Surrounded by elder-flower, with their bases entangled in bracken and blackberry and bridged as their summits with arches and broken spandrels that fly spinning over the tree tops in slender trajectories, the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky. It is as though some Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified in its climax ever since.
Patrick Leigh Fermor – the travel writer who famously spent two years of World War II in the mountains disguised as a shepherd, organising the Cretan resistance – uses language like a magician, conjuring images which burst with vitality and poetry. A Gregorian chant petrified in the rook-haunted sky; spandrels spinning over tree-tops; the husk of a derelict monastery rebuilt through sheer force of imaginative will, which echoes with the sound of “bells melted long ago”: reading A Time to Keep Silence has been a revelation, like discovering Ted Hughes for the first time – finding a custodian of the English language, someone who breathes mighty life into the letters on a page.
In this small volume, PLF recounts the weeks he spent at the Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, La Grande Trappe, and the rock monasteries of Cappadocia – places he visited in part to find the silence and solitude he needed to write. During his time living removed from the world he experiences a period of depression and passes through a spell of overwhelming tiredness, before finally arriving at a kind of blissful, secular serenity – which one of the monks at St Wandrille likens to falling in love. The stillness, which for the monks is a “springboard into eternity”, gives PLF the dreamless nights and calm days he needs to focus on his travel writing; and also the opportunity to observe their quiet life in close quarters. As such it is a testament to the healing power of solitude, as well as being a loving portrait of the monastic world.
In describing the history of each of these monasteries in captivating detail, PLF mourns their persecution over centuries of wars and secular reform, and also explains something I had never contemplated before – the “almost superhuman generosity and unselfishness” that underpin the monastic life. Not all the monks he spends time with maintain a perfect silence and a rhythm which precludes any kind of personal, intellectual endeavour – but in the case of the Trappists, who sleep on palliasses of straw in dormitories; spend their lives either at worship or working in the fields; and who are required to accuse themselves publicly of having sinned, what PLF characterises as being their melancholy existence is not just a personal sacrifice motivated by their search for spiritual consolation. Instead, they believe they are “lightening the burden of mankind,” taking our sins upon their shoulders and protecting us from evil through their own harsh regime – which, regardless of your own faith, is an extraordinarily humbling idea.
LBF has gift for finding the most human, magical details in his subjects. He offers us a portrait of the last secular inhabitant of St Wandrille in the 1920s, for example, who would roller-skate through the cloisters, “smoking furiously and followed by a cascade of barking terriers,” in search of artistic inspiration. What an incredible image. He tells us about Dom Walser, the former superior of an Abbey in Germany who had challenged Hitler’s regime as early as 1933, served as a chaplain in the American Army during the war, made broadcasts to the German troops and opened a seminary for priests among the German prisoners of war in North Africa – “a tall, florid, bony, blue-eyed man discoursing…with humour, gentleness, perception and, very occasionally, anger, about the politics and the movement of ideas in modern Europe.” He explains the architectural origins of La Grande Trappe – a building constructed in the shape of a reversed sailing vessel in honour of Princess Matilda (daughter of Henry I of England and wife of the Abbey’s founder) who was drowned at sea after the loss of the White Ship in 1120 – which is itself an incredible story of drunken aristocrats and thwarted heroism. And finally, the Abbot of La Trappe in the seventeen century, who gave up his wealthy, secular life for the Abbey, but who was apparently tortured by the sounds of stags and the “echo of the hounds and hunting horns” which invaded his cell and tempted him back to his old world.
It is a book which deserves to be read a hundred times, packed as it is with this incredible prose and irresistible history – I know I will want to go back to it again and again, to find new details and to savour the language. I also cannot wait to explore the books about his journeys across Europe as a young man, and his heroism during the war. How I have only just discovered a man once described by a BBC journalist as being “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene,” I will never know – but I am delighted that I have.