Patrick Fermor was one of those rare men who make a mark at everything they put their hand to. What kind of man was he? First of all he was a man of action. In World War II he was a British intelligence agent in Crete. He fell in love with Greece and its island neighbors. After adventures all over the world, he returned to settle. He still lives there with his wife of many years.
In Crete, he put many notches on his belt with brilliant covert exploits in service of the Crown, for which he was later knighted. He also left a long trail of broken hearts. These two favorite pursuits of his intersected in a story told me by someone who knew him professionally as well as socially during this period. It seems that a certain general who was making trouble for the British had fallen deeply in love with a beautiful Cretan girl. Exercising his skills, “Paddy” Fermor seduced the woman whom, now in love with him, he induced to betray the general. She lured him to a romantic hideaway where, as planned, Fermor and his men surprised them en flagrante, arrested the general, and spirited him off somewhere to while away the duration of the war.
Fermor may have been born a man of action but, perhaps from his Irish blood, was also a born writer. He wrote several highly regarded books of travel, and also a novel, all of which stood not only upon his dramatic adventures and graceful storytelling but also on an uncanny gift of description: it almost defies comparison how he makes mere words evoke a place, an atmosphere, and the personal character of the actors in his stories.
But there is one thing he came to only later in life: a kind of mystic sensitivity. This is the subject of A Time To Keep Silence. Possibly driven by some inner need for penance—there is a suggestion of this in the book—or, as he says, primarily to find the solitude to write undisturbed by the many people who always sought him out, he undertook an extended stay in St. Wandrille, a historic French Benedictine monastery. With no monastic vocation, even no conventional faith, he managed to convince the prior to grant him a guest cell.
He was permitted, if he wished, to take part in the observances of the monks. He did wish, and resolved to attend all the daily offices, at the considerable inconvenience of waking hours before dawn, and standing and kneeling through rituals of which he had only the slightest concept. He writes that this was a very difficult personal trial, but having resolved his plan, he would not be put off it. At first he found life in the monastery inconceivably tedious, a mere going-through-motions that had no meaning for him.
But gradually, it dawned that the monks had a deep love for the offices and the atmosphere they created, and this began to penetrate his own hard shell. He now found himself in a new situation. He attended the events of the monastic day with interest and an increasingly attuned curiosity. But it evidently drained him, and in the intervals between offices and meals he mostly slept in his cell. He was unable to rouse the interest and will to do the writing he had come there for.
Still, he stuck with it; and gradually the situation changed again. He found an increasing lightness and inner peace which seemed to put him perfectly in tune with the brethren. He now had little need of sleep, and though he still wrote little he often availed himself, as did many of the monks, of study and meditation in the vast library of St. Wandrille which contained old and rare works of spiritual traditions not only Christian.
He now understood something of what called the monks to their life so contrary to that of the world. This did not affect his faith: he still had none; but he never spoke or was asked about this and it did not cause any problems in his relations with the monks.
Finally the time came to leave. The monks waved a cheery goodbye, but forgot him instantly once he was no longer a part of their world. His first weeks back in London were again an agony: he felt in every encounter the vapidity, senselessness, and violence of most people, who knew and cared nothing for the sublimity of which he still carried the vibration. But, and this is a measure of the quality of the man, he knew that this too would pass, and that it had to for the sake of his sanity and of his ability to participate vigorously in everything as he always did.
Later he was to return many times to St. Wandrille, and to monasteries of other rules. The book also tells of his time in La Grande Trappe. Conditions in Trappist life were much more severe than the Benedictine, reading and study were unheard of, conversation was possible only with the prior and guest master who were, as required by their duties, excused from the rule of silence. He was not allowed to join the monks in their austere and lengthy offices, but sometimes he could watch from a distance. Still, his awakened sensitivity allowed him to taste the sublime atmosphere that existed there.
In a conversation with the Trappist prior, he was told something that he was now able to understand: that there is a reason why such places exist on Earth, which is to create and emanate just this vibration of ineffable peace and joy. This is an understanding of the meaning of the existence of centers of esoteric practice that is both eminently practical and not often spoken about.
What are we to understand of the meaning of the existence of people like Fermor? When we hear of an extraordinary man, we often ask “why am I not like him”? A hundred flaws of character are revealed in the way we usually ask this question, which very flaws are most of the reason we are not like him: our envy titillates itself with his biography, seeking perhaps to discover that he possessed some advantage of birth or fortune that we do not have; our laziness makes us tremble before idle fears of what trouble we might cause for ourselves if we ever truly followed, as did Fermor, the wise counsel of Ecclesiastes 9:10:
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is no work nor device nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest
And our self-contempt poisons at the root that precious individual “whim” that Emerson tells us, in his essay Self Reliance, is the seed of genius.
We don’t want to fall under the hypnotic influence of these flaws and the impulses they suggest, but how indeed to respond to the stories of such men? It would of course be foolish and impossible to emulate them externally. Internally though? What we lack may be the very courage to be what we are, to know what we want, and to carry through with what we conceive, that are such leitmotifs of Fermor’s self-account. Is the individual need to search for this courage what his life is trying to tell us about, and the lives of certain other remarkable men? Is this what he set out to achieve in his writing, not the minor fame (which he claims to have had little need of) that attends literary success? And can we wish to respond to this call? If so, then this life, a life well-lived, may indeed prove to be a life worth examining.