On Silence

Just recently I’ve read two books on the subject of silence. I will say up front that I am a fan, after spending long, quiet, chronic fatigued years mostly alone. The experience has made me crave silence rather than avoid it, because it’s only in quietude that you can think, really think, and whilst it wouldn’t suit everybody, profound contemplation has certainly given me the richest hours I’ve known. But both these books consider what justification there can be in a life lived in solitude and reflection, as it is a route chosen by so few and one that is often accused of being selfish and even dangerous. One is by the prince of travel writers, the dashing Patrick Leigh Fermor, who describes three separate experiences of monasteries in A Time to Keep Silence. The other is written by the feminist and short story writer, Sara Maitland, who decided in her fifties that she wanted to choose a life of retreat and has detailed her explorations in A Book of Silence. I didn’t set out to read the two books together; I just wanted to read something by Leigh Fermor and that was the book I happened to pick up. But they do make for an intriguing comparison.

Let’s begin with Patrick Leigh Fermor, a kind of traveling James Bond. He left behind a very undistinguished education, getting thrown out of posh boarding schools, to walk at the tender age of 18 from Rotterdam to Istanbul, sleeping in castles and hayricks en route, and ending up living with a Byzantine princess, twelve years his senior, in Moldavia until the war separated them. His first two books recounted this epic journey and made his name. I mustn’t get sidetracked by his biography, although it’s easy to do so because it’s full of romance and espionage and adventure in lovely locations. Leigh Fermor doesn’t read like a man who had a sketchy education. In fact he has described himself as a wandering scholar, and his books are packed with glorious detail of history, anecdote and reportage. He is one of those writers who finds the exact word for absolutely everything, which gives his prose an oddly poetic effect, full of terms like ‘triforium’ and ‘chasuble’, ‘pontificalia’ and ‘myrmidon’. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what these mean (I certainly didn’t), the effect is ripplingly rich.

The story of the first monastery he stays in, The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, a gorgeous Benedictine establishment, is concerned with the effects of adapting to a silent, regulated existence. Left completely alone and in silence, Leigh Fermor has initial difficulties adapting. He sleeps badly, he feels restless and depressed, lonely and flat. And then a different, more profound sleeping takes over that opens him up to a small, personal resurrection. ‘No demands,’ he writes, ‘once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy; there were no automatic drains, such as conversations 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.’ He says, in a way that makes my mouth water, ‘Work became easier every moment’. Packed around the account of his experience are descriptions of the life of the abbey and the monks he does exchange brief conversations with, as well as an account of the history of the monastery, which seems to have been fraught with dissolutions, attacks and disasters. But despite this, the atmosphere is one of eternal peace, and his experience is a positive one.

It seemed a bit odd that Sara Maitland, who describes herself as a religious person, should eschew the monastic altogether in her account, although she does spend time with both the zen Buddhists and the Quakers. The heart of her experience of silence is in the wilds of Scotland, however, where she first rents a small house for forty days and forty nights, and then eventually builds one in which she will live. Maitland gives a brief account of her life, with its start in a big, noisy, highly educated family, her political and religious enlightenment at Oxford, her marriage to a minister of the church and its ending, and her gradual embrace of ever greater quiet and isolation. She incorporates other accounts of long stretches of silence encountered by explorers, sailors and other recluses, and the second half of the book (which I haven’t finished) is a bit more theoretical, although never dry. It seemed to me that at the bottom of this book was a battle Maitland was fighting with a composite figure made up of all the people who told her she shouldn’t cut herself off like this. She quotes extensively from a friend’s letter, telling her that silence is a route to oppression and annihilation. The letter is deliberately provocative she says, but she returns to it across the text, as if she can’t quite free herself from its message. Despite the experience of hearing voices (it was a choir singing in Latin, she tells us, fiercely defensive – what’s not to like?) and having the odd hallucination and low moment, she is quite determined that everything about silence is good, valuable and productive for her. I found this an interesting and intriguing book, but to be completely honest, Maitland got on my nerves a bit. I’m all for silence, but the element of polemic in the account jarred occasionally.

