A Time to Keep Silence is Patrick Leigh Fernor’s account of his experiences as a guest in two French monasteries during the 1950s, and his visit to a long-abandoned monastery carved out of the rocks in Cappadocia, Turkey. It’s a short book, less than a hundred pages; it describes the monasteries and tells their histories, but doesn’t get too heavily into analyzing what it sees. Fernor has theories, but he doesn’t try to definitively explain why the monks chose a silent, regimented lifestyle, or what it means to them. He doesn’t feel qualified.
Fernor begins in a Benedictine abbey, where he comes to feel relatively at home. He then moves to a Trappist monastery where the monks’ lives consist of ceaseless work, endless prayer, and a distinct lack of central heating.1 He has less direct contact with the monks and their values never cease to be alien. Finally, he describes the long-abandoned Cappadocian monastery, not a living place but a part of monastic history, its inhabitants long gone. Fernor zooms out as he goes. Each section creates more distance between the reader and the monks, each section takes away from the reader’s sense of connection. Compared to most nonfiction A Time to Keep Silence is structured backwards; it begins looking like it might have the answers but it leaves with only questions.
Fernor’s more certain about the monastery’s effect on himself. At first the lack of distraction is disorienting. He spends most of a couple of days asleep. He suspects he was recovering from “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries,” created by the thousands of minor stresses and demands on our attention everyone faces every day, which have grown exponentially in the fifty years since this book was published. He feels peaceful, focused, and attentive.
You don’t have to be religious to see why certain people might find this attractive. We live in a world of noise, distraction, and random hostility. Sometimes even the most ordinary inanimate objects–jar lids, DVD cases, computer programs, new shirts full of pins–are out to get you. Sometimes you just want to get the hell away.
“The Abbey was at first a graveyard,” says Fernor; “the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders.” Fernor doesn’t share in the monks’ religion and doesn’t try to explain what their lives are all about, but I suspect for at least some of them the answer to that question is closer than it seems.
The Trappist monastery’s program was developed by a seventeenth-century aristocrat gone radical. According to a legend recounted in the book, after his mistress died he walked into her sickroom to find the undertaker had decapitated her body to fit it into the coffin, casually leaving her head on a table. ↩