A Time to Keep Silence (1957)

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence takes the reader to three very different monasteries: the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, the Grande Trappe, and the Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia.

This newer printing has a very fine introduction by Karen Armstrong who points out the benefit of monastic life that Leigh Fermor misses: while Leigh Fermor things that “the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer,” monks know that “first, you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God.” Armstrong points out that belief is a rather Enlightened notion. “It is not belief but the disciplines of the monastic life that produce in practitioners what Christians call ‘faith’… (xii). I found this monastic nuance helpful — the reminder that concrete practices are more formative than intellectual assent.

From his journey to St. Wandrille’s, which he visited in order to have space to work on a book, he gained freedom from acedia and a deeper appreciation for the Benedictine charism.

[O]nly by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead. The two ways of life do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse (21–22).

He found only solitude and calm, an atmosphere for flourishing. The life of the moanstery was very much a great scandal to the outside world. Such that when he left, everything in Paris, especially advertisements, seemed to be “personal insults” (43).

His trip to the Cistercian abbey of Grande Trappe was most interesting to me, as one who also visits a Cistercian abbey. His history of the Order was helpful, especially his discussion of its intentional somberness. He points to the reformer Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, a “brocaded libertine” turned stern fundamentalist. Rancé’s own actions, according to Leigh Fermor’s narration, went a bit too far — even to accusing fellow monks of sins they did not commit — but he set the order on its path of fidelity to Sts. Benedict and Bernard and for that should be remembered. At any rate, his reforms led to the austerity of the order.

But as Leigh Fermor points out, it is not austerity for auterity’s sake.

To understand these Cistercian rigours [silence and melancholy], we must dismiss modern accommodations and rationalisations and seek to return to the uncompromising literalness of the early Christians. Prayer for the redemption of mankind is the basis of Benedictine monasticism; and in the Cistercian branch of the Benedictine family the principle of prayer has been supplemented by the idea of vicarious penance.

Leigh Fermor places the origin of this idea in Christ’s time in the wilderness and in his crucifixion, saying that “vicarious penance became the distinguishing spiritual exercise of the Cistercian order” (59). He continues,

The overwhelming sadness of a Trappe, therefore, is no fortuitous by-product of the Cistercian way of life but one of its vital preconditions. A Cistercian Cloister is a workshop of intercession and bitter cactus-land of expiation for the mountains of sin which have accumulated since the Fall. A Trappist career is a long-drawn-out atonement, a protracted imitation of the Wilderness, the Passion, the Agony in the Garden, the Way of the Cross, and the final sacrifice of Golgotha. By fierce asceticism…they seek, by taking the sins of other on to their own shoulders, to lighten the burden of mankind (60).

This discussion was helpful for my own understanding of the Cistercian charism.

Leigh Fermor adds that for Cistercians, penance has “spiritual consoloations.”

A Cistercian writer describes them as the Triple Unction of the Soul. The first unction is the lightness, the spiritual buoyancy, the experience of liberty regained by the shedding of all earthly possessions and vanities and ambitions…The second is the joy that springs from the conviction that their prayers and penances unloose upon the world a healing flood of atonement which saves the souls and lightens the guilt of mankind. The third is the belief that this life of sacrifice is dedicated to God, that it derives from love of Him, and draws the soul closer to Him (60–61).

In the end the “sad charm of the Trappe” remained a mystery to Leigh Fermor, but he left assured that these monks were mentally strong, possessing a “superhuman generosity and unselfishness” (74–75).

After visiting the Grande Trappe, Leigh Fermor added a quick sojourn to the rock monasteries of Cappadocia. Themselves a mystery — archeologists couldn’t work out the whos, whats, or whys of these buildings — Leigh Fermor notes that the rock-hewn churches and cells, “remote and unstirring and problematical as they may appear,…are are closer to the primitive beginnings of monasticism than the dim northern silence and the claustral penumbra which the thought of monasteries most readily conjures up. The scenery of early Christendom lay all around us” (87). Still something of the lives of the monks who inhabited this area can be reconstructed: for example, they appear to have lived a communal life; they appear to have settled when the Seldjuk Turks were expanding their empire; and they likely followed the Rule of St. Basil. “It was plainly monasticism of a simple kind” (85), yet, in these rock monasteries, “the wilderness was humanized” as Leigh Fermor says elsewhere (83). The cause for the abandonment of this area remains as mysterious as its founding.

Leigh Fermor, who had earlier noted (and notes again in his Postscript) that the ruin of great Western monastic sights imparts sadness, does not see any overly tragic loss here. “Yet this valley of empty husks is the nearest thing in existence to the vanished colonies of the Thebaid in which all Christian monasticism has its roots” (87). For this reason, these rock monasteries should be treasured, and their loss as active centers of monasticism, it seems to me, do indeed stir feelings of loss, if not sadness. Still filled with beautiful iconography, maybe these monasteries can one day be given life again, like so many once-deserted cells, lavras, and monasteries on Mt. Athos.


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