I wondered whether the resolute positivity of her book had anything to do with the creeping associations of selfishness that dog the pursuit of silence (and almost always isolation). Maitland talks a lot about the experience of silence, but she doesn’t (or not in what I’ve read so far) say what she wants the silence for, what she wants to get out of it, beyond a testing of her own limits. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, one of his later retreats is at a Trappist monastery, the monks renowned for their austere and comfortless existence. I didn’t realize until I read this that the discipline of the monk is offered up as a kind of endless atonement for the sins of humanity. Fermor describes how ‘By fierce asceticism, cloistered incarceration, sleeping on straw and rising in the darkness after a few hours’ sleep, by abstinence, fasting, humiliation, the hair shirt, the scourge, the extremes of heat and cold, and the unbroken cycle of contemplation, prayer, and back-breaking toil they seek, by taking the sins of others onto their own shoulders, to lighten the burden of mankind.’ I was struck by this, by its nobility and dedication, and yet felt sure that such an undertaking would be open to all kinds of misinterpretation in the modern, fundamentally self-oriented world. Leigh Fermor’s account of monastic existence is always steeped in serenity and gentleness, whilst admiration colours his experience of these holy places, and there seems to be a genuine balm in the quiet laying to one side of the rigors of selfhood. By contrast, Maitland’s account is about getting ever deeper into herself, using silence to extricate an experience and a selfhood that are threatened by noise and external demands. Which is curious in a way, as she didn’t strike me at all as a retiring or shy sort of person.

Maitland’s book is full of fascinating information and lively accounts of her experiences but it seems very noisy in its fulsome support of silence. I would have been happier with a more balanced approach, one that fully took on board the difficulties associated with silence (there is a chapter on ‘the dark side’, but even here, disadvantages are regarded with great neutrality). Patrick Leigh Fermor’s slim volume was for me the better read, exquisitely written and broad in its interest and tone, despite its brevity. I am undoubtedly on the side of silence, contemplation and retreat, but even I think it must inevitably be balanced by speech, loving relationships or profound spirituality. But I should finish the Maitland – she may yet say what it is I want to hear from her, if I could only work out what that is.

19 thoughts on “On Silence

  1. I’m very drawn to silence, as my world is NOISY. The idea of being alone is completely appealing to me, but I wonder how well I would cope with the loneliness of being in nature. My only retreat was in a city, where I was alone in the noise of others.

    The Fermor sounds like a lovely book.

  2. I am intrigued by these works since I crave silence at times. I am a bit suspicious of people who need to always have the TV on or music on in their house. I love the quiet of my house before my son wakes up.

  3. Interesting. I’ve always been a person who craves solitude and silence, and many people do seem to consider it a flaw–or to assume it’s a sign that I’m depressed or otherwise in need of help. So I can understand why Maitland would be defensive about her choices. Maybe if, as you say, she isn’t a particularly shy or retiring sort of person, she’s more likely to care what people think more than a naturally solitary person would.

    And I love that quote about asceticism from Leigh Fermor. Even among people of faith, the notion of a cloistered life is often misunderstood. There’s an assumption that it is fundamentally selfish or that it has no point because there’s no direct service to others being done. Those who do choose to close themselves off from the world are ideally not doing it out of selfishness but out of a commitment to pray for the world–and that sort of service to others seems out-of-step with our modern sensibilities. (And, of course, monastic rules do vary, with some being rather more involved in the world than others.)

  4. Very interesting to hear your reaction to these two books. I read about the Maitland when it came out earlier this year and thought it sounded fascinating — mainly because it made me wonder how I would deal with such an experience, which in some ways I am quite drawn to. I wonder if you will see the book differently once you have read it all?

  5. What two very interesting books! I have never heard of Leigh Fermor but you have me intrigued now and I will have to investigate further. I’ve got the Maitland book on my desk, my dear husband acquiring a copy as a surprise after you mentioned it in a comment on my blog. I hope it turns out to be good because if you it isn’t then I’m not going to want to read my own copy and then I’m going to feel guilty. No pressure on you to like the book though 😉

  6. Well as someone who currently has a lot of silence (but not always the productive kind) I can tell you that I also crave good conversation. I’m all for balance and I think silence is essential (and golden) but I think there’s a danger of embracing it too tightly if it means turning away from the world. (I don’t think your two authors said that exactly.) One of the things I really like about a rich silence is the idea of ideas ripening and being allowed to develop undisturbed by a million other stimuli.

