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on 11 March 2012
A very special little offering:
Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence

Coming to this book from Fermor's insightful travel accounts of his youthful wanderings in pre-WWII Europe and later Greece in particular, I was deeply impressed by this - admittedly unpretentious - collection of reflections of brief experiences of the contemplative life: at the Benedictine Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, then Solesmes en route to the rigours of La Grande Trappe - which he describes as the fountainhead of the (Trappist) Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, and finally, a much looser visit to the famed but now-abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia .

On all these occasions Fermor was an outsider, a short-term visitor - often taking up temporary residence for the peace and quiet of a setting that would allow him to work on his latest book project. And yet, as always, his intelligent curiosity and warm understanding of humanity do not desert him. These brief accounts, largely based on letters written at the time, probably offer better insight into the contemplative life than many a ponderous, more scholarly work. He has succeeded in his intention - which was not to write a learned treatise, but to share his impressions and personal reflections.

My only regret is that the book is so short - a booklet, really - and that Fermor did not, before his death in 2011, manage to re-work this into a larger volume.
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VINE VOICEon 5 October 2004
Leigh Fermor's narrative style can at times seem too introspective, or perhaps a little scholarly, for modern sensibilities: he describes as if through a magnifying lens, and with great erudition, making no compromises to the reader. Yet indulging him this means of expression - which if published today might seem pretentious - makes us privilege to some extremely expert writing. Leigh Fermor's prose is the sort that cannot be broken down: it is concise and evocative, free-flowing, a rare blend of terseness and poetry. He is a writer adept at creating textures of light and shade, seasonality, sounds and odours; there are times when his imagery is almost cinematic, but never obviously so.
In A Time to Keep Silence, one of his lesser-known works, he takes leave of Paris in the mid-1950s to stay in two monasteries, the Benedictine Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, near Rouen, and Le Grande Trappe, a Trappist abbey close to Alençon. Ostensibly he visits them in order to utilise their tranquility to further his writing projects, but inevitably his sojourn in the close presence of the monks makes detachedness near impossible, and he becomes increasingly fascinated by the personalities of those who have taken the 'Triple Unction of the Soul'. Despite an initial period of difficulty in adjusting to the isolation and rigour of monastic life, he begins to appreciate that a monk's existence is often far more joyful than people assume, and that rather than being exiles from the world because of past scandals, Benedictines are genuinely vocational and stem from all walks of life. In the final section he traces the history of European monasticism back to its roots with a visit to the rock monasteries at Cappadocia in Turkey, for me the best section of the book. Here Leigh Fermor's historical imagination, and great skill for describing the strange and unworldly, take force. We share his wonder at the unknown monks who left their dazzling legacy in such an arid and forbidding place. I would not be surprised if Dalrymple had been inspired by these pages.
This book is perhaps an acquired taste, and some interest in the origins and purpose of liturgy and the monastic life will add to the reader's enjoyment. At times it is slow, and at other times a touch list-like in its descriptions; yet there are certain passages that are exceptional in their imaginative quality. Overall, an elegant exploration of the progression of monasticism into the modern age.
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I came across this book mentioned in Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing and was intrigued by what she said about it. The author spent some time in different monasteries in an effort to find peace and to write a book - not this one - that came later. What I enjoyed about the book was the author's marvellous grasp of the English language. The book is lyrical and evocative and fascinating to anyone who is interested in alternative ways of life.

I found the book interesting for its insights into different ways of monastic life from the very strict Trappist orders of Cistercian monks at Le Grand Trappe near Alencon to the rather more relaxed orders of Benedictines with whom he stayed for many months at St Wandrille de Fontanelle near Rouen.

The author was surprised at how happy all the monks were and the sense of peace, calm and joy they all exude. Monasteries are places of spiritual healing and quiet and the author found peace and quiet. No one questioned his own beliefs and they accepted him as he was.

