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The long read: Patrick Leigh Fermor and the monks of the west

Patrick Leigh Fermor (Getty Images)

Seventy years ago, in September 1948, the English author Patrick Leigh Fermor decamped from the nightspots of Paris to the Benedictine monastery ‎of Saint Wandrille de Fontanelle near Rouen. His purpose was to work on a draft of what would become The Traveller’s Tree, an account of his voyages in the Caribbean. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, the books recounting part of an epic pre-war walk across Europe as an eighteen-year-old that would secure Leigh Fermor’s lasting fame, were still decades away.

As his letters published last year show, ‘Paddy’ had a penchant for high living, forever drawn to the “soft hiss of the soda syphon”. His ingenious, entirely euphemistic descriptions of sex are a bawdy hoot. He once provoked a massive punch-up at the Kildare Hunt Ball and was only rescued from a true pounding by Ricki Huston, a beautiful Italian-American dancer, John Huston’s fourth wife and, not long after the near-riot in Ireland, Paddy’s lover.

His publisher, Jock Murray, once half-jokingly suggested a boarding house in Aberdeen as the ideal place for Paddy to knuckle down and finish a much-delayed volume. Even so, a monastery steeped in the ascetic rigour of the Western tradition seems like an extreme measure for a man who had just been staying at the Hotel Louisiane, around the corner from the Café Flore and the Deux Magots. Moreover, Leigh Fermor wasn’t a Catholic (though it is somewhat more complicated than that, as we shall see).

After his death in 2011, the First Things website published a touching, fulsome appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor written by the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart: touching because the news of the passing of a very elderly man whom he did not know seemed to have left Hart discombobulated and bereft; and fulsome because Hart believes (as do I) that here was a writer whose prose “has few credible rivals in modern English letters”.

Toward the middle of this article, Hart makes a brief reference to the place of religion in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor. He mentions the twentieth birthday spent at the Russian monastery of St Panteleimon on Mount Athos and praises Leigh Fermor’s book Roumeli for “some of the most illuminating writing on Orthodox monasticism in English”. But he also notes that even close friends seemed uncertain whether Paddy actually had any particular religious convictions at all.

As it happens, the matter of Patrick Leigh Fermor and religion need not rest where David Bentley Hart leaves it. Artemis Cooper’s fine 2012 biography contains an intriguing clue to her subject’s religious feelings. Though he never actually converted from the Anglicanism of his childhood, it appears that Paddy identified himself as “R.C.” on official forms right up to the end of the Second World War, when he was thirty years old. After that, his religious feelings, which at times during his childhood took the form of what Paddy called a religious mania, seemed to subside.

However, while the mania may have lapsed, the historical allure of Christendom never seemed to fade for him. The famous trilogy about his trek across Europe (the final instalment, The Broken Road, was published posthumously in 2014) is studded with episodes and incidents redolent of the continent’s historic Christian culture. Disembarking in Rotterdam in the dead of night in December 1933, at the beginning of his epic adventure, the first person Leigh Fermor saw was Erasmus, in the form of a snow-covered statue outside the fifteenth-century Laurenskerk.  Not long after, he spent a night discussing, among other things, the correct pronunciation of Erasmic Latin with a couple of German students in the house of the widow of a Classics professor in Cologne. His account of arriving in Hungary on Holy Saturday 1934, crossing the bridge at Esztergom just in time to be swept up into the ceremony at the great cathedral, is unforgettable.

Leigh Fermor’s literary heroes included the French Catholic novelist, J-K Huysmans, who sparked his interest in monasticism, and St Basil of Caesarea in whom Paddy seemed to find something he craved: a fusion of Christian and classical humanism, such that “the polished Greek sentences are sprinkled with classical allusions one would expect more readily in the writings of a fifteenth-century humanist than in those of a Doctor of the Church living in the reign of Julian”. In Basil’s letters, there was “a mood of humanity and simplicity, (…) an absence of bigotry that seems to blow like a soft wind from those groves of olive and tamarind and lentisk; gently ruffling the surface of the mind and then leaving it quiet and still.”

Religion was also, of course, an indissoluble part of the Greece he loved and celebrated. According to Artemis Cooper, Paddy liked to think that he could still detect a sort of eternal, cultural Europe, untouched behind the cities and factories, where life was dictated by the rounds of the seasons and the feasts of the Church.  He liked to claim descent from Counts of the Holy Roman Empire who had originally journeyed to Austria from Ireland; and he lamented the desolation caused by the Reformation, seeing the ruined abbeys of England as “the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep.”

Leigh Fermor did write one book on an overtly religious theme: a slim volume entitled A Time to Keep Silence, which records his sojourns in Saint Wandrille and two other French monasteries – Solesmes and La Grande Trappe – along with a trip to see the enigmatic, abandoned rock monasteries of Cappadocia.

Perhaps the most memorable feature of this book, first published in 1957, is the depiction of an outsider, a self-proclaimed homme moyen sensuel, adapting to the austerity of life in a western monastery. The monks Leigh Fermor had known previously, in wartime Crete where he served as a British army intelligence officer fighting alongside the resistance, were holy men who were nonetheless prone to “pouring out raki, cracking walnuts, singing mountain songs, stripping and assembling pistols, cross-questioning me interminably about Churchill, and snoring under olive trees while the sun’s beams fell perpendicularly on the Libyan Sea”.