  7. Just reading the review made me feel more peaceful and want more silence (the background clamour of kids getting ready for bed helped), and I felt that more in your description of Fermor’s book. However having said that, I was on one silent retreat where I got just about the worst headache of my life at the end of it. I agree with you about balance. The silence of the day when everyone is out of the house is peaceful and precious because they come back into it.

  8. Mmm… fascinating. I’m very interested in silence too, LL. It’s become an indispensable feature of my working life. As someone who’s historically been known as a big talker, and therefore a notorious silence breaker, it’s been quite an education to set myself the task of becoming a better listener. Silences between people, pauses in conversation, used to trouble me terribly, and I think I used to try filling that disconcerting void to mask my insecurity that the silence signified something negative or sinister (eg. they don’t like me and don’t want to talk to me). It’s been surprisingly enriching to learn to let such silences stretch – I am continually delighted by what so often follows them. It’s been lovely finding the peace of quiet.

  9. I read another review of Maitland’s book recently and I do want to read it – if nothing else it sounds like a book that makes you think. You now have me intrigued by Fermor’s book as well, though, and I do like the exercise of reading books on similar subjects at the same time…

  10. I wonder how different a life of silence spent among others (like in the monastery of the first book) is from a life spent silent alone (like I guess Sarah Maitland’s time was spent). Perhaps if you have other silent companions it’s not so bad, although I guess the temptation to talk might get to you. However it must be wonderful to be able to just be with people, without having to worry about filling every silence in case they think you’re dull, or that you hate them. Which kind of life do you think you’d pick based on the two books?

  11. Silence is sometimes soothing and sometimes oppressive. Silence can be uplifting and dreamy, but there are also times it can weigh you down. I think I’d rather have quiet than silence.

  12. Litlove, hello. While I don’t love noise, or people talking all the time, I don’t think complete silence works for me; or at least, it hasn’t in the past.

    You quote and write:

    ‘By fierce asceticism, cloistered incarceration, sleeping on straw and rising in the darkness after a few hours’ sleep, by abstinence, fasting, humiliation, the hair shirt, the scourge, the extremes of heat and cold, and the unbroken cycle of contemplation, prayer, and back-breaking toil they seek, by taking the sins of others onto their own shoulders, to lighten the burden of mankind.’ I was struck by this, by its nobility and dedication, and yet felt sure that such an undertaking would be open to all kinds of misinterpretation in the modern, fundamentally self-oriented world.

    Perhaps I’m missing something. How is this behaviour not also, in some way, self-centred, thanks to a belief that the Christian God wants t h e m to be the ones to shoulder such a burden? The scourging, etc. is mortification of the flesh, and I don’t see abuse of the body – one’s own, or another’s – as noble at all. But then, I did get taught by Christian Brothers who quite freely hit children with their hands, yardsticks, straps, and other implements, all for their spiritual benefit, so I am biased. Perhaps Fermor had experienced caning or other school hazing and kind of took in what he saw and considered it ‘normal.’

  13. While the vicissitudes of my personal life already had me contemplating the monastic life, I believe this post has sealed the deal for me. Where do I sign up?

  14. Charlotte – I can well believe that a little silence is a wonderful thing for you! I always found one mainly quiet child made more than enough noise for me. It’s really interesting to think about what constitutes silence (which is something Maitland does) and to recognise that we hardly ever really have it. Nature can be pretty noisy, too! Even the insides of our own heads rarely shut up. But perhaps it’s just relative, and the absence of clamouring children, love them as we do, is enough for beautiful peace. 🙂

    Kathleen – that is such a delicious silence, I agree. I can’t do television or music as background noise – I’m either listening or I’m not. My husband adores radio 4, which is continual talk and it drives me mad as I find I’m listening to it often when he has tuned out!

    Teresa – me, too, and I quite see what you mean about Maitland being (brought up) sociable or loquacious. It would be harder to make that choice, wouldn’t it? And I thought of you and your studies when writing this. I knew so very little about the monastic life beforehand (and Leigh Fermor is open in his introduction about how little he knows himself, despite his retreats). He describes it very well, though, and makes a fine case (because he isn’t trying to make a case at all) for its generosity of spirit and spirituality. It’s a lovely book and I warmly recommend it.

    norumbega4 – I very much want to read that book, too. And the sequel! I loved his prose style – it was so beautiful and evocative and clear.