The mystery of the rock monasteries in Cappadocia which are described in the last section of the book was intriguing as well and it is likely that no one will ever discover who they were built by or for what purpose. This is a book which is well worth reading for the use of language alone and I shall be reading it again at some point for that reason.
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VINE VOICEon 22 May 2013
I was first introduced to Patrick (Paddy) Leigh Fermor when, at Christmas, a friend gave me copies of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water - the story of his journey journey on foot, in 1933/34 and when he was 18, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. The third volume, which completes the journey, was never finished but, based on an early draft and his original diary, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos will finally be published in September 2013.

I thoroughly enjoyed the near-lyrical prose of these books whilst, as I have remarked in my other reviews, his knowledge of European history - both secular and religious - must be near-absolute. Yet Leigh Fermor has absolutely no difficulty in weaving that knowledge into a compellingly beautiful and entertaining story.

It was thus inevitable that a copy of 'A Time to Keep Silence', along with The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands, should find their way onto my Kindle.

'A Time to Keep Silence' is a relatively short story (87 pages) written in a similar prose style and recounts the brief time he spent - living almost as a novitiate - at the Benedictine monasteries at St Wandrille and Solesmes and, later, at the isolated and far stricter Cistercian monastery of La Grande Trappe. In each case he portrays the spiritual charm and silent repose - to say nothing of his description of the architecture and history of these near ageless institutions - in a manner that is both skilful and beautiful.

The final monastery he visited took him on a journey backwards in time, into the remote and dateless world of the kingdom of Cappadocia, in what is now Turkey. Here he explored a vast underground city complete with a Byzantine church complex that had been abandoned many centuries ago. Once again Leigh Fermor skilfully pieces together what little is known of the history of this remarkable World Heritage site, a site that, during the early days of Christianity, became a religious refuge.

Like 'A Time of Gifts' and 'Between the Woods and the Water' this book is superbly written and is thoroughly recommended.

And, as Artemis Cooper recounts in her book Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, he was far more than simply an accomplished historian and writer. During the Second World War, as a Major in the SOE (Special Operations Executive), he kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipe, Commander of the Sevastopol Division of the German army of occupation in Crete. Then, dressed in German uniforms and with the German General pinned down in the back of the car, he and a colleague drove through Heraklion, the German headquarters town, bluffing their way through checkpoint after checkpoint in the process. By the time they were taken off in a boat to Alexandria he and General Kreipe, having discovered a mutual love of the Latin odes of Horace, had become almost friends.

In 1944 he was awarded a DSO for his part in the saga whilst, in 1957, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger released a film (Ill Met By Moonlight) based on the abduction and starring both Dirk Borgarde and Marius Goring. 'Paddy' Leigh Fermor was knighted for services to literature in 2004.
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on 27 February 2011
This slim book is rich with Patrick Leigh Fermor's erudite prose. Our world is even noisier than in the fifties, when the author, a non-believer with an observant and open mind, stayed at the monasteries he writes about, places of prayer, work, discipline and silence. He describes his initial culture shock at the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fonatelle, the disrupted sleep patterns and claustrophobic mood of dereliction and flatness, which gradually transforms to nights of deep sleep followed by waking to energy and freshness. Reading about these experiences gives one insight into the transformative effect of silence. The author observes the lives of the monks and gives us their historical context. He writes about the rigours of the Cistercian Order and the milder regime of the Benedictines. For his hosts, the Abbey was a "springboard into eternity," and for him "a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom," and surprisingly (or not) the place proves favourable to "ambitions so glaringly opposed."

