Lifestyle Reader's Edge the May 2023 issue

In Seclusion Came Sublime Silence

A review of A Time to Keep Silence
By Scott Naugle Posted on April 30, 2023

Say silence as it should be pronounced, softly and slowly, in the hush of a long exhale. Savor the soft sounds of the s and c while elongating the final e into an eternity. This is where you will find A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s rumination of quieting the soul through extended stays in the monasteries of Europe.

A Time to Keep Silence

By Patrick Leigh Fermor

New York Review of Books

$14.95

Born in London in 1915, Fermor distinguished himself in World War II by parachuting behind enemy lines three times in Crete as a special operations executive and living in disguise for two years among the shepherds while organizing the resistance to the German occupation. He was awarded the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and the Distinguished Service Order. Fermor wrote of this time in his book Ill Met by Moonlight, subsequently made into a film of the same name. He died in 2011.

A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957 detailing the time the author spent after the war searching for an antitoxin to the horrors of battle. Fermor, it seems to me, needed a rebirth, a regeneration of spirit. “For, 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 in the ordinary world.”

Over the course of several months, Fermor spends time at several monasteries in Europe, including the Abbey of Saint Wandrille, Solesmes Abbey, and La Grande Trappe.

The book is not a religious screed. While Fermor dispassionately, yet elegantly, documents the daily strictness of a walled existence, from the predawn rise in a cell to compline, “the office that finishes the monastic day,” it sets the stage and allows context, a visual backdrop for the reader of his interior journey. It is a strength of this book[1]length rumination of quietude that it is not marred with the contortions of subservience to a supernatural dogma. An English gentleman, thankful for the graciousness of his hosts, Fermor does not wish to offend: “I had been living in dread of an event which would have turned this restful place into an awkward, even an intolerable sojourn— direct inquiry about my own spiritual convictions … I felt a fresh access of respect and gratitude to their unconditional acceptance of a possible giaour in their midst.”

Fermor’s prose style is remarkable, truly. He is precise. He does not prattle or babble. Each word is carefully considered. It is because of this sparsity, I think, that there is such clarity to his experiences, a directness into his interiority where it felt as if I were sitting beside him in his interior revelations and examining the world alongside him at the very moment of self-rediscovery. Fermor approaches a stream of consciousness in his writing, transporting the reader into the emotional and psychological renascence of his inner calm. We watch and feel him peeling back the scar tissue as he casts aside the injury and impairment of our intellectually disfiguring society.

As an example, there is an extraordinary passage when the weight of the outside world dissipates. “To begin with, I slept badly and fell asleep during the day, felt useless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol … Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless, and perfect sleep … Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything,” and finally, “This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of god-like freedom.”

With this newfound emotional and intellectual freedom, Fermor immersed himself in “the vast book-lined labyrinth occupying the whole of a seventeenth century wing” at the Abbey of Saint Wandrille. Reading, thinking and writing consumed the whole of his waking hours. Monasteries were “for centuries the only guardians of literature, the classics, scholarship, and the humanities,” he noted. Pause here. Sit beside Fermor. Think of the vast world of Western knowledge at your fingertips. Select any book you desire. Read slowly. Ponder. Your hand is resting lightly on the page, a sensory experience, words as knowledge are now tactile, sentences are sentient, the silence saturating a sense of burgeoning sapience. Reading A Time to Keep Silence slowly, meditatively is best.

Contemplating each word and phrase is, in and of itself, calming and salubrious. The physical book itself is slight, less than 100 pages, but substantial in reflection and thoughtfulness, fostering anticipation that it is possible to locate a capacity for solitude within the stone walls of silence.

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