    Harriet – I do hope I will, and I think (having flicked ahead a bit) that Maitland still has some surprises and revelations in store. I know I have a problem with any author who seems a bit too keen to make everything ‘all right’ and to insist on being positive. I ought to read this as uplifting or admirable, but I have a terrible tendency to see it as emotionally dishonest. I’m not sure that we ever have anything but mixed feelings, and especially about the things that matter the most to us. But it’s well worth a read, really it is – very well written and interesting, and if it makes me want to challenge it, that’s a good point, I think.

    Stefanie – Oh do read the Maitland – I’d love to know what you think and it is an interesting and provocative book. The fact I’m arguing with it stems from its qualities rather than its defaults! And Patrick Leigh Fermor is a joy. I would warmly recommend him.

    Pete – I think that’s the balance we ought to seek – silence in which to think and to create, and then interaction, to give back, to discuss, to relate. Why is it so hard to find, I wonder? But it is. Here’s hoping you have a fabulous, unexpected, stimulating conversation before the day is out. 🙂

  15. Lilian – lol! The thought of reading this against the usual uproar that is bedtime tickled me. I’ve never been on a retreat, or indeed ever been alone for more than an overnight. Marriage and motherhood and work and university all sort of clubbed up together somehow. I’d like to try one, though, even if a headache is a distinct possibility! 🙂

    Di – I quite understand what you are saying about the impulse to fill all and every gap in conversation out of fear that it might disappoint or trouble others. What would all those conversationally-stunted people do out there without people like us to make the discussion swing? I know I have a tendency to talk too much while teaching, giving information to the students that I ought to tease out of them. I make a big effort these days to shut up – it is more helpful in the long run, but goodness me it can be hard! 🙂

    Courtney – I can warmly recommend both books. The Maitland IS good, and my pickiness with it comes from me, not from defaults of the book. I’d love to know what you think of them – silence is an intriguing topic!

    Jodie – good question! The monastery, every time. Isolation, I’m not so sure about, but silent companionship sounds very good to me. I joke that living with two males (husband and son), I more or less get it! But you’re quite right; the two situations feel very different, I think, and require different kinds of endurance.

    Grad – Maitland is very interesting when she explores what we really mean by silence, not least because absolute silence is almost impossible to have. And she shows how the silences we choose are uplifting whilst those imposed upon us are often difficult to bear. Quiet sounds a nice compromise!

    JB – It’s a really personal thing, I think, that relationship to noise and, by implication, to sociability. As for the behaviour of the monks being self-serving, I think it’s possible for all noble virtues to have a kind of odd flip side in which they look like acts of egotism. The quick answer to this one is to say read Camus’s short novel The Fall, which makes the case for the impossibility of virtue ever looking like pure virtue quite brilliantly, and far better than I could.

    The experience you went through at the hands of the Christian Brothers sounds quite appalling and I am so sorry that you should have had to endure it. But I wonder whether, without diminishing your experience in any way, it might be possible to keep it local, personal and specific? There is a huge difference, I think, between Christians who exert violent discipline on small children, and monks who choose a life of ascetic discipline enacted on themselves in the belief that it helps others. I believe it is only the Trappist monks who flagellate, and they are a tiny community, whilst, as Teresa says (and she’s a theologian – far more knowledgeable than me) many others are integrated into their locality and provide useful, practical services. As to what Leigh Fermor went through at school, I have no idea, and so couldn’t speculate.

    David – when I find out, I’ll let you know. 😉

    Bluestocking – do I take it you are keen on a little silence sometimes, too? 🙂

  16. Interesting! I’m curious about Fermor, and will have to try one of his books. I have another of his travel books on hand, but the one you describe here sounds particularly good. I’d like to try a silent retreat at some point; I’m kind of curious to see how I would handle it. I’m a person who likes stillness and quiet, but a silent retreat would be another thing entirely. The Maitland book sounds interesting, even if it’s interesting partly because of Maitland’s defensiveness, which offers a lot to think about.

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