A Time to Keep Silence
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Blogging and reading are funny things. You can go through life totally oblivious to an author, and then suddenly, they’re everywhere. Okay, maybe not everywhere, but three different places in less than a month does make a softdrink wonder.
I first saw mention of Patrick Leigh Fermor at Tales from the Reading Room. Then, while I was reading Howards End is on the Landing (review still pending) the author mentioned Fermor. He also popped up somewhere else (I think True Pleasures). At that point, I was all “I get it! I’ll read him!” I’ve ordered A Time of Gifts, but I also decided to test the water with A Time to Keep Silence.
Now this book is a bit different, even for me. It’s also got some amazing vocabulary. Check these words out:
- sedulous – persistant
- piscina – fish pond
- recondite – obscure
- ascesis – practice of self-discipline
- hebdomadary – doing a duty for a week
- thurifer – incense carrier
- myrimidon – attendant
- pontificalia – a pontiff’s regalia
- simulacrum – representation
- zenana – the part of the house where high-caste women were secluded
- glaucous – greyish-blue
- velleties – inclinations
- claustral – pertaining to a cloister
- penumbra – shadow around something
Those last two were even used in the same sentence. And while that might sound intimidating, it actually works (if you’re willing to look up the words)…something about the monastic setting seems to lends itself to obscure words.
Anyways, I’m getting ahead of myself. Fermor (go read about him…he led a fascinating life) decided he needed some solitude to finish up a book, so he checked himself into a couple of monasteries. Why a monastery? Because they’re cheap. And quiet. And they can have bitchin’ libraries. And the monks leave you alone.
This book contains Fermor’s impressions about monastic life. While at the monasteries he wrote letters to his future wife, and they letters became the basis for this book.
In the first section, Fermor talks about St Wandrille de Fontanelle, a French Benedictine monastery. He describes the beautiful buildings, the history of the order and the monastery, the daily life and rituals of the monks, his pleasure in the discussions he had with the abbot, the aforementioned bitchin’ library, and how quickly time seems to pass when you’re living a quiet, contemplative life. Fermor clearly has an appreciation for the Benedictines.
Then he goes to stay at Solesmes (which gets a brief mention) and then La Grande Trappe, a Cistercian monastery. Fermor can’t get over the difference between the scholarly life of the Benedictines and the austereness of the life of a Trappist monk. The Cistercians live a very Spartan existence. Their diet consists primarily of roots (no meat, no fish, no eggs), their days are spent in manual labor, and they take a vow of almost complete silence (they can talk to the farm animals). Fermor is admittedly very critical of this existence, and wonders how the monks both endure and find spiritual fulfillment.
As I mentioned, this is a very different book for me, but I still found it fascinating. Fermor is very observant, both of his surroundings and his reactions to his surroundings. And I’m still dumbfounded at his vocabulary.