Illuminating Contrasts

Patrick Leigh Fermor was widely regarded to be the best travel writer of the last century. He lived what was by all accounts a remarkably full life that included, to mention just two of the more striking episodes, a dalliance with a Romanian princess and the successful kidnapping of a German general in occupied Crete. Leigh Fermor struck up a lasting friendship with that same general when, as if his life were an Errol Flynn film, he completed a line from Horace in Latin begun by the German in the midst of his capture.

Among Leigh Fermor’s storied travels, there was a period of several months in 1957 spent as a guest in a series of monasteries while he worked on his writing. He tells of his time in the monasteries in a small book, considered by many to be his best, A Time to Keep Silence.

Leigh Fermor began with a visit to the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle in the northwest of France. While there, he experienced a profound recalibration of the rhythm and pace of life. Of his first days he writes:

“My first feelings in the monastery changed: I lost the sensation of circumambient and impending death, of being by mistake locked up in a catacomb. I think the alteration must have taken about four days. The mood of dereliction persisted some time, a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude. Here in the Abbey, in absolutely unfamiliar surroundings, this miserable bridge-passage was immensely widened.”

We have vague ideas about the monastic life, when we think of it at all, and we know that it must be quite different from our own, but, Leigh Fermor insists, “only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead.”

In his view, “The two ways of life do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse. The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.”

“To begin with,” he continues, “I slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol, the disappearance of which had caused a sudden halt in the customary monsoon.”

He then goes on to explain a remarkable alteration in his circadian rhythm. It’s worth quoting him at length at this point. Consider this carefully:

“The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation 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.”

Reading Leigh Fermor’s account of his transition from the rhythms of ordinary life to the rhythms of monastic life reminded me of the testimonials one hears every so often from those who have undertaken a digital fast, a technology Sabbath, or a digital detox. There is, after all, something rather ascetic about most of that terminology. I was especially reminded of a 2010 story about five neuroscientists that made an experiment of a week-long rafting trip in Utah. David Strayer, one of the scientists in the party, coined the term “third-day syndrome” to describe  the shifts in attitude and behavior that begin to manifest themselves after three days of being “unplugged” — quite near the time Leigh Fermor suggests it took him to acclimate to life in the monastery, about four days.

One of the neuroscientists added, “Time is slowing down.” Another wondered out loud: “If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential … What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

Leigh Fermor put this point more eloquently when he described “the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries.” Remember, he was writing in the late 1950s.

Whatever we think of the peculiar forms of fatigue that might be associated with the character of “digital life,” Leigh Fermor’s account of his journey into the silence of the monastic houses more than half a century ago reminds us that, if our bodies and minds are to be trusted, there has been something amiss with the way we order our lives since long before the advent of the Internet and smartphones.

I write that with some trepidation. Too often the identification of some historical precedent or antecedent to a modern malaise leads some to conclude something like, “Well, you see people in the past have felt this too and they survived, so this must not really be a problem.” There ought to be a name for that sort of fallacy. Perhaps there is one and I’m unaware of it. I should, in fact, list the deployment of this line of reasoning as a symptoms of a Borg Complex. In any case, it is shallow solace.

I rather think that such comparisons point us not to non-problems, but to perennial problems that take historically specific form and that each generation must address for itself. Leigh Fermor’s monastic retreat provided a ground against which the figure of mid-twentieth century urban life came into sharper relief.

Spans of time spent materially disconnected from the Internet may serve a similar function today. They may heighten our understanding of what is now the character of our ordinary life. It is its ordinariness, after all, that keeps us from seeing it clearly. Without a contrasting ground the figure does not appear at all, and the contrast may point out to us where we’ve been taken into patterns and habits that work against our well-being.

4 thoughts on “Illuminating Contrasts

  1. Michael –
    You do give me hope. Somehow in the silence of your own “internal monastery” that you, unlike many, seemed to have preserved — your thoughtful and even lovely thoughts resonate with my own, inner ‘quiet’. It helps to relieve the spiritual ‘loneliness’ of that ‘quiet’ and search for ‘quiet meaning’ in a cacaphonic world. It gives needed peace, when feeling literally under daily ‘assault’.

    I also appreciated the link in this blog, back to your earlier piece on the “Borg Complex” — something I had been feeling but unable to put into such clear words, as you’ve managed there.

    From that dangerously narrowing place of ‘knowing’ inside me, found in my inner silence, thanks again for making compelling, sweet and simpler music out of the clanging, mechanical noise. It’s a form of ‘monastery’ (abbey) for me, that soothes my heart. Thank you.

    1. Alas, I don’t preserve nearly the degree of solitude or silence that I would like. That said, thank you for this comment. It’s good to know that what one writes resonates with others.

  2. I enjoyed this post, and I think I have to look this little book up. It is appropriate for my work as a guide on the Camino de Santiago, where I also find that the third day is the day that people start to feel both the physical strain and the power of disconnecting from “life”. It is extremely rewarding to accompany people on their journies!

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