My passion for nun literature is not quite matched by my passion for monk literature — which, by the way, is not as rich a field. Matthew Lewis’s 1796 The Monk, an early Gothic, springs to mind but I can’t think of anything since then. [Addendum: my husband reminded me of The Name of the Rose.] Literary attention to cloistered communities has focused on women rather than men. Here’s a theory: if criticism of The Church (Catholic or other) is intended, writers focused on nuns, as in Diderot’s The Nun,or priests, as in Wilkie Collins’ The Black Robe. Monks offer neither the worldly possibilities of power-hungry priests nor the ostensibly kinky sexual dynamics of the convent.
Well, it’s neither of those thrills that Patrick Leigh Fermor went looking for when he took himself off to the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, near Rouen, in the early 1950s. Instead he was in search of a quiet and cheap place to live while he wrote. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, based on letters he wrote while at the monastery and then further descriptions of further monastic experiences. It’s a thin book and feels faintly cobbled together, as if Leigh Fermor had re-read his letters and thought, “Hmm, wonder if there’s something publishable here.” Which is not to say that the book is disrespectful. On the contrary, it’s the author’s improbable wonder and enthusiasm for these monasteries that give A Time to Keep Silence its considerable sober charm.
The first section is the longest, most thorough, and richest. Leigh Fermor finds the monastic discipline initially bewildering: “only 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, lights, 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.” For a man as gregarious as PLF, the discipline of severely limited conversation must have been difficult yet among the Benedictines of St. Wandrille he found much to learn and much to cherish. Of course readers of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water will know how much Leigh Fermor relishes sensory and intellectual stimulation — the languages, the music, the vestments, the architecture, the books of St. Wandrille give him great pleasure.
Not so much the harsh discipline of La Grande Trappe, the Cistercian monastery in southern Normandy. This was clearly an alienating experience for Leigh Fermor: he finally says that “I was not in possession of any mental instrument with which to to gauge and record my findings” in the monastery. Finally, tacked on as it were, is a short section on the survival of the rock monasteries in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey.
Two of Leigh Fermor’s strengths as a writer — and, I have to believe, as a person — were his whole-hearted embrace of life and his ability to seek out the best in a situation. Add those to his astounding literary gifts and you get a travel writer whom you’d follow anywhere. Even into the cloister.