A month ago, while listening to NPR's All Things Considered , I heard the writer, Adam Haslitt, author of the novel, Union Atlantic, wax eloquent about a 1957 book, A Time to Keep Silence ( more recently re-issued) by the famed British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor as a young man in 1933 walked on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, sleeping in barns and haylofts or, on occasion, in the houses of fellow aristocrats. He wrote that experience up in his now classic 1977 travel book,A Time of Gifts. Haslitt was given a copy of Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence by a friend before he escaped to the Maine shores for a time of silence and withdrawal from the noise and bustle of Manhattan. Haslitt enthused about Fermor's vivid and vivacious prose style but, especially, the topic of an immersion experience into a healing silence.
Two of Fermor's books, The Traveller's Tree ( about his sojourns in the Caribbean) and his novel, The Violins of St. Jacques had been written in Trappist monasteries. Finally, in A Time to Keep Silence Fermor reflects on his experiences of monastic silence. In the beginning, Fermor says, he, a quite ' secular' or 'worldly' man--an adventurer and a war hero in Greece--sought out the monasteries less in pursuit of some prayerful retreat but, rather, " in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay while I continued to work on a book that I was writing." His first days in the monastery of Saint Wadrille in Northern France made him feel, initially, that he was in some kind of ' graveyard'. In time, however, he let the " slow and cumulative spell of healing quietness" cast its soothing pall over his body and mind. On his eventual return to Paris, he felt a different sense of unease with all the noise. As he put it, on his return he was struck by " an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks."
Fermor and Haslitt both know that the life of a monk is not for everyone--surely not for the worldly Fermor. But they argue that we can take away from the monk's life of 'elected silence' some elements for ourselves. Over the years, Fermor frequented Benedictan and Trappist monasteries for sojourns of solitude. As Fermor notes: " Only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life 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, 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." We initially bring to that cloister silence a kind of monkey mind: " the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression."
Indeed, even in more mundane everyday exercises of silence, e.g., trying to pray silently, we often enough encounter all those distractions and vague urges of monkey-mind. In ordinary life we take that monkey mind so much for granted that we do not even notice it until we go to silence instead. We take the cluttered and chattering mind for our ordinary reality yet find it, instead, distraction and intrusion in silent prayer. Like Fermor, over the years, I have gone off to monasteries, such as Christ in the Desert in New Mexico or the Trappestine monastery in Humboldt County in Northern California, to experience the quiet rhythm of the sung divine office and the salutary quiet of silence. There is usually a kind of double culture-shock: An unease in letting noise drift away and to settle into the quiet of the monastery and a concomitant shock of noise and distraction upon return to our mundane world.
In A Time to Keep Silence, Fermor writes about his stays at Wadrille, Solemes and The Grand Trappe. In a concluding chapter, Fermor takes us to the strange geographic formation of Cappadocia and the rock monasteries of the early monks who followed the rule of Saint Basil. Having visited Cappadocia myself last October, I could resonate with Fermor's description of the wild strangeness of the place. " It was the lanscape 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." When I visited Cappadocia last October, I had occasion to visit a number of the rock monasteries dating from the time of Basil, cleft into those volcanic rock cones. Austere as those rock fastnesses seem to the naked eye, surprisingly, as Fermor notes: " ' Light', 'Peace' and " Happiness' are the epithets often recurring that Saint Basil finds most fitting to capture the atmosphere of his cloister; and he uses the words, not with the specialized and often thread-bare meanings that they may have acquired in ecclesiastical apologetics, but in the sense they possessed in the literature of the ancient world."
Some of that same sense of ' elected silence' got conveyed in the extraordinary recent French movie, Gods and Men, as it did in the earlier film, Into Great Silence. As Karen Armstrong notes in her introduction to the re-issed edition of A Time to Keep Silence: " Very few of us can be contemplative nuns or monks, but we can learn to appreciate their way of experiencing the sacred and integrate something of this gentle, silent discipline into our own lives. This gem of a book can help us to do just that."
Once, Fermor expressed to the Abbot what a blessed relief it was to refrain from talking all the day long. " Yes", the Abbot replied, " in the outside world speech is gravely abused." Fermor wrote this book before piped music, cell phones, texting, the instant communication which comes with the click of a mouse. I often wonder about the younger generation--to my eyes, at least--so addicted to constant chatter and noise. Can they ever find that silence which allows clear mindedness and concentration? Healing silence, as well.
In any event, reading Fermor, I have decided not to give something up for Lent ( unless that something is a modicum of the noise and clutter of ordinary life and its chattering monkey mind) but to try to embrace some more of the refreshing silence where I can better hear my own heart's desire and God's whispering voice. Maybe the best Lenten advice I could give myself or another is this: choose a little longer period, daily, of silence as a Lenten task. Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, " The Habit of Perfection", captures this same wistfulness for silence: " Elected Silence, sing to me and beat upon my whorled ear; Pipe me to pastures still and be the music that I care to hear. Shape nothing lips; be lovely-dumb: it is the shut, the curfew sent. From there where all surrenders come which only makes you eloquent. Be shelled, eyes, with double dark and find the uncreated light: this rock and reel which you remark coils, keeps, and teases simple sight."