Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"The Function and Purpose of Every Fragment"

From Stephanie Mann:
The grounds of the abbeys, through the efforts of the National Trust and other organizations, are all cleaned up now. Fermor's evocative, alliterative prose depicts a more unkempt vision of the ruins, more like these vintage images of Byland and Fountains abbeys. 
In the chapters on the Benedictine Abbey of  Saint Wandrille de Fontenelle, and the Trappist La Trappe Abbey in France, Fermor demonstrates great sympathy and admiration of the monks. He stays as a guest in both houses for some time and gets used to the rhythm of the Rule through his observation and limited participation. While he is astonished by the strictness of the Trappist rule, he accepts the consolations that those monks allowed to converse with him describe. He enjoys the silence and the freedom he experiences in Saint Wandrille and Solesmes (which he barely describes because he found staying there so much like staying at Saint Wandrille); after having a hard time at the beginning getting used to the silence and the solitude, when he leaves and rejoins the busy modern world of Paris, he misses the monastery peace. 
He manages to seem something more than a visitor or a mere observer. Through his contacts with the monks who interact with guests he goes beyond curiosity to acceptance. Therefore he defends the monks against the charges of uselessness and seeking escape from the world. In fact, Fermor almost seems to contradict the statement that Chesterton made in his essay "Why I am a Catholic"; at least in the monastic orders the Catholic Church has developed and approved, Fermor is "just to the Catholic Church" without feeling "a tug toward it":
"It is impossible to be just to the Catholic Church. The moment men cease to pull against it, they feel a tug toward it. The moment they cease to shout it down, they begin to listen to it with pleasure. The moment they try to be fair to it, they begin to be fond of it."
He admires those who personify the monastic ideal and honors them through his admiration, but he does not imitate them. He goes to Paris and checks into the Hotel La Louisiane on the Rue de la Seine and soon gets used to the noise and distractions. 
He also visits the rock monasteries of Cappadocia, Turkey, commenting on the mysteries of their origins and their abandonment, their sculptured architecture and the remains of frescoes and signs of monastic life and worship. Then Fermor concludes with a appreciation of the new monasteries in England, established after the French Revolution and Catholic Emancipation, and finally with the "humanity and simplicity" of St. Basil of Caesarea. Some of those phrases from his description of abbey ruins in England echo in my heart:  
--the miserable and wanton story of their destruction and their dereliction--the sounds of bells melted long ago--like the peaks of a vanished Atlantis drowned four centuries deep--the clustering pillars suspend the great empty circumference of a rose-window in the rook-haunted sky--some tremendous Gregorian chant has been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since. (Read more.)

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