In the 1950s Patrick Leigh Fermor spent time as a guest in French Benedictine and Trappist monasteries, seeking not God but a cheap and quiet place to write. Here he is shown into his room in the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle:
The monk opened a door and said, “Here is your cell.” It was a high seventeenth-century room with a comfortable bed, a prie-dieu, a writing-table, a tapestry chair, a green adjustable reading-lamp, and a rather disturbing crucifix on the whitewashed stone walls. The window looked out over a grassy courtyard, in which a small fountain played, over the grey flank of the monastery buildings and the wall that screened the Abbey from the half-timbered houses of the village. A vista of forest flowed away beyond. In the middle of the writing-table stood a large inkwell, a tray full of pens and a pad into which new blotting paper had just been fitted. I had only time to unpack my clothes and papers and books before a great bell began ringing and the monk, who was the guest-master, returned to lead me to the refectory for the midday meal. As we walked, the buildings changed in period from the architecture of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries to Gothic; and we halted at length by the piscina in an ogival cloister of the utmost beauty, outside a great carved door where several other visitors had also been assembled. The guest-master shepherded us into the refectory in which the Abbot, a tall, white-haired, patrician figure with a black skull-cap and a gold pectoral cross on a green cord, was waiting to receive us. To each of the guests he spoke a few words; and some, sinking upon one knee, kissed the great emerald on his right hand. To me he addressed a polite formula in English that had obviously been acquired at some remote period from a governess. A novice advanced with a silver ewer and a basin; the Abbot poured a little water over our hands, a towel was offered, and our welcome, according to Benedictine custom, was complete.What an eye — for architecture, for the contents of a room, for the bits of detail that suggest the Abbot’s character. I especially like the way the eye takes in the room (saving that crucifix for last), looks through the window, and then zooms in on the details of the writing-desk. A Time to Keep Silence, Leigh Fermor’s account of his monastic travels, is available from New York Review Books (2007). I picked up the book by chance in a bookstore last week. I’ve yet to meet a NYRB book I haven’t liked.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence (1957)
[Is Patrick Leigh Fermor still writing? I hope so. In 2007, at the age of ninety-two, he was learning to type.]