A Time to Keep Silence was recommended by Dorothy (Books & Bicycles). It is a short memoir of sorts about Fermor's attempt to find seclusion for writing by visiting various monasteries.
Fermor records his thoughts as he makes the transition, first into the Benedictine Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in France, later into Solesmes, and finally, into the Trappist monastery of Le Grande Trappe.
He explains the difficulty of leaving the hectic, verbal world and entering into one that maintains silence even during meals. Initially, he finds the silence sobering and disturbing. Within a short time, however, he feels more comfortable. He describes the abbey, the monks, the rituals, and the history of the orders. At first, in his tiny cell, he experiences insomnia; however, then his sleep habits change, and he describes his sleep as "profound." He finds himself sleeping much of the day. Then another change, and he begins to sleep perhaps only five hours a night-- "light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness."
His dedication and energy for his work increased. Having recovered from the restlessness and depression, Fermor is able to appreciate the benefits of silence and solitude. Time began to pass swiftly, almost without notice. When it was time to leave, Fermor says that the transition back into the noisy, mundane world was as difficult as adjusting to the abbey in the first place.
I'm not going to mention his other withdrawals, except to say that his feelings for the Benedictine life were much more positive than those he experienced in the Trappist monastery at Le Grande Trappe. The order was much stricter, and he was more sequestered from the monks. However, the history of the Trappist order was very interesting, indeed.
Two of my favorite parts were not part of the book itself: the introduction by Karen Armstrong, who spent seven years in a Roman Catholic religious order, and Fermor's 1982 introduction, 30 years after his experiences. My least favorite part was the concluding chapter on the Rock Monasteries of Cappodocia, which seemed a bit out of place.
A few years ago, I was interested in the life of Thomas Merton, the great spiritual leader who was a Trappist Monk. Merton was interested in Buddhism and interfaith understanding. Although the two men would have been contemporaries, Merton's experiences with the Trappist order were different because he was eventually allowed more freedom and privacy than most Trappist monks (who had to sleep in dormitories). He met personally with the Dalai Llama and Chatral Rinpoche and felt that his experiences with this broader religious community deepened his own faith.
I have no idea, even after reading about Fermor's experiences as a lay guest in different monasteries and Merton's experiences as a Trappist monk, what it would really be like to have a lengthy retreat in a monastery. I would certainly choose a Benedictine over a Trappist monastery, however.
Nonfiction. Memoir/Religion/Spirituality. First published in 1957. 96 pages.