The form of Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise is rather odd, or at least different. The book is facilitated by Nicolas Diat, and apparently the two combined in Cardinal Sarh’s other book, God or Nothing, which I have to admit I have not read. Nicolas Diat is a French author and journalist who writes of Catholic issues, and Robert Cardinal Sarah, born in French Guinea (known today simply as Guinea) is one of the leading Cardinals in the College of Cardinals. I believe he was on the short list for the Papacy. In a way he stands as the intellectual heir to Pope Benedict XVI, which is saying quite a lot to Cardinal Sarah’s acumen. What makes the form of this book different is that though it’s a book of non-fiction it is not shaped as an evolving argument.
The form is that of an extended interview. Diat will ask a question and Cardinal Sarah addresses the question in a discourse, either in a short paragraph or in a lengthy treatise. Obviously this wasn’t developed as an actual oral interview, but some means of written composition. At least that’s how it seems to me. What you get is a non-linear form of argumentation. It’s almost circular to me. I don’t mean that as a circular argument, but of circling around a central point. The central thesis of the book is answered right up front in the very first paragraph of chapter one. Diat asks the Cardinal how are we to understand silence, and Sarah responds with:
There is one great question: how can man really be in the image of God? He must enter into silence.
When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or, rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him. (p.21)
From that central thesis, Diat and Sarah circle around the theme to fully expound all the ramifications, all the nuances, all the richness of the thought, and, indeed, all implications. So, Diat and Sarah don’t build linearly to a conclusion but circle the heart of the thesis until one is left knowing everything there is to know about the transformative wonder of silence.
The “Introduction” stands outside that interview structure. Diat sets up what inspired the book, and that was a relationship that had developed between Cardinal Sarah and Carthusian monk Brother Vincent. Not only are Carthusian monks https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carthusians under the practice of limited speech but Brother Vincent had some incurable disease that prevented him from speaking altogether. So this was a very intense and out of the ordinary friendship, even beyond Brother Vincent’s death.
The friendship was born in silence, it grew in silence, and it continues to exist in silence.
The meetings with Brother Vincent were a fragment of eternity. We never doubted the importance of each of the minutes spent with him. Silence made it possible to raise every sentiment toward the most perfect state. When it was necessary to leave the abbey, we knew that Vincent’s silence would make us stronger to confront the world’s noises. (p. 10)
Diat goes on to tell that this book could never have been written without Brother Vincent.
He showed us that the silence into which illness had plunged him allowed him to enter ever more deeply into the truth of things. God’s reasons are often mysterious. Why did he decide to try so severely a young man who was asking for nothing? Why such a cruel, violent, and painful sickness? Why this sublime meeting between a cardinal who had arrived at the summit of the Church and a sick person confined to a room? Silence was the salt that seasoned this story. Silence was the elevator to heaven. (p. 11)
I have to say, that ever since reading that introduction and the first chapter, “God Does Not Speak, but His Voice is Quite Clear” I have looked for moments of complete silence. It’s actually very difficult to find. There is always some noise occurring in the background, and that is actually frustrating. But on those moments of pure silence, which probably don’t last more than a minute except perhaps in the middle of night, I have found that silence to be immensely pleasurable. It is utterly soothing. There is something to its power. Cardinal Sarah is on to something.
Having established that the world’s noise runs contrary to the silence that is God, Cardinal Sarah demonstrates in chapter two (“God Does Not Speak, But His Voice Is Quite Clear”) how God speaks in His silence.
Creation itself is a silent word of God. The wordless beauty of nature displays before our eyes the manifold riches of a Father who is ceaselessly present among men. This devine speech is not audible to ears that are too human; nevertheless, it is the most profound speech of all. The sun, the moon, and the stars are absolutely silent to our ears, but they are a word and a message essential to our earthly existence. There is a language of the stars that we can neither know nor comprehend but that God understands perfectly. (P162)
Cardinal Sarah takes us through God the Father’s silence, the silence of Jesus Christ, and the silence of the Holy Spirit. He even tales us through the silence of the Blessed Mother and that of her spouse, St. Joseph.
In the third chapter (“Silence, the Mystery, and the Sacred”) Cardinal Sarah establishes how before the holiness of God, Man is required to be silent.
Before the divine majesty, we are at a loss for words. Who would dare speak up in the presence of the Almighty? When God reveals his glory to Isaiah, the prophet cries out: “Holy, holy, holy!” He uses the Hebrew word kadosh, which means holy and sacred at the same time. Then he exclaims: “I am lost!” We could just as well translate it: “I am reduced to silence!” (Is 6:5). (P. 227)
And he develops this further.
Sacred silence is therefore the only truly human and Christian reaction to God when he breaks into our lives. It seems that God himself teaches us that he expects from us his worship of silent, sacred adoration…Our sacred silence becomes a silence of joy, of intimacy, and of communion: “The words of the wise [are] heard in the quiet” (Eccles 9:17). (P. 231)
Cardinal Sarah goes on to show the need for silence in our forms of worship and adoration, especially in the liturgy.