A Time To Keep Silence
by Leigh Patrick Fermor
I have recently gone through another re-rehearsal process in the long running play War Horse, a time that frankly tests the spirit in a number of ways. Each time (this was my third re-rehearsal) I have picked my reading matter carefully, indulging myself last year with David Mitchell's historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Maybe it was because I was so exhausted this time around but I felt my reading capacity would be diminished and that what was in fact required was a book that didn't so much offer escapist thrills as a form of retreat and sanctuary during the hustle and bustle of mounting this beast of a show. Quite opportunistically I happened across a recommendation from Adam Haslett, author of last years grievously overlooked (in the UK anyway) Union Atlantic. On an NPR segment called 'You Must Read This' he spoke about Fermor's 1957 travelogue, a book he used to help achieve calm and peace on a trip away from city life. Fermor, "Britain's greatest living travel writer", was born in 1915 and set off at the age of just eighteen to walk all the way through Europe from Holland to Constantinople. After that staggering journey he travelled around Greece before joining the amy at the outbreak of the Second World War where his knowledge of Greek allowed him to work undercover and play a crucial role in what would later be filmed by Powell and Pressburger as Ill Met By Moonlight, with Fermor portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.
A Time To Keep Silence details Fermor's visits to Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries not because he wished to go into retreat but because he was 'in fact, in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay' while he continued to work on a book that he was writing. This isn't about a man discovering faith on his travels but simply about the experience any one of us might endure if secluded within the strict confines of a religious order. I say endure because whether the experience is viewed as positive or negative it is one that forces the monks and Fermor to radically alter their lives. The book comes in three sections: The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, From Solesmes to La Grand Trappe and The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the shock to the system that comes from conversion to a life of isolation, privation and contemplation the most compelling section is the first, as Fermor comes to terms with a completely different way of living and thinking. The later sections deal more with the monk's history and the extraordinary architecture of the hollowed out rock monasteries, all interesting but in a slightly detached, travel-literature kind of way whereas that first immersion into religious retreat at St Wandrille are fascinating from a human point of view.
As I think I might be myself, Fermor cannot help but be fascinated by the men who populate these dark spaces, their physicality at first the thing that he remarks on when he gets his glimpses of men...
'preternaturally pale, some of them nearly green. The bone structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from others.'
'Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of burnt-out melancholy.'
After that slightly prurient interest in the monastery's residents Fermor is challenged by his own reaction to being cooped up in such an unfamiliar environment. I've never been on any kind of retreat and the advent of children in my life means that the relaxation of a holiday is something I can barely remember. Surrounded by such silence and the contemplation of both life and death through scripture, art and thought, Fermor feels as if he has literally been buried alive, his brain totally unaccustomed to having so much time to idle and roam. But slowly things begin to shift.
My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. I think the alteration must have taken about four days. The mood of dereliction persisted for sometime, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude.
Freed from that oppression Fermor is intrigued by the way in which 'the same habitat should prove favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed.' For his hosts 'the Abbey was a springboard into eternity; for me a retiring place to write a book and spring more effectively back into the maelstrom.' The irony being that when the time comes for him to make that journey back into the world he is surprised to find it an even more painful adjustment than the one he had made when entering the Abbey.
If my first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks. This state of mind, I saw, was, perhaps, as false as my first reaction to monastic life; but the admission did nothing to decrease its unpleasantness.
The even more strict surroundings of the Trappist orders cause Fermor to examine not how the sins of the outside world might encroach on the peace of a monastery but how the danger lies in one's own thoughts. He was able to ask a friend who had previously been part of a Trappist order how it felt to have one's spirit's tested.
As often as not, profane and carnal visions would be reinforced by by the murmurings of religious doubt, and at the end of these alarming onslaughts, from which he emerged unscathed only with the help of prayer and a kind of mental flight, he would feel utterly exhausted (but victorious)...no monk, however holy, could say that he was immune for life; the Devil, incensed by defeat, lulled his foe by inaction, and then returned to the attack with sevenfold reinforcements.When the scene shifts to Cappadocia then we really move into the territory of descriptive travel writing. These ancient monasteries and churches, carved out of the very rock of this unique landscape, provide a fantastic subject for Fermor to demonstrate just why he is regarded so highly.
It was the landscape of a planet, the surface of the moon or Mars or Saturn: a dead, ashen world, lit with the blinding pallor of a waste of asbestos, filled, not with craters and shell-holes, but with cones and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to a couple of hundred feet high, each one a rigid isosceles of white volcanic rock like the headgear of a procession of Spanish penitents during Passion Week. These petrified cagoulards extended for leagues to the farther end of the ravine, where they were reduced by distance to a barrier of shark's teeth.
And after making this journey with Fermor it is worth reflecting briefly on the parallels between my own environment and that he described. Without wanting to make light of the serious dedication and commitment made by those entering the monastic life I couldn't help but laugh as I compared the virtual imprisonment of tech week at the New London Theatre to the period of internment that Fermor described in his first few days at St Wandrille. Cut-off from the outside world with little light or stimulus, immersed in the past and focused entirely on one thing; who wouldn't go a little mad? And emerging exhausted from the other side, stepping back into the hustle and bustle of modern London; who wouldn't feel disoriented and confused. There was a wider comparison too, when considering why anyone would put themselves through the absurdities of trying to make a living as an actor; after all, it may be exhausting when you're working but it's just plain hellish when you're not. What possible return could be great enough to make that vocation worthwhile?
I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused for a moment and said, 'Have you ever been in love?' I said, 'Yes.' A large, Fernandel smile spread across his face, 'Eh bien,' he said, 'c'est exactement pareil...'
(That's the romantic version, the fact of course is that I'm not trained to do anything else!)