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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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.


  1. I really want to read this. I have read a few books by people who went to stay in Buddhist cloisters and was always fascinated. I a few years back while working as a freelancer I was planning on staying at a monastery for a while but it never happened. I try to do mini retreats at home. It is the best I can come up with. For someone who doesn't practice meditation, some form or other, it must be extremely challenging to cope with the restlessness and depression that could happen in those surroundings. I wonder how they cope with it in the Christian monasteries. I think you are left alone with these feelings.

  2. Caroline - The book is short and quiet, but an interesting look at the monasteries in the 1950's. It would be nice to have a more recent update on these monasteries, especially in the populations. Have they remained at about the same numbers or decreased?

  3. Sounds like it could definitely use some updating. Simon Van Booy held a retreat at a California monastery, a couple years ago, but all I know about it is that there were very strict rules one had to abide by. They asked that you not bring any drugs, for example. When I read that, I thought, "I can't live without my migraine painkillers . . . what would they think of that?" I suppose necessary drugs are different, but that's not the way it read. It sounded like they insisted you bring none, whatsoever. So, I didn't look into it too thoroughly, but then I was a little envious when it was over. LOL Silly, I know. I should ask Simon if he's done that very often and has anything to share.

  4. Bookfool - I suppose it would also depend on the particular order of the monastery about what you could bring in. Fermor mentions having had alcohol in his personal belongings and that he was glad he had it because they didn't serve wine. I can understand the a no alcohol/drugs concept, but not prescribed medication. I'm sorry you didn't have the opportunity to experience the retreat, Nancy; it would be interesting to hear about!

  5. Sounds intriguing. Fermor's name rang a bell and then I realized he is mentioned several times in Deborah Mitford's memoir, Wait for Me. "Paddy" was a great family friend to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

  6. Kim -- I love connections like this and the Mitfords have been on my radar for some time. I'll look for Wait for Me!

  7. I am so interested to read this book. I don't think I could manage, myself, staying at a monastery or a convent for any appreciable period of time. But I would love to read about the experiences of someone who could!

  8. Jenny - I love the concept of a silent retreat, but can't imagine living the life of a monk.

    Fermor could give his account of a visitor, but because of the vows of silence, his contact with the actual monks was limited. He does mention that while some believe the life requires great faith, he believed that the silence and ritual created the faith.