Miss Bates puts out a tentative tentacle in writing about her “other” reading: non-fiction. She doesn’t know if this is something she’ll continue, or if it’ll prove of any interest to her readers. But it’s her way of opening up her blog to all her reading and testing the waters of writing about things other than romance. As she abandoned the solipsistic, self-conscious writing of litfit a long while ago, she will endeavour to write about, in this case, a hybrid form she’s long loved that’ll have to be satisfied with the vague name of “travel literature.” Travel literature, enjoying greater popularity in the twentieth century, is on the wane. Miss Bates has a silly theory that its decline coincides with the physical bookstore’s loss and reliance on all things Internet. Though not too long ago from this age of barely-recordable change, travel literature, for want of a better name, looks back at a time when the armchair traveller and bookstore browser, as opposed to Internet surfer and social media lurker, were present in Western culture as intellectual participants and cultural consumers.
One of travel literature’s greatest practitioners was a larger-than-life, dilettante-ish figure, WWII hero and one of the the twentieth century’s greatest prose writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), whose literary output can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Travel literature is a strange, hybrid form. It is part travel log, part history, part autobiography, part reportage, part memoir; above all however, it is distinguished by its first-person narrator’s unique tone and perspective, a narrator both himself and a chronicler of time and place, participant and observer, observed and observing, in time and out, whose presence (as anthropology posits) changes the alien culture he enters even as he is changed by it. He is a stranger in a strange land and culture-clash places him uniquely in a space where he can reflect on his own time and place “back home” in contrast to the place, time, and people in which he finds himself by will, or chance, or both.
Fermor’s A Time To Keep Silence (1957) is a wisp of a book, a succinct meditation on the unique effect of monastic life on the layperson who enters the monks’ esoteric disciplines. Divided into three sections, Fermor writes about his visits to three monasteries: the Benedictine Abbey of St. Wandrille in France; the Benedictine Abbey St. Pierre Solesmes and Cistercian La Grande Trappe, also in France; and, the early Christian “rock monasteries” of Cappadocia in Turkey. As Fermor tells it, his motivations to travel to these sites were practical: a poor writer can’t afford luxury hotels, and spiritual, though not religious, rejuvenation. He sought solitude, silence, a writing head-space. The 95-page meditation took book form, like Cappadocia’s troglodyte monastic communities emerging out of rock, from letters Fermor exchanged with Joan Elizabeth Eyres Monsell. He states, in his introduction to A Time To Keep Silence: “The book was based – whole passages of it word for word – on letters I wrote at the time to a correspondent (whom I later married) without the remotest thought of publication.” Miss Bates thought it appropriate to write about a book which had its birth in love letters.
One finds, in Leigh Fermor, the essence of the introvert. Miss Bates recognized in him what she does in herself: a unique combination of a need for solitude to offset the world’s encroachment, contrarily, for connection to others and their inner worlds, and purposeful, solitary work. Fermor enters the first monastery, St. Wandrille, not even realizing what brought him to its doors: a deep exhaustion from engagement. He does not yet realize his profound need for soul-deep renewal, not until the monastic life works itself in and through him. As a result, we have one of the most remarkable statements on spiritual malaise ever written. At first, Fermor recoils from the strange, frightening “death in life” of monastic order. But his transformation, after a few days of physical rest, is testament to the importance of his book as a witness to our thirst for renewal and the soul’s rebirth, as strong, maybe stronger, today as it was for Fermor.
Miss Bates reproduces it in its entirety as a sampling of the book’s treasures:
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 some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude. Here in the Abbey, in absolutely unfamiliar surroundings, this miserable bridge-passage was immensely widened. One is prone to accept the idea of monastic life as a phenomenon that has always existed, and to dismiss it from the mind without further analysis or comment; 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, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seems its exact reverse. The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.
To begin with, I slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol, the disappearance of which had caused a sudden halt in the customary monsoon. The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church – Mass, Vespers and Compline – were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity. This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom. Work became easier every moment; … The Abbey became the reverse of a tomb – not, indeed, a Thelema or Nepenthe, but a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.
What Fermor found is what we often seek in this age of flux, where, like the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, we run amok muttering about never having enough time, enough sleep, enough hours in the day “for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” while we “measure out” our lives with Keurig pods (to mangle Eliot’s great “Prufrock”). Fermor’s monastic experience re-framed the world, shifted and re-ordered it to its rightful place: where time was no longer measured, but gave way to eternity, where anxieties, guilt, and vulgar “vexations” took their rightful place in the scheme of things as ephemeral, where Fermor reconnected to something elementally refreshing, was again able to feel the rhythms of human life as it should be lived, in communion with eternity. From thereon, Fermor carried the monastery within, as he wrote about in the postscript ” … that first arcanum that a stranger penetrates after staying for a time in a monastery – the slow and cumulative spell of healing quietness – has lost none of its magic.”
Fermor’s “book” began as a way to connect with a woman who came to mean so much to him and transformed to the meditation we have the privilege to read today. Between its pages, in re-reading and recollecting Fermor’s monastic stays, we too can renew, refresh, and reframe our relationship with a world “too much with us” in its “sea of troubles”, in lightening the “fardels” we bear, to echo another of the great existential meditations.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1957 A Time To Keep Silence is still published by John Murray Publishers (Hachette UK) and readily available to North American readers in e-format. Miss Bates purchased it at Salisbury’s Waterstones, in the shadow of the great cathedral, where MissB too renewed and refreshed by walking its flagstones and pausing for prayer and reflection in its comforting bosom.