And he did also have some brief encounters with the monks of western Europe when walking his way across Europe. As recounted in A Time of Gifts, when he made his way to the workhouse in Düsseldorf in search of a place to stay, a bearded Franciscan in clogs led him to the dormitory. There he had a night disturbed by the snores, groans, sighs and shouts of the other inmates. (“Lying in wait in the rafters all the nightmares of the Rhineland descended on the sleepers.”)  The next day, the monks on duty supplied him and his companions, who were set to work on cutting logs, with axes and saws, coffee and black bread.

Later, at the great abbey of Melk in Austria, a young, learned, amusing Benedictine, speaking beautiful French, showed him around, proving to be the “ideal cicerone” for the splendours beyond the gatehouse. Further up the Danube, at the Abbey of Göttweig, he is introduced to an Irish monk “of immense age and great charm”, who “could have sat for a picture of St Jerome”.

Come 1948, his encounter with monasticism was defined, at first, by an initial descent into “unspeakable ‎loneliness”, “overwhelming gloom and acidie”, a sensation of “circumabient and impending death”. But then comes his re-emergence, still within the monastic walls, into a life of “light, dreamless and perfect sleep”, lasting five hours and coming to an end “with no harder shock than that of a boat’s keel grounding on a lake shore”; of awakenings “full of energy and limpid freshness”; and of days of “absolute vitality and god-like freedom”. (Later on, leaving the monastery, and returning to the kind of world announced by Cinzano advertisements seen from a train window, would induce a painful process of adaptation in reverse.)

Leigh Fermor was full of admiration and respect for the role that the monks of the West had played in history, for the centuries in which they were the only guardians of things he loved: literature, the classics, scholarship and the humanities. He also found that the company of the small number of living monks‎ he was permitted to speak with was like the company of any civilised, well-educated Frenchmen “with all the balance, erudition and wit that one expected, the only difference being a gentleness, a lack of haste, and a calmness which is common to the whole community”.

More profoundly, he also came to appreciate the role of monasteries in what is sometimes called the economy of salvation. It was their belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer – “a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought” – that explains the sacrifices these men made. Vows embracing poverty, chastity and obedience were destined to smite “all fetters that chained them to the world, to free them for action, for the worship of God and the practice of prayer; for the pursuit, in short, of sanctity.”

Leigh Fermor smiled at the fact that the monastic habitat should prove “favourable to ambitions so glaringly opposed”: his ambition, on the one hand, to get a book finished and his publisher off his back, and, on the other hand, the ambitions of the monks. These men, he found, could still embark on those “hazardous mystical journeys of the soul” which culminate in “blinding moments of union with the Godhead”, the very inkling of which, “since Donne, Quarley, Herbert, Vaughan and Traherne wrote their poems, has drained away from life in England”.

In the Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence, Paddy grappled briefly with the question of what his experiences inside the monastery walls might ultimately signify. He wrote that he was profoundly affected by the places he described. Though unsure about what his feelings amounted to, he was convinced that they were “deeper than mere interest and curiosity, and more important than the pleasure an historian or an aesthete finds in ancient buildings and liturgy”. In monasteries, he found “a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world”. Describing himself as no stranger to “recalcitrance or scepticism or plain incapacity for belief”, he implies nevertheless that he had been the beneficiary of a “supernatural windfall”.

In the end, Paddy never fully cashed in this windfall. A Time to Keep Silence was published in 1957, but there were to be no more books on an exclusively religious theme. His life (a quite extraordinary one, in ways I have barely touched on here) was filled with many different interests, pleasures and friendships, some of which would have thrown up serious obstacles to any burgeoning Catholicism.

He had an open relationship with his wife, Joan Rayner, who was also a committed atheist.  While he stayed on in Rome to witness (and “swoon” at) the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, his primary reason for being in the Eternal City in the first place was to conduct an affair with a young divorcee.  Three pages of A Time to Keep Silence are devoted to the conflicts and mysteries of chastity.

I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Leigh Fermor’s temperament – that old, latent religious mania – sometimes led him back towards the threshold of belief, only for his appetites to lead him away again, down the path of least resistance, garlanded with pleasures, adored by friends and lovers, and adoring them in return.

Many of us know some version of this dilemma.  We need a strong motive to turn our backs on the worldly delights which converged on Patrick Leigh Fermor like iron filings on a magnet, in favour of the less certain rewards that emanate from spiritual dread and spiritual joy.  As Artemis Cooper has pointed out to me, Paddy (unlike, say, Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene) “could live without answers to the big questions: what am I doing here, why is there evil in the world, what has God got to do with it.  These big themes didn’t preoccupy him much.”

To those who’ve read the books and letters, this observation has the ring of truth.  But could it be that Patrick Leigh Fermor was able to live a life seemingly unpreoccupied by God because of the knowledge that he had acquired at first-hand in places like Saint Wandrille and La Grande Trappe?

This was the knowledge that, all the while, in those monasteries scattered across the West, which he called “silent factories of prayer”, there were other civilized, well-educated gentlemen just like him who had succeeded in abandoning everything.  And that they had done so in order to help their fellow-men, and themselves, to meet something he had intuited himself during those brief pockets of time spent in monastic cells, woods and cloisters, something which he and most of us push to the back of our minds for most of the time, and to which he gave a name: “the terrifying problem of eternity”.