|Abbaye St Wandrille|
I genuinely appreciate Fermor's astute descriptions of the silent, contemplative life and the struggles to both enter and leave it. I appreciated less his lengthy passages in Latin and French; they exceeded the skill of a reader with only a passing knowledge of either language and taxed the limits of Google Translate. I'm sure any Englishman of Fermor's time (born in 1915) was fluent in both, but it would have been considerate of NYRB Classics, the publisher of this 2007 edition, to include glosses. His English vocabulary is also extraordinary. Then again, if you're writing a book about the monastic life, it's best to have the rights words at hand:
Almost every single one of the major world traditions has developed some form of coenobitic life.In one paragraph, he captures brilliantly the value and the challenge of cloistered existence.
Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink, or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves—incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly.As I read, it occurred to me that the aims of monastic life in the Buddhist and Catholic traditions have much in common. I think this sentiment, for example, applies equally to both, though I suppose many readers would be surprised to hear it applied to Catholic monasticism.
Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.I went on a five-day silent retreat at a Jesuit Centre in Malaysia a few years ago. Although that can hardly compare to a full-time vocation, I loved it. The absence of conversation freed me from any social anxiety; the other retreatants were simply there, following their own, silent paths. During the introduction, one woman asked if we might nod and smile at each other in passing, and the retreat leader discouraged it, saying it created an obligation to respond. "Respect each other's silence," he said. I've never spent a more peaceful five days in the company of strangers.
But here, in the Abbey’s boreal shadows, there was never a smile or a frown. No seismic shock of hilarity or anger or fear could ever, I felt, have disturbed the tranquil geography of those monastic features. Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of remote and burnt-out melancholy.European monasteries' history has, of course, been far from unabated, er, mansuetude, as Fermor would have it. He discusses the various secular intrusions into the French monastic life, ranging from vexing to deadly (during the French Revolution). Still, the monks' sanctity and devotion continued, undeterred.
In 1502 the blight of Commendation, an evil whose effects on monastic life of France were as drastic as the phylloxera that centuries later ravaged her vineyards, fell upon St. Wandrille. By this system commendatory abbots—courtiers who were never monks and often not even in holy orders—received abbeys and priories as rewards for service to the State or as the fruits of intrigue or nepotism, swallowing two-thirds of the monastic revenues, and seldom approaching their conventual fiefs nearer than Versailles. St. Wandrille became the chattel of a series of absent grandees; yet somehow the monks succeeded in keeping their life and discipline intact.In the last century, the monks were forced to vacate St Wandrille and all the other French abbeys. When Fermor was writing this book in the late 1940s, the monks had returned to their silent cloister, but it's disconcerting to read about its inhabitants in the interim.
But in 1901, the anti-monastic legislation of the Waldeck-Rousseau Government, launched by the politician derisively known as le Petit Père Combe, again emptied the abbeys of France. The monks of St. Wandrille found refuge in Belgium, and the Abbey was once more in the hands of strangers. Its last secular inhabitants were Maurice Maeterlinck and Georgette Leblanc, and during their tenancy it became the background for elaborate semi-amateur theatricals. Macbeth and Pelléas et Melisande were performed by torchlight in the cloisters and refectory, and Maeterlinck, in pursuit of inspiration, smoking furiously and followed by a cascade of barking terriers, would career all morning long round the cloisters on roller-skates….I think there's a lot of confusion (or just plain ignorance) about the differences between monastic orders, not to mention the differences between contemplative and intercessionary prayer. I suspect most people think that cloistered religious sit (or kneel) all day, asking God for favours. Fermor doesn't deal so much with the particularities of prayer, but he does at least make an effort to distinguish between the cloistered and active orders.
... the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle—a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought—to the monks who practise it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism.This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese and Sylvestrines; for the others—like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits—are brotherhoods organised for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods.Why become a monk at all?
I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused a moment and said, “Have you ever been in love?” I said, “Yes.” A large Fernandel smile spread across his face. “Eh bien,” he said, “c’est exactement pareil…”After spending much of the book talking about the difficulty in adapting to the monks' way of life, to the silence, the rigorous discipline, the hours of prayer and reflection, Fermor finds the outside world a most unpleasant shock when he leaves the abbey.
The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks...
From the train which took me back to Paris, even the advertisements for Byrrh and Cinzano seen from the window, usually such jubilant emblems of freedom and escape, had acquired the impact of personal insults. The process of adaptation—in reverse—had painfully to begin again.