Beside the still waters

Michael Joseph Gross is the author of "Starstruck: When a Fan Gets Close to Fame."

In 1933, when Patrick Leigh Fermor was 18, he left England and walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople. Strangers helped him along: Fermor slept some nights in apple carts and other nights in castles, after long days devouring the cultures and languages of the places he passed through. Many years later, he described parts of the journey in "A Time of Gifts" (1977) and "Between the Woods and the Water" (1986). When they grow up, travel writers want to be Fermor the way foreign correspondents want to be Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Now 92, Fermor writes logbooks of discovery, keenly meandering through architecture, music, art, history and the minutiae of everyday life. His near-Nabokovian curiosity and learning have, at times, been disabled by immense blind spots. In Germany near the start of Hitler's rise to power, Fermor took little note of Nazism. He made up for that later. During World War II, as a soldier in the Irish Guards, he captured a Nazi SS officer in occupied Crete -- a tour of duty that began a love affair with Greece and led to his writing the classic travel books "Mani" and "Roumeli."

Fermor's erudition and courage are matched by his discerning compassion, which shapes the probing character sketches that populate his books, including "A Time to Keep Silence" (1957), which has been reissued by New York Review Books. At vespers after he arrived at the Abbey of St. Wandrille near Rouen, France, Fermor observed, of the monks, that "[t]he bone-structure of their faces lay nearly always close beneath the surface. But, though a deep hollow often accentuated the shadow under the cheekbone, their faces were virtually without a wrinkle, and it was this creaseless haggardness that made their faces so distinct from any others."

Fermor went to St. Wandrille "in search of somewhere quiet and cheap to stay" while writing a book. Though serving as a writer's retreat like Yaddo is not the purpose of a monastery, the Benedictines took him in. Later, the Trappists at Solesmes and La Grande Trappe did the same; and the book that Fermor wrote about these experiences (and about his visit to the rock monasteries of Cappadocia) is a dignified expression of mystified gratitude.

Monks are easy to idealize and difficult to know, and nonfiction books about them are almost always bad. Most, like Kathleen Norris' "The Cloister Walk," are humid, sentimentalizing odes. Even the best, like Thomas Merton's "The Seven Storey Mountain," slog at times through gooey abstraction. Yet there is not one lazy paragraph in Fermor's tiny book, which is among the most thorough, understanding and intelligent accounts of monastic life ever written by a lay person.

In her introduction, Karen Armstrong helpfully reminds the reader that for most of the history of Christianity, the ground of faith was not "belief," which, since the Enlightenment, has been defined as "the acceptance of certain creedal propositions." Armstrong explains that "in the pre-modern world, the emphasis was not on belief but on behavior." Though attuned to the history and theology that shape monasteries, Fermor is fascinated primarily by what monks do, by the routines of devotion that structure their days. He discreetly abstains from confessing his own beliefs, or lack of them, but hints that he is nobody's idea of orthodox. This blind spot lets Fermor see clearly.

At first, he was bewildered. St. Wandrille's silent community felt like a "necropolis." Depressed and addled, he nightly collapsed into a "flood of sleep." Then the quiet began to fill him with vitality: "[T]here 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."

Growing accustomed to the monks' routine gave Fermor new insight regarding their vocation and its significance in society. "The life of monks passes in a state of white-hot conviction and striving to which there is never a holiday . . .," he writes. "They have forsworn the pleasures and rewards of a world whose values they consider meaningless; and they alone have as a body confronted the terrifying problem of eternity, abandoning everything to help their fellow-men and themselves to meet it."

A worldly man, Fermor is riveted by the impossibility of understanding monks in psychological terms: "If the principles of psychiatry are exact, these men must be Pandora's boxes that no amount of prayer or faith or will-power could save from eventual explosion; and the same theories, of course, turn the whole army of saints with one blow of the pen into potential madmen. Yet nothing happens. There is no secular power that can hold a monk captive in his cloister. . . . But apostasy is very rare."

Delightfully, the sentence on which Fermor's whole understanding of monasticism hinges is, "Yet nothing happens." These three words contain a little bit of lots of things: awe, respect, madness, perplexity, laughter and silence. After leaving La Grande Trappe, Fermor writes that he is "unqualified still to deliver a verdict on the conditions and possibilities of life" in the monastery. He makes several similar confessions in the book.

Fermor ends with a postscript on the oldest extant monastic letters, written by St. Basil of Caesarea in the 4th century. His description of them applies equally to his own books, especially this one: "There is a mood of humanity and simplicity in his writings . . . gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still."

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