Thursday, March 03, 2011

A Time to Keep Silence [Review]

Title: A Time to Keep Silence 

Author: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Introduction by Karen Armstrong

Copyright: New York Review of Books, 2007, New York, ISBN: 978-1-59017-244-5

Length: 96 pages

Genre: Essays

Summary: On the surface this tale is about visits to several religious houses, taken not on the basis of any religious fervor but in the hope of finding a quiet place to work. Back in the '50's, Patrick Leigh Fermor visited St. Wandrille des Fontanes, La Grande Trappe,  and Solesmes, and an even more ancient form of monastic shelter found in the Turkish rock monasteries of Cappadocia with the purpose of writing a book. The three essays in this book were drawn from letters written by Fermor during the course of those visits to the woman who would later become his wife.

This is one-third travel, one-third history, one-third Fermor's meditation on a life that he finds as much disconcerting as it is engaging. He is respectful of the monastic life, but clearly has no idea why it would be pursued. What he finds most striking is the monastic pursuit of devotional silence in contrast to the rest of modern life. He writes with erudition, assuming that his reader will be comfortable with historical details as well as with untranslated phrases in French or Latin throughout A Time to Keep Silence. A 2005 newspaper profile of the author characterizes this work as “exquisite” and the lyricism of Fermor's descriptions are indeed beautiful.

Excerpt: The faces of the seated monks are hidden in their hoods; their heads are bowed; and they themselves are only just discernible under the accumulation of shadows. The solitary voice reading aloud seems to issue from an inner silence even greater than the silence that surrounds them. The reading comes to an end; the single light is extinguished; and the chanted psalms follow one another in total darkness. The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night; a warding off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One. “Scapulus suis obumbrabit tibi”, the voices sing; “et sub pennis ejus sperabis”. The New York Review of Books site links to a Googl Books preview; visit

Also Relevant: This book reminded me however fleetingly of James Hilton's Lost Horizon. The desire to escape a society constantly moving in haste to the next Big Thing discounts the value of older approaches to solitude and sustaining inner quiet. Hilton's novel is, of course, more frivolous than this short series of essays but the mindset of Conway, the novel's protagonist, reflects the feelings of the author Fermor.

For this New York Review of Books edition, Karen Armstrong's introduction picks up on the similar attraction of Fermor's work for a distracted audience in the 21st century, “As time advances, the stress of work and the threat of outside distractions make the need for silence and privacy more urgent than ever...” We all benefit from pursuing some form of sabbatical from our pell-mell daily race towards – what? Seeking the silence of another form of life is sometimes the right answer.