Thursday, April 9, 2015

Paddy Fermor’s Glimpse of God

It is always striking to read of a non-believer whose heart was moved unaccountably by a sudden experience of Christianity. It happened when Thoreau entered Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. It happened to Henry Adams all his life, especially when writing about Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.*

It happened to postmodern hero/martyr David Foster Wallace, as well. As the biography by D. T. Max notes, Wallace twice flirted with Catholicism and twice backed off.

None of these writers could overcome his skepticism.

The greatest English travel writer of his generation, Patrick Leigh “Paddy” Fermor, decided to stop off at a Benedictine Abbey to get some writing done in the early 1950s—and it happened to him too. Fermor tells the story in A Time to Keep Silence, most recently reissued in 2007 with an introduction by religious historian Karen Armstrong.

Given the book as gift in 2009, I have only just read it.

So taken was Fermor with his months at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle that he pushed deeper into monastic tourism. The second half of this very short book records his visits to two more French monasteries, including the ultra-strict La Grande Trappe; and to the mysterious abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia, desert home to a community of medieval monks.

Something had moved Paddy. What moved me was Fermor’s sense of history. In each section he takes time to tell the history of the community he visited. These accounts give one an appreciation for how resilient Christian monasticism has been. Especially in England and France, where Normans, Elizabethans, Huguenots, French Revolutionists, and even Allied bombs (during the D-Day invasion) took turns destroying abbeys; and abbeys sprang back to life with each turn of the times.

In an introduction to the second edition of A Time to Keep Silence, written twenty-five years on, Fermor took himself to task for sometimes misinterpreting monastic experience. He returned to St. Wandrille to show his book to the abbot, a man he “liked and admired greatly. . . . I was anxious about his opinion; and the overall impression was encouraging. He liked the descriptive and historical parts about his Abbey to which he was deeply attached and there were mistakes that could be remedied. I said I must have gone off the rails sometimes. ‘From the monk’s point of view,’ he said with a smile, ‘of course you have! But these are the parts to me that make it interesting.’”

Armstrong points out another apparent error in Fermor’s view. When he comments that “the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity an efficacy of prayer,” Armstrong demurs, writing:

“It is only since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the Christian West made ‘belief’—the acceptance of certain creedal propositions—‘the first postulate’ of religious life. . . . In the premodern period, however, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Dao as a living reality.”

Armstrong suggests that Fermor’s own experience proves her point: “Even though he did not share these beliefs, Leigh Fermor discovered that the monastic regime changed him.”

In this there may be a direction for evangelization, as Armstrong suggests: “Even a limited experience of the monastic life can introduce people to the real meaning of religion far more effectively than abstract theological beliefs.”

As we used to say in the theatre biz, sometimes you just have get them in the door.

* In an interesting web article on Adams, Stephen Tonsor writes: “There had been a slow and steady decay of religious belief in the Adams family. Henry recalls in his autobiography that religion was never mentioned in the family. Both Henry and his brother Brooks hungered for religion; both were unable finally to accept its assurances. Both of them were inclined to Catholicism because of its beauty and the historical fact that in the medieval period Catholicism had, through the reconciliation of faith and reason, provided an ordering system that had given total meaning to human experience. Both died in an invincible agnosticism. It is this note of a life devoid of meaning, without great or noble purposes and empty of a grand design, which haunts us in the prose of Henry Adams.”

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