T. S. Eliot’s humor best comes across in his poems about cats, but some of his plays have lines meant to amuse. In The Elder Statesman (1959), a retired politician is being shown around the care home he has just entered. “And remember,” says his guide, “when you want to be very quiet/There’s the Silence Room. With a television set./It’s popular in the evenings. But not too crowded.”
In August, 1961, editors at The Times of London had in mind a series of one-page articles about the Seven Deadly Sins, and the editors asked Eliot and six others to choose a sin and write about it. Joining Eliot in the task, and choosing to write about gluttony, was Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), bon vivant, war hero, and travel writer who in 1957 published a slim volume about his visits to Christian monasteries. That book, A Time to Keep Silence, remains in print, and a couple of years ago copies of it were prominently displayed next to the till at Hatchard’s bookshop in Piccadilly.
Along with Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), Fermor is one of the most fascinating Englishmen of the twentieth century. Both wrote page-turning accounts of their epic travels, both distinguished themselves for bravery during the Second World War, and late in life both were knighted. Although they were drawn to times of solitude and silence, Thesiger sought peace in the deserts of Arabia or the wilds of Africa, while Fermor went to monasteries, usually Benedictine.
Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born in London, in a neighborhood between the British Museum and Euston Station. His father was a geologist based in India, but the boy was sent to live with a family in Northamptonshire. Brilliant yet unsuccessful at school, from 1933 to 1935 Fermor undertook his first great journey, walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul, along the way reading the poems of Horace in Latin and in the end participating in a cavalry charge in defense of the Greek monarchy against republican rebels. In 1977 appeared the first of his three volumes recounting these adventures, A Time of Gifts.
At the beginning of World War II he became a captain in the Irish Guards, but his knowledge of Greek got him assigned to military intelligence and parachuted into Crete, by then occupied by the Germans. There he led a daring raid that kidnapped the German general in command of the island. That astonishing episode became the subject of a movie starring Dirk Bogarde as Fermor, Ill Met by Moonlight (1957).
According to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Fermor, from boyhood Fermor was athletic and interested in religion. He surprised his schoolmasters with his skill at boxing and rowing, and also for returning from the playing fields lustily singing “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” His school was in Canterbury, the cathedral’s history increasing his spiritual longing. “Catholicism and the Latin Mass,” wrote Cooper, “exerted a strong appeal, as did the candles and bells, incense and statues of the Roman tradition.” Although he never converted, on official forms he identified himself as “R. C.”
As he grew older, his religious fervor subsided. Still, he went to Rome for the funeral of Pope Pius XII and the ensuing papal conclave, and he avoided the false gods of the era. In the 1930s he became aware of the murderous horrors of Soviet socialism, saying it “inoculated me against Communism.”
Like Caesar’s Gaul, Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence is divided into three parts. First is a sketch of his visits to a French Benedictine abbey, St Wandrille, founded in the seventh century near Rouen. Next, he contrasts another French Benedictine abbey, Solesmes, with the strict Cistercian abbey of La Grande Trappe. Finally, he recounts a tour of the abandoned monasteries carved into the conical rock formations of Cappadocia. From Normandy to Turkey in ninety-five pages: it says as much about Fermor’s cultural and geographical range as about his concise, yet lyrical and evocative, prose.
Along with the hours of silence between the Hours of prayer, an aspect of these monasteries that Fermor appreciated and even savored was their relationship with time. “Time passes in a monastery,” he observed, “with disconcerting speed.” Only the changing seasons and the Church’s feast days serve as landmarks along the way. He noted that the monks were well aware of this swift passage of time: “[S]ix months, a year, fifteen years, a lifetime, are soon over.”
Time slipping by somehow gave the monks continuity with their monastic ancestors. As he listened to the monks chanting the Liturgy of the Hours “in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom,” Fermor marveled that “one can forget the alterations of the twentieth [century] and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact.” Timeless prayer helped him lose himself and imagine back to the late 500s, when Benedictine monks first came to England from Rome, singing these same canticles and Psalms.
Fermor’s retreats at Benedictine abbeys occurred also in England. He seems to have preferred staying at the Benedictine abbey at Farnborough, oddly secluded amid trees on the outskirts of a town now noted for its annual air show. In 1881 the exiled Empress Eugénie founded the monastery at Farnborough, and entombed in the crypt of the abbey church are her husband, Napoleon III, and their son, Louis, killed in 1879 while serving in the British army during the Zulu War. In due course the empress joined them.
Monastic retreats aside, Fermor and his wife divided their time between Gloucestershire and Greece, where he was known as Mihali, Patrick having no easy Greek equivalent. They entertained friends, and he amused himself by translating P. G. Wodehouse into Greek. Appropriately, in London he had a pied-à-terre in the Traveller’s Club. Fermor and his wife are buried at their village church in rural England.
At least since the days of Herodotus, people have had a craving for traveler’s tales, but they have also felt a need for times of silence and reflection. Managers of a busy bookshop in a bustling part of London knew their customers would want Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence. Curling up with a cup of tea by a sunny window and reading that book will be more enriching, though less ironic, than a retirement home’s Silence Room and its television set.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.