Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence is the best book of its type I've ever read. Of course this is the only book of its type I've encountered, rendering primacy in its genre simply obtained. Fermor is known for travel writing, and I suppose this is partially in that vein; but it is mostly an anthropological and historical account of his visits to and sojourns in some monastic communities. It is a fantastic little book, and I eagerly await reading his others, also recently resurrected by the miraculous NYRB press.
The first third of his account concerns time spent in the Abbey of St. Wandrille, which I unforgivingly failed to visit during a long stay in Rouen in 2002. Fermor's initial revulsion at monastic life is gradually replaced by an enthusiastic acceptance of its attractions. He is not there to take orders by any means, but is simply renting a room to finish a book. And yet he becomes a part of the Benedictine community, cherishing the quiet, the learned monks, their good works, and their vast library. His writing is, as my students would say in admiration: "off the chain." Take, for instance, his description of a ruined stone church:
"It is as though some tremendous Gregorian chant had been interrupted hundreds of years ago to hang there petrified at its climax ever since."
Lovely stuff. And Fermor writes history as well as he describes architecture, music, and people. Of course a fantasy of mine is retreating for some time to a similar situation, outside the bustling busy-ness of modern life, to do some tolle lege of my own. If you have a similar dream, Fermor's book will increase its potency.