Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Review of A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Last summer I read Tony Hiss’s In Motion (which I’m now re-reading), and he discussed and quoted from the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor. About the same time, I read an article by William Dalrymple, who also mentioned Fermor in glowing terms. Thus, when I saw the title A Time for Silence on the Prairie Lights remainder table, grabbed it. I quickly read the short work and thought it a gem. This summer, I found it on the shelf and I’d recommended it to Tanta Rose, so I re-read it. This time I admired the gem, not rushing it, but slowly turning it over to appreciate its many facets, as one might admire a gemstone, and it was time well spent. 

In the 1950’s, Fermor left the lights of Paris and headed to a Benedictine monastery in France, not as a pilgrim, but as a refugee. He wanted solitude to write, and so he came as a guest. After a couple of days of what I might call decompression, he settled into the rhythms of the monastic life and began carefully observing the ways of the monastery. In masterful, almost poetic prose (for which I now understand that he’s rightly famous), he describes this world: its history, its practices, its ambiance. 

Fermor goes on to another Benedictine monastery, one that specializes in practicing and preserving Gregorian chant, and we can sense the order of the chant and the monastery, as we read his descriptions of the stone edifices. As we read the brief history of these ancient institutions, we appreciate how complex and resilient they are. A third stop is a Cistercian monastery, where the strict practice of silence rules. Fermor finds this practice more forbidding and difficult to appreciate, yet his quiet observations never fail to inform. 
Finally, Fermor writes about the long abandoned stone monasteries of Cappadocia in Turkey, where strange looking rock formations were hewn to allow entire subterranean monasteries to exist in the remote section of that country. A Byzantine world gone underground. 

I’ve passed my copy on, so I can’t provide any quotes that might exhibit how this beautiful book works through its poetic prose and I wish I could, because my own meager words and review can’t do it justice. Assuming you get the NYRB re-print, do read the introduction by Karen Armstrong (herself once a member of a convent), which provides some context and even mild criticism of this work. It’s well worth your time as well. If you’ve ever wondered about these worlds outside the world, I can’t think of a better place to begin your exploration and appreciation than with this book.

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