The Myth of Monastic Peacefulness

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, a writer and a man of famous charm, has, in his 90s, been all but canonized. Anthony Lane wrote a loving appreciation of him in TheNew Yorker last year: St. Paddy, patron saint of British travel writing, ideal dinner-party guest, a treasured national secret.

In 1957, Leigh Fermor wrote a book about monks, A Time To Keep Silence, which I took with me to Pluscarden. He described plunging into gloom after his arrival at a Benedictine monastery in Normandy nearly a decade earlier: days of bad sleeping, inexplicable disruption, and procrastination; a pile of blank paper that stayed blank, eventually followed by some serene summer months not thinking about the fun he might have had in London or Paris, which, in turn, allowed him to write a book. Yet was it really the fun he thought he was avoiding that enabled him to write? I don’t know, although Leigh Fermor isn’t the last writer to have found a monastery conducive to work.

Monasteries are notionally very peaceful places—there’s nothing to do but what you choose to do. There was at Pluscarden, which Leigh Fermor writes briefly about in A Time To Keep Silence, a sense of imminence or aftermath, of an event having happened or about to happen—which, I wasn’t sure. These characteristics are also present in Leigh Fermor’s writing. One of his remarkable skills is to write about events that happened 40 years earlier as if they were yesterday: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, his chronicles of the Homeric walk he made in the late-1930s from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, were written 40 and 50 years later. (In his 90s, he is working on a third volume.) Yet both are haunted by what succeeded his journey across Europe: obliterating world war. Leigh Fermor’s books about Greece, Mani and Roumeli, are about the same war’s aftermath. In between, however, is Leigh Fermor’s own war experience, something he’s more guarded about, when he—as has proved to be the case for many British travel writers of that vintage—acted as an agent of the government. He was a Special Operations Executive officer, and in that capacity he acted with heroism on Crete, famously kidnapping a German general. A Cretan accomplice subsequently wrote his account of this celebrated adventure, which Leigh Fermor translated into English.

In the aftermath of this incident, however, the Wehrmacht arrived in the Cretan village from which the general had been abducted and massacred its inhabitants. Leigh Fermor was heroic; the SOE had a German general, who was taken away by a submarine. But in the bigger scheme of things, the kidnapping meant little, it brought no swifter end to the war, and it inspired a pointless atrocity, although wars so often involve so much pointless bloodletting that it can seem banal to say this. Leigh Fermor is considered a travel writer and a bona fide British hero. But he is primarily a writer about conflict, even if the fighting is almost always excluded from his pages. The book he wrote at a Norman monastery was the chronicle of his voyage through the Caribbean archipelago in the late 1940s, The Traveler’s Tree. Coincidentally or not, Leigh Fermor alludes to some of the atrocities the British carried out to preserve their dominion over Caribbean islands in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, imperial rule that often required massacres and bloody acts of reprisal.

A Time To Keep Silence is a short book; my days at Pluscarden were few. I never knew the serenity Leigh Fermor found at an abbey 50 years earlier, and I don’t think I would ever have found it. On the last morning, I called for a taxi from the phone box. I asked the guest master how much I owed him, and he replied, “Whatever you can afford.” I walked through the grounds of the abbey a last time, into the graveyard with its well-preserved wooden crosses; soon, another monk would join this congregation. Then down the ilex and rhododendron avenue I’d walked up some days earlier, to the gates that said Pax.

The taxi arrived, and it took me to Elgin, where I arrived early in the morning, before the shops had opened. Wanting to walk about the town without my case, I asked a newsagent if I could leave it with him. He said no, even after I said I was prepared to open it to prove I wasn’t about to blow him or Elgin up, but he said security precautions meant he couldn’t, regardless of what was, or wasn’t, in my case. My request was unreasonable in a sense; but his reply seemed the more so. Fear-mongering, which Tony Blair’s government has excelled at, seems to inspire acts as irrational as any in organized religion. At Elgin’s bus station, several people waited, as I did, for the bus to Inverness, the gateway to the Highlands and the railhead for journeys to the south.

Arguments about religion between those who are religious and those who are not are irresolvable. If you don’t believe in a god, then what argument is there about its nonexistence. But it’s impossible to say that religions don’t exist or that you can avoid the rituals or institutions associated with them. Aspects of religious life are muddled into everyday life: How would you disengage yourself from every act with a religious dimension attached to it. Where would you begin? You aren’t proving yourself any less religious by avoiding them, but nor are you proving your religiosity by adhering to them.

Arguments about religion can prove futile, because they turn out to be arguments about something else, such as wars and whether you think they resolve differences between people or create them. At Pluscarden, war wasn’t present, but nor was it absent. The Tornado bombers flying low up the valley, the former navy and army men, the dead monk and his earlier life. It also seemed to me that, after monks, only soldiers are as keenly aware of death, although militarism and monasticism have other characteristics in common as well. Monasticism is now neither a necessity nor an obligation, nor is joining the army. It is practiced by very few men and women, although monasteries exert themselves more influentially than their size suggests. They are visited, apparently in large numbers, and people return from retreats claiming new calm after staying among those who have not only reconciled themselves to death but look forward to it. This is a belief I couldn’t reconcile myself with, however hard I might try.