“And let there be the greatest silence,
so that no whisper, and no voice but the reader’s,
may be heard there.”
Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 38
Every summer, there is some hot, lazy day when I think that if I could only get away to some isolated cabin on a mountaintop, I would be able to write that book and perhaps even become enlightened.
It’s a myth that has been generated by reading too many novels and other books like Walden. It is partially the thought of a cool, wooded place, but much of it the idea of solitude and silence.
I had a conversation with the poet Thomas Lux about ten years ago at a workshop in Provincetown. I told him my cabin on the mountaintop theory for completing my book. He laughed. He said that I was more likely to go mad there then complete the book. He’s probably right.
My alternative plan was to find a closer-to-home sanctuary. I actually found a book (Sanctuaries, The Complete United States: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats) that lists more than a 1000 places. The one you are imagining is probably in a tranquil rural location and offers simple accommodations at modest prices. There are those in the book. But there is also a monastery on the South Side of Chicago, a Zen temple in downtown New Orleans, and the luxurious Rancho La Puerta in Baja California.
Before you plan your monk-like escape, the book I really want to suggest is one that will tip the scale back a bit to reality. It is a wonderful little (95 pages) book called A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Back in the mid-1950s, when many young Americans were going “on the road,” Fermor, an English travel writer, became interested in the monastic life.
Patrick had something of on-the-road in him. He had once walked from Holland to Turkey. But he decided to visit some Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries in France.
The book records those visits and does it in an appropriately monastic style. It is a beautiful in a spare, precise, simplified, understated way.
If you want to contemplate the contemplative life, the book allows you to do so.
It’s not all what he expected.
When he first enters his visitor’s “cell” at the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, he says that “a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me.”
That was a half century ago, I can imagine more immediate withdrawal symptoms from our world of easy and instant distraction.
It takes him a few days to become acclimated -
“There were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life.”
This would be a good book to bring on your sanctuary visit. It would be like bringing Walden to that cabin in the woods.
Some of his book reads to me like poetry – like this part of one sentence, which line breaks in my head like this:
dreamless nights came to an end
with no harder shock
than that of a boat’s keel
grounding on a lake shore
I no longer believe that I need a cabin on a mountaintop or a monastery to quiet my mind and heart. Those places will not magically give me the path to a novel, poems or enlightenment.
That’s not to say that I don’t still want to have that cabin or do that monastery stay. I do. But I have become much better at finding silence, solitude and contemplation right here in Paradelle.
Here’s a bit more of Patrick Fermor’s arrival at the abbey -
“A friend in Paris had told me that St. Wandrille was one of the oldest and most beautiful Benedictine Abbeys in France; and I had made my plans and set out . . . It was Sunday, and the gatehouse was full of visitors who, just emerged from Mass, were buying pictures, medals, rosaries and assorted bondieuserie.
A few moments later a door had shut out the noise of the Sunday visitors and a silent maze of white staircases and passages swallowed us up.
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.
Back in my cell, I sat down before the new blotter and pens and sheets of clean foolscap. I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. It began to rain over the woods outside, and a mood of depression and of unspeakable loneliness suddenly felled me like a hammer-stroke.”