A Time To Keep Silence – Patrick Leigh Fermor
NYRB Classics, 2011 (first published: 1957)
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After reading Between the Woods and the Water, I became fascinated with Patrick Leigh Fermor and started looking for other works of him. When I read the description of A Time To Keep Silence, an account of Leigh Fermor’s experiences visiting several monasteries around Europe, I could hardly resist buying it and reading it right away. And so I did.
In the introduction, Karen Armstrong remarks that Leigh Fermor’s conclusions about monastic life are at times faulty. For example:
“As he watched the monks going about their daily lives, Leigh Fermor assumed that ‘the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer’ and concluded that without ‘this first postulate of belief’ monastic life would be farcical and intolerable. I think that he was mistaken in this. It is only since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the Christian West made ‘belief’ – the acceptance of certain creedal propositions – ‘the first postulate’ of religious life. (…) In the premodern period, however, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First, you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God (…). This has been the experience of monks and nuns.”
This is not just Armstrong’s opinion. Catholic monastic life developed around the principles of acting out faith, instead of the idea that the acceptance of, believing in, Christianity, was enough. Though the above citation suggests that Armstrong links the monastic principles encountered by Leigh Fermor in the twentieth-century to pre-modern times (as if Catholicism is pre-modern at its core), she does in later paragraphs explain that this is simply where this lifestyle originated, and that thus, even though belief would be key to the lives of the monks Leigh Fermor encountered, practicing it through their lifestyle would still be the essential of monastic life.
I am not writing this review to argue for or against the views expressed by Leigh Fermor. In contrast, I think that the fact that in this book someone who has been raised in a different Christian environment, portrays Catholic monastic life according to his experience of it as an outsider, is what makes it so very interesting. Throughout the book, I wondered about the ways in which this small booklet reflects so many perspectives on a (by now) niche Christian phenomenon. Here I was, a girl raised atheist, but from a Catholic background, and having been schooled academically to a certain extent on Catholic traditions, reading a book by an English man who was most likely Anglican (?), that sets out his perspective on Catholic monastic life in Europe, through his own experience and his talks with monks who gave their own views on their life. It was not because of his information that I found this an interesting read, Leigh Fermor’s language can be quite dense and long-winded, with details that at times make little sense, but exactly because it was fascinating what he had to say about this way of life. Clearly, at first he felt it was not for him at all, and you can read the scepticism in some of the paragraphs, but he also admits he was changed by the experience, the rhythm of life, the simplicity. It becomes incredibly clear that Fermor is sympathetic towards Benedictines, but has troubles understanding what would bring spiritual fulfilment about life as a Trappist monk. While I do understand his questions, I felt at times he was very quick in dismissing someone else’s choice of life. Throughout the book it felt as if Leigh Fermor remains at a distance from the monastic lives he describes. To some extent this feels more as an memoir in which we learn little about monasteries and more about Leigh Fermor himself, but in which questions surrounding religion and worldviews are central. I may have found some of his more critical remarks baffling, in the same way that I find it quite hard to understand how you could start living in a monastery for a while without knowing what the basic precepts are, but I was keenly interested all the same. I guess this proofs once again that in all my studies of religions, I am never interested in the rules and official worldview per se, but intrigued about the perceptions and individual appropriation of them.
Now that that long-winded ramble is out of the way, let me tell you that I would not recommend this book to anyone. You would have to be able to look past Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tendency to write long-winded detailed sentences, and his sometimes pompous self-assertion, and definitely you would have to like venturing into a book that describes travels and religion (though I admit, I generally do not enjoy travel writing that much). I think this book serves a niche-audience more than his travel memoirs of Europe during the 1930’s, but for those who are intrigued by the subject matter, it is a worthwhile read, and a short one at that.
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