The Shelf of Knowledge Book Status: April, 2012, 50 books to read
‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
Before that first step is the intention to take it.
‘The best of intentions’ was a brilliant topic of discussion at my friend Fionn’s book club meetings. On hearing this topic I thought, genius, there must be thousands of books where the characters have the best intentions but fail – discuss any of them – but no, this topic was for the book club readers: they were to discuss the book that they, despite the best of intentions, had struggled to but finally read.
My Shelf of Knowledge represents a mountain of my best intentions. It’s good to be reminded of this as three months have passed since I unveiled The Shelf in December and I haven’t even started on this long journey (my friend Jenn reckons it will take me about two years. Currently, I’m looking at three plus). Really, the shelf should be re-christened The Shelf of My Failed Best Intentions for all the progress I have made but talking with Fionn about her book group has reinvigorated my intent. It reminded me that we all have a pile of unread books somewhere in our homes. So it’s time to pick one up and take that first step.
BOOK 1: A TIME TO KEEP SILENCE
by Patrick Leigh Fermor
For the uninitiated, silence can be profound, terrifying or just plain irritating; I found it was the latter when I stayed a week with nuns at a Carmelite monastery.
It was my studies that brought me to the gates of a Carmelite monastery north of Glasgow. I was writing an MA dissertation on travel journalism and the inner journey and had been thrilled to be allowed to stay at the monastery and interview some of the nuns living there. As I wanted to get a taste of what their daily life was like, I also followed their routine and took part in their daily worship. It was the practice of silence, so central to their contemplative order, that I found the most exacting and profound.
It was writing too that brought travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor to the gatehouse of a Benedictine abbey: he needed a quiet and cheap place to write. A Time to Keep Silence is his account of silence and the monastic life which he experienced when he stayed in a number of French monasteries in the mid 1950s. The book concentrates on two abbeys in particular; the Benedictine Abbey at St Wandrille and La Grande Trappe, a Trappist Abbey near the village of Soligny-la-Trappe. With beautiful concise poetic prose, Leigh Fermor conveys his experience and his observation of the monks’ lives in what is a slim and very readable book.
What lingers is the herculean scale of undertaking a life in silence. In between sharing the history of each Abbey, Leigh Fermor relays the type of activities the members of each community undertake on a daily, if not hourly basis. The contemplative life is mainly one of worship; the day is shaped by regular prayer. But in between worship, there is study and work. And all this is done in silence: hour after hour, day after day, year after year. That’s a lot of silence. That it is no easy task is obvious. More telling is that only those with a stalwart sense of faith are entrusted with roles that interact with the public, such as the abbot, guest-master and cellarer; revealing just how challenging distraction is to the spiritual path.
For silence is not peace. External silence is not the same as internal silence nor does internal silence necessarily follow absence of sound. Internal silence, or the stilling of the mind, could take a lifetime to achieve and in between it could be terrifying, profound and irritating. I myself was never so irritable, unable to settle to any task. And yet it was only after leaving the monastery after a week’s silence that I felt its full impact; only in the absence of silence did I find the value of practising it.
To the non monastic, the contemplative life can seem foreign. More perplexing still is the extremely ascetic life of the Trappist monk, whose austerity would confound both David and George. What surprises Leigh Fermor is the unparalleled calmness of the abbeys, the sweet happiness of its inhabitants; the sacrifice brings spiritual consolations, described by one Cistercian writer as the Triple Unction of the Soul. Leigh Fermor summarises:
With time and practice, this permanent concentration of the mind upon God brings a full reward: peace of the soul, a kind of divine ravishment, an unspeakable happiness that a French Trappist writer describes as a prolonged intimation of Paradise.
Silence is thus the cross and the saviour of the life divine. A peaceful heart and mind is a by-product of the practice of silence. For those called to this vocation, it is exactly, one monk tells Leigh Fermor, like being in love.
With lives so inundated with noise, information and general busy-ness, the time to keep silence is now. This rings true now just as it did for Leigh Fermor. There is just as much need for everyone, not just the monastic, to encounter and experience silence, and therefore peace, in daily life.
A note: Leigh Fermor is a master wordsmith; his descriptions distil and capture an essence of monastic life. More delicious still, he sounds like he swallowed poetry whole. Look at these words which he sprinkles liberally throughout his writing:
lucubrations, mansuetude, sagacious, limning, weal, crepuscular, delectation, coruscating.
Yum, yum, yum. I had to read with my dictionary beside me.
Why Book 1 is on the Shelf of Knowledge
A late addition to the shelf, A Time to Keep Silence was recommended to me last year, well after I made the book pact with Viv, (hereafter known as ‘the pact’) and was acquired thanks to the addition of Addendum 3 (thanks Brida and Michael for the book token).
Related literature: Sara Maitland‘s A Book of Silence is an intriguing personal exploration and interrogation of silence. Well worth reading.
The Shelf of Knowledge Book Status: April, 2012, 49 books to read (phew. Well sort of).
(You may be interested to know that A Time To Keep Silence has been taken off The Shelf and moved to my These Are A Few of My Favourite Books bookshelf on another bookcase).