I was sorry that the several incidental French expressions do not have an English translation, but I did find the writing distinctive, sometimes elaborate, insightful and generally rewarding.
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on 12 March 2013
Leigh- Fermor travels to Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in France and reflects on their history, the nature of the contemplaative lives lived there and what all of this might mean today (or rather, in the mid- 1950s, when he was actually writing this memoir). In the final few pages of the book, he visits the strange rock monasteries of Cappadocia and thinks about the longer religious past that these represent. Leigh- Fermor is clearly drawn to the power of the quiet, and the transformative possibilities that it holds, and which he believes is present in the places he visited. Having experienced this power of quiet and silence myself recently, I have to agree and find worth in the insight he offers of lives and places that most people I guess choose to ignore. The book is quite brief (less than 100 pages); for a much more detailed, almost anthropological account of the contemplative life, and entry into it, I would recommend 'An Infinity of Little Hours' by Nancy Klein Maguire.
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on 13 February 2012
Fermor admits to being ill-qualified to speak of the monastic life, but he takes us into the world of Benedictines, Trappists and others in wonderful essays reflecting his time as their guest, when he took retreats to write. He is knowledgeable though on the architecture he encountered, and as always his writing is so good, you're happy to accompany him anywhere he chooses to take you. And you do get a sense, albeit a one-sided observer's view, of some surprisingly lively and well-rounded characters amongst the monks. He conveys how different it is, how calm and timeless, especially in recounting his difficulty in reacclimatising himself to the busy profane world of Paris after several weeks with the monks; just as it was hard to acclimatise himself in the first instance to the austerity of a cell and the daily routines. A short book, but just like the cloisters he depicts, a place to revisit for refreshment.
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on 14 December 2012
Great sense of presence and beauty within the monastic tradition. By comparing the french experience it gives an indication of the terrible loss this country has suffered since the Reformation and the destruction of the British Monastic tradition, loss of balance that took away the ideals of sanctity, personal autonomy and love. This let the destructive forces of utilitarianism and industrialism develop in there most destructive patterns without check. Now humanity is taking another step backwards from the compassionate ideals of sensitivity. We need a retreat tradition expanding to every village and town again where people can repose in beauty and humanity.
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on 28 November 2015
Fermor, Patrick Leigh. A Time to Keep Silence.
I first read this book in 1958, shortly after it was published, and vowed to re-read it sometime. In other words I was impressed by Fermor’s account of his sojourn in sundry monasteries in France and Anatolia. The longest and most interesting visit - to the haven of St Wandrille de Fontanelle - left me with an urge to follow in Fermor’s footsteps. I didn’t of course, being too caught up in the things of this world - jobs, love affairs and finding accommodation taking precedence over taking a glimpse of the contemplative life. I have recently re-read the book and while still impressed by the strange world of silence and religious contemplation, I find myself less than enthusiastic about having any part in it. It’s not just because I’ve now read Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Steve Jones, not to mention Marx and Freud, but I’ve become something of a sceptical empiricist. None of this is a reflection on a community of those who believe in the efficacy of prayer and contemplation.

What Fermor seeks is an escape from the strains and stresses of life, ‘a state of peace that is unthought of in the modern world.’ He reminds the reader that for monks ‘life is shorter than the flutter of an eyelid in comparison to eternity.’ And that ‘they have foresworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless.’ Work, prayer and silence replace pleasure-seeking. For some reason I am pleased that a diminishing tranche of humanity still considers this to be not only a worthwhile pursuit but the only one.
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on 26 December 2015
I read this book because I am intrigued by the contemplative life and to understand what draws individuals into choosing such austerity. I also wished to understand whether there was meaning and greater sense of drawing near to God.

In part I did find some insight on these fronts as the monks expressed real joy and happiness, and a sense of finding God.

What was irritating was the use of French without any translation - a bit of unnecessary arrogance on the part of the writer who assumed we all speak French. Oftentimes there were sentences which had no meaning to me whatsoever, such as on page 70:

"It seems tragic that a lifetime of ascesis effects no permanent mental extirpation equivalent to the physical extremes of Abelard and Origen and of the Skapetz of the Danube Delta."

This sentence is over complicated and does not explain who these characters (Abelard etc) are. This is simple and plain showing off and it's unhelpful to the reader. There are many such instances in this book and I got a sense that the writer was a little pompous.

I am not sure he ever understood that God was the source of the monks' life and he failed to fully explore this aspect. To this extent the book was shallow and focused on the surface and cosmetic side of the life.

An interesting book from a bit of a show-off.
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