September Reading:

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick was best known as a travel writer (see A Time of Gifts) but he was also a soldier; after fighting in WWII for Cretan resistance, he lived in Greece. And as a scholar, he had no peer. Patrick was self-taught in multiple languages. He was a bon vivant in the best sense, a charismatic character who lived life to its fullest.

Patrick made a pilgrimage of abbeys in the 1950s to read and write, and learn from the abbey libraries he visited. At one, the father librarian handed him a key and let him take as many books as he’d like to his room. It was a book reader’s dream:

‘The library was beautifully kept, and considering the Abbey’s vicissitudes, enormous. Vellum-bound folios and quartos receded in vistas, and thousands of ancient and modern works on theology, canon law, dogma, patrology, patristics, hagiography, mysticism and even magic, and almost as many on secular history, art, and travel.’

The monasteries commanded silence, perfect for a writer. They were ‘beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.’ And Patrick was there to write, and to learn. His details of the rituals of mass are lovely:

‘The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of sound.’

When speaking was required, during the canonical hours, it was a complement to this long stillness. There is a soothing quality that comes with communicating in different languages. It is the prism of sliding between languages throughout the liturgies, all sides of the same glass. The abbots slip from Latin to French to Latin; then Patrick follows with the English narrative.

The book is more than a book of stillness; it is a history of monasteries, abbeys, and sects. It is a thank you letter from Patrick to each monastery he visited.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011. This is The Guardian’s obit for him.

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