Cardinal Robert Sarah, in his new book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, offers a profound examination of the silence that “leads us toward God and others so as to place ourselves humbly and generously at their service.”
The initial inspiration to write this book came from the Guinean cardinal’s visits with a young religious unable to speak due to the multiple sclerosis that eventually consumed his life. Theirs was a friendship that “was born in silence, it grew in silence, and it continues to exist in silence.”
This friendship also led to Sarah’s visit to the Grande Chartreuse, the principal monastery of the monks of the Carthusian Order. These two encounters, in addition to the Cardinal’s own experience as a great contemplative, motivated this treatise on the indispensable role of silence for the interior life.
It is basic Christian teaching that our purpose in life is to “know, love and serve God.” While God is always present, we seem to be having a harder time finding Him.
Sarah explains our challenge: “Modern man is capable of all sorts of noise, all sorts of wars, and so many solemn false statements, in an infernal chaos, because he has excluded God from his life, from his battles, and from his gargantuan ambition to transform the world for his selfish benefit alone.”
Instead, of throwing our hands up in the air because we are living during “the dictatorship of noise,” Sarah advises that “[n]othing will make us discover God better than His silence inscribed in the center of our being.”
The Power of Silence takes the form of points of reflection given by Sarah in response to questions and commentary posed by French journalist and author Nicolas Diat. In total, the book offers 365 points.
While not written in the form of daily reflections, that the number matches the days in a year cannot be lost on readers. Silence must be a part of our lives — each and every day.
We normally equate silence with simply staying quiet. At the supernatural level, however, “[s]ilence is not an absence. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.”
While recognizing that there are external situations that promote interior silence, Sarah explains that “[i]t is in the silence of humiliation and self-mortification, by quieting the turmoil of the flesh, by successfully taming the noisy images, by keeping at a distance the dreams, imaginations, and roaring of a world that is always in a whirl, in order to purify himself of all that ruins the soul and separates it from contemplation, that man makes himself capable of looking at God and loving him.”
Throughout the book, Sarah refers to the beauty of the silence of the monasteries where “men and women who enter into the silence offer themselves as a holocaust for their brethren.” But “[c]loisters are not the only places where we can seek God.”
Pointing to the exemplary lives of our contemporaries such as Saints Faustina Kowalska, Josemaria Escriva, Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II, Sarah reminds us that “[i]t is up to each individual to place himself at the disposal of the silent God who awaits us in the deep desert of our heart by avoiding din and turmoil.”
As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Sarah is head of the Vatican office in charge of most affairs related to liturgical practices and matters concerning the sacraments.
He explains that the sacraments, while having specific external signs, are actually founded upon silence. For example, although we hear the name of the Trinity in the sacrament of Baptism and the sound of water flow over the infant’s forehead, “we perceive nothing of this immersion into the interior life of the Trinity, grace, and creation which requires nothing less than the personal, almighty action of God.”
The same, Sarah notes, occurs during priestly ordination where in silence “a man becomes not only an alter Christus, another Christ, but much more: he is ipse Christus, Christ himself.”
And most obvious, although so easily forgotten or unfortunately dismissed, is the miracle of transubstantiation where bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ in “the utmost sacred silence.”
When explaining the connection between silence and the sacred, Sarah observes that “[s]acred silence is the only truly human and Christian reaction to God when he breaks into our lives.” Silence in the liturgy “is above all the positive attitude of someone who prepares to welcome God by listening.”
He continues by warning that “[w]ithout this contemplative spirit, the liturgy will remain an occasion for hateful divisions and ideological confrontations instead of being the place of our unity and of our communion in the Lord.”
Unlike many who are critical of the liturgical changes of our times, Cardinal Sarah expressly accompanies his observations with the deep and humble “desire to serve God” as well as his “submission and obedience to the supreme authority of the Church.”
So that there be no confusion, The Power of Silence must not be read as a Catholic justification to retreat into oneself for selfish reasons; a sort of Church-approved yoga.
Sarah aptly notes, “[t]here are souls who claim solitude so as to find themselves, and others to give themselves to God and to others.” Yes, it is time to “revolt against the dictatorship of noise.”
The Power of Silence is an encouraging reminder to the Church, Her priests and the faithful that “[o]nce we have acquired interior silence, we can transport it with us into the world to pray everywhere.”
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.