugenie and their son are buried at a Cistercian abbey in the Scottish Highlands? Where their son was only brought after dying for England in their South African wars?